When you can reach a cluster of sour cherries like this in the tree, you can wrap your fingers around the whole bunch and pull them all off the branch at once. Even in the second (and final) day of pick-your-own cherries, there were thousands of such bunches you could reach from the higher rungs of a stepladder.
It’s sour cherry season! Perhaps you’ve heard of sour cherries, but you’ve never seen them? In early summer, dark purple sweet cherries show up in grocery stores everywhere and they’re available for months. Sour cherries, however, ripen about the end of spring and are done two or three weeks later. You never see them in grocery stores.
Sour cherries are bright red and very tart. They’re also very juicy and I suspect most of them end up at manufacturing facilities that bake them into pies, tarts, frozen dinners, and just about any other processed food that lists “cherries” as an ingredient. You may find sour cherries at rural farm stands and farmers’ markets, but arrive early and grab what you’ll use because there are rarely enough sour cherries to supply enthusiasts.
Sour Cherries at Your Small Kitchen Garden
I planted a sour cherry tree a few years ago, but it probably won’t produce for another year or two. So, when sour cherry season arrives, I either buy cherries at the farmers’ market, or my family travels to a u-pick orchard to get out annual fix. We picked on Saturday.
A quart of already-picked sour cherries may cost $4 or more. The you-pick price at Dries Orchard in Paxinos, Pennsylvania this year was $1.20 per pound (about a quart). For an extra 25 cents a pound, Dries put our cherries through a mechanical device that removed nearly all the seeds. And, a Dries employee checked the mechanical pitter’s work, picking out most of the seeds the machine missed.
We picked too many cherries. I’ve canned sour cherry jam and fruit punch jam that includes sour cherries. I’ve also made two sour cherry pies. This morning my wife canned two batches of sour cherry jelly. Thankfully, there are only about 17 quarts of sour cherries left in the fridge.
I tweeted a lot about sour cherry jam while I was making it. I also clicked a bunch of snapshots of the proceedings. If you’re so inclined, follow the instructions in the photo captions and you should be able to make your own sour cherry jam; it’s really easy to do.
Before you start, you’ll need a box of powdered fruit pectin or some bulk pectin such as Dutch Jell. You’ll also need the cherries, of course, a whole bunch of sugar, canning jars, canning lids, and canning bands. The photos reveal what kitchen gear you’ll need to complete a batch.
In my book, Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too from Cool Springs Press, I explain jam- and jelly-making in greater detail. I also explain a lot of other ways to preserve fruit and vegetables. I hope you’ll make some cherry jam and pick up a copy of my book to keep you busy through the rest of the produce season.
You’ll preserve your cherry jam by sealing it hermetically in jars. For this, use jars manufactured specifically for canning; don’t reuse jars that came filled with pickles or jelly from a grocery store. Also, you need canning lids and bands to fit the jars. I encourage you to wash the jars and put them in a deep pot of water to boil before you start cooking your jam. The water should be deep enough that you could stand a canning jar in it and the top of the jar will be at least an inch under water. Also, put the bands and lids in a pot of water and keep the temperature there just below boiling.
Chop the sour cherries, catching the juice along with the chopped pieces. Notice that while chopping, I found a pit. The mechanical pit-remover and the back-up human inspector had missed about one pit per quart of cherries. I use a honking big chef’s knife to chop cherries for jam.
We’re making traditional cooked jam… there are other methods for making low-sugar jams, no-cook jams, and freezer jams. We’re making traditional cooked jam. (Is there an echo in here?) For nearly every brand of powdered fruit pectin, you use four cups of chopped sour cherries per batch of jam. Doubling a batch can result in runny jam or jam that sets up like a rock, so it’s best to make one batch at a time. Measure four level cups of fruit and juice into a medium-sized cookpot (see next photo).
Measure five cups of sugar into a bowl (left) and set it near your stove so you can reach it while stirring a pot. If you’re using bulk pectin (Dutch Gel, for example), measure a heaping 1/3 cup (center), and add it to the fruit (right). If you have pectin in a box, empty the box of pectin onto the chopped cherries. Notice that in my 1.5 gallon sauce pot, the chopped cherries and fruit fill barely a quarter of the pot.
Put the heat on high and stir! Keep stirring! Are you still stirring? Don’t stop. Stir until the mixture boils. Yes: that may take 8 to ten minutes. Pause in your stirring, if you must, to add all the sugar at once to the hot cherries. Stir. Keep stirring. Feel for large lumps of sugar and smear them against the side of the pot to help break them apart so they’ll dissolve. Are you still stirring? At the moment the mixture boils, time one minute and immediately remove the pot from the heat. BEWARE! While cooking jam boils, it can rapidly foam up and overflow even a very deep pot. Stirring helps prevent this, but you may have to lift the pot off the burner and/or turn the heat down a bit to keep the jam from boiling over. When the jam stops boiling, use a spoon to coral foam to one side of the pot and then scrape the foam off. I always put it in a bowl to eat later.
One-by-one, fill jars with jam. Fish a hot jar out of the boiling water, empty the jar, and set it on a plate. I use a canning funnel to help control the jam which you should add until it’s about ¼ of an inch from the top of the jar. Make sure the rim and threads of the jar are clean (wipe them with a damp cloth if they’re not), then set a lid on the jar and add a band.
Tighten the band. I hold the jar in a potholder or a kitchen towel and I twist the band on firmly (it’s hot, but not too hot). It should be at least “finger tight” but don’t work so hard that you tear a muscle. Return the jar to the boiling water and set it up upright in the pot. Keep filling jars until you’ve used up all the jam. When the last jar goes into the boiling water, wait ten minutes, then remove the jars (upright) and place them on a cooling rack or a towel on the counter.
Contrary to what most canning guides tell you, I say do this: After the jars seal (you should hear a “ping” and be able to see that the center of the lid bows down into the jar), invert them and let them cool in this position about 45 minutes until they are very warm, then once again set them upright. If you don’t partially cool them upside down, the cherry bits will float to the top and half the jar will contain jam while the other half contains jelly. You can store sealed jars at room temperature for a year or longer, but I think you should open them and eat the jam instead.