How to Buy, Store, and Use Sour Cherries in Pie and More

Tart cherries aren’t for snacking, but they’re the only cherries that belong in your pie. Here’s a guide to the main types — plus a pie filling recipe.

<p>Food & Wine / Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Margret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christina Daley / Getty Images</p>

Food & Wine / Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Margret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christina Daley / Getty Images

Many bakers across the U.S. proudly claim cherries as their favorite fruit to bake with, myself included. But not just any cherries. “When I discovered that tart cherries taste like the quintessential cherry candy, I was hooked,” says Sarah Chang, a tart-cherry admirer and Great American Baking Show finalist. We made dueling tart cherry hand pies on the show and became fast friends.

Farmers across the globe grow hundreds of different cultivars of cherries, both sweet and tart. Sweet cherries are crisp, naturally sweet, and enjoyable fresh. But when cooked down, bright and soft tart cherries are the superior — some might say only — option for cherry pie or any baked dessert. Here’s everything to know about the ultimate summer baking fruit.

Related: How to Pit and Store Fresh Cherries

The main types of sour cherries

Also called sour cherries, tart cherries are thin-skinned, small, and very tart compared to sweet varieties like Bing and Rainier. They aren’t for snacking: Although they often have higher sugar levels (measured in brix) than sweet varieties, their high acidity makes them taste much tarter, and they usually need to be balanced with sugar.

Tart cherries can generally be divided into those with dark red-colored flesh, called morello, and those with light-colored flesh, referred to as amarelle. Like most of the U.S., I get my cherries from Michigan, where the main variety is Montmorency, an amarelle variety.

Lake Michigan regulates the temperature, creating a unique microclimate suited for growing tart cherries, explains Courtney King, owner of King Orchards. Fresh sour cherries are usually in season in Michigan for just a few weeks starting around mid-July. As with many agricultural industries, however, climate change has impacted the harvest; King Orchards has experienced more crop failures in the last 20 years than in the previous 60 due to early tree blossoming and late frosts that can devastate the crop, says King.

"Tart cherries can generally be divided into those with dark red-colored flesh, called morello, and those with light-colored flesh, referred to as amarelle."


Michigan farmers grow more than two-thirds of all Montmorency tart cherries, mostly in and around the pinky finger of the state. Traverse City, the hub of the cherry-growing region, calls itself the Cherry Capital of the World. Cherry orchards line the lakeshore around Traverse City and sit on drumlins, rolling hills left by glaciers.

These amarelle cherries have a bright jewel-like red color, cream-colored flesh, and soft texture. A raw Montmorency cherry tastes sour and a bit astringent, with a soaring fruitiness and sometimes a bit of almond-extract-like aroma. Add some sugar to these rubies, cook them, and you get the unmistakable flavor of cherry-red candies.


Michigan farmers also grow Balaton tart cherries, a dark-fleshed morello variety. Balatons are larger than Montmorency, with a dark garnet-red color, juicy red flesh, and slightly firmer texture. They have a juicy, sweet-tart astringency but with subtle warm spice notes and less of the high-toned cherry-candy flavor of Montmorency.

How to buy sour cherries

The softness of tart cherries makes them highly perishable. Fresh tart cherries appear briefly during their short season and rarely travel far from the farm — they’re so tender and succulent that they cannot be shipped. However, they freeze beautifully. Most bakers, myself included, rely on individually-quick-frozen (or IQF) tart cherries, which work just as well as fresh ones in any baking application.

You can also find canned sour cherries, typically sweetened, especially in grocery stores that cater to Central and Eastern European customers. European canned cherry brands are almost always a Balaton-type morello variety. Sweetened, dried Montmorency tart cherries are ubiquitous in grocery stores and bags of trail mix.

Tart cherry concentrate has also become a popular ingredient in recent years and sits on some grocers’ refrigerated section shelves. This pure essence of Montmorency cherries makes incredible cherry spritzers, cocktails, or the viral “sleepy girl mocktail.”

How to store and freeze sour cherries

If you happen to buy fresh tart cherries, keep them in the refrigerator and pit them within one or two days of purchase. I try to pit them the day I buy them, if possible. They do not last long after being pitted. Montmorency cherries’ light-colored flesh oxidizes and turns brown, so I recommend either cooking them immediately or freezing them.

Frozen tart cherries work just as well as fresh ones for baking. To freeze fresh tart cherries, wash them and remove their stems. Pit them, gently dry them, then lay them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Once frozen, pop them off the baking sheet, dump them into an airtight container, and keep in the freezer until using.

How to use sour cherries in baking

Because they’re so juicy and contain little-to-no pectin, I always pre-cook tart cherries with sugar and cornstarch before using them in a pie, pastry, or any other filling. You can also cook down the cherries to drive off water and concentrate their flavors before adding sugar and cornstarch.

Bakers can also use tart cherry concentrate to achieve a naturally pink, incredibly tasty cherry icing for cookies and cakes, or to make vibrant cherry whipped cream or cherry cheesecake. Add a couple of teaspoons of cherry concentrate to a cup of powdered sugar and a bit of water to get the proper consistency, and you have a flavor-packed icing for cherry hand pies or a cherry-almond snacking cake.

Related: 27 Sweet and Sour Cherry Recipes

When baking with sour cherries, let their unique flavor shine. “To enhance that cherry flavor, I’ll add a touch of almond extract,” says Chang. “And if I’m feeling spicy, I’ll add a hint of cinnamon or star anise. Nothing too overpowering.”

I always add a splash of kirsch, an eau de vie made from tart cherries. Tart cherries pair well with various flavors, from almonds and pistachios to chocolate. Still, Chang and I suggest letting the tart cherries be the hero of your dessert.

How to make cherry pie filling

To make enough cherry pie filling to fill one nine-inch pie: In a bowl, whisk together one cup (200 grams) of sugar, 1/4 cup (30 grams) cornstarch, and 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. To a medium saucepan, add one pound 12 ounces (800 grams) pitted Montmorency cherries (fresh or frozen), one tablespoon lemon juice, and one tablespoon kirsch. Stir the sugar mixture into the cherries and place the pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly with a heat-proof spatula, until you start to see bubbling all the way in the center. Then, cook for two full minutes to thicken. Turn off the heat and transfer the cooked mixture to a bowl. Let it come to room temperature, then cover and chill completely in the refrigerator before using it in your favorite pie, galette, or hand pie recipe.

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