From the Pantry: Cherries

In the dead of scorching summer heat, I can find few things that bring greater pleasure than a bowl brimming with chilled cherries. Their adorable, heart-shaped bodies gleam at me with assorted rosy pink shades and dark, striking hues. Their taut skin gives way to firm flesh filled with perfectly balanced tart, sweet juices. I have many favorite cherry- filled memories, but the most potent one brings me back to a summer night spent at the beach in late July. The sweltering day was filled with enough activity to last a week. All we needed was a relaxing evening as the sun began to set. The gilded light swept over us as if depositing all its last efforts for us to savor the rest of the beautiful day. That night after dinner, we made a fire, and as the salty breeze rippled around us, we shared a large, shallow bowl almost overflowing with cherries served on ice. We sat, talked, and listened to the fire crackling away as we slowly stemmed cherries and pitted them discreetly with our teeth. We sipped on cold sparkling rosé wine and remained there, sipping and stemming, until the bowl was empty and filled with something akin to an ice bath strewn with cherry stems. The stars hung close now as if beckoning us to bed, our hearts full of lovely, golden memories and the sweetest taste of cherries still clinging to our palates.

The first step to picking the most excellent cherries is deciding which type you desire—sweet or sour. Sweet cherries have a high natural sugar content and low acidity, making them perfect for eating out of hand. Sweet cherries range in color from pale yellow to murky mahogany. They’re usually large and robust, with firm flesh. There are hundreds
of varieties of sweet cherries, which are primarily grown in the US and Turkey. In the US, California, Oregon, and Washington produce sweet cherries, which you’ll often find in markets.

Bing cherries are the most popular variety of sweet cherries. These are the most widely grown type in the US and are typically available from May to August. They’re large, red, and heart-shaped, with a firm, juicy, almost crunchy texture and a touch of acidity, giving them a perfectly balanced light tartness. The darker their red color, the riper and more flavorful the cherry. They’re great for snacking, and their sweet flavor makes them ideal for simple desserts.

Lightly colored sweet cherries range from pale yellow with a slight rosy hue to the softest blush tints. They are popular for both their delicate appearance and mild sweetness. Common types of light-colored sweet cherries include Queen Anne and Rainier. Rainier cherries were developed in 1952 in Washington State and named after the state’s largest mountain. They are pink with a lovely golden-yellow tinge; a sweet, almost candied flavor; and pastel flesh. The creamier the yellow color, the riper and tastier the cherry. They are juicy, making them delicious for snacking on, but they are not an excellent choice for baking, as cooking ruins their gorgeous color. Queen Anne cherries, also known as Royal Anne cherries, resemble Rainier cherries with their yellow to rosy skins, but they are tarter in flavor. Their season is short, as they ripen in early July and will be gone by the end of the month.

Sour cherries, also known as tart cherries, have a low natural sugar content and can be very juicy. Their high acidity brings a bright, intense flavor and a supple texture, which makes them perfect for baking when they’re paired with a large amount of sugar to balance their natural tartness. Sour cherries are also the variety that’s turned into dried cherries.

Two common varieties of sour cherries are Montmorency and Morello. Both have a bright flavor and firm flesh, perfect for baking. Montmorency cherries are the most
common sour variety. They are great as a tart snack, but they are more often cooked, dried, canned, or frozen. They’re also squeezed for juice and used in pie filling, jams, and preserves.

These light-red sour cherries are almost exclusively grown in Michigan, making them popular in the Midwest throughout the summer. Combine them with sugar for cherry pies and tarts or use them to make a well-balanced jam or jelly. Morello cherries are juicy sour cherries with dark red skins, a pie baker’s best friend, so some people call them “pie cherries.” Although exceptionally flavorful, they’re too tart to eat raw, but they’re great in most baked goods and are often canned in juice or syrup. Unfortunately, their season is short, usually confined to the month of July.

Luxardo Cherries are the original maraschino cherry.

Where the American maraschino cherry feels nostalgic—even kitschy— the Italian Luxardo cherry exudes elegance. Each jar of cherries is packed with sour Italian marasca cherries candied and soaked in a sweet syrup. The cherries are almost black in color, and their syrup is thick like molasses. The taste is nutty, like almond, but still fruity. Yes, they are more expensive than the American maraschino cherry, but Luxardo cherries are packed with natural fruit flavor. As a result, a Luxardo cherry makes an exponentially better garnish for cheesecake than canned cherry pie filling, and it transforms even the simplest bowl of ice cream or cocktail into a luxurious treat.

Once you know which type of cherry you need, it’s time to pick, pit, and store these summertime jewels for optimal savoring. When buying cherries, look at the stems and skins to determine the best bunch. A cherry stem can indicate freshness. Unbroken, green stems are perfect; you’ll want to avoid anything that looks dark brown and brittle. If the stem is already rotted, so is the fruit underneath. No stem? No problem! You can determine the quality of the fruit by looking at the cherry itself. The ideal fruit is shiny and plump; wrinkles and discoloration usually mean they’re older. Look for glossy, taut cherries with as few bruises as possible.

Store your cherries in the fridge as soon as possible. Cherries are
a sensitive fruit—they lose their juicy taste at room temperature. They also absorb water when washed, so resist rinsing them until right before you eat or bake with them. Cherries will last for around a week in the refrigerator, but if you want to keep them longer, freeze pitted cherries in heavy-duty resealable plastic bags. They’ll still be delicious and juicy when you’re ready to use them in your favorite cherry recipes!

When it comes to pitting cherries, you have a few options that’ll make cherry desserts that much sweeter. Cherry pitters work exceptionally well, especially if you’re making a recipe that calls for plenty of cherries. Handheld pitters fling the pits out when squeezed tight, leaving you with an intact, hollowed-out cherry. Wonderfully old-fashioned and effortless push-button cherry pitters screw to the top of a Mason jar, pushing a rod through the fruit when pressed down, forcing the pit into the jar, leaving the fruit intact. If you are pitting pounds of cherries at a time, there’s a multi-cherry pitter that pits up to six cherries in one fell swoop!

If you don’t have a cherry pitter on hand, you probably have at least one of these everyday kitchen tools to use as a makeshift pitter. Using a chopstick or wooden skewer is a great option. It’s as simple as placing a stemmed cherry, stem end up, on the top of an empty bottle, shoving the end of the chopstick or skewer through the cherry, and pushing the pit out. Another alternative is using a knife. Use the flat side of a large chef’s knife to carefully flatten the cherry. The pressure will release the pit from the flesh, and it should slide out easily.

Then you simply fish out the pit. It’s not the neatest and you’ll end up with cherry juice on your cutting board and fingers, but it always works!

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short. But when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day.” So, as cherry season ends and I’ve had my fill of these summertime jewels (with plenty stocked away in the freezer and a jar or two in the pantry), I feel like I have had my day, and summer can come to a sweet end as the memories of cherries linger long after.

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