Every year around this time, we go on the hunt for sour cherries. These tart cousins of the popular Bing, Van, Rainier and other sweet varieties are elusive, with a very short fruiting span, making them available for just a week or two, sometimes less. They are well worth the effort to hunt down, clean, pit, freeze, and package up for the coming year.
If you have eaten a cherry pie that left you feeling indifferent, I’d bet it was made with sweet cherries, which turn bland and rubbery when baked, rather than these sour beauties with the complex spicy flavor. These babies are too tart to enjoy raw. But when cooked, they are exquisite.
The fruits are most plentiful in Michigan and Wisconsin, but are also found on the east coast. You won’t find many of them in the west, unfortunately, but for a flash you may find a small supply at your farmers’ market coming from Northern California, or in stores, imported from Washington State.
Yesterday, I was excited to come upon a towering case of sour cherries at Berkeley Bowl Marketplace in Berkeley, California. These Royal Dark Tart Cherries from Dorsing Farms hailed from Royal City, Washington, and according to Royal Ridge Fruits, are a variety called Arides, one I have not seen referenced elsewhere.
Sour cherries are divided into two major types — amarelle varieties, which are small and bright red with clear juice (Montmorency being the most common), and morello varieties, with red juice. With its dark juice, this Washington State variety was most likely in the latter family.
A couple of weeks ago at the farmers’ market, I picked up a small bunch of bright red Montmorency cherries from Lagier Ranches in San Joaquin County, California. Lagier is known mostly for its almonds, almond butter, and fruit spreads, but every year, they bring a small supply of tart cherries to the market, where they are quickly snapped up, generally in a single week. When I cooked those cherries with a bit of sugar, their juices first ran clear, then darkened, presumably from the skins. They made a beautifully sweet-tart sauce for a goat’s milk yogurt panna cotta.
Sour cherries are a piece of work, not just to find, but to pit. After purchasing 20 pounds of the bright little orbs yesterday, the wife and I set to work.
First, I give them a dunk in cool water to rinse off any dirt that might be clinging to them.
Next, the stems and leaves get pulled off, and any badly damaged fruit discarded.
Pitting is the most time-intensive task. These took two full afternoons of baseball, sitting on the family room carpet lined with an old pink bath towel, using this fantastic cherry pitter and the largest bowls in the house.
Once pitted, I “individually quick freeze” the fruits by laying them out in a single layer on rimmed baking sheets and putting them into the freezer until they are frozen hard. If you have ever seen the term IQF on a bag of frozen food, that’s what they are referring to. This prevents the fruits from sticking together into a solid block as they freeze, preserving their integrity, and making it a whole lot easier to remove a few cherries from the bag. While laying them out, I give each one a gentle squeeze; it’s pretty easy to find the ones that clung to their pits in the first round.
I scoop the frozen orbs into bags, weighing out 2 1/4 pounds each, just enough for a deep dish cherry pie.
This is a project that requires some freezer space.
From 20 pounds of cherries, we got 7 1/2 bags, meaning about 3 pounds of the lot was composed of stems, leaves, pits, and bad cherries (of which there were very few).