Did you know that Washington State leads the country in pear production? Our state is well known for its production of apples and cherries, but in 2014 it led the U.S. in pear production by growing 832 million pounds of pears. Oregon came in second, growing 432 million pounds.
While there are over 3,000 cultivated varieties of European pears (Pyrus communis), only ten of these are grown commercially in Washington and Oregon. These ten fall into two categories: summer pears harvested in late summer (August) and winter pears harvested in early fall (late August through September). European pears are native to western Europe, northern Africa and western Asia.
Asian pears (Pyrus pyrifolia), native to eastern Asia, are not considered in Washington’s pear production statistics. While relatively new to the U.S., Asian pears have been cultivated since the eighth century in Japan and for more than 2,000 years in China. When it comes to taste, Asian pears are generally described as crisp, juicy and sweet.
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In my formative years, canned pears were the only pears I ate. More recently, fresh pears have piqued my culinary interest. I am trying to learn more about the unique flavors and uses for all the top European pear varieties. My current favorites for fresh eating are the popular sweet and juicy Bartlett and Anjou pears along with the scrumptious Comice. Varieties with firmer flesh, like Bosc and Anjou, are best for cooking.
If you are most familiar with canned pears, you may have found the almost rock-hard firmness of fresh pears at the market perplexing. European pears are picked when mature, but before they become ripe and soft. This allows them to develop better flavor and texture and makes shipping easier. If left on the tree to ripen, they develop an objectionable gritty texture. (Like apples, Asian pears are best ripened on the tree before harvesting.)
You can ripen pears at room temperature on the kitchen counter. This takes about three to ten days, depending on conditions. You can speed up the process by placing the fruit in a brown paper bag with ripe bananas or apples. These ripe fruit give off ethylene gas which stimulates the ripening process.
It is important to keep a close eye on your ripening pears because they ripen from the inside out. If you let pears become overripe, their cores become brown and mushy and their flesh less flavorful. If perfectly ripe, the flesh at the stem end will yield to the gentle pressure of your thumb. When the rest of the pear becomes soft, it is overripe. Ripe pears can be stored for about three to five days in the refrigerator.
Getting pears to ripen is tricky business. Most cultivars, except for Bartlett, Seckel, and Bosc, require a month or two of “chilling” or cold storage (32 degrees) to enable proper ripening. Pears purchased at the grocery store have already been chilled. However, if you grow your own pears or get them directly from an orchard, you need to be aware of the cold storage requirement of some varieties.
Fall is coming and I can hardly wait to try more tasty Washington pears. How about you?
If you want to know more about harvesting and storing pears and apples, consult the Oregon State University fact sheet “Picking and Storing Apples and Pears” at http://bit.ly/2x3bXev.
Marianne C. Ophardt is a retired horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.