Sour cherries are one of my most eagerly awaited fresh fruits of the summer. Thin-skinned and tart, they aren't really best for eating out of hand. We who love them use them as creatively and quickly as we can, putting their bright, acidic hit to good use in jams, cakes, pies, cocktails, and even in the occasional savory dish. Picture your classic cherry pie, bright-red and glowing with orbs of juicy fruit. Well, you've just pictured sour cherries.
Welcome to the Sour Cherry Fan Club!
If you've never heard of them or tasted them, you're not alone. Sour cherries, or tart cherries, are smaller than your average Bing cherries and don't bear the dappled complexion of a Rainier, either. In contrast, they seem to glow. But maybe that's because you're buying them in the sunshine at farmers markets —just about the only place to find fresh ones. Their season is fleeting, typically just a few weeks, and they're highly perishable, so you're not likely to find them in supermarkets, either.
"Food writers are the only people who ever request them, but they have like a two-week season in late July," says Robert Schueller, the produce guru at Melissa's Produce, a specialty produce wholesaler. He says there's no demand for the fresh ones. "Consumers typically don't know what to do with them."
This feels a little chicken-or-the-egg to me: If people aren't able to purchase them in an everyday manner from the grocery store, how do we know whether or not we like them, much less how to use them? The fact of the matter is that sour cherries are just too perishable and the season too short to be a viable commercially harvested fruit.
Ben Scholl of Scholl's Orchards in Kempton, Pennsylvania, echoes Schueller's sentiment, but adds this. "Something like 95 percent of the cherries grown in the United States are for commercial purposes, pitted and then frozen to be used in other capacities. The rest are from smaller farms and sold fresh," he says. "When you buy them, you want the majority of the stems to be on the fruit. Otherwise it will spoil faster," he says.
Indeed. Every year, in the beginning of the season, I start bugging Scholl, whose family grows acres of peaches, plums, and apples, about how their one-acre of Montmorency cherry trees look. That's what most of the 34,000 acres of sour cherry trees planted in the United States are. Montmorency is believed to be a strain from France brought to Michigan in the mid-1800s by a Presbyterian missionary from Europe. If you're lucky enough to live in Michigan, or more specifically, Up North, you know it's sour cherry heaven, accounting for two-thirds of the country's production. (The company Cherry Republic celebrates the bounty of northern Michigan with all manner of value-added cherry products, from barbecue sauce and trail mix to wine and chocolate.)
Cookbook author and food writer Domenica Marchetti knows a lot about the Michigan cherry landscape, having lived there for a while. But it was the practice of her Abruzzese grandmother that helped inspire her latest book, Preserving Italy. "My grandmother made wonderful sour cherries preserved in alcohol. The cherries were partially dried in the sun, then macerated in sugar, and finally steeped in alcohol and spices. They are to die for, delicious on ice cream or in a Manhattan."
Where to Find Sour Cherries
Tart cherries offer so many rewards to those who seek them out, and blessedly they freeze well. Pitting is a bit arduous, but Marchetti recommends using the tip of a paper clip to gently push the pit out. (I usually use my pinkie or ask my kids to do it.) Scatter them on rimmed baking sheets lined with parchment, freeze, and then transfer to zip-top bags. I have a chef friend who loaded up on multiple flats of them at our local farmers market two summers ago, and so as to not hog up the storage at his restaurants, froze them at home. Last year when a late frost decimated the cherry harvest in eastern Pennsylvania where we live, he had a supply. (Scholl says cherries are the last of the fruit trees to bloom.)
When purchased fresh, I've paid $5 a quart, but I wouldn't be surprised if they fetch higher prices in metro areas. Look for plump, glowing specimens with their stems in tact.
Sour cherries are available imported and preserved (you want to look for amarena cherries); do like the Italians and drizzle them over ice cream or put one into a cocktail, ditching the overly sweet Maraschino for good. Frozen cherries are almost as challenging to find in small quantities, but if you're up for having a sizable stash you can find an orchard willing to send some your way. You can also find dried Montmorency cherries online, if not in stores. Use them in baked goods (except pies, which need the juice) and chutneys — you can rehydrate them as you would raisins, in hot water.
If you're looking for a special fruit whose season is fleeting and whose rewards are great, sour cherries fit that profile. You will be one of the few people lining up at the farmers market, waiting to pay, while others may look at you curiously. The complexity of flavor, the versatility in the kitchen — it's worth the wait and the work.