Choosing & Using pears – On pear texture & pear pie

Ever wondered why there’s ample recipes for apple pies and barely any for pear pies? Besides the difference in taste and texture, it’s probably a cultural thing as well (we have >8 varieties of apples in supermarket and 1 maybe 2 pear varieties). Time to honour the pear a bit more. In this post we’ll discuss how to choose pears, why their texture is so different from that of apples (and how to influence it) and how pears should and can be used.

Pear Science: Texture

Pears have quite a different texture than their popular colleagues: the apple. One of the main causes of this difference is the air content. Apples tend to contain about 25% of air (the exact amount differs per variety). Pears on the other hand only contain a few percent of air.

Another important difference is the composition of their cell walls. Apples tend to contain a lot of pectins in their cell walls which contributes to their smoothness. Pears on the other hand don’t have as much of these pectins. Also, during ripening, pears tend to become softer overall. Partly due to the air cavities, but also due to the fact that cellulose and the pectins that are present are broken down during ripening. Eating a ripe pear tends to be a little messy and sticky, due to this!

Importance of harvest for pears

It is important for pears to be harvested at the right point in time. Pears should not ripen on the tree. If they do so, the plant will start protecting its pears by creating a woody structure in the pear. It’s this woody structure that will give pears a gritty texture.

Even though a pear might still look good, it can have this grittiness. Once it has been formed, the woody structure will not disappear anymore, not during further ripening and softening either.

When pears ripen off the tree they will not form this woody texture. Instead they’ll turn soft, even mushy, if kept for too long. They will also turn super moist. For eating and using pears it is therefore often better to buy slightly unripe pears and let them ripen at home.

Pear varieties

There are a lot of pear varieties. Personally I’m most familiar with roughly two groups of pears:

  • Those that can be eaten just so, fresh.
  • Baking/boiling pears; pears that have to be heated before eating.

These tends to be different varieties and even though you can cook/bake the first version, you shouldn’t eat the second one raw. These ‘baking pears’ will always remain hard, it’s their structure. Only cooking will soften them.

Conference pears, these can be eaten just so. But also make a good pear pie.

Softening pears during baking

When baking or cooking pears you should first of all understand what type of pear you have. The regular fresh pears don’t need a lot of cooking. You will see though that they have quite a different structure than let’s say apples in an apple pie. Partly this is due to the air cells in the apples. During baking the air cells collaps and the pectins dissolve which makes for a soft smooth apple. Pears on the other hand don’t have as much air cells or pectins and thus tend to stay a little firmer. Again, this does depend on the variety. Some apples don’t get as soft as others either.

Besides these processes we should not forget the importance of turgor. As we discussed in the post fully dedicated on fruit & vegetable texture, turgor is what gives fruits & vegetables their bite. Wilting lettuce and dried out pears are a sign turgor is lost. During baking of pears the fruit will also loose its turgor which will make it softer.

Pear pie recipe

The recipe I used was inspired by one from the ‘Zilveren Lepel’ a great Italian cookbook. You will see that it uses a short crust pastry recipe which is very similar to my own savoury version. For these types of pies you don’t need a very sweet dough, so only a little sugar is enough.

Pear pie
Recipe type: Pie
Author:
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 1 pie
Ingredients
Pie crust
  • 200g flour
  • 100g butter
  • 6 tbsp ice water
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
Pie filling
  • 80g sugar
  • 4 pears
  • 4 tbsp Grand Marnier
Topping
  • 130g dark chocolate
  • 60g butter
  • 25g almonds (white or brown, both work fine)
Instructions
Pie crust
  1. Mix the butter with the flour until you have a crumble consistency.
  2. Add the ice water, salt and sugar and mix quickly until you have a firm dough. Dont knead too long, stop as soon as it has come together.
  3. Leave the dough to rest in the fridge for about 15-30 minutes (if it's warm outside, keep it in a little longer).
  4. Take the dough out of fridge and roll out until it is about 0,5 cm thick.
  5. Cover a baking tin with the dough.
  6. Cover the dough with aluminium foil or baking paper and fill with baking beans. Bake in the oven at 180C for 15 minutes.
  7. Take off the aluminium foil and baking beans and bake for an extra 5 minutes to make it extra crunchy.
Pie filling
  1. Peel the pears and cut into thick slices, aim for approx. 16 slices out of one pear.
  2. Mix the pears with the sugar and grand marnier and leave to set.
  3. Once the crust has baked, spread the pears over the crust. Take care not to add all liquid as well or else the crust will become soggy.
  4. Put back in the oven and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until the pears have turned slightly brown.
  5. Leave to cool.
Topping
  1. Melt the chocolate and mix with butter and the remaining liquids from the pears. Mix until homogeneous and pour over the cooled down pie.
  2. Brown some almonds in a frying pan and sprinkle over the top.

Quick tip: Preventing that soggy crust

A recipe with a crunchy crust and moist filling is always prone to ‘soggy crusts’. This recipe uses two tricks to prevent that as much as possible:

  1. By baking the crust that extra 5 minutes without the baking beans it has a chance to dry out further and become extra crunchy. Some extra moisture will not immediately ruin the texture now.
  2. Leaving out part of the pear liquids and mixing these with butter and chocolate. That way these liquids don’t get a chance to seep into the crust and make it soggy. Instead, it will be caught in the chocolate and will form a nice soft topping.

Want to learn more? Read more on the soggy pie crust post.

Sources

Have a look at this post from the New Scientist in which they describe research done on the internal textures of apples & pears. You can also read the full article (the photos are amazing!).

If you’re into pears at all, this book will be great for you. It describes the history of pears and over 500 varieties of pears including how to use them.

Harold McGee, On Food & Cooking, p.356

 

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