Cherry preserves are so easy to make at home it’s a wonder more folks don’t do it. Not only are you saving money, you know exactly what’s going into the product.
The Italian take on fruit preserves begins like so many other fruit preparations, by coating the fruit with sugar and lemon. But instead of the brief rest to slightly soften the fruit as you would for an Italian Fruit Salad or Peaches in Red Wine, you let the cherries macerate for several hours or overnight to draw out their juices. Then all you do is simmer the cherries in their own juice until they’re really soft and the natural thickening agent in the cherries (called pectin) has done its thing. At that point, you can blend all or part of the cherries—or leave them as is—depending on how smooth or chunky you like your preserves. (If you’ve blended the cherries into a smooth paste, you can call it ‘jam’.) The only tedious part of this process is the pitting of the cherries, but this is fairly quick if you use a cherry pitter.
Besides its classic use with bread and butter for breakfast or a sweet snack, if you thin out your preserves with a bit of maraschino, kirsch, rum or other liqueur over a gentle heat, it makes a great topping for ice cream.
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) cherries, pitted and split in half
- 200g (7 oz) sugar
- Juice of one lemon
- 1 or 2 strips of lemon zest
The easiest way to pit cherries is to use a special instrument invented for the purpose. One arm has a little perforated ‘cup’ for cradling the cherry, the other a tiny ‘lance’ for skewering the cherry and forcing the pit out.
Remove the stem (if any) and place the cherry in the little cup, the stem end facing the lance, and squeeze both arms together. Ideally, the pit should simply pop out though the hole in the cup. Sometimes this doesn’t actually happen, but no worries, the cherry will have opened up enough so that you can easily remove the pit by hand. Proceed to cut or simply tear the cherry in two.
Place all your cherries in a large mixing bowl as you go. When you’re done pitting and splitting the cherries, add the sugar, lemon juice and zest. Mix well and let the cherries rest for several hours or, even better, overnight. By then the cherries should have given off quite a bit of their own liquid.
Place the cherries and their liquid in a saucepan. Simmer, covered, for about 20-30 minutes, or until the cherries are quite soft and the liquid has thickened enough so a wooden spoon will leave an open trail behind it when you scrape it along the bottom of the saucepan. Fish out the lemon zest and let the cherries cool for a few minutes.
Now you have different options depending on the texture you like best. To make a proper smooth textured jam, pass the cherries though a food mill. Or, if you’re like me and a preserve with some toothsome chunkiness, use a hand blender and blend until you have a rough but fairly consistent paste. If you like it really chunky, just leave the cherries as they are.
Let the cherry preserves cool completely and transfer them to a jar or other container for safe keeping.
Many recipes you’ll find call for using commercial pectin in jellies, jams and preserves. Pectin is a naturally occurring thickening agent in many fruits. Apples are said to have lots of pectin, which is why commercial pectin if often made with apples. Cherries, I’ve read, have fairly low levels of pectin, but, in my experience, they will thicken up just fine without any artificial assistance. No, your preserves won’t be stiff as a board, but to my mind, that’s a good thing.
The sugar is a necessary ingredient, together with the lemon juice, it brings out the cherry juices and softens the fruit during the initial maceration. It also activates the pectin while the fruit simmers. And, of course, it enhances the flavor of the fruit. Exactly how much sugar you want, however, is largely a matter of taste. The amount given here is rather less than most recipes call for, but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. Feel free up the amount if you do. (And you might get away with less sugar, too.)
As mentioned, once made, your cherry preserves will last for quite a while. If you sterilize your container by boiling them for 10-15 minutes after sealing, they can last upwards of a year. But even just tucked away in the fridge, a batch will last for several weeks at least. Just how long I can’t say from experience, since it never lasts that long in our house.
Cherries are not the only fruit that can be made into preserves, of course. Just about any fruit or berry can be treated just the same way with excellent results, except that fruits (as opposed to berries) are usually peeled. Oranges are also peeled, although a bit of the skin, trimmed of its bitter pith, can be added back in for extra taste and texture. Citrus fruits will obviously need rather more sugar to balance out its tartness.
Many recipes for cherry preserves will tell you to let the preserves ‘set up’ for up to month before consumption. Never understood why. And frankly I don’t have the patience and self-discipline to find out.