Sour Cherries Are Summer's Greatest, Most Fleeting Gift

Don't let the season go by without baking a crumble or pie

sour cherry desserts
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Brian Klutch

In the weeks leading up to the season, a buzz begins to form around the farmers market stalls. Come June in New York, I’m one of a flock of people waiting—fiending—for summer’s most fleeting food: sour cherries.

The bracingly tart, more brightly colored, flimsier-fleshed cousins of the sweet cherry, sour cherries are best not eaten out of the carton but cooked and tempered with sugar. They are scooped up so quickly by infatuated bakers that if you didn't know to come early for them, you might never even know they existed. Like ramps or fava beans or peaches, their arrival marks a hyper­specific microseason—in their case, early summer—and one that a tribe of devotees waits for with pie plates at the ready. These loyalists mostly dwell in Michigan's Fruit Belt, which grows 75 percent of the country's supply, or in Utah, Washington, New York, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. As little as one late frost can wipe out most of a season's supply, and even the longest runs are over in a month at best.

“Come June in New York, I’m one of a flock of people waiting—fiending—for summer’s most fleeting food: sour cherries.”

Pies and crumbles are the perfect canvas for fresh sour cherries—the buttery pastry helps cut the fruit's pungent acidity. (Galettes, turnovers, and danishes work for similar reasons.) While I've frozen a few quarts, I've noticed I tend to forget about them: Part of the thrill is in the chase.

bunch of sour cherries
Blink and you'll miss them—that's how ephemeral these little fruits are at the farmers' market.Brian Klutch

Working with Sour Cherries

Also known colloquially as tart cherries or pie cherries, these delicate fruits have a thinner juice that is more bright-pink and translucent than deep red and inky. They also have petite pits that are far more easily dislodged than those of sweet cherries. There are two ways to pit them while still keeping the shape of the fruit intact.

cherry pitter
Don’t let cherry stones get in the way of summer baking.Matt Taylor-Gross

Cherry Pitter
Many single-use tools feel gimmicky, but the right one can be a lifesaver. For pitting soft-fleshed sour cherries, we like the Westmark Kernex. It's simple and sturdy, and will make quick work of your precious summer harvest.

Straw or Chopstick
To try this method, hold a cherry in your nondominant hand, and insert the end of a straw or chopstick through the stem end of the fruit. Use it to push the pit through the other side of the flesh and remove. If you want to store sour cherries, pit them first before packing into a plastic storage container or resealable plastic bag and freezing. Defrost before using.

Sweetened sour cherries
Once you’ve added sugar to pitted cherries, work quickly to keep them from releasing too much of their flavorful juice.Brian Klutch

Taming the Tartness

Sprinkling sour cherries with sugar before baking helps render them more palatable and juicy in pie fillings and other desserts. Add vanilla, lemon zest, and a little cinnamon for more flavor.