Homemade Maraschino Cherries

Let’s just get one thing straight from the get-go:  This recipe is not intended to replicate the brine-bleached, red-dye-stuffed, super-sugary ghosts of cherries you buy in the grocery store labeled “Maraschino Cherries.” This is a recipe for a homemade version that tastes much better, takes a lot less time, and involves no food coloring. It does, however, involve alcohol (though there are non-alcoholic versions; I’ve noted one toward the end).

If you didn’t know:  Commercially available maraschino cherries are basically sweet cherries (as opposed to tart cherries)—such as Rainers or Royal Anns—that are soaked in brine to remove their natural flavor and color, then steeped in sugar, flavorings, and (usually) red food dye. If you’re curious, you can actually watch a quick tour of the process here, as narrated by the president of one of the two major maraschino cherry producers, Gray & Company. Maraschino cherries as we know them today evolved from a similar type of preserved cherry in Croatia (more on this in a minute); this short New York Times article provides a quick history of the maraschino cherry in the US, as does this Chowhound article.

Orchard in Door County in late July.

Orchard in Door County in late July.

As I had an opportunity to go cherry-picking this summer in Door County, WI, which is famous for its cherries, I wanted to try making my own version of maraschinos. A quick search showed me that the process was even easier than I’d anticipated. Of course, since I looked up the directions after cherry-picking rather than before, I ended up doing the process with tart cherries instead of sweet. I think this turned out for the better, though, because tart cherries have better color—I achieved something very close to the quintessential red without adding any extra coloring—and you add sugar anyway, which you can adjust to taste.

As for special ingredients or equipment, apart from fresh cherries, which are definitely seasonal and even then can be hard to come by, the other slightly tricky ingredient is maraschino liqueur. Unlike our modern American, über-red cherries by the same name, maraschino liqueur is still made from marasca cherries in Croatia (…or Croatian companies that relocated to Italy in WWII… close enough, right?). I bought a bottle of Luxardo because that’s what I found within walking distance, but after reading this Kitchn article, I would be curious to try to the Maraska. I did balk a little at spending $20-$30 on a specialty alcohol for a specific project, but, I reasoned, a) alcohol doesn’t really go bad, so I can just use this for many summers to come to keep making maraschino cherries, and b) it turned out to be delicious and who doesn’t like a little something unusual and delicious in their liqueur collection? Besides, you can add it to other cherry-flavored things, like cherry pie filling (much like I add a splash of apple brandy to my apple pie fillings. Wait, am I giving away too many secrets here?).

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Homemade Maraschino Cherries
Ingredients:
1 lb cherries (sweet or tart, as outlined above), pitted
½ C sugar
½ C water
2 tsp lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla
1 C maraschino liqueur

Directions
1. Wash and pit the cherries. If you don’t have a pitter, you can use a chopstick. To the best of your ability, try to get the pits out without breaking too much of the skin, so the cherries still look pretty.

2. In a saucepan, combine all ingredients except the cherries and the liqueur, stir, and bring to a rolling boil.

3. When the liquid has reached a boil, reduce heat to medium.

4. Add the cherries and simmer (reduce heat further if necessary) for 5-7 minutes. This is just to infuse the sugar and spices into the cherries a bit, and to make a nice syrup for them to soak in later. Don’t cook the cherries to mush, but otherwise, the timeframe isn’t too strict here.

5. Remove from heat, add the liqueur, and let cool.

6. Transfer the cherries and syrup to clean jars (you will likely need two pint jars) and refrigerate, uncovered, until cherries are cool to the touch.

7. When cherries have cooled, cover the jars tightly. Refrigerate up to two weeks (or until your cherries start tasting funny; mine have lasted, refrigerated, a few months already with no apparent ill effects).

Ta-da! Homemade maraschino cherries! And look at that gorgeous color!

Ta-da! Homemade maraschino cherries! And look at that gorgeous color!

Other Notes:
Looking back, I can’t remember if I added almond extract in addition to the vanilla, or not. It probably wouldn’t hurt! If you go that route, I would add ½ teaspoon or less, though, as that stuff is pretty strong.

I haven’t tried it yet, but next summer I hope to can some of these. I’ll try to add canning instructions here when I do.

I mentioned there is also a non-alcoholic version. I haven’t tried it yet myself, so I can’t vouch for it, but here it is; it was posted in the comments on the blog of the original recipe above:

No-Booze Maraschino Cherries
from Raising the Bar by Nick Mautone

1 lb sweet cherries, pitted
1½ C water
½ C red grape juice (use 100% juice)
1 C sugar
3½ oz fresh lemon juice (from approximately 3 lemons)
Pinch of salt
1 whole piece star anise
1 tsp almond extract

The process and directions are the same as above. They say to add the almond extract at the time when you would add the liqueur (after cooking the syrup), but I can’t see that it would make a huge difference if you put it in earlier.

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