Cherry Love

bowl of cherriesEvery 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.

Dorsing Farms cherriesSour 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.

cooking cherries - clear juicecooking cherries -- juice turns red

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.

cherries in water

Next, the stems and leaves get pulled off, and any badly damaged fruit discarded.

cherries in bowls

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.

cherries with pitter

push-button cherry pitter

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.

frozen cheriesweighing out cherries

This is a project that requires some freezer space.

cherries packed in freezer

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).

pits and stems

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6 thoughts on “Cherry Love

  1. July 12, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    I’m also a BB “native.” Last year I believe these were being labeled as Balaton, a cultivar of Morello originating in Hungary and now growing in the in US.

    I use them to make cocktail cherries, stoning them and putting them up with sugar, rye, vanilla bean, and orange peel. They are fantastic! You can also crush the stones (pretty easy) and include them for added flavor.


    1. July 13, 2011 at 6:01 pm

      Hi Michael. I have some spiced, brandied sour cherries in the fridge as well. And I don’t always wait for cocktail time to snack on them. So good. Your formula sounds lovely.

      I haven’t used the stones for that but I did crack and freeze some stones last year meaning to make ice cream with them. It’s meant to impart a lovely, slightly almond-like flavor. Thanks for the reminder. I should get on that.

      I understand the pits contain a cyanide-related poison that can be dangerous or even lethal in large enough quantities, though I can’t recall ever having heard of a case where eating them has been a problem.

      Enjoy your sour cherries!

  2. Rachel MacFarlane
    July 15, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    OMG, I was so happy to see the same variety of cherries at Berkeley Bowl this very morning! With a the two pound clamshell container pictured above, I just made a Persian sour-cherry syrup from Persian Cooking, by Nesta Ramazani.

    Sharbat-e Albaloo

    For one lb. cherries:

    2 lbs sugar
    2 c. water
    1 lb sour cherries, washed and stems removed
    1/4 tsp. vanilla

    Using nonreactive pan (enamel, for ex.) and wooden spoon, boil sugar & water 20 min. Add whole unpitted cherries, bring back to boil. Simmer gently 30 min or longer, till syrup thickens. Strain through a cheesecloth into a bowl, squeezing or pressing on cherries to extract all the liquid. Add vanilla. Cool, pour into clean bottles and seal. Store in the fridge once opened.

    To serve, pour a few tablespoons into a glass, add ice and cold still or bubbly water. Or serve over ice cream, or as a cocktail component, or…

    1. July 16, 2010 at 1:05 am

      Sounds lovely. Is there any way to use the solids, or has all the flavor been extracted at that point?

  3. July 12, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Here is an Austrian recipe for a Cherry cake – using Sour Cherries:

    From: Maria Springer……..Maja’s Viennese Kitchen

    Kirschen Kuchen ( Cherry Coffee Cake)
    3/4 cup butter
    1 1/2 cup sugar
    5 eggs

    2 cups sifted flour

    2 tsp baking powder
    zest of orange

    2 Tbsp Cointreau
    4 Tbsp milk
    Cherries (pitted) in season, or frozen or canned

    powdered sugar

    Preheat oven to 350 F.

    Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Very important!
    Add eggs – one at a time – beat well after every addition.

    Sift together flour and baking powder.
    Add zest of orange.

    In a separate small bowl – measure out the liqueur and milk.

    Add flour mixture and liqueur/milk mixture to butter and eggs.
    Beat gently but thoroughly.

    Use two (dark coated) spring forms – either 8 in. or 10 in. diameter.
    Butter and dust with flour.

    Divide batter into the two forms and place cherries on top of dough.

    Bake till lightly browned and cake tester comes out clean. About 30-45 min.

    When cooled – dust with sugar and serve with coffee or tea.

    1. July 12, 2010 at 1:17 pm

      Thanks, Maria — that sounds fantastic! How much cherries do you use? Enough to cover the tops?

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