A perfectly ripe pear has soft, juicy flesh with delicately floral flavor. Sweet, fragrant pears are available year-round, but their peak season is during the cold months of winter, a time when their freshness is especially welcome. The many different varieties of pear are all generously curved in the fruits well-known shape, but they range in color, contour, texture and flavor. The French in particular have long admired and cultivated pears.
Pears are picked when mature but still hard, rather than when they are ripe. This prevents them from becoming too granular and soft. Look for smooth, unblemished fruits with their stems still attached. They should be fragrant and just beginning to soften near the stem. They must be left at room temperature to soften and sweeten and are ready to eat when they wrinkle a little at the stem end and are slightly soft at the blossom end. Pears are also available dried and canned in light sugar syrup or in fruit juice.
Handle pears gently, for they bruise easily. Leave them at room temperature for a few days to ripen. Pears are notorious for having an extremely brief period of ripeness between being still too hard to eat and heading toward spoiling. They can be refrigerated in plastic bags for 3 to 5 days, depending on their degree of ripeness, but for the best flavor, be sure to bring them back to room temperature before eating. Because of their delicate texture, pears do not freeze well.
Refrigerate dried pears in an airtight container or zippered plastic bag for up to 6 months. Keep canned pears for up to 2 years in a cool, dry place.
Pears can be left unpeeled for eating fresh, but be sure to peel them before cooking. Although the peel is edible, some fruits may have tough skins with a slightly bitter flavor that is accentuated when cooked. When cutting pears for salads or hors doeuvres, halve them lengthwise, then scoop out the core with a small spoon or melon baller. Like cut apples, cut pears should be tossed with a little lemon juice to prevent discoloring.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)