When June comes busting out all over, cherry lovers are in their glory. For an all too short and precious slice of summer, fresh cherries are ripe for the picking and ready to be relished in all kinds of dishes, sweet and savory, although eating the juicy red jewels out of hand is one of summer’s best treats.
Those who are lucky enough to live near an orchard or a farmer’s market are in the best of luck for although high-quality frozen, canned and dried cherries are readily available, nothing beats fresh.
The Cherry’s Pedigree
Cherries belong to the stone fruit family, called drupes, along with plums, peaches, apricots and nectarines. The botanic Latin name for Wild Cherry is Prunus avium, which means “of or for the birds,” who are well-known cherry enthusiasts.
One of the oldest known cultivated fruits, the name “cherry” comes from an ancient Turkish town called Cerasus. It is believed that the cherry originated in the area between the Black and Caspian seas in Asia Minor around 70 B.C. The Romans introduced them to Britain in the first century. The English colonists then brought the cherries to North America in the 1600s. From the eastern seaboard, early Americans took cherry pits all across the country to plant trees.
Today, most U.S. cherries are grown in Michigan and the Pacific Northwest, although Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania also grow commercial cherries.
There are a number of cherry festivals across the country, but the granddaddy is the one hosted by Traverse City, Michigan, self-proclaimed “Cherry Capital of the World.” A full week of festivities swells this town of 14,000 to half a million people.
Although not celebrating the fruit, the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, held in Washington, DC, each spring, is another event that celebrates the beauty of the cherry tree and the friendship between the U.S. and Japan, which gave cherry trees to the city. In Japan, cherry blossoms represent beauty, courtesy and modesty.
Cherries Jubilee is a simple but dramatic celebration of the fruit. It was created by Auguste Escoffier in honor of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebration. Then, as now, the British public delighted in every detail of the Royal Family’s life and everyone knew that cherries were the queen’s favorite fruit. Cherries Jubilee today typically refers to a dish of ice cream, adorned with sweet cherries poached in syrup, with warmed brandy, usually Kirsch, poured over and flambéed at serving.
There are two general categories of of the fruit: sweet and sour cherries, also called tart or pie cherries.
Sweet cherry varieties include the Bing, the Rainier, the Lambert and the Royal Anne. The Bing is the most popular sweet cherry, and the one most commonly found in supermarkets. It is generally believed that the Bing cherry was named – not after the famous crooner – but after Ah Bing, the Manchurian foreman of an Oregon orchard owner, Seth Lewelling, who collaborated in its development.
The jewel-like color of Bing cherries can vary slightly, from a bright red to a deep maroon. Most people prefer to eat Bings straight out of hand, although they can be stewed, baked and roasted, too.
Rainier cherries were developed by researchers at Washington State University by crossing the well-known Bing variety with the Van cultivar, resulting in a large golden to orange cherry with sweet yellow flesh and a tender, creamy texture.
The Lambert cherry, also developed by the Lewelling nursery, is a dark red, heart-shaped fruit that is similar in size and taste to the Bing, but ripens a week or two later. The Queen Anne cherry is lighter in both color and flavor than the other popular sweet varieties.
Sour cherries include the Montmorency and the Morello, the two primary varieties. A newer variety is the Balaton.
Only hardy, tart palates favor eating sour cherries out of hand, unlike their sweet cousins. They are, however, the preferred type of cherry for baking. Although sour cherries are very delicate when fresh, they hold their shape well when baked or cooked. Their tartness mellows into a sweet, complex flavor when cooked and well-seasoned.
Buying & Storing Cherries
When buying cherries, look first at the stem. It should be flexible and green, never brown or brittle. Sweet red cherries should be firm, plump and glossy with a deep red color bordering on burgundy or purple. Rainier and other white cherries should also be firm and range in color from golden to blush. Avoid cherries that are soft, bruised, split or seeping.
Keep unwashed fresh cherries in a paper or plastic bag or plastic container in the refrigerator. They should keep 3 to 4 days this way. Rinse the cherries with cool water just before using.
Taste & Flavor Affinities
Cherries, sweet and sour, go well with a number of ingredients. Aside from being made into a pie or a clafouti or complementing a roast pork, they pair very well with dark chocolate or white chocolate, oranges, pistachios, vanilla, honey, port wine, goat cheese or mascarpone.
Cooking with Cherries
The only downside to cooking with fresh cherries is pitting them. A cherry pitter can be a handy device to simplify the process, but a number of household alternatives do the trick. Here are a few: a drinking straw, a pastry tip, a chopstick, an unbent paper clip or a pair of tweezers reserved for just this purpose. The object is to insert the weapon of choice into the stem end of the cherry and twist, popping the pit out. It may take a little practice to get a technique and rhythm going.
Baking a cherry pie with fresh fruit and a hint of almond is a terrific summer treat, making the tedious task of pitting the cherries infinitely worthwhile. And although sour cherries are best, sweet fresh cherries can be effective, too, just by decreasing the sugar amount and upping the thickening agent in the recipe. Frozen and canned cherries can be good substitutes when fresh are not available.
Sour cherries can be used in savory dishes as well. They can be roasted alongside pork or chicken or stewed into a complementary sauce. To make a simple cherry sauce, cover a pound of fresh, pitted cherries (sweet or sour) with water in a sauce pan, add ¼ cup of sugar (1/3 cup for sour cherries) and cook slowly over moderate heat until the cherries release their juices, about 3 minutes. The sauce can be fancied up to personal preference or imagination, by adding a sprig of thyme or rosemary, a stick of cinnamon or vanilla bean, or even dried chili peppers.