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Sweet Cherries for Eating, Tart Ones for Cooking

Fine Cooking Issue 39
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Plump, ripe, rich-flavored cherries are one of the few fruits that are still truly seasonal. This beautiful “tree candy” is irresistible during its short summer harvest season, which lasts from mid-June to mid-August.

Sweet cherries to eat now or freeze for later

Most of the country’s sweet cherries come from the prolific orchards of the Pacific Northwest, where the fruits thrive in long summer days and cool summer nights. The cherries are still tree-ripened and hand-picked, with the stems still attached to the fruit. Almost the entire crop is sold for the fresh market.  

At the market, look for rich, uniform color. The skin should be shiny and the flesh should be juicy. The very freshest cherries should have bright green stems. Avoid fruits with bruises, soft spots, discoloration, or limp, brown stems.  

Treat all cherries with the same light touch you give to berries. Keep them refrigerated for up to five days uncovered, rather than in a sealed plastic bag. Like most tree-ripened fruits, cherries taste best if removed from the fridge an hour or so before serving so they can come to room temperature.  

While I do advise taking full advantage of fresh cherries’ brief appearance, it’s easy to extend their short season by freezing them. Freeze fruits in a single layer for three or four hours, and then seal the frozen cherries in doubled zip-top bags. Stash them in the freezer to enjoy year-round. Sweet cherries just slightly defrosted are a scrumptious dessert in the dead of winter.

Bing cherries are the most popular and most widely distributed sweet cherry variety. These large, plump fruits have firm, juicy flesh and a rich and vibrant sweet cherry flavor: they’re delicious fresh and simple. In cooking, try substituting halved, pitted Bings for strawberries in your favorite shortcake recipe. Make a sweet cherry upside-down cake, substituting Bings for the traditional pineapple.
Ranier cherries can be harder to find than Bings. They’re somewhat softer and fleshier and a bit more fragile. Mix them with deeply colored Bings to serve for a pretty summer treat, or make a fresh cherry jam. Queen Anne, another yellow blushed variety, looks like Ranier, but this older variety isn’t always quite as sweet.
Montmorency cherries are the most widely grown sour cherry. Fresh or frozen, they’re juicy, medium-tart, and perfect for baked desserts, sauces, jellies, or drying. Cherry pie is delicious made with fresh or frozen Montmorencies. I love to use Montmorencies to make jewel-toned cherry jam or to add to oatmeal bars. For cooked sauces to pair with meat or poultry, these cherries combine well with aromatic herb and spice flavors like thyme, mustard, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cumin.
Dried cherries, actually sweetened and dehydrated sour cherries, are a wonderful new fruit staple available year-round. Dried sour cherries add flavor and color to pancakes, muffins, and chutneys, as well as to pork or poultry marinades. Use them like raisins: as a snack, to add to homemade trail mixes, to sprinkle on cereal, and for a colorful, tasty accent in both fruit salads and green salads.

Tart cherries, for pies, sauces, and canning

The United States is one of the world’s largest sour cherry producers, and almost the entire crop, grown mainly in Michigan, is used for processed cherry products, including canned cherries, cherry pie filling, frozen loose cherries, dried cherries, cherry juice, and cherry brandy.  

Fresh sour cherries are a visual feast: If you’re lucky enough to find them at the market, you’ll see vibrant, fire-engine red fruits, with yellow interior flesh. Sour cherries have intense flavor, and they’re traditionally used in pies, tarts, cakes, crêpes, dumplings, cordials, confections, and jams, as well as for slightly sweetened sauces for poultry. Look for them in late June and July, a few weeks after sweet cherries have reached the market.  

At the market, choose sour cherries that are soft and juicy, like ripe plums. Their thin skins are extremely fragile, so you may see a few bruises. Handle the fruits as you would delicate raspberries and refrigerate them as soon as you get them home. If you’re lucky enough to have more sour cherries than you can use in a few days’ time, freeze the extra; it’s the best way to hold them.  

Sour cherries taste best when cooked. The heat turns their soft pulp and tender skins creamy and develops their flavor—intense and fresh, with just a little acidity.  

A big added bonus in eating all cherries is recent medical research indicating that they’re a significant source of cancer-fighting antioxidants.

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