“What is the difference between tart cherries and sweet cherries?” may seem like a silly question—the answer is right there in the names. But there is more to know (and love) about both varieties of cherry other than that one makes your mouth pucker and one does not.
Cherries can definitely make a good thing even better. There’s a reason we think of a cherry on top of our food (usually ice cream) as the most complete treat. Metaphorically, a cherry topper means a final, small special touch above and beyond something already wonderful. Clearly, this cherry thing deserves to be explored further.
These ruby jewels of nature shine each year during their May-through-August season. A little cheat sheet reminding you about this summer stone fruit might help you at the grocery store when choosing your cherries. There are two main kinds: sweet and sour (tart). Choose well, and make something tasty even tastier. Or just fill up on all the fruit and forget the other stuff.
Sweet cherries are best enjoyed fresh when harvested mid-season, in late June and July. We love them uncooked, eaten straight off the stem, or incorporated into a salad (not just fruit salad, but savory green salads too). Try them chopped up for fruit salsa or in an appetizer involving creamy white cheese such as chèvre or ricotta.
Related Reading: How to Pair Cheese with Summer Fruit
Sweet cherry flesh can turn mealy when baked, but will still be good lightly cooked, like in a pan sauce (see our Pork Chops with Cherry Sauce recipe).
The most popular variety of sweet cherries, Bing cherries, have skin that’s dark red to purple-red, which darkens even more to almost black as it ripens, and the flesh is also dark red or purple. Bings are firm, meaty, sweet, and juicy, according to Greenhouse Garden Center in Carson City, Nevada. (They’re usually the main ingredient in black cherry juice, which is often sold in concentrate form, and is said to help alleviate gout by lowering uric acid levels.)
Rainier cherries have skin that is more yellow with a blushing bright red and yellow flesh inside. This variety might be a smidgen less sweet than Bing, but both come from the same cherry tree, the prunus avium.
Bing is arguably the most famous cherry from this stock, first produced in the late 1800s on Lewelling Farms in Oregan; the Bing name comes from one of the farm’s Chinese workers. The Rainier cherry variety was developed later by Harold W. Fogle at the Washington State University Research Station by crossing Bing with another popular variety, Van.
Bing sweet cherries have shown greater anti-inflammatory activity than tart cherries in research studies, according to Dr. Michael Greger, a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker. “This makes sense since we think it may be the anthocyanin phytonutrients, and there are much more in sweet red cherries than in tart, and nearly none in yellow Rainier cherries,” Greger said.
Related Reading: The Science of Why Brightly Colored Fruit Is So Good for You
Bing and Rainier are the most popular sweet cherry varieties, but other options include: Black Republican, Black Tartarian, Craig’s Crimson, Garden Bing, Lambert, Lapins, Mona, Royal Ann, Sam, Stella, Sunburst, Van, and Utah Giant.
Nicknamed “pie cherries,” fresh sour cherries are best baked, jammed, and juiced.
The most popular variety, Montmorency cherries, are bright red, but you usually find them dried, frozen, or canned—not fresh, unless you live near one of the small family farms in North America where they’re grown, according to the Cherry Marketing Institute. Called the Cherry Capitol of the World, Michigan grows about 75 percent of Montmorency’s tart cherries. Washington, Pennsylvania, New York, Utah, and Washington are other prominent Montmorency cherry producing states.
Like the name implies, Montmorency tart cherries have a sour-sweet flavor.
This is the type of cherry most often studied for its potential health benefits, according to the institute. Research indicates tart Montmorency cherries reduce inflammation (which can help with arthritis), lower cholesterol and triglycerides (and hence help fight heart disease), even speed up muscle recovery after a workout, and aid sleep. That tart taste is an indication a high amount of antioxidants and anthocyanins, which contribute to the first few benefits. The cherry’s melatonin helps regulate sleep. Other studies indicate that cherries could even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
The Montmorency name comes from a valley north of Paris, France, where tart cherries were first cultivated in the 18th century—bet their early fans didn’t expect they had so many health benefits. The Early Richmond and North Star are two other sour cherry varieties.
These cherries—artificially bright pinkish-red, preserved in a jar—are a class unto themselves. They have a bad rep, and with good cause. They’re stripped of their natural delights to be replaced with high fructose corn syrup and artifical dyes. Why, oh why?!
Made from sweet cherries today, the Maraschino originally was a small black cherry named Marasca originally from what is now Croatia and northern Italy.
For centuries, the fruit was brined and then macerated in maraschino liqueur (the liquor distilled from the pulp, skin, and pits). The cherries were popular in the United States as a drink garnish until Prohibition made the alcohol-soaked fruit illegal. Then a nonalcoholic alternative was developed in 1925 by Ernest H. Wiegand, a professor of horticulture at Oregon State University.
Maraschinos are any cherry too small or bruised to sell, soaked in salt solution to remove natural color and flavor, pitted, soaked in sweetener for 30 days, and dipped in artificial food coloring. They’re often used on desserts, cocktails, and that kids’ non-alcoholic cocktail, the Shirley Temple. But you can make your own. And use other cherries, fresh this summer season or frozen, for all sorts of sweet and savory dishes.
Use ’em while you’ve got ’em.
Wait, what?! Yes, this recipe contains not one, but two unusual approaches to a backyard barbecue classic. Watch the video on how to spiral-cut your hot dogs, which are a surprisingly good match for chopped cherries sautéed with oil, balsamic vinegar, and chile pepper. Get our Spiral-Cut Hot Dogs with Spicy Cherry Relish recipe.
Nutty, creamy, and tart, these sweet cookies will get you dunking in your milk in no time. You’ll be using dried cherries in this crispy cookie—pick tart or sweet as you prefer, and remember to save time for freezing the dough. Get our Pistachio-White Chocolate-Cherry Crisps recipe.
Great for all your grilled meats and beans, and whatever you love doused with hot sauce (everything!), these spicy and sweet flavors have been a popular pairing for a long time for good reason. Use sweet cherries and habanero peppers. Get our Smoked Cherry Hot Sauce recipe.
We had to provide at least one classic cherry recipe, and while we love a good old-fashioned Lattice Cherry Pie, this is equally temping. What’s especially nice about it is you get a pie-like experience without having to mess with making a perfect crust. Get our Fresh Cherry Cobbler recipe.
For another easy (but fancy) take on cherries, a French clafoutis is a classic choice. Traditionally, the cherry pits are left intact, but we recommend removing them before adding them, just to be safe. (Pro-tip: a paperclip makes pitting cherries pretty painless.) Get our Cherry Clafoutis recipe.
Related Reading: 10 Genius Summer Produce Hacks
This is quite a step up from the scary neon ones. Use Bing cherries for this one, plus Maraschino liqueur such as Luxardo and a vanilla bean, then use them to garnish all the drinks and desserts you desire. Get our Homemade Maraschino Cherries recipe. (And try our Citrus Brandied Cocktail Cherries recipe too.)
A crisp-crusted pressed panini with smoked duck, fresh Bing cherries, and melty blue cheese is pretty much perfect. (If you want to up the ante, though, add some of our Drieded Cherry Mustard.) Get our Smoked Duck and Cherry Pressed Sandwich recipe.
This luscious bittersweet chocolate ganache tart calls for frozen cherries to make the vodka-spiked sauce, but by all means, use fresh cherries in season. Get our Dark Chocolate Ganache Tart with Cherry Sauce recipe.