Canning Cherries – The Real Work’s In The Prep

Before deciding if you want to can cherries or not, it is important to realize that canning them is the easy part. Most of the work involved in canning cherries, or any fruit for that matter, is in the preparation. Cherries especially are a labor intensive fruit and one where time is of the essence.

Obviously the first step in any canning prep is to get your fruit. Not everyone is going to be able to head out to their backyard or a local farm to pick their fruit of choice, but if you are one of the lucky ones, this is where the work begins.

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When picking cherries the most important rule to remember is LEAVE THE STEMS ON. Yes, it would go much faster and be a whole lot easier to just pull the cherries from the branches leaving the stems on the tree, and drop them in your bucket/flat, but this is a definite no-no. Cherries, especially tart ones, have a short shelf life and unless you are planning on heading home immediately after picking and canning them within a few hours, the fruit will begin to brown, soften, and even if refrigerated spoil. Believe me on this, I’ve been there.

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The first time I picked cherries I had no idea there was a certain way of doing it. I yanked the cherries off the tree, paying no mind to the stems and by the time I got home, they were already beginning to wilt and when I went to can them the next day, jam was my only option. Sweet cherries fare a bit better but unless you plan on using them in jam or jelly where it doesn’t matter how firm the fruit is, you had better plan on using the fruit immediately.

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Grace and I picked nearly 20 pounds of tart cherries in a three hour period. Upon arriving home, I was too exhausted from our outing to jump into a canning project, so the cherries sat on the counter over night. In the morning the cherries were just as fresh as when we’d picked them, except for a few that had lost their stems. The stemless cherries had already begun to blacken at the top and were much softer.

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When you are ready to begin working with your cherries, work in small batches, only what you plan on using for your recipe, and remove the stems.

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Next, rinse the cherries. This is important to do at this stage because the integrity of the fruit has not yet been compromised and washing the fruit wont wash away any of the wonderful juice.

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Once the cherries are rinsed and drained, it’s time for the pitting. I am very fortunate to have a pretty good cherry pitter that attaches to my counter and has a hopper to place a large handful of cherries in and quickly pits large quantities of cherries quickly.

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Before I found this wonderful gadget I used a hand pitter like the one shown below. I still use this when pitting small quantities for salads or lunches, but for the most part it sits dormant along with the antique pitter I happened upon at an estate sale a few years ago.

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Now that your cherries are pitted, you can begin your canning or cooking project. To prepare enough cherries for one batch of cherry pie filling, it took me nearly two hours. The canning part took about another hour, including processing time in the water bath canner.

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Unless canning pie filling, you can use the fruit immediately after pitting. If using for pie filling however, you will need to blanch the fruit for 1 minute in boiling water prior to canning. This helps preserve the color and the water used provides any additional liquid needed to add to the cherry juice you’ve managed to collect for the foundation of the canning gel.

My father happened to come by before I began working on our cherries and mentioned that he would like to make a pie himself. Taking the hint, I pulled out a bowl and began filling it with cherries. He looked at me and said, “Well, I don’t want cherries, but I’ll take some cherry pie filling after you make it.”

Now if you could have seen my face you would have noticed that the color drained from my cheeks and my lips pierced. I simply answered, “Oh” and put the cherries back in the bowl.

Perhaps I’m being a bit stingy here, but it takes between 9 and 10 pounds of unstemmed/unpitted cherries to make enough pie filling for maybe three pies. I’d have to pick three times what we picked in order to start handing out pie filling like I hand out jam. Needless to say, he will not be receiving any jars of our highly coveted tart cherry pie filling, but I’ll certainly invite him over for a piece or two.

I share all our jams, jellies, preserves, spreads, concentrates, and the like, with our family and friends without hesitation. When it comes to pie filling though, I draw the line. Pie filling is something I share when I make a pie and enjoy eating it right along with them, not something I just hand out so they can take it home.

Knowing what you are getting into before starting a project takes a lot of the stress out of the mix. Realizing how much work really goes into making a cherry pie can change your perspective on thinking that “pie” might not be as impressive a dessert as cake. My mother-in-law made the comment to me years ago, “Pie looks cheap when you serve it.” She told me this when I served pumpkin and apple pies for dessert on Thanksgiving. Gotta love your in-laws! — NOT! Well, pie IS decadent and any time someone wants to serve me a homemade pie, I’ll gladly accept a slice.

Cherry season in Michigan is quickly coming to a close, but we have cherries for canning and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

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