Sour Cherries are smaller and softer when ripe than sweet cherries. They are round and generally red, but depending on the variety can be yellow, green, a bit of both or pink and red.
When they are fully ripe, they will usually come right off the stem when tugged. It’s okay to pick them this way and just leave the stem behind, if you are planning to use them up or freeze them right away.
Sour cherries are all very sour, as you would guess. For this reason, they are usually cooked with a sweetener and used for baked goods and preserves.
On occasion, you will see them sold fresh at markets, but they are usually processed and then canned, frozen or dried.
Fresh sour cherries have a shipping problem that sweet cherries don’t. Not only are they softer, but after harvesting, light makes them turn brown, especially exposed fleshy parts after stemming and pitting. Even the light in a refrigerator can do it. It doesn’t affect their edibility, but consumers naturally don’t want to slave over a cherry pie, only to see their nearest and dearest curling up their noses at it because the filling is an ooky brown inside.
This is why you’ll almost always see them processed in some way. Grocery stores often sell them already pitted in large tubs at the height of the sour cherry season, with a small amount of a preservative such as erythorbic acid (a form of Vitamin C) added to prevent browning.
In some stores, only the tubs with added sugar will be stocked. This can throw off sweetener calculations for your recipes. In most stores, you can speak with the produce manager to special order in unsweetened tubs.
Even though the tubs say “unpitted”, do not take this as a guarantee that there will be absolutely zero pits. You still need to check for yourself for pits that the pitting machines may have missed.
Popular North American varieties include Early Richmond, English Morello and Montmorency.
There are two families or groupings of sour cherries — Amarelle and Morello. Amarelle (or “Kentish”) type sour cherries are more common in North America and the UK; Morello type sour cherries are more common in Europe.
The USDA gives this advice for prepping fresh sour cherries:
“Rinse and pit fresh cherries, and hold in cold water. To prevent stem end browning, use ascorbic acid solution.”1
An ascorbic acid solution can be made use 1 teaspoon (3 grams) ascorbic acid OR 6 x 500 mg crushed Vitamin C tablets to 4 litres (1 gallon) of cold water. For more information, see https://www.cooksinfo.com/ascorbic-acid” target=”_blank”>ascorbic acid. A splodge or two of bottled lemon juice might also do the trick, if you didn’t think that a possible slight trace of lemon flavour would adversely impact what you were making.
Studies at various universities in the States (2010) and Northumbria University in England (2012) have found that sour cherries, specifically the Montmorency variety, contain a very significant quantity of melatonin, which can improve your ability to have a more restful sleep. In the 2012 study, a 2 tablespoon (30 ml) portion of the juice was able to increase the time actually asleep by 25 minutes.
1 cup (200 g / 7 oz) unpitted = 3/4 cup (150 g / 5 oz) pitted
100 g unpitted = 1/2 cup unpitted = 3/8th cup pitted (effectively 1/2 cup. They don’t lose much volume)
1 cup of pitted, processed sour cherries (from a jar or tub) = 150 g
100 g of pitted, processed sour cherries (from a jar or tub) = 2/3 cup
250 g of pitted, processed sour cherries (from a jar or tub) = 1 1/2 cups
500 g of pitted, processed sour cherries (from a jar or tub) = 2 3/4 cups
750 g of pitted, processed sour cherries (from a jar or tub) = 4 cups
1 kg of pitted, processed sour cherries (from a jar or tub) = 6 cups
A 4.5 kg tub of no-sugar added pitted cherries contains about 4 kg cherries (about 24 to 25 cups) and the rest of the weight is juice off the cherries, about 500 ml.
A 5 kg tub of sugar-added pitted cherries contains about 4 kg cherries (about 24 to 25 cups), 1/2 kg of sugar, and the rest of the weight is juice off the cherries, about 500 ml.
To freeze: wash twice, each time in clean water. Stem, and pit. Measure out amounts, seal in plastic bags, record date and quantity in each bag. Freeze. When thawed, use for pie fillings, muffins, jams, chutneys, sauces, etc. Incorporate any juice that comes off them as they thaw into the recipe, swapping it for part of the liquid in the recipe.
Botanical detectives suspect that sour cherries, such as Montmorency, arose from a chance cross-breed of sweet cherry with a ground or bush cherry (Prunus fruticosa). Investigators such as Dr Amy Iezzoni (of Balaton Cherry fame) suspect that this occurred in the area of the Adriatic, Black and Caspian Seas because of the diversity still there, and that returning to the source of the original genetic diversity may hold answers to developing more disease resistant trees.
Sour cherries were known to the Greeks by about 300 BC. They were introduced into Italy by the Romans about 79 AD. The Romans, who loved them, introduced them into Britain by about 100 AD, but they seem to have disappeared from there during the Dark Ages, with cultivation being re-started during the 1500s.
The first sour cherry planted in America was the Kentish Red, in Massachusetts.
Cherry growers have decided the name “sour cherries” is off-putting: they’d rather we called them now “tart” cherries or “pie” cherries.
Howatson G, Bell PG, Tallent J, Middleton B, McHugh MP, Ellis J. School of Life Sciences, Northumbria University. Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. European Journal of Nutrition. 30 October 2011.
Lezzoni, A.F. Sour cherry breeding in Eastern Europe. In “Fruit Varieties Journal”. Purdue / Rutgers / Illinois. 38:121-125, 1984.
Pigeon WR, Carr M, Gorman C, Perlis ML. University of Pennsylvania, University of Rochester and VA Center of Canandaigua. Effects of tart cherry juice beverage on the sleep of older adults with insomnia: a pilot study. Journal of Medicinal Food. 2010;13:579-583.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Complete guide to home canning. Agriculture information bulletin No. 539. 2015. Page 2-27. ↩