Juicy fall apples and pears: pro tips on choosing the absolute best

I visited apple and pear orchards and blueberry farms in northern Oregon as part of the Alliance for Food & Farming Media Tour. I shared what I learned about conventional versus organic agricultural practices in a previous post (click here for the post). Today, I’ll share some pro tips from the experts on how to choose, store, and enjoy everyone’s favorite fall fruits, apples and pears (I gathered lots of great information on blueberries, too, but I’ll save that post for berry season!)

Honeycrisp apples in NW Oregon

First up, apples. According to Kate Tynan, Senior Vice President of the Northwest Horticultural Council, “69% of the apples grown in the United States are grown in the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho). These growers supply 76% of the U.S. market – meaning that a higher percentage of apples from this region go to fresh market versus processed than other parts of the country.”

Apples are one of the oldest fruit varieties in existence. Enjoyed by the ancient Greek and Romans, apples have a long history as the most eaten fruit. And, the expression, “an apple day keeps the doctor away,” still exists in our culture. I won’t promise you will never need to visit a doctor if you eat an apple a day, but I can promise an apple will contribute to good nutrition. A medium apple has about 100 calories and contains pectin, a type of fiber that can help lower both blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels. Apples also contain an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound, quercetin, which contributes to apple’s health benefits. Be sure to eat the skin because many of the healthy nutrients are found in the peel. (And, as with all fresh produce, wash apples before eating.)

There are so many varieties of apples and I’m guessing you have your favorite. Tracy Grondine, Vice President of Communications for USApple provided this handy chart showing the many varieties of apples and uses. In the U.S. “the top 5 apple varieties produced in 2021 include Gala, Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, Fuji, and Granny Smith,” according to Grondine.

Tynan adds that “apple harvest in the United States typically runs from July/August to October/November, depending on the year. While roughly 40% of the apple crop is sold by December, the remaining 60% are sold over the next eight months.” Which means that some apples must be in cold storage to maintain their freshness. “Apples are put in cold storage (essentially a giant refrigerated room) immediately after harvest to slow the ripening process and allow apples to stay fresh longer. Some apples are stored in a controlled atmosphere (CA) storage, where in addition to the cold temperatures, oxygen levels are brought down and other atmospheric conditions are controlled (i.e. humidity, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide levels). Apples respirate just like the rest of us, and these conditions slow the apple’s “breathing” and essentially put the apple to sleep. This dramatically slows down the ripening process so that crisp, fresh apples can be delivered to consumers year-round. Not all apples are well-suited for CA storage (it is dependent on variety and growing/harvest conditions), so packers carefully consider what apples are sold early in the season versus held for late season sales,” explains Tynan. Storage does not impact the nutritional benefits of the fruit.

In choosing an apple for eating (versus cooking or baking), look for firm fruit with no obvious bruises or blemishes. Color isn’t always a good indicator of apple quality but look for red, pink, or orange tones. One thing I noticed on the orchard tour was reflective strips (check it out in the photo) laid out between the rows of apples. These strips help enhance the red color of the fruit, sort of like an apple sun burn. It doesn’t affect the taste, but does give it a rosy, red color that is preferred by consumers.

Reflective strips between rows of apples

What about pears? Pears are on my mind because in addition to visiting pear orchards in Oregon, I learned to make a poached pear in wine sauce on a recent trip to Tuscany. Stuffed with goat cheese, chocolate, and pistachios it ranks among the best dessert I’ve ever eaten!

My poached pear creation!

Pears differ from apples in more ways than taste and appearance. Pears need to be picked from the tree unripe; if left to fully ripen on the tree they taste mealy or gritty. The best way to ripen a pear is at room temperature or if you want to speed ripening you can place them in paper bag, alone or with a banana. The fruit gives off a gas, ethylene, which speeds ripening. Still not sure if they are ready to eat? USAPears offers this handy tip, “Check the Neck.” Place your thumb near the neck or stem of the pear and lightly press. If it yields just a little bit, it’s ripe and ready to eat. When pears are ripe, you can refrigerate to slow the ripening and make them last longer.

I was familiar with Bartlett, Bosc, and Anjou pears but did you know there are 10 pear varieties? And October is peak pear season so it’s a perfect time to enjoy them. One medium pear has about 100 calories (similar to a medium apple) but has twice the dietary fiber, with 6 grams, making an excellent source of the nutrient that is short supply in the diet of most Americans. While fresh pears are wonderful, don’t forget about canned pears. When poached and canned in juice, they make a great addition to salads or sandwiches. Check out the recipes from Pacific Northwest Canned Pears at this link.

Pears fresh from the orchard

I think it is time for me to grab a snack….a fresh Honeycrisp apple or Bartlett pear is ready to eat!

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the co-author of Food & Fitness After 50. And she would love it you would follow her blog, Fit to Eat, by clicking here.