Like their cousin the apple, pears are often sold hard and crunchy. But unlike apples, pears aren't at their best this way; biting into a hard, green pear is almost as much of a disappointment as biting into a mealy apple. Luckily, pears continue to ripen even after they've been picked, so a hard pear will turn soft and buttery if you leave it on the counter for a few days.
If you can't wait for pears to turn soft, though -- or if you have the opposite problem, a pear that's gone beyond ripe, all the way to mush -- cooking is your best bet. Poaching, stewing, baking, or sautéing will make hard pears tender and overripe pears velvety. Whenever I find myself with an abundance of pears, I turn to these basic cooking methods to make the most of them, and I try to think outside the box when it comes to seasoning, since pears are excellent with savory flavors as well as sweet ones.
Preparing pears is easy, whether you want them whole, halved, quartered, sliced, or chopped. Peeling is optional but fairly easy with a vegetable peeler, and it can be a good idea if you're using a variety with thick skin like Bosc. If you want to remove the core while leaving the rest of the pear intact, dig into the flower (nonstem) end with a melon baller or small spoon until all the seeds are removed. You can also use a melon baller or spoon to scoop the core out of pear halves; another option is to quarter pears and use a paring knife to excise the core.
Although you can substitute pears for apples in most desserts -- pies, tarts, cakes, strudels -- my go-to pear dessert is poached pears. I combine two parts water and one part sugar in a saucepan, bring it to a boil, add whole peeled cored pears, and simmer them until they're tender. Usually I add whole spices or split vanilla beans to the poaching liquid to infuse it with a little extra flavor, and sometimes I substitute red or white wine for the water. Poached pears are lovely on their own but spectacular paired with ice cream and drizzled with a little melted chocolate.
Pears don't have to be dessert, though, and I often like to leave their flavor profile ambiguous. Take my for pear sauce, which is, as you might guess, the pear-based equivalent of applesauce. I add not sugar (though you certainly could if you want it to be sweet) but fresh ginger and cardamom, which add gentle warmth and make this equally suited as a condiment for sweet snacks (yogurt with honey, for instance) as for savory dishes. You could also add fresh chiles, garlic, or onion if you want to make the sauce more savory.
Sautéed pears also make a fabulous accompaniment for meat, especially pork. Often, when I'm making pork chops in a skillet -- first I sear them, then I add stock and simmer until they're just cooked through -- I sauté pears in the same pan after removing the meat. The pears absorb the meaty juices left over from the pork and add just the slightest touch of sweetness to the final dish.
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