Cherry Season – a Memory, and a Recipe for Real-Deal Brandied Cherries

 

By real deal I mean the cherries are fermented in the hooch, not simply given a quick bath.

Sweet cherries, before and after the full brandying treatment

Sweet cherries, before and after the full brandying treatment

Most popular recipes for brandied cherries require only combining the fruit with brandy and sugar.  Couldn’t be easier, and it’s delicious after sitting around for only a couple of days. Then after you put it in pretty jars and age it a while the cherries turn leathery and the liquid tastes just like cough syrup.

I made a lot of this stuff myself before I discovered that if you take the longer route, using less brandy and letting the mixture ferment, you end up with two good things: a fortified spirit that resembles port and firm, slightly velvety cherries that taste like themselves except for being drunk.

Once those get into the jars they last for years, gastronomic money  (and gift material) in the bank. Obviously great in drinks and desserts – after a rich meal, they’re a great dessert all by themselves – but  also wonderful in rice pilaus, with rich meats like pork, duck and salmon and chopped, just a few, in mayonnaise dressed potato salad with lots of dill and sweet onions. Try it before disbelieving me.

CHERRIES IN BRANDY

Be warned they take several weeks to be ready. Actual work time is about 20 minutes.

For 4 half pint jars (feel free to multiply):

1 pound very firm dark sweet cherries, with stems if possible

1 c. sugar

1c. water

about ½ c. good but not spectacular brandy or cognac

1. Rinse the cherries, then spread them on a towel-lined cookie sheet and let them dry completely, turning from time to time. Sterilize the jars and lids and the tip of a coarse needle.

2. Prick each cherry all the way to the pit 3 or 4 times and pack them snugly but not tightly in the jars, leaving about 3/4 inch headspace at the top. Upper layers should go in stems down so stems don’tpoke above the liquid at the end.

3. Cook sugar and water in a heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then raise the heat to medium and let the syrup bubble gently until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

4. Pour the hot syrup over the cherries, filling each jar half full (there will probably be syrup left over; save it refrigerated for sweetening iced tea and lemonade). Add brandy to the jars to bring the liquid ¼ inch from the top. Cherries should be completely covered; remove one or two if necessary.

5. Put lids on the jars and screw the rings on tightly. Shake gently from side to side to mix the liquids;  thump the jar bottoms on the work surface to resettle the cherries, then undo the rings, leaving the lids in place.

6. Set the jars in a deepish rimmed pan to catch any overflow and set the whole works in a cool dark place ( See note).

7. Once a week, repeat step 5. The liquid will bubble as the cherries ferment, more or less theatrically depending on the sweetness and moisture content of the cherries and the coolness of the storage place. Keep checking until the bubbling stops, which can take anywhere from 10 days or so to more than a month.

Note: Sometimes the cherries do not bubble. There could be several causes: slightly too much brandy or sugar being the most common. And sometimes there’s no cause at all; just the cherries being balky. They’re being transformed in there regardless and should be done in about a month whether they bubble or not. As long as you don’t see mold, they’re fine. Fish one out with chopsticks, cut in half and taste the center. When it tastes alcoholic the process is complete and it’s time to tighten the lids and put them away.

8. When no more bubbles are rising, the cherries are done. Remove lids and wipe the jars, being especially careful to get the rims completely clean. Rinse, dry and replace the lids, put on the rings and tighten securely, then apply labels and store in a cool place, where they will keep indefinitely. Liquid darkens as they age and will be the color of fine old Port at about the 3 year mark (which gives you an idea about the ones in the picture).

Note: The refrigerator is too cold. Ideal temperature is around 50 degrees, a temperature that doesn’t exist in most modern homes in the summer – or the winter, come to think of it. One more reason to be friends with somebody who has a cellar. Or one more reason to buy an inexpensive “wine cellar,” aka small refrigerator with thermostat. Fifty degrees is also ideal for storing cheese, ripe stone fruit and ripe avocados, so you can get plenty of use out of it even if you don’t drink much.

The memory , which comes flooding strongly every year at this time, is of being able to buy enough cherries to make dozens of jars of brandied ones and plenty of cherry  preserves. I just spent a small fortune on a week’s supply for eating fresh and I’ll probably keep doing that long after it’s insane instead of just fiscally unwise, but somehow spending a great deal more so we can have quantities of homemade cherry preserves is probably not going to happen.

In the old days, at the height of the cherry season both of our big local supermarkets offered the fruit in 20 pound boxes at a greatly reduced price per pound. They still weren’t exactly cheap, but they were certainly affordable. No more. For the last ten or fifteen years I haven’t been able to get them even by special request. Is this one more curse of prepackaged produce ? A catastrophe in the cherry orchards?  If any of you have light to shed on this, please shine it in our direction.

Update on the cherry marketing question now in.

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25 Comments »

  • Katherine Said,

    Thank you for this recipe! I was planning some brandied cherries tonight, from a basic sugar, booze, cherries recipe that you then can. It doesn’t seem really necessary to me to can this, so I wanted to look around. You have me convinced that this would be the much nicer holiday gift (if I give ANY away, that is).

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Katherine

    So glad you found the recipe before bothering to can something that as you noticed doesn’t need canning – whole point of brandying the damn things is to preserve them.

    Well, almost the whole point. Hope you enjoy them.

  • Caitlin Said,

    I’ve been looking all over for a recipe that preserves the cherries without boiling or refrigeration! Can you recommend a cognac or brandy that works well? There are so many, and I am not especially well acquainted with the character of various brands. Also, many brandied cherry recipes call for tart cherries, not sweet, and tart cherries are generally what is used for cooking, desserts, etc. Have you tried preserving tart cherries this way? Would the sugar need to be increased?

  • Marla Said,

    Thanks for posting this recipe. It’s taken me a few weeks but I finally got around to making them last night. One thing I noticed is that my cherries are floating, so they are sticking out of the liquid a little bit. Did I do something wrong, and should I be concerned?

    Love reading your blog!

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Caitlin, and welcome

    In answer to your questions:
    You can use any type of brandy, or for that matter other spirit: rum, say, or Bourbon (NOT that I’m recommending either! just saying). All that matters is that it be 40 proof – 80 percent alcohol – and that it contain no sugar or cream or other flavorings – or preservatives come to think of it – that might interfere with fermentation. Kirsch (a clear spirit distilled from cherries) might be terrific but I’ve never tried it because the good brands of kirsch are all fearsomely expensive.

    Which leads us to the brandy I use. Whatever I bought the last time I tried something more or less affordable that might be adequate for cooking. Lately it’s been Chalfonte VSOP cognac, available quite reasonably albeit alas not cheaply at the New Hampshire State liquor store.

    As for the tart cherry aspect. I’ve never eaten those cherries brandied rather than pickled or seen such a product for sale; the Italian ones are sort of in the middle sweetnesswise.

    Don’t see why you couldn’t brandy them, assuming you added extra sugar, but I don’t know how much that would be or how the texture would hold up. Where I live, fresh tart cherries are very rare so I’m totally not an authority, but judging from the canned variety it seems like tart cherry flesh might not be meaty enough.

    If you do try one of the recipes, please write back and tell us all how it worked!

    Marla, pleased to meet you

    and thanks for the complement.

    Your question is easy to answer: no worries. In my experience, the cherries float about 1/3 of the time, and they take varying amounts of time to sink. But at least so far, sink they always do, sooner or later.

  • Caitlin Said,

    Thanks for your reply, Leslie. I put up my first batch of cherries, bith sweet and tart, today. I am a bit worried, however, that I have done them incorrectly. For 6 jars, I required significantly more brandy than specified above. I filled the jars halfway with sugar syrup and then did the brandy, as above, but it took over a quarter cup per jar to fill them. This seems to be more than twice as much as your recipe suggests. What have I done wrong? Or did you intend 1/2 cup per jar?

  • leslie Said,

    Hi again Caitlin,

    I wouldn’t worry too much; this is a fairly flexible recipe, and as long as the jars are well-filled with cherries there will be enough fruit to do the trick. But I am kind of surprised it took so much brandy to fill the jars. Two explanations occur to me – both of them my fault:

    1. Your cherries are/were so fresh and so dense that a pound of them took up much less jar space than a pound of the cherries I get at the supermarket. I should have said ” about a pound.”

    2. I may have erred in saying ” pack snugly but not tightly.” If that made you fearful of pressing on them at all and you had a lot of leftovers it’s – very distantly – possible that there aren’t enough cherries in the jars. I do try to get in as many as possible and I do push on them gently.

    Either way, please accept my apologies. Everything is probably fine, but if either of these explanations mean the cherries are bobbing around freely in the jars, there’s still time to fix my error (easily if messily).

    If you have more cherries, you can just put each jar in a syrup catching vessel and push in additional fruit. If all the cherries have been used up, one of the jars can be sacrificed to top up the others.

    Either way, the syrup to brandy proportions won’t change enough to be worrisome, and the leftover brandied syrup should be useful for spiked iced coffee or as a base for fruit salad or a fruit puree based sauce for icecream.

    I’m afraid I’m too far away for you to just throw it at me. But thank you so much for the great feedback; I’ll fix the recipe as soon as I’m allowed back into the posts (the webmasters are currently working on/with the site, but they should be finished shortly).

  • Caitlin Said,

    Although my cherries are very fresh indeed, picked only days ago for the farmer’s market, I have just realized I was packing PINT jars, not half-pint jars, so that probably explains the doubling necessities! (I am glad I made so much extra simple syrup!) However, I do think I was a bit over-worried about packing them too tightly, live and learn. My cherries are not freely bobbing; rather, the sweet cherries at least have sort of lifted up in a floating mass, but I am sure they will sugar up and settle down soon.

  • crystal Said,

    can this be done with other fruits?

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Crystal,

    I’m sure it’s possible to brandy other fruits in more or less in the same fashion but heavy on the more or less. I’m not sure what the right proportion of syrup to fruit to brandy would be — you need enough syrup and fruit to ferment, enough hooch to prevent spoilage and steer the preserve toward cordial instead of vinegar.

    The fruit has to be firm enough not to fall apart but not so firm it toughens. And color can be an issue: peaches, nectarines and apricots might well turn dark in an unappetizing way. (Classic recipes for brandied peaches either use cooked fruit or cook it by canning; either way the fruit doesn’t ferment.)

    I don’t mean to be discouraging; it would be fun to experiment and even failures would probably be pretty tasty, so why not take a flyer? One warning: I used to make tutti-frutti, which ferments multiple fruits in a large crock and on that basis can report that plums turn leathery, oranges fall apart and apples and pears don’t work (not enough juice).

  • Doris Said,

    My daughter-in-law canned cherries in the Summer. In checking her jars recently, she said the itted cherries are floating, but there also seems to be some other small fuzzy-like things floating among them. Would this be pieces of cherry flesh from having pitted the cherries? Is this something she should be concerned about? Any ideas?

    • Leslie Said,

      Hi Doris,

      I can’t say for sure, but from your description it sounds as though the jar(s) didn’t seal properly and that the small fuzzy things are little islands of mold. There are often a few bits of cherry flesh that get semi-detached during pitting, but they wouldn’t be numerous – and they wouldn’t be especially fuzzy unless they themselves were moldy.

      The easiest way to find out what’s going on is to open a jar and check… I wonder – did your daughter in law use standard canning jars with metal tops that have a ring of sealant? With those, you know the seal is good because the button in the center is depressed. Old fashioned bail-top jars with rubber rings (which I used for years without any problems) don’t offer this handy signal and that’s one reason I don’t use them any more.

  • Pete Said,

    I’ve been online everywhere and couldn’t, for the life of me, find a good recipe for brandied cherries! Over the summer I went to a wedding at this beautiful cape house and the catering company brought a huge container fill the the brim with sweetened bourbon and cherries sunk at the bottom. They were making the most delicious Old Fashioneds I’ve ever had, and recently Ive been looking to make my own. I know this is the least ideal time to be buying cherries, however I’m going to try it out anyway; I can’t wait until the summer. I have settled on adding a bit to your recipe, and I’ll let you know how they turn out. Im most interested in incorporating orange and lemon rinds, cinnamon sticks or vanilla bean.

    Thanks!

  • Anne Said,

    This looks wonderful, and I would love to try this recipe. Tell me, would this same recipe work for peaches; or is the nature of the fruit somewhat different so as to require an adjustment in sugar content or the addition of another ingredient?

    • Leslie Said,

      Pete:
      Can’t wait to hear how your cherries turn out! Here in the northeast, you’re so right about “wrong season” I’m not sure the results will reward your efforts. But as you are planning on adding a lot of other ingredients, cherry quality may turn out to be less important. Adding a small amount of citrus rind shouldn’t have too much effect on fermentation, but you might want to up the sugar a bit to allow for the additional raw material and the bitterness of the pith – those rinds ought to be delicious by the end of the process.

      Anne:
      I’ve never brandied peaches this way. Their flesh is so much juicier than cherry flesh, and the ratio of skin to flesh to pit is so different I don’t know what would happen if you tried it. All the brandied peaches recipes I’ve ever made were basically peeled peaches cooked in syrup and canned in a combo of the syrup and brandy. Works great and doesn’t turn into cough syrup. Afraid I don’t have a recipe on hand to offer but that’s because I don’t use one. Just make the syrup more or less sweet depending on the peaches and add brandy to taste but not more than about half of the liquid. The smaller the peach pieces, the less brandy you need; chunks get overwhelmed by amounts that are just right for halves. I’ve never done them whole – takes up too much room in the jars – but if I did I’d do the needle-poke on the cooked fruit before packing it.

  • Grace Said,

    Hi Leslie,

    Thanks so much for this recipe. I’ve tried the usual brandied cherry recipes and they do taste like cough syrup. I just have a question about step 5: when you undo the rings, are we supposed to just loosen them or take them completely off and just leave the tops of the canning lids on while they go through the bubbling phase?

    Thanks!

    Welcome, Grace
    As you guessed, you just loosen the rings so the lids have enough play to move if the bubbling syrup puts pressure on the underside. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, but it pays to be on the safe side. You don’t want the jars to explode but you do want the lids to stay in place. Leaving the rings on without tightening them accomplishes both.
    Leslie

  • Michele Said,

    Hi Leslie,

    Thanks for the recipe, I have one question. I would prefer to pit the cherries before packing them in jars, do you think this would be an issue?

    Thanks!

    Michele

    Welcome, Michelle

    I’m not sure why, but in my ( limited) experience, pitting the cherries first doesn’t work for this recipe. The pitted fruits turn flabby, inside of leathery skins… Not as awful as those words make them sound, but a much less attractive texture than the whole cherry version. I’ve only tried it twice, on account of those ungreat results, so you might want to do a few jars and see if yours come out any better.

    good luck and please let us know how they come out!
    Leslie

  • Leather Said,

    Hi Leslie,
    I live in the central valley of CA where there was once many cherry orchards. Now replaced by housing developments. Also the local guy at the farmers market told me the best cherries from our local area are shipped to Japen and arrive there in 72 hrs after being picked. They pay a lot more money for them and it’s all about bussiness. He also said they get the primium and we get what’s leeftover.

    Welcome, Leather
    and thanks for letting us know about the Japanese connection. Not a surprise; the Japanese are well known for paying fabulous sums for ultimate foods: perfect melons, fish, etc., so why not cherries? And if I were an orchardist, why not sell to them? Sorry – in a way – to hear the farmers mkt. guy is also a participant in this global commerce, but knowing how much people complain about paying appropriate prices for locally-grown produce, no blame there either. Have you tried Criagslist? There might be someone who has a tree and would be willing to sell or share. Good luck!
    Leslie

  • Magnus Said,

    This looks like a delicious recipe but I’m a little confused about the sealing of the jars. I have metal lids with sealant for my jars but I thought they had to be processed in boiling water to activate the sealant. Also you say to put the jars in a rimmed pan to catch overflow which suggests that the jars are not sealed. Do the lids just sit on the top, or do they manage to seal themselves without processing? Should I be concerned if they don’t form a tight seal? Thanks for your help.

    Welcome Magnus,
    You’re right – the jars must be processed in boiling water if you want them to seal. But sealed jars might explode from the pressure built up during fermentation, so for this recipe you leave the lids loose enough to release pressure (if necessary). After fermentation is complete there’s enough alcohol to prevent spoilage, so all you have to do is close the jars tightly and keep them in a cool place.

  • Micah Said,

    Hi Leslie – first, thanks for the recipe. I gave it a shot a couple months ago and started with the jars in my wine cellar which I thought was set to about 50 degrees as you suggested. After a few weeks, no bubbles had formed, so, thinking my cellar was too cold, I moved the jars to a low cabinet in my house (I live in San Francisco, and our summers are rather cool so I thought this might be better). Still no bubbles. I took the cherries out onto the counter the other day and inspected – they look ok – nothing’s growing on them or anything, but I’m wondering: are they safe to consume now? Did the brandy preserve them? Did they ferment quietly without me knowing? :-)

    Hi Micah, and welcome,
    Thanks so much for writing. No worries about the cherries. Everything you did makes good sense and you are not the only one whose cherries refused to bubble. I’ve added a note to step 7 so others will know this happens from time to time.Short version is they’re fine; please see revised step 7 for details and enjoy!

  • Alison Said,

    Thank you for this recipe. I’ve been canning cherries for 30 years, including with a couple of tablespoons of brandy put into the jar before sealing and processing in a water bath canner, but I have just done 5 pints of cherries by your process and am eager to see how they come out. When I lived in upstate NY we were in the midst of the cherry orchards, and u-pick gave us a bounty. Now I have a tree in my backyard in central Illinois, and this year was the best year ever for cherries–the weather was perfect, apparently, for the tree. I have picked and picked, and given away gallons of them, and now am putting them up in as many ways as I can. But I expect this recipe of yours to be the best of all!

    Welcome, Alsion,

    I hope your expectations are met – it sure sounds as though you know what you’re doing AND that you have a fabulous crop. I’m jealous! Also curious, as I know many readers will be. How do you protect your cherries from the hungry birds? It sounds from the bounty as though the tree must be pretty big.

  • Dan Said,

    Thanks for the recipe and all the great tips. Would this still work in a refrigerator (~35 degrees), or is that a dealbreaker? Unfortunately, my only options are the refrigerator or just leaving them on the counter in the hot summer temperatures.

    Hi Dan,

    Never say never, and all that, but 35 or even 40 is so cold it’s unlikely the cherries would ferment thoroughly enough to permit you to store the cherries at room temperature. They’d be sort of in suspended fermentation and then when it was warm enough for them to re-commence BOOM! You’d be better off trying them at the (admittedly hot) room temperature. With luck, they’d be able to ferment properly before they fermented IMproperly (i.e. spoiled ). Why not give it a try and just keep tasting? Use a super-clean spoon each time… and please let us all know how you fare! I’m sure there are many others whose options resemble yours.

  • Dan Said,

    Hi Leslie,

    Just took out the cherries at the four week mark. Here’s an update:
    – With inspiration from other recipes, I made the syrup with spices and turbinado sugar to make it a little more interesting. Otherwise, I followed your instructions.
    – I used E&J XO, which is a cheap but in my opinion decent brandy with a sweet, caramel flavor.
    – The following day, I moved the jars from my apartment (which was very hot) to a basement and closed them in a box to keep light out. I left a thermometer next to the box and checked it periodically. The temperature remained in the mid-70s regardless of the weather–I didn’t check at night but I presume it didn’t cool down further.
    – I tasted samples at 2, 3, and 4 weeks. By your criteria–alcoholic in the middle–they taste done. However, I think they’re still fermenting because I can hear gas escape when I loosen one of the lids.

    Now, the taste: to be honest, it’s hard to gauge the outcome because I don’t know how they’re supposed to taste. They taste alcoholic of course, a little sour, and not at all sweet. However, I don’t think they taste like vinegar. My guess is that there just wasn’t enough sugar. Perhaps they’ll be better in combination with a dessert or cocktail (haven’t tried that yet).

    The factors that might have affected outcome were the temperature, the addition of spices, or the amount of sugar. I also wonder if the temperature caused different yeasts to ferment and produce a different flavor; however, based on what I’ve been reading online, 75 degrees is OK (though near the upper limit) for wine and most other fruit.

    Dan

    Wow, Dan –

    it is SO great to have such a detailed report!! The cherries are “supposed” to taste like alcoholic cherries, as sweet as fruit but not sweeter than fruit (or at least not much sweeter). If yours actually taste sour I think everything on your list could be involved, starting with the turbinado sugar. It’s about the same sweetness as white sugar by weight, but often less sweet measured by volume because it doesn’t pack so closely. Also, molasses is acid, so even though there isn’t much on the sugar, there might be enough to make a difference in terms of pH for the yeasts.

    Spices are always a wild card;anything strong enough to taste might also be strong enough to make the cherries seem less sweet. You’re probably on a good track thinking about the variety of yeasts. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the ones that operate at warmer temperatures create different flavors from those that like things cool.

    I also wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the sourness is a foretaste of vinegar to come. If they keep getting more and more sour, I’d add some balsamic vinegar and more sugar and call ‘em pickled cherries.

    Thanks again for the update and good luck with the cherries.

  • Dan Said,

    Thanks for the feedback!

    It was a fun experiment, and that gives me some ideas for next time (perhaps next year). You make a good point about the sugar–it didn’t occur to me that the sugar granules were much larger than in regular granulated sugar, so I should have measured out more. As for spices, the flavor of the spices pretty much disappeared (from the liquid as well), so I don’t think they hurt, but I might as well omit them anyway.

    Reading more about temperature, I’m also learning that higher temperatures, at least in beer, lead to the production of more fusel alcohols, which cause off-flavors. In most cases, if beer has too much fusel alcohol, it’s not drinkable, but it’s possible for fusel alcohol to be converted to esters given time.

    As another experiment, perhaps I’ll leave some of the cherries for another few weeks to see if the flavor changes further.

    Thank YOU, Dan, for bringing us all along on the experiment. Waiting does help sometimes with alcoholic products, so it’ll be fun to find out if this is one of those times. The whole temperature thing is endlessly interesting (at least to me).

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