Fresh cherries are a real treat in the summer time. They can be eaten as a snack or be turned into an amazing dessert, but to make each work you must know which variety of cherry to use. Mistakingly purchasing a tart cherry to eat fresh or a super sweet cherry to make into a pie or jam could result in disaster.
There are two main categories of cherries; sweet and tart. Within each category there are many varieties that you may find in your supermarket or local farmer's market. This guide will help you determine which is which and how they are best used.
Tart cherries, also known as "sour" cherries, have a naturally low sugar content and can be quite juicy, but are not very enjoyable when eaten fresh due to their high acidity. Tart cherries are most often used to desserts, jams, jellies, and sauces where they will be paired with large amounts of sugar or rich, creamy ingredients. Their tart, acid flavor adds brightness to balance the richness or sweetness.
Two common varieties of tart cherries are Montmorency and Morello. Both have a bright flavor and firm flesh, which is perfect for cooking. Several other cultivars of tart cherries are used strictly as ornamental trees. Tart cherries can also be purchased canned or in a jar at the grocery store, although these do not provide the bright, vibrant, and fresh flavor that you'll find with fresh tart cherries. Tart cherries are also the variety used to make dried cherries. These small, dried cherry "raisins" are usually coated with a small amount of sugar to balance their natural tartness.
Sweet cherries have a high natural sugar content and low acids, making them perfect for eating fresh. Varieties of sweet cherries range in color from light yellow to a dark mahogany color, which is often referred to as black. Sweet cherries have a soft flesh that doesn't hold up well to cooking.
Bing cherries are probably the most well known variety of sweet cherry. With their deep mahogany skin and their large, plump shape, Bing cherries are a natural choice for fresh snacking. Other common varieties of dark sweet cherries include: Tulare, Lambert, Chelan, and Lapin.
Lighter colored sweet cherries are also popular, not only for their mild sweetness, but also for their delicate appearance. These cherries can range in color from light yellow with a slight blush, to a delicate pink. Common varieties of light colored sweet cherries include Royal Ann, Rainier, and Napoleon. These cherries make a beautiful addition to salads and other fresh arrangements, but tend to show bruises easily.