Sweet or tart, fresh cherries are firm but surprisingly syrupy and juicy.
Credit: Photo: Oxmoor House

SEASON: The season varies from May to August depending on location.

LEARN: Cherries are considered a stone fruit or drupe, which means their outer flesh surrounds a hard center seed; they are a relative of apricots, peaches, and plums.

They come in two species: sweet cherries, such as Bing, Royal Ann, and Rainier; and sour cherries (also called tart or pie cherries), like Montmorency. You’ll also find dried cherries in most supermarkets, but check the label―many brands contain added sugars.

CHOOSING: When shopping local fresh markets, always sample sweet cherries before buying. Sweetness just needs to be tasted. Tart cherries are smaller, a little softer, and acidic rather than sweet. Sweet, deep-crimson Bing and peachy-colored Rainier are the most abundant varieties, though you might find yellow or inky purple ones, too. If you live in an area where sour cherries are available, most certainly use those, though you’ll need to balance the tang with some sweetness. Select cherries that are large, firm, glossy, and plump. Avoid fruit that is misshapen, cracked, or injured. Those with the stems attached will last longer.

STORING: Keep whole cherries, unwashed, in a breathable plastic bag in the refrigerator. Wash before serving, and eat them as soon as possible, as they can soften and deteriorate quickly.

USE: Remove stems and pits before using. (This can be most easily done with a cherry pitter.) Be aware, cherry juice can stain fabrics and countertops, so prep them near your sink. Sweet cherries are delicious on their own as a snack, but both varieties can be used in salads, preserves, pies, and ice creams, and they’ll add a burst of flavor to savory foods like pork, lamb, and chicken.

GROWING: Growing cherries is rewarding, but it does require some year-round attention. Cherry trees are small to medium-sized and thrive where summers are short and winter is long and consistently cold. Choose a location that receives full sun and is not a cold pocket where late-spring freezes will settle. Planting on a slope is ideal so the cold air will move farther down the hill.

Tart cherry varieties pollinate themselves, so you only need one tree. Try Montmorency, Balaton, Meteor, or North Star. Sweet cherries, however, aren’t as simple. You’ll need more than one tree and both need to bloom at the same time. Rainier, Kristin, Schmidt, Lapins, Sweetheart, Hedelfingen, Hudson, and Ulster are a few options. It’s a good idea to get advice from a garden center or your local Cooperative Extension office for help selecting the right variety, as well as pruning and maintenance suggestions. A bonus before your bounty? Gorgeous spring blooms!