What's in Season: Sour Cherries
The Best Cherries for Baking, Jams and Sauces
I went through a stage when I wouldn't eat cherry pie because I was convinced it was always colored with red dye #2. How else could fruit possibly be that color?
Thanks to local farmers who grow and bring us gorgeous small, bright, thin-skinned sour cherries, I am happy to indulge in these beautiful little red fruits without any paranoia about chemical additives. I know for sure that their bright red color is not only 100% authentic but also an indication of a tantalizing sweet/sour flavor.
Sweet cherries appear first, especially the deep burgundy Bing cherries and also the yellow-tinged-red Raniers that have a more subtle flavor. These are splendid for eating out of hand. But for baking and jams, sour cherries are the best.
Last summer I made my first sour cherry pie with New York cherries and for a year I've been craving the chance to make another. Last Saturday sour cherries made their first appearances at our Greenmarkets and the season should last another 4 to 6 weeks.
Buying and storing sour cherries are the same as for those that are sweet. Cherries are picked ripe so they're ready to eat when you buy them. Avoid ones that appear blemished, store refrigerated, and rinse them just before eating or cooking with them, not before.
Pitting Sour Cherries
When it comes to cooking with cherries, I think the biggest deterrent for many of us is pitting the darn things. It's one thing to pop a single sweet Bing cherry in our mouth, carefully avoiding and then spitting out the pit, but the task of pitting a couple of quarts of little sour cherries in order to make a clafoutis or pie or jam is often too daunting.
I once bought a "cherry pitter," a device that looked like a cross between a pair of scissors and a staple gun. You had to individual position each little cherry into its position and then squeeze the handle to force a tiny plunger through the cherry. Did it remove the pit? Well, yes, but it did so by squishing the cherry, leaving only the pit in place of the pink flesh that fell away in a mush. I threw the gadget out. Still there was no pie.
I next tried to use a paring knife to cut the pit out, similar to how I pit black olives for a tapenade. It worked but I ended up with cherries that looked more mashed than whole; this isn't a problem with olives that are going to end up minced or puréed, but it's not such a good result when so much of the appeal of a cherry dessert or sauce is to see the beautiful little round fruits.
But I finally learned a method that is genius for its simplicity and effectiveness. I wish I could remember where I got this tip -- I think it was in one of the food magazines but I can't recall which -- because I'd love to give full credit. The idea is not mine but I'm glad to share because it's easy, low cost and results in pitted cherries that retain their full, round shape.
All you need is a plastic drinking straw -- the kind you get with a take-out iced tea or bought by the box at a discount store. Taking each cherry one by one, remove the stem and gently press the end of the straw against the spot where the stem was attached. See the above photo. This will rupture the cherry enough so that you can then carefully press out the pit, leaving the cherry intact.
A few tips for using this method:
- Rinse and thoroughly dry the cherries before beginning to pit them. That's because once you've removed the pit the cherries will be slightly open and if you rinse them afterwards, you will lose some flavorful juice and also risk having debris or dirt go into the cherries themselves.
- Pitting cherries takes time and there are really no short-cuts. So figure about 10 to 15 minutes to pit a pint of cherries, about twice that long for a quart.
- Working with the plastic straw will eventually cause it to lose its edge and thus, effectiveness. You'll probably need one straw -- using both ends -- for every pint of cherries.
Cooking With Sour Cherries
Sour cherries are usually best used for cooking and not for eating. Their sour taste gets boosted with a little (or a lot) of sugar, their color stays an appetizing bright red, and their forward, complex cherry flavor makes them perfect for jams, classic French clafoutis which is a baked dessert with custard poured over cherries, a simple cobbler (we have a quick version made with Bisquick from a recipe sent to us from a favorite New Orleans city cook), or an All-American cherry pie. A savory way to use sour cherries is in a sauce that's the perfect foil for roasted duck breasts.
If you have a Saturday to spare this summer, invite some friends for dinner and give yourself the adventure of planning a simple menu with the blockbuster of a sour cherry pie at the end. Head to your farmers' market early in the morning and buy beautiful greens and other vegetables, making a huge platter of salads and room temperature cooked vegetables (little beets, little potatoes, haricots verts, baby carrots, and similar) dressed with a vibrant mustard vinaigrette. Add to the platter pieces of room temperature baked chicken (you could smartly cut a corner by using a rotisserie chicken), or a quickly seared tuna steak left raw at its center, or a stack of cold poached shrimp, plus wedges of fresh tomatoes and hard boiled eggs.
Alongside have a platter of farm cheeses and chunks of fresh bread. All this will be easy for you to do as the task is mostly buying great ingredients and assembling them, leaving your focus for turning the two quarts of sour cherries you scored at the market into a perfect summer pie.