First cultivated some 4,000 years ago, pears are now grown in temperate regions worldwide, and so enthusiastically that some 5,000 varieties have been developed. When eaten with their skin, pears are a good source of dietary fibre , providing slightly more than an equivalent number of apples. Pears are not consumed in the same quantities as apples, probably because they are not quite as hardy. They quickly become mealy if left to ripen on the tree, and they have a much shorter storage life.

Pears, like bananas, are seldom tree-ripened. Growers pick pears when they are mature but still green and firm, allowing them to ripen in the market and at home. As pears ripen, the starch converts to sugar and the fruit becomes sweeter, juicier, and softer with an almost melting texture that led Europeans to nickname some of the varieties "butter fruit."

Generally, pears should be relatively unblemished and well coloured. Some varieties will not develop full colour until the fruit ripens. Bartletts turn pale yellow but may not develop their characteristic blush when they are ready to serve. Anjous stay completely green when fully ripe. Russetting, a brown network or speckling on the skin, is common on many types of pears and may indicate superior flavour.

Some shops offer ripe or near-ripe pears, but unless these are individually wrapped and displayed just one or two deep, they are likely to be bruised by their own weight or by customer handling. If you find ripe, undamaged pears, handle them carefully until you get them home. Ripe pears will give to gentle pressure at the stem end, depending on the particular variety. Do not purchase pears that are soft at the blossom end (the bottom), shriveled at the stem end, or those that show nicks or dark, soft spots. Small surface blemishes can be ignored.

You can ripen pears in two ways: Ripen them at room temperature first, then refrigerate them for no longer than a day or two before eating them. Or, refrigerate the pears until you are ready to ripen them, the cold will slow, but not stop, the ripening process. Remove the pears from the refrigerator several days before you plan to eat them, and let them ripen at room temperature.

To speed ripening, place the pears in a paper or perforated plastic bag and turn them occasionally to ensure more even ripening. The process will take from three to seven days. Never store pears, either in or out of the refrigerator, in sealed plastic bags as the lack of oxygen will cause the fruit to brown at the core.

Pears are delicious eaten with or without the peel that contains some of the fruit's fibre. For other purposes, remove the core with a melon baller or apple corer from the bottom. Halve the fruit lengthwise and scoop out the core with a teaspoon or a melon baller. Peel very thinly with a paring knife or vegetable peeler, if necessary, and coat the peeled or cut pears with lemon juice to keep them from darkening.

Pears respond well to cooking, turning even more mellow and creamy. The cooking time will vary with the type and degree of ripeness of the pear; slightly underripe fruit will hold its shape better for poaching or baking than fully ripe, sweet fruit, which is best for making pear sauce or puree.