Cherries have one big flaw – they have a very short season, not much more than weeks in most places.
Although cherries originated in the Middle East and have been cultivated for centuries in Europe and the Orient, the biggest producer, consumer, and exporter of cherries is the United States. Most sweet cherries are grown on the West Coast. Washington State is the biggest producer. Except for local crops, which aren’t shipped at all, the cherries you’ll see on the market have been shipped from California, Oregon, and Washington State, with Idaho and British Columbia contributing to the supply.
The two most common varieties are Lamberts and Bings
Lamberts ripen earlier and are smaller and more-tender than Bings. They range in color from deep pink to red, with a soft somewhat watery flesh and a deep red or blackish-red juice. They arrive from California early in June, with later harvests coming from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Bings are big, dark, heart-shaped cherries with great flavor. They are very firm, with a deep red to black skin, a white heart, and a bit of crunch when you bite into them. They last longer and ship better than Lamberts.
Royal Annes, also called Raniers and sometimes Napoleons, are occasionally seen on the market. This large, heart-shaped fruit is amber to yellow in color, with a red blush. It’s an excellent cherry with an intense flavor, juicy flesh, and a white heart. Royal Annes are more fragile, easily bruised, and have a shorter shelf life than Bings. Many people shy away from Royal Annes because of their color, but one taste and they love ‘em.
California cherries arrive in early June and are generally out of season by mid-June, with more northern crops gradually replacing them during the summer months, ending with cherries from British Columbia in early August. That’s a total of seven or eight weeks, so if you like cherries and see some good-looking ones at the fruit stand, buy them. The next time you look, they may be gone. Sweet cherries are also grown in the Midwest and in northeastern states, but I don’t think the fruit compares to the size or flavor of the western cherries.
The sweet cherries that show up in January are from Chile, and although they’re improving in flavor and texture, they’re still not quite up to snuff. As producers continue to experiment with shipping methods, however, I expect we’ll see very good cherries from Chile in the near future.
What you see is what you get. Cherries won’t ripen or improve in flavor after they’re picked. They must be picked ripe, and then they’ll last only a couple of days, so harvesting time is critical. A ripe cherry is heavier in the hand, meatier, sweeter, and juicier than an immature cherry. Picked too soon, cherries are pale and tasteless, too ripe, they’re soft and watery. The best time to pick seems to be right before the birds start eating them – birds have an uncanny instinct for ripe cherries.
Choose firm, large, bright-colored fruit. Royal Annes should be bright colored and unblemished. Bings should be as firm and dark as possible. Pale red Bings are immature and won’t be especially sweet. Also look at the stems; if the cherries have green stems, they’re fresh, if the stem is missing - pass the cherries by – they’ve been off the tree too long. Never buy cherries if they seem to be very soft, flabby, or sticky on the outside. They should look clean and dry. When cherries go bad, they start to lose color, develop a brownish color, and leak. Once a cherry starts leaking, the fermentation process will quickly make the whole box go bad.
Bette's Cherry Cheesecake
Other recipes from Produce Pete.