Are you a fan of fresh cherries? I am not although my husband loves them. I do, though, very much enjoy using them in cooking/baking. Just as with so many fruits, knowing just a bit about the fruit and the different varieties can help you have success in the kitchen. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.
There are two main types of cherries – sweet and tart. Sweet cherries are those you eat out of hand as they have a much sweeter flavor than the tart varieties. The tarter version is usually turned into juice as well as being used in baking recipes where the tartness can be offset with sugar. They are also called sour or pie cherries.
With baking, most recipes will call for tart cherries. You can use either sweet or tart but you need to pay attention to the sugar content if the recipe calls for tart. One caution, though, is that sweet cherries can turn a bit mealy when baked. They do well when lightly cooked such as you would do in a pan sauce. An example is one of my favorite pork tenderloin recipes. It calls for roasting fresh cherries with shallots, turning that into a sauce and serving with spiced rubbed pork tenderloin. Another recipe that uses dried cherries is one where the pork is seasoned, seared and finished in the oven. In the same pan, you make a pan sauce with onions, dried cherries, port wine and just a touch of orange marmalade and butter. It is absolutely delicious.
There are many cherry varieties within the Sweet and Tart categories. I just want to mention the most common. They are a summer fruit but for more detail on availability, see this chart.
- Bing – this is the most popular variety. Its skin is deep red-purple to almost black and its flesh is dark red or purple. They are firm, sweet and juicy with a sweet, intense flavor. They have a 17-19% fruit sugar content. They are most available in May and June.
- Rainier – these cherries are hard to miss as their skin is yellow with a pinkish blush. The flesh is also yellow and they have a colorless juice. The flavor is delicate and sweet with a 17-23% sugar content. Depending on where they are grown, you will see them in the stores from May through early July.
- Chelan – ripening of Chelan cherries is about 2 weeks ahead of Bing, making them the leading early ripening sweet cherry of the Pacific Northwest. They are similar in appearance to Bings although a bit more mahogany. They have a 16-18% sugar level.
- Lapin – these cherries ripen about 2 weeks after Bings. They are larger and very firm with a deep red skin and lighter red flesh. The sugar content is 16-18%.
- Skeena – similar to Lapin, these ripen about 2 weeks after Bings. They are very dark red to almost black with a dark red flesh and a very dense texture. Sugar content is 16-20%.
- Sweetheart – the appearance is evident from its name, heart-shaped. They are large with bright red skin and a similar flesh. They are harvested about 3 weeks after Bings. Their flavor is more mildly sweet with a 16-19% sugar content.
- Montmorency – this is the most popular tart cherry with about 75% being grown in Michigan. They are bright red with a pale yellow and very juicy flesh. You often find them dried, frozen or canned unless you near where they are grown.
- Morello – this is really a family of cherries. It is another tart cherry with very dark skin, flesh and juice. They are often grown in the UK and there they are the most popular cooking cherry. English Morello cherry trees are popular in the United States with varieties such as the Kansas Sweet and Northstar.
They are also the dominant kind grown in Hungary. A Hungarian variety known as the Balaton cherry is now commercially cultivated in Michigan. The tart cherry season is short, July into August.
Since tart cherries are hard to find fresh, your choices are to buy them jarred, frozen or canned. Cooks Illustrated did a testing of various types of cherries (both fresh and processed) in making cherry cobbler. They found only one variety that passed their tasters’ muster. That was jarred Morello cherries from Trader Joe’s. However, I do not see it on their website and even on Amazon, it is unavailable.
According to Harold McGee in On Food & Cooking, these cherries originated centuries ago in NE Italy and the Balkans, where the local “mascara” cherry was preserved in its own liqueur for the winter. In today’s version the cherries are bleached and stored in brine and then infused with sugar syrup, dyed a cherry color, flavored with almond extract and pasteurized. Hmm, no wonder I do not like them.
The real maraschino cherry is still available and made by a company called Luxardo. They are said to be the “original” maraschino cherries and supposedly taste nothing like what you find on our store shelves. Have you tried them? I haven’t and at the price (on Amazon, a 14 oz jar sells for $19), I’m not sure I will. If you do, let me know.
How to choose cherries
Try to select cherries that are plump, shiny (a sign of ripeness) and firm with green stems. Look for those that are deeply colored. Avoid ones that are bruised or cracked. It is better to choose ones with the stem on as they deteriorate faster with the stem removed.
Since cherries should be completely ripe when shipped, they are very perishable. Refrigerate them as soon as you get them home. Do not wash them until you are ready to use them. If possible, store them in layers between paper towels. Cherries like the cold. According to James Michael (vice president of Northwest Cherry Growers), “They lose more quality in an hour at room temperature than they do all day at refrigerator temperature.” They will keep well in the refrigerator for about a week.
Remove stems, wash and pat dry. You may pit if desired. Place on a baking sheet and freeze in a single layer. Then, transfer to a freezer safe container.
Cooking/Baking with Cherries
To use them in cooking/baking, you will need to pit them. You can use a sharp paring knife but a cherry pitter will make your life much easier. I use one made by Oxo and find it does a good job. Cooks Illustrated tested a number of different styles and found the Tovolo the winner. In an update on this review, this product had been discontinued. The runner-up was the Chef’n QuickPit Cherry Pitter.
One helpful tidbit is that one pound of fresh cherries will yield 2½ cups of pitted cherries.
Even though as I write this, we are past peak cherry season, I hope this information will help you as you look forward to next year’s harvest!