The cherries are sorted by hand. The ones that go in the green bins are made into maraschino cherries and those in the red bins are processed into products like cherry juice and dried cherries.
One of summer's great pleasures is eating handful after handful of fresh, sweet, crimson cherries, cold from the fridge, until all you're left with is a pile of green stems and pits. But producing a bag of perfect cherries isn't as easy as simply plucking the fruit from the trees and hoping for the best.
On a recent trip to Washington, I learned all about the cherry's journey from the field to your local supermarket's produce section, and the most surprising aspect of the process is the number of tests and quality checks the fruit go through to ensure only the best cherries end up on store shelves. It's a lot of work — but as any cherry-lover would agree, it's certainly worth it.
I toured the cherry fields and cherry processing facility of Rainier Fruit Company, a large, family-owned operation outside of Yakima, WA. There, cherry testing starts in the field, where a Brix meter can be used to measure the sweetness of the current crop. Size is measured with a cherry sizer, which has holes corresponding to different sizes, called "rows." This term is left over from the days when cherries were packed into boxes in neat rows; a 9 Row cherry would have filled one of those boxes with about nine rows of fruit.
Once the fruit reaches the processing facility, a five-pound sample is pulled from each lot. This sample is extremely important: it will communicate information about the specific batch of cherries to everyone in the company who needs it. One by one, cherries from the sample are placed on an inspecting machine that assesses the color, firmness, sugars and size of the fruit, along with the stem color and thickness. If a batch has specific defects, like bird damage or healed cracks, these are noted and communicated to the cherry sorters, so they know to look for those defects and pull out the affected cherries.
After sorting, a sampling of the cherries is double-checked for accuracy, and the results for each team of sorters are projected onto a computer screen. Although you would expect the goal of the sorting to be 100 percent perfect fruit, the process is actually a balancing act between the grower and the packer. If every cherry with even the smallest defect was sorted out, the grower would suffer, so judicious sorting is important.
Before packing, another sample is pulled out and run through an inspecting machine one last time. From there, the cherries are packed up and sent off on refrigerated trucks, headed to stores around the world.
Although the cherries that leave the processing facility are pretty darn near perfect, we've all had the experience of buying a disappointing or damaged batch of fruit. I picked up a few tips to help look for the best cherries in the store.
3 Tips for Buying the Best Cherries
1. Check the stems. The greener and fresher-looking the stems, the fresher the cherry. Cherries don't have a very long shelf life, so the sooner they are eaten after being picked, the better they will be.
2. Buy bags, not clamshells. Plastic bags allow cherries to move around freely, while plastic clamshell boxes can sometimes compress the fruit, leading to bruising.
3. Taste if you can. If a market lets you taste cherries before buying, do it! There's no better way to tell if you are going to like the batch you are about to buy.
Do you have any tips for picking the best cherries?
(Information for this post was gathered during a press trip sponsored by Rainier Fruit Company and Whole Foods Market. All views and opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author.)
Related: Washington Cherries: From Orchard To Pie
(Images: Anjali Prasertong)