Sweet to Tart, Buttery to Crisp: A Farmers Market Guide to Pears
Selina Knowles, Communications Coordinator
November 2, 2023
As leaves turn from green to gold and the fruits of summer begin to dwindle, locally harvested pears are among the welcome signs of fall at the farmers market. Local farmers bring a unique rotation of pears to their stands, ranging in flavor and texture, from sweet to tart and creamy to crisp. Freshly harvested pears are available from August through November, but cold storage helps farmers elongate their seasonality through the winter months, too.
The pear tree and shrub are a Pyrus species, within the Rosaceae family, along with apples, stone fruits, and strawberries. Their distinct, slightly gritty texture comes from their stone cells, which also make up other fruits’ hard tissues like peach pits.
There are two main categories of pear varieties, Asian and European, which developed over the expansive timeline and geography of pears. The word “pear” itself can be traced back to the ancient Semitic term for fruit, pirâ. Pears’ native range is difficult to pin down because they have been a part of human diets since before the New Stone Age (10000 BC), but they are thought to be naturally occurring in coastal and temperate regions of Western Europe, North Africa, and Asia.
There are now about 3,000 cultivated varieties of pears worldwide. Here’s a brief guide to a few special varieties that you’ll find at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, some of which you won’t find at the grocery store and are only available at farmers markets.
Although European pears seem to signify fall, their harvest season actually starts in summer, when they are picked green, or before they are fully ripe. European varieties, Pyrus communis, contain a ripening enzyme that’s triggered by cooler temperatures, so after they are picked, they are placed in cold storage, where they spend about 30 days to ripen. Pears ripen from the inside out, so unripe pears will be hard and not as sweet, while overripening can make them soft and mealy. Unripe pears can be left to ripen at room temperature.
These varieties are pyriform, or pear-shaped, and their flesh is soft and sweet. European pears are favored by chefs for poaching or baking, since they hold their shape well when cooked.
Bartlett pears: Available in deep red or yellow-green with a rosy blush, this variety is what many picture when they hear “pear.” Aomboon “Boonie” Deasy, the farmer of K&J Orchards and owner of Pomet restaurant in Oakland, says it’s the most popular pear at the farmers market. Bartlett pears tend to brighten in color as they ripen, and their deep flavor and sweetness make them a good choice for canning or making preserves.
Bosc pears: This variety’s warm brown color with a speckled texture visually sets it apart from other varieties. Bosc pears are crisp with a honey sweetness, complemented by spices like cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Their firmer texture makes them useful for baking or poaching.
Conference pears: This is a medium-sized pear with an elongated neck. When picked, the skin is greenish-brown, and the color pales to yellow as the fruit ripens. The amount of russeting on this pear depends on the weather conditions during growing. Conference pears’ flesh is fine textured and tastes very sweet.
French Butter pears: These green, teardrop-shaped pears are sweet with a slight acidity. Their delicate, melt-in-your-mouth texture inspired their name. Along with their usefulness in baking and poaching, they can be enjoyed raw with cheese.
Warren pears: This is Frog Hollow Farm’s signature pear variety. It was discovered by Thomas Oscar Warren growing naturally outside a post office in Massachusetts, so it was first known as the Post Office pear. It’s not often grown commercially, so it’s more likely to be found at farmers markets than grocery stores. With its softness, juiciness, and sweetness, it’s a chefs’ favorite.
Pyrus pyrifolia is the species of trees that bear Asian pears, also known as Apple pears or Sand pears. Asian pear plants first made their way to California around the 1850s, brought by Chinese immigrants.
Compared to their European counterparts, the Asian pears you’ll pick up at the farmers market are tree-ripened and ready to eat immediately after picking. Visually, they are rounder with more russeting. And when biting into them fresh, or adding them as a salad topping, you’ll notice that they are crisper and less sweet, but often just as juicy.
Hosui pears: Popular in both Japan and California, their golden hue and round shape make them feel like a true autumn treat. Inside their rough skin, the juicy flesh has a crunchy texture and a sweet, mild taste.
Niitaka pears: This variety is characterized by its golden color, large size, and density. They are crisp and juicy with a mellow flavor. They can be enjoyed raw as well as used in cooking as a sweetener or marinade.
Olympic pears: These grapefruit-shaped pears, also known as Korean Giants, can weigh up to a pound. Olympic pears are typically covered in russet, and the flesh is crisp, juicy, and sweet.
Shin Li pears: This variety was developed in California by a team of pomologists, including James Beutal, the founder of K&J Orchards. Boonie, James’ daughter, says that this underrated pear is a hardy one, with both sweet and tart notes.
Shinko pears: The Shinko is a large pear with bronze skin and brown russeting. Its juicy, creamy white flesh has a subtly rich flavor with a butterscotch note to its sweetness. Boonie says this variety is the most popular Asian pear among K&J Orchards’ customers.
Yali pears: Yali pears are medium to large in size and are teardrop-shaped. The thin, green skin has light russeting and pales to yellow when ripe. Yali pears are also somewhat softer than other Asian pears, making them more susceptible to bruising. When ripe, Yali pears are sweet, mildly tart, and juicy, with flavor notes of cinnamon, anise, spice, and vanilla.
Pick up pears at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market from K&J Orchards on Tuesdays and Saturdays and Frog Hollow Farm on Saturdays. Visit our recipe archive for pear inspiration.