Apples may get all of autumn’s accolades, but it’s time for pears to muscle in on the action.
Understanding which pear varieties are best for which uses will help you choose wisely from the fruit you’ll see at farmers markets, farm stands and grocery stores.
You can eat any pear raw, from juicy Bartletts to crisp Asian pears. But in cooking, you may want the pear to retain its shape, or you may want it to melt into a concentrated sauce. I remember pear varieties that hold their shape — for poached pears, and for the pear tart we offer here — with a simple mnemonic of ABC: Anjou, Bosc and Comice.
Some varieties are more grainy or gritty than others, but peeling any pear will help reduce that graininess. As pears ripen on the tree, they develop stone cells, and most of these lie just under the skin. Most pears are harvested before they’re fully ripe for this reason. While the skin is full of nutrients, sometimes you just want that grittiness to go away.
Like apples, cut pears will brown when exposed to air. For salads and other raw uses where appearance is important, place the pears in water acidulated with lemon juice for a quick bath to prevent browning.
These are the varieties you’re likely to see this season, with a bit of information about them and their best uses:
Anjou: Firm and mild-flavored, Anjous are good for cooking where you want the pear to pick up the flavors of its cooking companions. Red and green Anjous have the same flavor.
Asian: As crisp as a ripe apple, Asian pears are very mild in flavor. They’re the outlier in the pear family, more apple than pear.
Bartlett: The juiciest of all the pears, a ripe Bartlett will leave your chin dripping when you eat it out of hand. Choose red or green Bartletts when you want the fruit to cook into a sauce, as we do in the vanilla-cardamom pear butter recipe here.
Bosc: Crisp and mildly sweet, Boscs are the classic choice for poached pears. They’re easy to recognize because of their cinnamon-colored russeted skin. They tend to be a nice size, as well.
Comice: Brightly flavored with the quintessential pear taste, Comice pears are less grainy than many other varieties.
Concorde: A favorite in Europe, the Concorde has a long neck that makes it immediately identifiable. Its distinctively vanilla flavor makes it a favorite for roasting and grilling, but it’s also great out of hand.
Forelle: A pretty speckled pear that’s popular in Europe, this small pear is best for snacking. Its name comes from the German word for “trout,” because its colors echo the flashing brilliance of the fish. Grown in small quantities in the Pacific Northwest, Forelle tells you it’s ripe when the skin under its red speckles turns from green to yellow.
French butter: Small with concentrated flavors, make sure French butter pears are fully ripe before use. Underripe fruit has a sharp, tannic flavor. Good for snacking, or in salads.
Seckel: Just as with French butter pears, make sure the little Seckel pears are fully ripe before eating to avoid a tannic hit. Best out of hand, or in salads.
For the crust:
21/4 cups ground almond meal
41/2 tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons melted salted butter
For the filling:
2 cups sugar, divided use (plus more for browning)
3 Anjou, Bosc or Comice pears, peeled, sliced in half
11/2 cups milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sliced toasted almonds
Crème fraîche, sweetened sour cream or whipped cream
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the crust ingredients in a medium bowl. Stir to combine. Pat the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 12-inch tart pan, and press into place with the bottom of a drinking glass.
Bake the crust until just colored, 10-15 minutes. Remove, and allow to cool completely before filling.
Heat 4 cups water and 11/2 cups sugar to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low. Add the pears; poach until tender, 20-25 minutes.
Remove pears from the syrup. Allow to cool, then cut out cores. Cut pears into fans by slicing into 1/4-inch slices that remain attached by about 1/2 inch at the stem end. Set aside.
Combine the milk and vanilla in a small saucepan, and bring it to just a simmer over medium heat. (Don’t let it boil over.) Combine the eggs, remaining 1/2 cup sugar and the flour in a large saucepan. Temper the mixture by slowly whisking in a little of the hot milk. Then gradually whisk in the rest.
Cook, whisking continuously, over medium heat. At the first sign of a boil, 3-6 minutes, remove pan from heat while continuing to whisk until mixture begins to thicken. Allow the custard to cool.
Spoon cooled custard into the tart shell. Lay the fanned-out pears, stem end inward, in the custard. Scatter the sliced almonds over top. Sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoons sugar.
Heat the broiler in the oven. Place the tart on the middle rack, 4-5 inches from the broil. Allow to broil until pears and custard are golden, about 5 minutes, watching carefully.
Serve warm with crème fraîche, sweetened sour cream or whipped cream.
Nutrition information per serving: 428 calories, 22 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 69 mg cholesterol, 54 g carbohydrates, 45 g sugar, 8 g protein, 101 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
VANILLA-CARDAMOM PEAR BUTTER
Makes: About 7 half-pints
61/2 pounds Bartlett pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Juice of 1 large lemon
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Tumble all ingredients except butter into a slow cooker. Stir to blend, then cover and cook on low until the mixture is very thick and mounds on a spoon, 8-10 hours. Test its readiness by placing a spoonful on a plate; if no liquid escapes around the edges, it’s ready. If it weeps, continue to cook with the lid crosswise to allow excess liquid to evaporate.
Stir in the butter until it is fully melted. Ladle the hot pear butter into sterile half-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace.
To can, apply lids and rings just until finger-tight; process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
To freeze, allow the pear butter to cool to room temperature, then freeze without lids. Once pear butter is frozen, add lids and freeze for up to 6 months.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 21 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 0 g protein, 5 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.