Super Food Nerds: How to Make Maraschino Cherries
I do not like maraschino cherries. Not in a cocktail or a mocktail, not on a sundae or a parfait. Not anywhere. And I comfort myself in the knowledge that I am not alone. Some of my favorite food and drink writers have described the maraschino cherry as “an embalmed corpse” (Toby Cecchini), a “skeleton” (Harold McGee) and “undead” (Dave Wondrich). These cherries haunt critical food lovers like a sheet-wearing treats-seeker on Halloween.
We are speaking, of course, of the chemically treated, candy-sweet modern maraschino cherry. As I detailed in an earlier post, today’s maraschino cherries arose from the grave of their pre-Prohibition-era precursor: a sour cherry (the marasca, a Croatian variety) preserved in sour cherry maraschino liqueur.
In developing the Super Food Nerds maraschino cherry recipe below, I set out to exhume the lost flavors of the original — a seemingly doable task. The cocktail authority Cecchini has claimed there was nothing more to the old maraschino cherries than throwing sour cherries in a jar, covering them with maraschino liqueur and going about your business for two weeks. If Cecchini was right, this seemed like a secret everyone should be in on.
So I gave it a try. Sadly, immersing the cherries in liqueur for two weeks did neither the cherries nor the liqueur any favors; there was almost no flavor integration. The liqueur — less sweet and more refined than I’d anticipated — was full of the wonderful bitter almond and spicy cinnamon flavors that I wanted to get into those cherries.
Next I tried a variation published several years ago by another author, Melissa Clark, whose technique cuts the whole process to two days by bringing the liqueur to a simmer before adding pitted sour cherries. Alas, a dull, dissipated cooked-fruit flavor resulted.
Things took a more fruitful turn when, following the advice of superstar mixologist Dale Degroff, I macerated the cherries in a little sugar overnight before adding liqueur. The extra sweetness amplified the cherry flavor in a welcome way and signaled a path forward.
From there I began playing with variables and ratios: sugar, simple syrup, simple syrup flavored with cherry pits or heavy syrup? Heavy syrup won — less diluting, more lingering on the palate.
Next decision: pitted, unpitted, or pitted and macerated along with the pits? I had the romantic notion that the pits might impart some bitter almond notes of their own. They didn’t (so much for romance).
But I still wasn’t satisfied with the flavor I was getting from sour cherries. So, departing from the “original,” I subbed in sweet cherries. And surprisingly, sweet won out. The sour cherries lacked pucker, and their flavor was too muted; the sweet cherries came through with bigger, more vibrant cherry flavor.
Then I played with heat: What if I added the cherries directly to hot sugar syrup rather than liqueur, a la Clark? No improvement.
And on and on. The final breakthrough came when, out of curiosity, I added a little almond extract to the mix, hoping to build on the best qualities of the liqueur. The effect was uncanny: Suddenly the macerating solution tasted maraschino. The almond in the liqueur just needed a little enhancement. From there, I permitted myself the freedom to tinker with added flavors — a little vanilla here (meh), a little citrus peel there (nice).
As of this writing, I have tasted and tested nearly 20 maraschino cherry iterations (I may not be done, as I’ve yet to try pickling the cherries before macerating them). And in the end I find myself with a recipe that is, ironically, much closer to the zombies and embalmed corpses I’d set out to do battle with: I ditched the sour cherries for sweet, I resorted to flavorings, I added a hefty dose of sugar. That said, my version is a far cry from today’s synthetic maraschino cherries. Boozy, balanced and complex, it brings something of the spirit of the old maraschino cherry back to life.
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Super Food Nerds is a column written in alternating installments by Rupa (food and beverage editor, culinary staff) and Jonathan (research librarian, same place). Each post will be dedicated to a particular topic — how to DIY something you don’t normally DIY, how to perfect a dish usually taken for granted, plus the best techniques, underlying chemistries and a handful of inexplicable preferences. Basically, if they can overthink it, they’re on it.