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.
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.