Harvesting Pears

I won’t be devoting a page to the harvesting of every fruit, but pears are a special case. Anyone who has eaten a pear that has been ripened to table perfection remembers the experience. They are sweet and juicy, have a thin skin, and are filled with a silky, creamy flesh that almost melts in your mouth. Words that come to mind are “delicate”, “tender” and “buttery”.

We seldom find pears like that now, but that does not have to be the case. Those perfect pears we remember were probably grown fairly locally. They were harvested by hand and were packed individually wrapped in paper or in a crate similar to an egg crate. They were chilled during their short storage and transport and reached the market within days of harvest where they ripened in small baskets before purchase. You can occasionally find these pears in rural farmer’s markets today, but almost never in a supermarket.

The Quest for the Perfect Pear
Faced with disappointment from market pears, gardeners often decide to grow their own. Surely that will solve the problem, right? We just need to grow a perfectly tree-ripened fruit right in our own backyard!

I can’t tell you how many times someone new to growing their own pears has expressed disappointment after their first harvest. They watch their pears develop through the season, anticipating that a freshly harvested, tree-ripened pear will be a thing of joy. They pick their first pear, bite into it, and do not find the pear of their dreams.

They become disillusioned and either stop growing pears, or they start searching for a “better” variety. Many varieties have wrongly been labeled “cooking” pears in the process. And I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say “you can’t grow good table pears here”.

It is important to know that different pear varieties have different textures right from the start. Pear flesh is infused with grit, groups of stone cells that can degrade the creaminess we are looking for. Some varieties of pears have more grit than others. Pears that are usually labeled “cooking” pears usually have more grit, and “table” pears have less. Starting with the right variety is half the battle.

But the problem isn’t always in the variety, or how we are growing the pears.  It’s in how we harvest them. We can fix this simply, and have those wonderful pears we remember.

Harvesting European Pears
Unlike peaches or plums, European pears do not ripen to table quality on the tree. They may be “tree ripe”, but they are not “table ripe”. If pears are left on the tree long enough to be “soft”, their quality will have already declined. They will often be mealy and may have already been attacked by insects.

There are two steps to achieving excellent table quality pears. The first is determining when the pear is ready to harvest. The second is conditioning the pears after harvesting.

Determining “ripeness”
Most varieties of European pears ripen throughout August and September on the Upper Gulf Coast. Remember that we are initially looking for tree ripeness, not table ripeness. The pear will give us signs that it is reaching readiness.

1) Pears will change color slightly right before they are ready to harvest. This change will be subtle, but detectable, especially if you check them every day or two. For example, they will change from a bright green to a yellow-green, or a lighter, softer green. Some varieties will develop a red blush or a slight russeting of the skin. This change in color is one sign of impending ripeness.

2) A pear that is ready to harvest will give slightly when squeezed gently, like a hard rubber ball. Wrap your hand around the pear to test this. Pears are fragile, even at this point, and if you try to test ripeness by pinching it between your thumb and fingers, it may bruise.

3) If you think the pear is ready to harvest, lift it and roll it up on its stem instead of cutting or pulling it. If it is ready, it will separate easily at the stem end where it is attached to the branch or spur. If it resists separation, wait a few days and try it again. Check the tree every day or two.

If you see any pears beginning to drop on the ground, it may be time to harvest them all. Check the ripeness signs, and look at the fallen pears to make sure it is not just squirrels tasting them and tossing them down. Squirrels will begin to nibble at the pears way before they are tree ripe. Don’t leave any dropped pears on the ground around the tree, they will attract and harbor pests that may overwinter and infest the tree the following year.

Conditioning after harvest
It is important to chill pears as soon as they are harvested, even if it is a few at a time. Pears contain stone cells that are responsible for the gritty texture that sometimes degrades pears. Chilling the pears quickly retards the formation of these stone cells. Conversely, pears that are left to “ripen” on the tree will develop these stone cells, which is why many mistaken assumptions are made that a particular variety is “not a good table pear”.

Once pears are thoroughly chilled, they can be removed from the refrigerator a few at a time and allowed to complete ripening on the kitchen counter for fresh eating, or as many as desired to ripen for canning or freezing. It will take 3 – 5 days at room temperature.

Pears are said to ripen from the inside out, which is just a way of saying that their full sugar content will develop during this last ripening stage. You can check final ripeness by holding the pear in your hand and placing a bit of pressure on the narrow neck of the stem end with your thumb. If it yields under the pressure, it is ready to eat or process.

If you prefer eating your fruit chilled, they can be put back in the refrigerator after they are table ripe, where they will remain fresh for several days. Don’t do this with more than you can eat or process in a few days.

Fresh off the tree?
Of course, there is no reason you cannot eat a pear as soon as you pick it. It will be crisp and very juicy, similar to the texture of a Asian pear, but it will not be as sweet as it can be, and it will not have a soft and creamy flesh. Still, it is a gardener’s treat, and I have eaten many pears at this stage quite happily especially when hot and thirsty after a day in the garden.

Using pears
Table ripened pears can be eaten fresh out of hand, poached in honey and wine, used in fruit salads, or any number of other delicious ways. Pear relish will be better if crisp, slightly under-ripe pears are used. Since sugar is added in the canning process, this is a place that freshly harvested pears can be used. Bruised pears or pears with damaged spots can be culled, trimmed, and used to make pear butter or a pear puree that can be used in a variety of fruit and nut breads.

Market pears
Pears at the grocers or farmer’s market have been shipped or transported in the “tree ripe” stage. They are less delicate and easier to ship at this stage. You can try to condition your market pears just like your orchard pears and serve a better pear when your own are out of season. Success at conditioning market pears will depend a great deal on the quality of care they got in the orchard and during shipping.