Cherries - Preserving the Harvest

Washington Cherry Season starts in June, so now is the time to brush up on everything we need to know about our wonderful, local cherry crop. First, Cherries are grouped into 2 types: Sweet Cherries and Sour Cherries. Most of the info on this page is going to be concerning the Sweet Cherries. Way down at the bottom, I have a couple of recipes for the Sour Cherries. Sour Cherries are not typically available in markets, but if you look carefully, you may spot Sour Cherry trees around your neighborhood! Sour Cherries are the ones that grow the best in the Seattle area and many people have planted them as ornamentals. Be nice and ASK FIRST before picking fruit off someone's tree! Sour cherries should be visible and ripe by mid-to-late June. Only pick the very red ones and come back a few days later and pick again. Green cherries are not much good--they are super sour and bitter.

 All cherries are HEALTHY! They are a rich source of potassium, melatonin, antioxidants, and a serving of a full cup of cherries has less than 100 calories.

Cherries are mostly local. The Northwest Cherry Season lasts from the first week of June until the end of August. Cherries are one of the freshest produce items available. Ripened on the tree, cherries are generally harvested, packed and on the shelf of your favorite retailer within 2 days. Growing regions scattered throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Montana offer small differences in microclimate which allow cherries throughout the region to ripen at different times through the season. This ensures that all summer long, the Northwest Cherries that you enjoy are never more than a few days from the tree.

Cherries come in different varieties.  Bing and Rainier cherries are the most common in our local markets but keep your eyes open and you may find Chelan, Tieton, Lapins, Skeena or Sweethearts in the market.

Or, skip the market and go right to the farm and PICK YOUR OWN!  This is a great family activity. Parents save a few bucks off the cost of organic cherries and kids get to learn where food comes from. U-Pick farms are a win-win-win! Find a good list of U-Pick Farms right here.  The U-Pick idea is not limited to cherries!  Our local farmers offer dozens of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers just waiting for you to come by and harvest them!  You can't get any fresher than U-Pick! (Can you tell I am a big fan?)

Yield. A lug(full box) weighs 25 pounds and yields 8 to 12 quarts. An average of 17 1/2 pounds makes a 7 quart canner load (approx. 2 1/2 pounds per quart); 11 pounds makes 9 pints. An average of 1 3/8 pounds makes 1 pint of frozen cherries.

Cherries are "stone fruit" which means they have pits that make them tricky to eat and cook with. Get the right tool for the job--a Cherry Stoner. This gadget only costs a few bucks and will save you about $1,000 worth of frustration!.

Fresh cherries are very perishable! Leave the stems on, they help keep the juice in, Keep cherries uncovered in the coolest part of the refrigerator and they will last up to 10 days. Of course, an open container of cherries makes them a very easy snack, so don't expect any of them to actually stay in the fridge that long!

Wash fruit. Cut in half and remove pits. Cherries can be dried safely without any pretreatment, but pretreating may preserve the natural color and speed drying.

To pretreat: Ascorbic acid, available at drug stores, may be used. Prepare a solution of 1 to 2 1/2 teaspoons of pure ascorbic acid crystals to 1 quart cold water. Vitamin C tablets can be crushed and used (six 500 milligram tablets equal 1 teaspoon ascorbic acid). One cup treats about 5 quarts of cut cherries. Dip cut cherries in ascorbic acid solution. Soak for a few minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and drain well. Commercial antioxidant mixtures are not as concentrated as ascorbic acid but are more readily available in grocery stores.

Arrange fruit on drying trays in single layers, pit cavity up. Cherries will dry in 24 to 36 hours in a dehydrator, in the sun from 12 hours to four or five days, and in the oven from six to 24 hours. Properly dried cherries are leathery and shriveled.

Select ripe or slightly overripe fruit. Wash, pit, and drain well. Puree cherries in blender. Sweetener may be added in the form of honey, or sugar. Honey is best for long storage because it doesn’t crystallize. Sugar is good for immediate use or short storage. Sweeten to taste.  Bring cherry puree to a boil. Line a plate or cookie sheet with edges with plastic wrap. Smooth out the wrinkles. Pour the pureed fruit onto the cookie sheet in a 1/4 inch thick layer. Spread evenly.
  • To dry in an oven- Place the tray on the center rack in an oven at lowest setting and prop oven door slightly open. Approximate drying time may be up to 18 hours.
  • To dry in a dehydrator- Use specially designed dehydrator trays or plastic trays. Line with plastic wrap. Pour pureed fruit on the trays in a 1/8 inch thick layer. Spread evenly. Approximate drying time is 6-8 hours.
  • Leather that is dry can be easily pulled from the plastic wrap. Fruit leather can be left on plastic or pulled from plastic wrap while still warm. Cool and re-wrap in plastic if needed.
Dried cherries and cherry fruit leather should be used within 1-2 years.

There are several ways to pack cherries for freezing. The best method selected will depend on how you want to use the frozen product.
  • Sugar pack. Mix 2/3 cup sugar per quart of sour cherries; or 1/3 cup sugar per quart of sweet cherries. To package, fill freezer containers to within 1/2 inch from top. If pint or quart freezer bags are used, fill to within 3/4 inches from the top. Squeeze out as much air as possible. Seal and label.
  • Unsweetened pack. Without liquid or sweetening, pack cherries into containers to within 1/2 inch from top. If pint or quart freezer bags are used, fill to within 3/4 inches from the top. Squeeze out as much air as possible. Seal and label. The fruit may be sweetened at the time of serving.
  • Loose cherry pack. Spread whole sweet cherries in a single layer on shallow trays or cookie sheets and freeze. Remove and quickly package in labeled freezer bags or containers removing as much air as possible from containers. Seal and return promptly to freezer.
  • Syrup pack. A light syrup is recommended for sweet cherries and medium syrup for sour cherries. Allow 1/2 to 2/3 cup of syrup for each pint of fruit.

Frozen cherries should be used within 1 year.

Note the clever use of Tattler Re-Usable Lids!
Wash jars. Prepare lids according to manufacturer’s directions.

Prepare sugar syrup, if needed:
  • Sugar Syrup Recipes
  • Light: 1.5 cups sugar to 5.75 cups water
  • Medium: 2.25 cups sugar to 5.25 cups water (recommended for sweet cherries)
  • Heavy: 3.25 cups sugar to 5 cups water (recommended for Sour Cherries)

Stem and wash cherries. Remove pits if desired. If pitted, place cherries in water containing ascorbic acid to present stem-end discoloration (1 teaspoon of ascorbic acid or 3 grams in 1 gallon water). If canned unpitted, pricking skins on opposite sides with a clean needle will prevent splitting. Cherries may be canned in water, apple juice, white grape juice, or syrup. If syrup is desired, select and prepare preferred type as directed above. Medium syrup works well for sweet cherries and heavy syrup for sour cherries.
   Hot pack– In a large saucepan add 1/2 cup water, juice, or syrup for each quart of drained fruit and bring to a boil. Fill sterilized jars with cherries and cooking liquid, leaving 1/2" headspace. Wipe the sealing edge of the jar with a clean, damp paper towel. Adjust lids. Process in a Boiling Water Bath: 10 Minutes for pint jars or 15 minutes for quart jars. Turn off heat at the end of processing and allow the kettle to sit for an additional 5 minutes before removing jars.
   Raw pack– Add 1/2 cup hot water, juice, or syrup to each jar. Fill jars with drained cherries, shaking them down gently as filled. Add more hot liquid, leaving 1/2" headspace. Wipe the sealing edge of the jar with a clean, damp paper towel. Adjust lids.  Process in a Boiling Water Bath: 20 Minutes for pint jars or quart jars. Turn off heat at the end of processing and allow the kettle to sit for an additional 5 minutes before removing jars.

Canned cherries should be used within 18 months.

This thickened cherry product is great for a lot more than pies!
  • Stir a couple of tablespoons into yogurt
  • Add to milk or kifir to make a smoothy
  • Spoon over ice cream
  • Add to homemade cheesecake
  • use as a topping for pound cake
  • make cherry shortcake(instead of strawberry shortcake)
Makes 1 quart -- Recipe may be multiplied as needed
  • 3.3 cups of fresh or frozen sweet cherries
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar (If using Sour Cherries, increase sugar to 1 cup.)
  • 1/4 cup + 1 teaspoon ClearJel® Corn Starch
  • Cold water 1-1/3 cups
  • 4 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1/8th teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract(traditional but optional)
  • 6 drops red food coloring(optional)

Rinse and pit fresh cherries, and hold in cold water. To prevent stem end browning, use ascorbic acid solution. For fresh fruit, place in 3.5 cup batches into 1/2 gallon boiling water. Boil each batch 1 minute after the water returns to a boil. Drain but keep heated in a covered bowl or pot. Combine sugar and Clear Jel in a large saucepan and add water. If desired, add cinnamon, almond extract, and food coloring. Stir mixture and cook over medium high heat until mixture thickens and begins to bubble. Add lemon juice and boil 1 minute, stirring constantly. Fold in drained cherries immediately and fill jars with mixture without delay, leaving 1 inch headspace. This will fill 1 quart jar or 2 pint jars, or 4 half-pint jars. Adjust lids and process immediately. Processing time in a Boiling Water Bath is 25 minutes, plus 5 minutes of rest in the hot water before removing the jars.

Note: ClearJel® Corn Starch is the only type of starch thickener that may be used in home canning. It is available online or at Goods For The Planet in Seattle.

Cherry Juice
4 quarts (4 pounds) cherries
3 to 3 1/2 cups granulated sugar

Bring cherries and 4 quarts water to a simmer in a large pot. DO NOT BOIL. Simmer 5 minutes, or until most cherries burst. Pour berries and juice into damp jelly bag or a colander lined with four layers of clean cheesecloth. Let juice drip into a large bowl. DO NOT squeeze the bag. When you have extracted as much juice as possible from the pulp, return pulp to pot with 2 quarts water. Simmer 2 minutes. Pour this pulp and juice through jelly bag again to extract remaining juice. Place the 2 batches of juice in a large pot. Add sugar to suit your taste and 1 more quart water. Heat to dissolve sugar completely, but do not boil. Quickly pour into clean, hot jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace; seal. Process in Boiling Water Bath for 15 minutes.

Yields 6 to 7 quarts.

Chilli Cherry Sauce
Great as a sauce for roasted pork as well as a topper for morning toast!
1 pound cherries, pitted
2 tsp freshly grated ginger
2 small red chillies, finely chopped
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 cup raw sugar

Place all ingredients in a saucepan and gently simmer for 1/2 hour. Take off the heat and mash with a potato masher. Set back on heat and simmer for another15 minutes, stirring constantly.

Note: This sauce can be bottled and kept in the refrigerator for 4 weeks.

To can - pour boiled sauce into sterilized pint or half-pint jars leaving 1/2 headspace. Adjust lids and process in a Boiling Water Bath for 10 minutes. Be sure to label before tucking this away in the pantry.

Homemade Maraschino Cherries
These frighteningly red cherries are super sweet and slightly salty.
  • 5 pounds cherries, pitted
  • 10 cups water
  • 1 tbls salt
  • 1 tsp alum
  • 10 cups white sugar
  • 3 cups water
  • juice of one lemon
  • 2 tbls red food coloring
  • 2 tbls almond extract

Bring water, alum and salt to a boil. Add cherries and soak overnight .

The next morning, drain the cherries and rinse in cold water.

Combine cherries, water, sugar, lemon juice, and red coloring. Heat to boiling point. Let stand for 24 hours.

Remove the cherries and again boil the juices. Pour over the cherries and let stand for another 24 hours. Bring to boil again.

Remove the cherries again and boil the juices. Add almond extract. Pack cherries into sterilized jars  and fill the jars with juice, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Apply lids and process in a Boiling Water Bath for 10 minutes.

Brandied Sweet Cherries
  • 3 pounds cherries, pitted
  • 2 cups sugar
  • brandy
Combine the cherries and sugar in a large saucepan. Let stand for 2 hours. Cover and cook over low heat 25 minutes, stirring often. Remove the cherries from the syrup. Bring the syrup back to a boil and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Measure the syrup and add 1/3 cup brandy for each cup of syrup. In the saucepan combine the syrup and the cherries. Bring to the boil. Spoon into hot jars leaving 1/2 inch space at the top before placing the lids on. Place in a Boiling Water Bath for 30 minute.

Store for at least 2 months before serving.

Cherry Balsamic Sauce
Serve with grilled meat, poultry, or fish.  
  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup pitted and chopped  sweet cherries
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
  • 1 teaspoon each chopped fresh rosemary and thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup pitted and halved  sweet cherries

Mix vinegar and olive oil; reduce mixture to 1/2 cup.  Add chopped cherries, mustard, sugar, herbs, salt, and pepper; simmer 10 minutes.  Reserve half of sauce for marinade.  Add halved cherries to remaining sauce; return mixture to a boil and simmer about 1 minute.  Pour into sterilized half-pint or pint jars. Apply lids and process in a Boiling Water Bath for 5 minutes.

Cherry Cordial
  • 3 cups fresh cherries, pitted
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups honey
  • 2 cups vodka
  • 1/2 cup brandy
Coarsely chop the cherries in a food processor fitted with the metal blade, or chop with a knife. Stir the cherries and sugar in a large bowl until the cherries are well coated. Stir in the remaining ingredients until blended. Pour the mixture into a large glass jar, cover, and store in a cool, dark place for at least 1 month, stirring or shaking the jar every few days.

Before serving, strain the liquid from the cranberries through a fine strainer or dampened cheesecloth. It may be stored tightly covered at room temperature for up to 3 months. Refrigerate it for longer storage. Makes about 4 cups.

Canning Basics: Jarology

While canning lids come in just 2 sizes, standard and wide mouth, canning jars come in many different shapes and sizes which leads to the question, "Why so many jars?"

And the answer is, different foods like different jars.

Breaking jars into the two main categories and discussing by size, here are my recommendations for what jars to use for what applications.

Standard Mouth Jars. 

These jars take the smaller of the two lid sizes and are usually straight sided until the 16 ounce size which has "shoulders". The replacement lids and rings are slightly lower in price so over the long run, it is cheaper to can in the standard mouth jars.

2 ounce--Great for powerful goodies like Bacon Jam or Plum Marinade. Also good for dry spice rubs and other special seasonings.

4 ounce--For Jams, Jellies, Marinades, Hot Sauces and Salsas.

8 ounce(half-pint)--Jams, Jellies, Salsas, Fruit Butters, Relish, Tomato Paste, Pizza Sauce and single servings of fruit(to pack in lunches).

12 ounce Quilted Crystal--Jams and Jellies, Pickled Asparagus, Pickled Beans and other pickles prepared in long slim sticks.

16 ounce(pint)--Usually this is the smallest size of jar that has "shoulders" which are useful to help hold fruits and vegetables, that might tend to float, under the level of the liquid. Use these jars for apricot halves, plum halves, tiny pickled whole peppers, brandied fruits, spiced apples, tomato sauce, fruit spreads for larger families.

32 ounce(quart) --Whole & Chopped Fruits, apple sauce, dill pickles, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates, pie filling.

Wide Mouth Jars. 
These jars take the larger of the two lid sizes. The lids for these jars are slightly more expensive but these jars are easier to fill without making a mess and are very desirable in cases where food is to be "arranged" as it is put into the jars. Also in most cases, wide mouth jars are as comfortable in the freezer as they are in the pantry and can be used as a replacement for plastic containers.

8 ounce(Freezer-Safe)-- Frozen Soups, Canned Relish and Sauces.

16 ounce(Freezer-Safe) Thick Sauces, like Apple Butter, that will be spread with a butter knife. Frozen Soup for 2 people.

32 ounce-- Whole & Chopped Tomatoes, Pickles.

64 ounce(half-gallon) Fruit Juices, Fermenting, Dry Goods Storage.

Special Jars
These, rather expensive, jars are great for gift-giving.

"Elite Platinum" 4 ounce(half-pint)-- Dipping Sauce, Pesto, Jams & Jellies to be given as gifts.

"Elite Platinum" 8 ounce(pint)--Hostess Gifts of Homemade Pickles & Sauces.