When are cherries in season?
Cherry season starts as early as mid-April in California and ends in August in Washington. Michigan also grows 20% of the country's sweet cherry crop, with a very short season almost entirely in July.
Sweet cherry trees can survive the cold winters in northern climates, but the flowers often get hit by a late frost (except on Michigan's lake front). They also don't like the heat of Southern climates.
If you can't find cherries at your local farmers markets, you're still in luck. They actually ship quite well, unlike other stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, etc) and usually arrive at stores within 2 days of being picked. This means you should be able to find high quality cherries in any part of the country.
That being said, cherries only ripen on the tree. When they are picked early, they don't have a much time to develop a full flavor or get really sweet. On top of that, cherries convert their sugars into starch once harvested. This causes a decline in sweetness the longer they are stored, which can be slowed with refrigeration.
In 2021, the cherry harvest from Washington State was pretty bad due to the extreme heat waves. It was noticeable in grocery stores throughout the US as damaged cherries were shipped, looking wrinkled and overripe. Here's to hoping for a better season for 2022.
How to tell when a cherry is ripe
Ripe, quality cherries should have the following characteristics:
- Firm (squishy cherries are over ripe)
- Plump (wrinkled skin is a sign of decline)
- If stems are attached, they should be fresh and green-ish (dry or brown stems are a sign they were picked a while ago and won't be as tasty)
- Color: dark sweet cherries should be very dark red or black. Rainier cherries should be a bright yellow with blush red.
Cherries do not ripen after harvest from the tree. In fact, they convert their sugars to starch after harvest. This is why fresh, tree-ripened cherries taste so much better.
Store cherries, unwashed, in a plastic bag in the fridge and they will last about a week.
The yellow-red Rainier cherries are prized for their lower acidity and sweeter flavor.
They also tend to be more watery than the dark sweet cherries, so keep them in mind when making or cooking with them.
Rainier cherries are usually more expensive for several reasons. They are more susceptible to bad weather conditions, bruise easier, and have a shorter harvest window. All of these combined raise their costs.
What is the difference between sweet and sour cherries?
Sweet cherries: These are better than sour cherries for eating fresh. They also work great in salads and in baking.
Bing cherries have a deep red color when ripe. Rainier cherries are yellowish with red blushes and are sometimes a bit more sweet than Bing and less acidic. These are commonly found in stores and farmers markets.
Tart (aka sour) cherries: These are most commonly used for juices, jams, and drying. Fresh sour cherries are rarely found in grocery stores but you might luck out at the farmers markets. They have a shorter season (usually mid-June through July) and spoil easier.
Nutrition & benefits
Cherries, 1 cup with pits
Nutrition & other information
- Cherries are 12% sugar by weight. To compare:
- Peaches: 10%
- Grapes: 16%
- Apples: 10%
- Strawberries: 6%
- Cherry pits are poisonous, but cases are very rare (more information at Bon Appetit)
- Cherries have almond, clove, and floral aromas that get stronger when cooked. This is why you often see cherries paired with almonds when baking
What are the best cherries for pies?
You can use tart / sour cherries, sweet cherries, or a mix of both. But you'll want to treat each type differently.
Sour cherry pie recipes use about 50% more sugar to balance out the tarter fruit. Since fresh sour cherries can be hard to find, many recipes have instructions for using frozen packages as well. If you use frozen, be sure to thaw and drain them or the pie will be soupy.
Sweet cherries also make excellent pies and this is what I always use (because I have a cherry tree in my back yard). The pies are delicious.
A note about color: when you cut open your cherries, if the flesh is more pale than red, the cherries might cook down into a pale red, slightly brown filling (rather than the typical deep-red filling). You can do one of two things to make sure that doesn't happen:
- Add a couple drops of food dye
- Take a handful of cherries and half of a peeled plum (which is full of natural red dye) and blend it up. Mix that in with your cherry filling before cooking.
Cherry pie recipes
The majority of these recipes call for sweet cherries, which are readily available at the farmers market or grocery store. The last section of recipes call for sour cherries which can be found fresh at some farmers markets, but rarely fresh at the grocery store.