Cherry flavors overrun our world: cherry popsicles, cherry lip balm, cherry Lifesavers. But nothing beats the real deal. A bowl of fresh, in-season cherries are delicious baked in pies, cooked into preserves, or eaten raw.
We look forward to them all year, for our favorite recipes and plain ol’ snacking. Here’s how to pick the best ones and store them at home.
When Are Cherries in Season?
Growers cultivate numerous varieties that peak at overlapping times, ensuring an uninterrupted supply of fresh and ripe cherries in the summer months.
You’ll start finding U.S.-grown cherries in stores at the end of April, when California cherries hit the shelves. Right when the California cherries peter out, the Northwest cherries appear, going strong until late August.
You’ll find two major types of fresh cherries: sweet and sour. Sweet cherries make up the majority of the cherry market. They’re the cherries you see at the grocery store. As the name implies, they are juicy and sweet and perfect for eating out of hand.
The best-known varieties of sweet cherries in the U.S. are Bing, which are firm and dark (pictured above), and Rainier, which have thin, yellow-red skin and mild yellow flesh (pictured below).
Sour cherries are sometimes called tart cherries, or pie cherries. They’re harvested in late May and early June. Michigan produces most of the sour cherries in the U.S., but it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to sweet cherry production.
Because they don’t hold up as well during shipping, you are highly unlikely to see fresh sour cherries at the store, or even farmer’s markets. Nearly all wind up frozen, canned, or juiced. If you’re a fan of cherry pie and run across fresh sour cherries, snatch them up! I love them straight from the tree – they seem to taste sweeter that way – but they still pack a wallop.
Where to Get Cherries
You may be able to visit a u-pick farm or buy fruit directly from an orchard. If that’s the case, have at it! You’re getting the freshest fruit at the best price that way. Farmer’s markets are another obvious place to look for local cherries.
Grocery stores increasingly offer decent selections of fresh cherries. In the off-season, look in the freezer aisle for sweet or sour cherries, and – if you have a yen for pie – in the baking section for cans of sour cherries.
What to Look for When Shopping for Cherries
Cherries don’t ripen off the tree, the way mangos or bananas do. They’ll never be more ready to eat than when you buy them.
- Look for bright green stems, which are signs of freshness. You want cherries that are firm, plump, and dense, with shiny skins and saturated color. (Color itself is not always an indicator of quality since different varieties have different hues.)
- Avoid bruised or wrinkled cherries. It’s preferable to have as many stems still attached as possible since they extend the keeping quality of the fruit.
Sometimes stores will run specials where cherries are around $4.99 a pound. Sounds great, right? You pop a bag in your cart—only to examine your receipt and see a charge for $10. That’s because the ready-to-grab bag had two pounds of cherries. Cherries are great and all, but if your fruit budget is finite, be mindful of this sneaky scheme. You can always remove some fruit from the bag so you only buy a pound.
When to Use Which Cherries
- Sweet cherries are more commonly called upon for sauces, cakes, preserves, and salads. They reign supreme for super-healthy snacking.
- Sour cherries display their full glory in cherry pie. Only crazies like me nibble on them fresh, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find fresh sour cherries, anyway, unless a friend has a tree in their yard.
How to Store Cherries
After you bring them home, remove the cherries from the bag you bought them in and turn them gently onto a tray or shallow bowl. Pick out and discard any bruised specimens. Even when you keep cherries chilled, they won’t last long. Use them within 3 or 4 days. Keep the stems on to help them last a little longer.
Keep cherries in the refrigerator; heat causes them to break down. Don’t rinse them off until right before eating them, because water will accelerate spoiling, too.
It’s a fine summer pleasure to have a bowl of cold, clean cherries in the freezer so you can eat on them throughout the day. If you do rinse the whole lot at once, be prepared to either pig out, or pitch what you don’t scarf down.
How to Wash Cherries
Wash cherries before using them. Don’t do it until right before you plan to cook or eat them since moisture makes them break down faster. Keep the stems on until you use them because stems help the cherries stay fresh.
To wash cherries, lay them in a colander and rinse them with cold water. Turn the cherries gently onto paper towels or a kitchen towel and lightly pat dry. You don’t want to freeze or cook dripping-wet cherries, because the water will dilute their flavor.
How to Freeze Cherries
Cherries freeze well. When freezing, first pit the cherries, then rinse them, dry them, and pack them into zip-top bags. (You can also freeze them unwashed – that’s what I do – and note on the bag to rinse them before using.)
If you’d like the cherries to be separate so you can pull a few out at a time, first freeze them on a baking sheet until firm. Then pack them into a bag, squeezing out as much air as possible to prevent freezer burn.
It’s best to use frozen cherries within a year.
Thaw frozen cherries on the counter for about four hours, or in the refrigerator overnight. After thawing, the cherries will be softer and won’t keep their shape. They’re best used in pies, cakes, preserves, or smoothies. The thawed cherries will release liquid; discard it before proceeding with the recipe.