Cherries can 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. 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

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 or in an appetizer involving creamy white cheese such as chèvre or ricotta. The flesh can turn mealy when baked.

The most popular variety, 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.

Ranier cherry skin 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 Rainer cherries,” Greger said.

Bing and Ranier are the most popular 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.

Tart Cherries

Nicknamed “pie cherries,” these cherries are best baked, jammed, and juiced.

The most popular variety, Montmorency tart 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 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 Montmorency tart cherries reduce inflammation, speed up exercise recovery, and aid sleep. That tart taste is an indication a high amount of anthocyanins, which contributes to the first two benefits. The cherry’s melatonin helps regulate sleep.

The Montmorency name comes from a valley north of Paris, France, where tart cherries were first cultivated in the 18th century. The Early Richmond and North Star are two other sour cherry varieties.

Maraschino Cherries

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.

1. Spiral-Cut Hot Dogs with Spicy Cherry Relish


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.

2. Pistachio-White Chocolate-Cherry Crisps


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, and remember to save time for freezing the dough. Get our Pistachio-White Chocolate-Cherry Crisps recipe.

3. Smoked Cherry Hot Sauce


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.

4. Fresh Cherry Cobbler


We had to provide at least one classic cherry recipe. This one is nice because you get a pie-like experience, without having to mess with making a perfect crust. Get our Fresh Cherry Cobbler recipe.

5. Maraschino Cherries


This is quite a step up from the scary ones. Use Bing cherries for this one, plus Maraschino liqueur such as Luxardo and a vanilla bean. Get our Maraschino Cherries recipe.

— Head photo: The Spruce.


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