Sweet, tangy and conveniently bite-sized, cherries are one of the most reliable treats of summer. Beginning in June and ending in late August, the cherry season outlasts that of the other stone fruits and berries at the market. That’s because there are dozens of varieties that ripen at different times, ensuring a plentiful supply all summer long. Unlike peaches or nectarines, cherries are always sold tree-ripened, meaning that you’ll never have to sit around waiting for just the right moment to eat them.
Sweet cherries range from golden with a tinge of red to deep purple and nearly black. The most popular variety is the Bing, but other common types include the Rainier, Brooks, Sweetheart and Queen Anne. The most popular sour, or tart cherry is the Montmorency, which is harder to find fresh and is often made into juice, or sold frozen and canned. Happily, cold-tolerant cherries are grown in many regions of the country, from the Northwest and upper Midwest to the East coast. That means there’s usually a plentiful supply at roadside stands, farmer’s markets and grocery stores near you.
Low in calories, all types of cherries contain pectin, a type of soluble fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol. They’re also a good source of vitamin C. Lately, it’s tart cherries that have received the most attention for their health benefits. Containing powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins (the compounds that give them their bright red hue), tart cherries have been shown to help reduce the inflammation associated with arthritis, gout and muscle pain after exercise.
No matter the variety, look for cherries that are firm and shiny with bright green stems. If possible, taste one, and, if you have the patience, select cherries one by one instead of grabbing handfuls. Reject any that are bruised, soft, or small.
Refrigerate them in a covered container in the fridge for up to a week and rinse them under cold water just before eating. If using cherries in recipes, you may want to pit them. With a paring knife, slice them in half and pop out the pits with the tip, or use a cherry pitter for the job. In a pinch, you can also use a paper clip to pry out the pits. (First bend back the long end, and use the other end as a scoop).
What to Do with Cherries
Although they’re delicious eaten by the handful, cherries shine in all manner of desserts. From the classic French clafoutis to all-American pies, cobblers, and crisps, cherries are a baker’s dream. But beyond desserts, cherries are easily incorporated into appetizers, salads, and simple sauces for chicken, pork or fish.
To add a hint of sweetness to a salad of peppery greens like arugula or watercress, top with slivered fresh cherries and sliced almonds. Or, mixed halved or quartered cherries into a grain salad made with bulgur or quinoa, chopped walnuts, crumbled feta cheese and fresh herbs. For a quick and unusual appetizer, roast pitted cherries at high heat until beginning to caramelize, about 15 minutes, then spoon onto fancy crackers spread with goat cheese. Serve sprinkled with lots of cracked black pepper and chopped rosemary. Cherries are also delicious in a fresh salsa served over grilled fish: Combine roughly chopped cherries with minced red onion, cilantro, and Serrano peppers and season with a squeeze of lime juice. Or, for a quick-cook sauce that’s divine spooned over pork tenderloin or chicken, sauté shallots and fresh ginger in olive oil, add halved cherries and red wine, and simmer until the fruit is just tender.
You don’t have even crank up the oven to use cherries in desserts. Instead, whip up a quick, (and healthy) cherry-cheesecake parfait: Whisk together part-skim ricotta and cream cheese and sweeten to taste with honey. Spoon the mixture into pretty glasses and top with pitted cherries that have been cooked until tender with a few tablespoons of water. Serve sprinkled with a handful of granola. For a frozen treat, puree sweet or tart cherries with lemon juice and sugar to taste, then pour into a baking dish and freeze about 6 hours, scraping the mixture every once in a while with a fork until fluffy.
If you still haven’t gotten your fill of cherries, it’s easy to extend the season. Freeze whole or pitted cherries on a baking sheet until solid, then transfer to freezer bags and store up to 6 months. Then, simply use as you would fresh cherries in recipes. Here are a few more ideas to get you cooking:
Abigail Chipley is a freelance recipe developer, writer and cooking teacher who lives in Portland, Oregon.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.