At once beguilingly sweet and juicy, with a kiss of tartness, cherries are seduction on a stem. And the fruit’s appeal is only enhanced by its limited availability within a season that lasts just a few weeks in most locales, and less than three months overall across the country. Although most other fruits are now predictable fixtures in the food supply, the cherry’s appearance marks a moment for restaurants to enjoy—and exploit—one of nature’s special treats.
Sweet or Sour
Tart cherries, mostly the Montmorency and Morello varieties, are also known as sour or pie cherries. They are rarely available fresh, except occasionally from local farm stands. Notoriously mouth-puckering when eaten raw, these cherries require cooking or baking plus a generous hand with sugar to mellow their astringency. Consequently, they are highly valued for their acidic punch in sauces, preserves, and pies. Because tart cherries are delicate and wither easily, they must be used right away or preserved by canning, freezing, or drying.
Sweet cherries are easier to handle; the hundreds of varieties that are available ship much better than their tart cousins. Bings comprise 90 percent of the U.S. sweet cherry crop and are grown mostly in Washington, Oregon, and California. These plump, deep red cherries start ripening in mid-June, but small quantities of earlier and late-ripening varieties extend the season from early June through the end of August. Other popular sweet cherries are the well-loved Rainier, a golden fruit with a red blush, and the similar-looking Queen Anne, sometimes referred to as “Royal Anne” or “Napoleon.” (These are the cherries used for maraschinos.) Both varieties are fresh in the markets beginning late June in the Pacific Northwest, July in the east.
During the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., Helix Lounge bartender Tracy Stack mixes up her “Awesome Cherry Blossom” cocktail in a supersized martini glass. She tops her concoction with a jaunty cherry molded into a tiny block of Jell-O. It’s a touch that’s more for fun than for flavor. But that’s hardly the case in kitchens, where chefs use cherries for color, texture, taste, and sparkle in everything from soups to sweets.
When Yakima Valley sweet cherries start coming in, chef Leslie Mackie at Macrina Bakery Café in Seattle brandies them, chutneys them, pops them into honey-laced custard tarts, and folds them into crepes and cherry almond coffee cake. For the July 4 holiday, Bing cherries star in classic American apple tarts, where she combines one part cherries with three parts apples. Mackie values red cherries for what she calls their “naturally balanced, sweet-and-sour juxtaposition.” She uses Queen Annes and Rainiers for their eye-catching color in salads and tarts. Because yellow cherries are milder in flavor than red, she suggests perking them up with a bit of lemon juice. Most importantly, she cautions, “Don’t adulterate cherries by adding too much sugar. It’s best to use them at peak ripeness and let their natural sweetness shine.”
Mackie especially loves to serve cherries in sweet-and-salty pairings, as in a salad of roast chicken, roasted onions, cherries, and gorgonzola cheese. Her kitchen also offers fresh cherry relish over a wedge of goat cheese dusted with lemon zest or with gorgonzola dolce, served with crusty bread and toasted almonds.
Light-textured companions can also be matched with cherries. Rob Klink, executive chef at Oceanaire Seafood Room in Washington, D.C., combines cherries and shellfish without hesitation, “The clean, crisp flavors and textures of many fruits highlight the delicate flavors of seafood without being overpowering.” To wit, Klink mixes greens including mizuna or arugula with a cherry juice-spiked vinaigrette and tops the salad with lightly smoked scallops. A garnish of cherries creates a brilliant blend of smoky and sweet. For an entree, Klink sears meaty sea scallops and sets them off with a cherry sauce set against a big white plate. Although the caramelization of scallops mirrors the sugars in the cherries, he doesn’t aim for the pairing to be too sweet. So Klink deglazes the pan sauce with red wine and finishes it with butter, rounding out the dish’s fruity tang.
Preparing and Preserving
Cherries destined for the fresh market must be hand-picked to avoid bruising. For that reason, fresh cherries garner top dollar, from $1.40 to $3.50 per pound wholesale, depending on when during the season they’re bought (the July 4th holiday is a period of high demand and higher prices). Yellow cherries start at an average of $2.45 per pound wholesale, but also gain in price depending on availability.
Cherries do not continue to ripen after picking so suppliers recommend choosing fruit that is glossy, plump, and firm with their green stems attached. For so-called red varieties, look for a deep mahogany color; bright red fruit could indicate under-ripeness and lackluster flavor. For light-colored cherries like Rainiers, look for the characteristic red blush. Completely yellow cherries are probably not ripe. Always avoid hard or small fruit or cherries with soft, dull, or sticky skins. (Incidentally, cherry pits and leaves contain cyanide-producing compounds and are toxic.)
Cherries are best stored in the coldest part of walk-in with good air circulation. Refrigerate them immediately for three or four days at the most, and don’t wash until you’re ready to use them. To preserve their fresh flavor, rinse and drain cherries well, then freeze them on a sheet pan. Transfer the frozen fruit to bags or containers and store for up to a year.
One pound of fresh sweet cherries yields about two cups pitted. To remove the pit with a knife, slit each cherry top to bottom around its entire circumference, pull it apart, and pop out the pit. Mackie prefers to use a cherry pitter because it leaves the integrity and beauty of the cherry intact. She recommends investing in a sturdy one that’s easy to use and buying it before the beginning of cherry season. “It’s impossible to find one after harvest starts,” she observes with a knowing chuckle.
“Start the task well-armed,” she advises, with gloves and a big apron. Mackie works inside a deep bowl to contain the inevitable splatter. “It’s a labor of love,” she concedes, “but I’ll do anything for fresh cherries. They’re only here for a fleeting, heavenly moment.”
Ripe and Ready
Sweet cherries were named after the town where they were first cultivated, Cerasus in Asia Minor (present day Turkey). Today, this drupe or stone fruit is classified as Prunus avium L., and belongs to the family Rosaceae (a relative of the plum). There are hundreds of varieties, including the following ones*, which have helped growers stretch the cherry harvest beyond its previous short, but oh-so-sweet season.
The leading early-ripening sweet cherry of the Pacific Northwest. Fruit ripens two weeks ahead of Bing, yet resembles Bing with firm, round, heart-shaped fruit of good size. The best deep, mahogany red cherry before Bing and less susceptible to rain-cracking; 16 to 18 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: early to mid-June.
Extraordinarily large in size, with excellent firmness and a mild sweet flavor. Tieton is an early-season mahogany red cherry, ripening one week before Bing. The impressive size, attractively glossy fruit, and thick green stems produce a visually stunning fruit for premium displays; 16 to 18 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: middle to end of June.
The leading commercial sweet cherry in North America. Fruit is firm, juicy, and a deep, mahogany red when ripe. Exceptionally large fruit of finest quality, with an intensely sweet, vibrant flavor. Bing has become the standard to which other varieties are compared; 17 to 19 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: mid-June through early August.
A very attractive, exceptionally large, yellow cherry with a bright red blush. Rainier has a distinctive and superior appearance among sweet cherry varieties. Delicately flavored with extraordinary sugar levels, the flesh is pure yellow, very firm, and finely textured. A premium niche variety that ripens after Bing; 17 to 23 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: end of June through early August.
A large, highly crack-resistant, mahogany red cherry that is rapidly replacing the late-season variety Lambert. Lapins matures ten days to two weeks after Bing, exhibiting excellent firmness and flavor; 17 to 19 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: early July through mid-August.
Large, very firm and sweet, Skeena* continues to grow in popularity with consumers and growers. Maturing about 16 days after Bing, this dark red to almost black variety has a very dense texture. A great late-season variety; 19 to 20 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: mid-July through early August.
SweetheartA large, bright red cherry maturing one week to ten days after Lapins (three weeks after Bing). Sweetheart has a mild, sweet flavor and outstanding firmness. This heart-shaped cherry handles and ships extremely well; 17 to 19 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: end of July through mid-August.
*Information provided by the Northwest Cherry Growers.
Pan-Seared Japanese Sea Scallops with Bing Cherry Sauce
By Rob Klink, Executive Chef, Oceanaire Seafood Room, Washington, D.C.
Per order:Olive oil 1 oz
Shallots, chopped 1/2 tspRed wine 1 1/2 cups
Bing cherries, pitted 1/2 cupButter, chilled 1/2 tsp
Dry-packed (u/10) sea scallops 3 each1. In small sauce pan, heat 1/2 ounce olive oil and saut[é] shallots until translucent. Add red wine and reduce until slightly thickened. Add cherries and cook 2 minutes or until tender. Season with salt and pepper and finish with butter.
2. In sauté pan, heat remaining 1/2 ounce olive oil. Season scallops with salt and pepper and sear in pan about 1 1/2 minutes per side.
Plate with cherry sauce.
Cherry Amaretto Rustic Tart
By Leslie Mackie, Macrina Bakery & Café, Seattle, Washington
Bing cherries, pitted 2 cupsAmaretto liquer 2 tbsp
Sugar 1/2 cup plus 1 tbspWhole milk ricotta cheese 8oz
Pure vanilla 1 tspAlmond extract 1/2 tsp
Flour 1 tbspEggs, separated 2
Flaky pie dough, rolled out to a 12″ round 1 lbEgg wash to seal
Coarse sugar to garnish
1. Macerate cherries in amaretto and 1 tablespoon sugar for 20 minutes.
2. Combine remaining sugar, ricotta, flour, vanilla, and almond extracts. Mix in egg yolks. Beat egg whites to soft peaks and fold in mixture.
3. Place 12-inch round pie dough on a parchment lined baking sheet. In center of dough, mound ricotta mixture. Gently top with half the cherries to cover the center 8 inches of the tart dough.
4. To create free-form round tart, fold over border of dough, tucking every 2 inches and sealing beneath with egg wash. Add remaining cherries on top, slightly depressing cherries into ricotta filling. Brush egg wash on top of tart and sprinkle with coarse sugar.
5. Chill tart for 20 minutes in freezer. Bake at 375°F for 35–40 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool at least 20 minutes before serving.