From June through August of this year, over 2,100 sweet cherry growers in the Pacific Northwest will harvest and sell nearly 500 million pounds of cherries. That’s a lot of fruit! Just how much you might wonder? That’s about 1.5 billion servings! Yet with the fresh cherry season condensed to just a few short months, what’s the trick to indulging as many dark red cherries as possible and the amazing health benefits that come with them? Preservation.
Here’s why: the antioxidant-packed, compact snack is low in calories, high in nutrients, and can be frozen, baked, dried, and preserved dozens of different ways—meaning you can get the benefits of this healthy, delicious food all-year round.
The good news about sweet Northwest cherries
Though cherries have been a beloved summer treat for thousands of years, it’s only been recently that researchers have learned how good the glossy crimson fruit is for us all. It turns out the sweet cherry is an incredible super fruit that packs a super punch of health benefits and nutrients.
Sweet cherries have been shown to help reduce inflammation, help prevent cancer, help prevent and reduce the symptoms of gout, help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, help with sleep, anxiety, minor aches and pains, gut health and even lower cholesterol. Need we say more?
Packed with antioxidants and plant phenols, these tiny fruits boast an impressive mineral line-up as well. Not only are they filled with fiber, vitamin C (one serving has 12 percent of the daily recommended intake!), and carotenoids, but they also have plentiful amounts of potassium, iron, zinc, copper, and manganese. If you’re watching your calories (and who isn’t during the summer?) sweet cherries are a low-calorie snack, with one serving of 21 cherries only totaling 63 calories.
It gets better! When cherry season is in full swing in July, you may be able to find them near you as a part of a grocer’s big promotion. When they’re at their peak, it pays to buy more than you can eat fresh and preserve them for later. Here’s how.
You can freeze sweet cherries to enjoy in baked goods, smoothies, and sauces throughout the year. Simply rinse the cherries with cool water and remove the stem. Pitting them is your choice. They’ll lose some juice, but they’re easier to pop into a recipe later if they’re frozen sans pit. If you decide to pit, the cherry growers have a great hack. Simply take a sturdy bottle with a narrow mouth, pull the stem, and use a straw (metal is best) or the blunt end of a chopstick and push the pit into the bottle. That way the pits and a good bit of the mess are contained.
Once the cherries have been pitted, place them in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the freezer overnight to freeze. After they’re completely frozen, put them in an airtight container or freezer bag to store in the freezer until you’re ready to use them. You won’t even need to thaw them before using them.
Desserts with cherries will also keep in the freezer, said chef and cookbook author Ariane Resnick.
“Cherry desserts will keep frozen provided you don’t cook them completely,” said Resnick. “For instance, make a cherry pie or cobbler but pull it out of the oven 10-15 minutes early. Freeze once cooled, then when you want it, pop it straight into the oven from the freezer.”
Since sweet cherries can help reduce inflammation by shutting down the enzymes that cause tissue inflammation—the exact same way ibuprofen and naproxen do—frozen sweet cherries can also make for the perfect pre-or-post workout snack year-round!
Dried cherries are a versatile ingredient and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Like with the freezing process, sweet cherries must be washed, dried and pitted. Cut the cherries in half if you like and put them on a baking sheet, cut side up if you did. Bake them in an oven or dehydrator at 165 degrees Fahrenheit for three hours and then reduce to 135 for 16-to-24 hours.
“The drying process for cherries concentrates the flavors and they can then be easily reconstituted for use in hot preparations or kept ‘as is’ for salads and other dishes,” said Candace Conley, a chef and cooking school owner. “Tagines [a type of stew prepared in a shallow dish with a conical lid] with chicken or lamb benefit from the addition of dried cherries to further deepen the flavor and complexity of the dish. I particularly like adding them to salads for that sweet tanginess to offset the fattiness of dressings and bitterness of greens. They are a nice alternative to raisins in cookies and muffins as well.”
Hoping to host a dinner party with a tasty appetizer? Conley says cherries work there, too. “They are also great served as part of a cheese flight. Dried fruits, and I think cherries, especially, are a great balance to creamy and funky cheeses with toasted walnuts or pecans,” she said.
And it gets better! After your night of entertaining with friends, sweet cherries can even help improve sleep. Sweet Northwest cherries are an excellent natural source of melatonin, the chemical that controls the body’s internal clock to regulate sleep. As a result, this go-to snack can help promote overall healthy sleep patterns.
Cherries can also be made into jellies and jams, which can last up to a year, depending on how they are made.
“Sweet cherries are pretty versatile, so preserving them can be fun and creative,” said Kevin Templeton, executive chef at barleymash, a restaurant in San Diego. “My favorite is a cherry-habanero jam.”
Templeton likes to keep ingredients very simple when making jams and jellies, using cherries, chilis, sugar, vinegar, and a good, natural, fruit pectin.
Begin by mincing the sweet cherries and habaneros in a food processor, leaving little chunks.
“Don’t over-process to a paste,” Templeton said.
Then, bring your sugar and vinegar to boil, add in your cherry-chili mixture, then add pectin.
“You’ve got a delicious sweet cherry-habanero jam perfect for spreading on crackers or a baked brie,” said Templeton.
Alisha Ivey, a pastry chef at II Solito in Portland, Oregon, incorporates the locally grown fruit into a variety of dishes after preserving it.
“I like to preserve cherries in a bourbon simple syrup, either in jars or vacuum sealed bags,” she said. “I make a bourbon-infused simple syrup, heavy on the bourbon, cool the syrup, and then soak the cherries in the syrup for a minimum of 24 hours. The resulting cherries are ideal for making chocolate covered cherries, topping for cheesecake, or chopped up into a buttercream frosting.”
One more delicious way to boost your fiber quota with sweet cherries!
With all of that said, while summer is known as the time for sweet cherries, if you plan smart, you can enjoy this amazing, healthy fruit all year round.
For more on the health benefits of sweet cherries and the people who grow them, visit nwcherries.com.