According to the autumnal equinox, it's officially fall, which means visions of pumpkin spice are probably already swimming in your subconscious. But before you reach for the Halloween candy, consider the humble pear, a true harbinger of fall. The history of cultivated pears goes as far back as prehistoric times, with a recipe for stewed, spiced pears appearing in a Roman cookbook around the first century.
Today, pears are grown all over the world, with China leading the way at 68% of the world production in 2017. Similar to apples, there are thousands of pear varieties, but they are usually broken down into two types: the European or French pear, and the Asian pear. Most pear production in the U.S. occurs in the Northwest, with a typical growing season lasting from late summer until winter.
Pears are a unique fruit in that they ripen best after being picked, not on the tree, with only a few varieties changing color to let you know when they're ready. The best way to test their ripeness is to "check the neck," meaning to gently push on the stem area with your thumb. If it yields, it's ready to eat. If not, give it a couple more days at room temperature. Pears ripen quickly, so check them often before they turn to mush.
In the interest of efficiency, we'll focus on the most accessible and common pears found in North America. From cooking to eating them raw to preserving, there's a pear for every occasion.
The juiciest of the bunch, and the most popular in the U.S., these pears are best eaten raw with a napkin handy, as they're sure to spill all over your shirt. Known as Williams pears in England and other parts of the world, they're also traditionally used in canning, thanks to their definitive "pear taste." Bartletts are usually green at the grocery store, and will ripen to yellow if left out at room temperature. Eat them green if you prefer them tart and crunchy, or let the pear sit until it turns a golden hue for a sweet and juicy bite.
When it comes to poaching or painting, you can't go wrong with a Bosc. Their elegant long necks and rusty brown color make them a favorite for painters and photographers of the still life, while bakers appreciate their tight, dense flesh. Since they retain their shape so well, they're the perfect pear to broil, and their flavor is not overwhelmed by strong spices like cinnamon or nutmeg.
The most un-pearlike of its brethren, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Asian pear is an apple at first glance. They're round and tannish in color, usually speckled, with a satisfying crunch and crisp taste. These are best eaten in slaws and salads, or anywhere you desire an apple-like crispness.
The Anjou pear, or Beurré d'Anjou, is named after the Anjou region of France. (Photo: Samantha Forsberg [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)
Don't wait for the Anjou to change color — unlike the Bartlett, it remains green, even when fully ripe. There are also Red Anjous, but the flavor remains the same: mild and subtly sweet. The egg-shaped pear is popular with professional chefs thanks to its availability for much of the year and its all-purpose uses. Grill it, purée it into a sauce, or eat it raw — it's pear-fect in just about everything. Try one of these 5 seasonal recipes.
Don't overlook the Seckel, which is the smallest of pears, and therefore the cutest. This tiny variety isn't in season for very long, which makes them an extra-special treat. Pack them in lunchboxes or can them whole in jars as a gift — you'll also see Seckels popping up as a plate garnish or in autumn tablescapes.
The Christmas pear is beloved for its sweet, buttery, succulent taste. (Photo: Snoop [CC by SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Known as the Christmas pear due to its seasonal availability, you'll see this rotund fruit popping up in gift baskets and holiday displays. Originally hailing from France, it makes sense that this pear's perfect pairing is with a soft-ripened cheese like Brie or Camembert. The super-sweet fruit bruises easily, so handle with care and don't try to cook — these are best eaten raw.