Cherries are associated with cheerfulness, classic pie, and the crowning touch atop ice cream sundaes. They are often the first summer fruit to show up in our grocery stores and markets. They are the smallest of the stone fruit, so named for the hard pit inside. Some people call that the cherry seed, but the seed is actually inside that pit.
Fresh cherries are delicious, easy to scarf down by the handful, and equally delicious in recipes. Around a thousand different types of cherries grow in the U.S., but these are some of the most common and popular.
These are the most popular type grown in the U.S. They are large and a bit heart shaped with firm, crisp texture. They're pleasantly sweet with a hint of acidity. The darker their red color, the riper and more flavorful. Bings are perfect for snacking or other uncooked uses, and are usually available from May to August.
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The skins of these candy-sweet two-toned cherries are rosy on one side and golden on the other, with light flesh. The creamier the yellow color, the riper and tastier. They are juicy, which makes them delicious for eating raw, but not a great choice for baking, plus cooking ruins their lovely color. Their season runs from May to August.
Queen Anne Cherries
Also known as Royal Anne, these cherries resemble Rainier cherries with their yellow to rosy skins, but they are more tart, although still categorized as sweet cherries. Their season is short, usually the month of July, although in some places they peak around the 4th.
Some people associated these Queen Anne with the chocolate-covered version that makes a popular holiday candy gift. They are also often used to make maraschino cherries. The original maraschinos were made along the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia where local marasca cherries were soaked in an Italian liqueur distilled from cherry pits, stems, and leaves. The maraschino cherries that most of us know from ice cream sundaes and banana splits are made by curing the fresh cherries in brine before preserving them in sugar syrup flavored with almond extract or other flavors. Most of them are dyed vivid red, although there are also other colors.
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A number of different cherries falls under this category, the somewhat generic name we give to sweet cherries with very dark skins. They are often small, with the pit seeming to take up half of the interior. These cherries turn darker and get sweeter as they ripen. They taste great raw, but some people love them in pies and cakes.
These red cherries are the most popular sour variety, which doesn't mean they're never enjoyed as a snack, but they are more often cooked, dried, canned, or frozen. They're also squeezed for their juice and used in pie filling, jams, and preserves. Their season lasts through the summer, although since tart cherries don't travel well, they can be hard to find outside Michigan where they are almost exclusively grown.
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This family of juicy, sour cherries with dark red skins are a pie baker's best friend, which is why some people simply call them "pie cherries." Although they are exceptionally flavorful, they're too tart to eat raw, but they're great in most baked goods and are often canned in juice or syrup. Their season is short, usually confined to the month of July and are uncommon in grocery stores.
Tips for cherry picking, pitting, storing, and more
Buying. Look for fruit that is plump, naturally shiny, and free of cracks and blemishes. If the stems are still attached, they should be supple instead of stick-like.
Storing. Fresh cherries taste best when stored at room temperature, but for longer keeping, place them in a bowl or ventilated bag in the refrigerator, where they should last for several days.
Pitting. This can be a bit of a chore when preparing enough for a big recipe. Cherry pitters work well. They come in hand-held models that pit one cherry at a time and larger models that resemble a bowl with a crank that can handle larger batches a bit more quickly and easily.
In lieu of a pitter, some people turn to other tools they might have on hand, such as a sturdy drinking straw. Starting on the stem end, push the straw through the cherry to push out the pit. Another option is to bend a paper clip into an S shape and then insert one end into the stem end of the cherry to hook and pull out the pit. And yet another option is to lightly crush the cherry with the side of a chef's knife to loosen the pit enough to be able to pick it out.