Tart Cherries: Sweet

My area is known for its sweet Flathead (Lambert) cherries, but I grew up with a pie cherry tree that I would climb into to pick its tart, bright red fruit—and often eat right within the branches. So let that warn you as to how tart I like my cherries.

If you’ve read the Canning Tools page, you may have noticed a slow cooker on the optional list. Fruit butters are entirely the reason. Fruit butters use both pulp and juice (unlike jelly) but let a long cooking time evaporate excess moisture and build dense texture and flavor (unlike jam). I use a slow cooker to make all fruit butters, which lengthens the cooking time but makes the process nearly hands off and burnproof. Add some spices to the reduction, and the cherries pop. If you have more cherries than your slow cooker can hold, set them aside for scones.
Tart cherries

Tart Cherry Butter with Chai Spices

  • Servings: 6 half-pint jars
  • Difficulty: 2
  • Print
5-1/2 pounds tart cherries (about 3 quarts pitted)
1/2 cup honey, divided
1/2 cup maple syrup, divided
1/2 tablespoon loose black tea (or 2 teabags)
12 green cardamom pods, cracked
2 cinnamon sticks
12 whole cloves
2 inches fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon peppercorns
2 whole star anise
zest from 1 lemon

Wash, stem, and pit the cherries, and then place them and any juice in a 3-quart or larger slow cooker. This should fill a 3-quart slow cooker to within an inch of the rim; set aside any extra cherries for Sour Cream Scones with Tart Cherries (see below). Cover the slow cooker with a lid, and cook on the highest setting for about 2 hours, until the cherries are soft.

Blend the cooked cherries briefly with an immersion blender, add 1/4 cup each honey and maple syrup, and then blend again to combine. Combine all spices and the tea in an infusion bag, and bury it in the cherries. Turn the slow cooker down to low or medium heat. Cover it loosely by laying a couple of chopsticks across the top rim and putting the lid on these supports, leaving good gap for steam to escape. Leave it to cook for 6–12 hours, until it reduces in volume by half.

Remove the spice bag. Add the lemon zest and remaining sweetener, adjusting it to taste. Let the butter cook a couple of hours more to mix the flavors. Blend the cherry butter again with an immersion blender, adding a little water if it too thick or cooking longer if it is too thin.

Ladle into hot half-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes, plus your altitude adjustment. Makes about 6 half-pint jars.

Tips & Tricks
  • The cherry butter will spatter as it boils slowly, so I cover nearby surfaces with towels. You don’t want counter splatter by sealing the slow cooker tightly, because the steam needs to escape so that the butter can reduce in volume and thicken.
  • How long you cook depends on the size and power of your slow cooker and how thick you want your spread. My slow cooker is a two-setting, pea-green model from the ‘70s handed down by my mom; it’s indestructible, but a newer machine may speed up your process.
  • While the cherries are cooking down to butter, you can stir them occasionally, although it’s not necessary. Stir regularly once you kick up the temperature again to get the cherry butter ready for processing.
  • Taste your batch for its desired sweetness before you process it; pie cherries vary widely in tartness, and this recipe has quite a bite to suit my personal preference. If you fear you’ll have to boost the sweetener to high to suit your taste, substitute sweeter cherries.

Twice as Tasty

Pitting cherries, especially juicy pie cherries, can be the most difficult part of processing them. I use a Norpro Deluxe Cherry Stoner and highly recommend buying one (or a similar pitter) if you plan on cooking more than a pie’s worth of fresh cherries in a year. Such specialized tools rarely find a home in my tiny kitchen, so I keep my pitter boxed up with my canning supplies and pull it out only as needed. I keep a small, single-cherry pitter in my baking drawer—it also does a decent job with olives.

Once you have a large pitter set up, it’s a breeze to prep a few extra cups of cherries for other uses. I like to freeze them on trays for baked goods and pies. You can also dehydrate them to add to granola and trail mix. If you have a ton of cherries, you can keep the water bath going and turn them into salsa. But be sure to set a cup aside to use fresh, such as in these scones.

Sour Cream Scones with Tart Cherries

  • Servings: 8 scones
  • Difficulty: 1
  • Print
1 cup pitted fresh or frozen tart cherries
cinnamon and granulated sugar to taste
2 cups unbleached flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup cold butter, cut into chunks
1 egg
1 cup sour cream
raw sugar (optional)

Coarsely chop the cherries, fresh or still frozen, and toss with the cinnamon and granulated sugar to coat. Mix the flour, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, and butter with a fork until small clumps appear, like pie-crust dough. Add the sour cream and egg; stir with a fork until just mixed. Add the cherries, folding in until just mixed. Divide into wedges or rounds, and place on a greased baking sheet. Sprinkle with raw sugar or additional cinnamon and granulated sugar, if desired. Bake at 400°F for about 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Makes about 8 scones.

Tips & Tricks
  • I find frozen cherries hold their shape better if you don’t defrost them before baking. They might be a bit juicier, though, so if you want a slightly drier scone you can defrost and drain the cherries first (reserve the liquid for a smoothie) or substitute dehydrated ones.
  • This recipe is great with all sorts of other fruit as well. Try it with a cup of chopped apples, peaches, or raisins, or mix it up and add several fruits to the dough.
  • If you’ve made Tart Cherry Butter with Chai Spices or another preserve, you can use it for the fruit flavor instead. After you’ve mixed the dough together, simply knead it enough to form two balls. Flatten both balls onto a floured surface, spread one with the preserve, and then top it with the second flattened ball, sandwich style. Cut into wedges for baking.
  • You may not like your cherries as tart as I do, so toss them with as much sugar as you need to suit your taste or substitute sweet cherries for tart ones. You could also sweeten the scones with a glaze: Mix 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, 1/2 teaspoon almond extract, and enough milk to achieve the desired consistency, and then drizzle this over the scones before baking.

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