Even if life isn't always just a bowl of cherries, a bowl of cherries can make anybody's life a little sweeter. Perfectly ripe cherries are a nearly unrivaled treat. Their short season is anticipated by all but the most jaded eaters.
Cherries are related to other one-seeded stone fruits, called drupes, most closely to plums but also to peaches and nectarines. Two primary types exist: sweet and sour (or tart). Sweet cherry varieties include the deep red, plump Bing; the bright red, late-blooming Lambert; and the light-colored Royal Ann. Sour cherries need to be cooked and are usually processed for canned pie filling, preserves and juice.
Cherries are harvested when ripe; they do not ripen significantly off the tree. Their season runs from late May to very early August, peaking in June and early July. When buying sweet cherries, make sure they are large, plump, smooth and dark colored for their variety (golden cherries, such as Royal Anns, are meant to be pale) and have firm stems. The darker the cherry, the sweeter its flavor. Avoid any that are pale colored (again, for their variety) and rock hard, which indicates immature fruit, or those that are wet, sticky, bruised, excessively soft or have shriveled stems; all are signs of age. Cherries with the stems attached are desirable; once the stem is removed, the cherries spoil more rapidly.
Sour cherries are rarely sold fresh. If they are available, however, buy them following the same guidelines as for sweet cherries. Most taste too tart for pleasant eating out of hand, but they are good when sweetened for pies or preserves and other baking or cooking uses. Morello and Montmorency are two well-known varieties.
Both sweet and sour cherries are available pitted and canned, packed in water or syrup, or frozen. The latter generally have a better texture and taste than canned. Whenever possible, substitute fresh sweet or sour cherries for canned. A pound of fresh cherries can replace a 1-pound can of sour cherries. Once they have been pitted, fresh cherries will yield the same 2 cups that the can holds.
Put fresh cherries in a plastic bag and refrigerate immediately. Eat them within 3 days. Canned cherries will keep for 1 year unopened in a cool, dark cupboard. After opening the can, transfer the cherries to a covered glass, plastic or ceramic container and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
If using fresh cherries in pies or other baked dishes, pit the fruit with a cherry pitter or small, sharp knife. Operating like a hole punch, a cherry pitter makes fast work of an otherwise tedious task. Simply place a stemmed cherry in the pitter and then squeeze the handle. The tool pokes out the pit while leaving the fruit whole.
If the recipe calls for canned sour cherries and you wish to use fresh sweet cherries, reduce the amount of sugar and add a little lemon juice to taste. This works very well for cherry pie, cherry sauce for ice cream or cherry topping for cheesecake.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion, (Time-Life Books, 2000).