Sweet Cherries, Sour Cherries

Reader Mac asks how sweet cherries compare to sour cherries when they’re in pie form. Fair question, Mac! As far as I’m concerned, sour cherries are the only cherries when it comes to making a filling for a pie, tart, Danish or blintz.

What is it about sour cherries that make them superior for baking? If I had to boil it down to any one thing I’d say it’s the acidity, which gives a filling or a preserve more complexity. Also the flesh of the most common sour cherry cultivar, the amarelle, is very tender, much more so than that of a Bing or especially a Rainier cherry. Because of that, sour cherries break down quite a bit more when they’re cooked or baked, and that makes for a more tender and delectable eating experience. Sadly it’s that tender flesh — which is almost plum-like — that makes them very hard to ship. 

Sour cherries have been around for thousands of years, growing right alongside various sweet varieties. All of them originated in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Romans loved sour cherries, so much so that they spread them all around their empire, including Britain, where they took off to say the least. Sour cherries were especially in vogue in England the 1600’s, which by no coincidence is about the time they landed in America. Today Michigan is responsible for the bulk of the American sour cherry crop (about 90%), though they’re also grown in Utah and Washington State.

2 thoughts on “Sweet Cherries, Sour Cherries”

  1. I’m originally from Michigan and I adore sour cherries. I’ll eat them baked in a dessert, I’ll eat them plain as a snack, I’ll eat them however I can get them (and my favorite way to get them is at a roadside stand next to an orchard in northern Michigan during cherry season).

    Eventually I moved to the south, where sour cherries mostly came in cans. Then I moved to Belgium and was delighted by how similar the climate was to Michigan. That also turned out to mean that the produce was also similar, save for the sour cherries (and sweet corn, but that’s another story). Sweet cherries were easy to get and in high demand, but on the rare occasions I could find sour cherries they were dirt cheap — I want to say something like 1 euro/kg, or around 35 US cents/lb at the time — and the vendors always warned me that the only thing they were good for was making jam. One even refused to sell to me when I said I planned to make pie because she was afraid I’d be angry and not want to buy anything else from her, until I convinced her that I had done it before and was satisfied with the result.

    1. Civilization really is on the verge of collapse when people can no longer remember what to do with sour cherries, Alan. It’s a sad tale you tell. Perhaps one day there will be a sour cherry Renaissance. Until then it’s up to people like you and I to keep the flame of knowledge alight!


      – Joe

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