Throughout autumn, my local farmer’s market is brimming with flashy heirloom tomatoes, shiny apples, and carriage-sized pumpkins. But I’ll happily pass these over in favor of a sweet, understated pear. Pears sometimes fall by the wayside; they’re not a traditional ingredient in pies, they’re not available at every deli stand and fruit cart, and they don’t hold up very well in lunch bags. But even though pears might not be first on the list of everyone’s favorite sweet treats, there’s a lot to love about them.
Chock Full of Nutrients
Pears belong to the rose family, along with their flashier cousin, the apple. Humans have cultivated pears for thousands of years—there’s evidence that they’ve been used as food since the prehistoric era. In the epic poem, The Odyssey, Homer called pears “gifts of the gods,” and Puritan colonists brought pears with them to America, planting the first pear tree in 1620.
There’s a reason they’ve been a favorite delicacy for so long—pears are not only delicious, but also extremely nutritious. They’re higher in fiber than apples—about 6 grams to an apple’s 3—which amounts to about 20 percent of our daily-recommended intake of fiber in just one piece of fruit. They’re fat-free, cholesterol-free, sodium-free, and they’re high in vitamins C and K, copper, and chromium. Plus, they only contain about one hundred calories each. Pears are low on the glycemic index chart, which makes them an especially good choice for diabetics and hypoglycemics. The sugars from low-GI foods are absorbed more slowly, keeping blood sugar levels stable. Pears are also high in pectin, a soluble dietary fiber that has been shown to help lower cholesterol as well as regulate bowel movements. Because of the fiber and pectin in pears, they’re great for people suffering from constipation.
Many of the benefits of pears are found in the skin, so it’s important not to peel pears if you want the most from their health-boosting effects. Most of the fiber is in the skin, along with quercetin, an antioxidant and flavonoid that has shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. Pears don’t contain quite as much quercetin as apples and onions, but they are still a good source of the nutrient. Because pears also contain folate, which has been shown to help prevent neural tube defects in infants, pregnant women are encouraged to eat pears. Among people with severe food allergies, pears are one of the only safe things to eat, since they’re so much less likely to trigger an adverse reaction. Pears are often recommended as one of the first fruits to give children, since they’re considered to be hypoallergenic.
Picking a Perfect Peck
One thing that makes pears different from other fruits is that their texture and flavor improves after they’ve been picked. So when choosing pears at the market, make sure to avoid those that are bruised, cut, or browning, or those that look like they haven’t ripened yet. Ripe pears will yield to pressure when squeezed. If you’re buying pears for use in a few days, choose the firm ones, and they’ll also hold up better for baking and cooking. Ripe pears should be eaten within a day or two.
Let pears sit at room temperature to ripen. If necessary, place them next to apples, which are heavy emitters of ethylene gas, which causes fruit to ripen faster. Pears should be eaten at the peak of ripeness for the biggest antioxidant effects, but once pears are ripe, they become extremely perishable. Because of their thin skin, take care when transporting them for lunches or snacks.
To Pair the Pear
There are few things more refreshingly simple than eating a plain pear, but pears are a big part of classical cuisine, and they fit in quite nicely with many sweet and savory dishes. The easiest ways to serve them are as an accompaniment to fondue, or sliced and served in a salad with walnuts and blue cheese. One of my favorite desserts is a roasted pear topped with melted blue cheese and honey, cooked in the oven or on the grill. Try substituting pears for apples in pies; they also pair well with sweet berries in other fruit tarts and pastries.
Pears’ naturally subtle sweetness makes them a perfect pair with mellow to sharp cheeses like Gruyere, Gorgonzola, and Stilton. Cooked pears are often combined with mascarpone cheese on bruschetta or with goat cheese on a panini. They’re also delicious poached in Sauternes, a sweet dessert wine, or in red wine for a sophisticated but healthy dessert.
Pears grow on trees in temperate, cool climates, and although certain varieties are available year-round, the best seasons for most pears are autumn and winter. In the United States, most of our pears come from California, Washington, and Oregon. There are over 3,000 kinds of pear grown around the world, but the most abundant in the United States are the Anjou, Bartlett, and Bosc. Bosc pears have a firm, smooth texture that makes them an excellent choice for baking and cooking, and bright-yellow Bartlett pears are the preferred variety for snacking or canning. Softer varieties of pear, such as the Comice, Taylor’s Gold, and Concorde, are also useful for juicing.
Pears provide a perfect taste of fall—sweet, warm, and mellow—no matter how they’re served. Whether they’re poached with cinnamon and vanilla or baked into a glaze for a pork tenderloin, they’re good—and good for you.