It's summer again, and cherries are back in fleeting season. I adore cherries, especially the plump, dark bing cherry. I like them best fresh, with the flesh crisp and dark, bursting with sweet juice.
Still, once in a while, I will have a situation where I need pitted cherries for cooking. Most recently was for cobbler. I had peaches and had intended to add plums as well. I love what the dark fruit does to the color, as well as the subtle flavor difference. But the plums were too ripe to cut up neatly. No matter how delicately I attempted to do it, I could not remove the pits without smashing the fruit. So instead, I pitted about three cups of bing cherries.
Pitting cherries is invariably messy and time consuming. There are all sorts of gadgets on the market to make it faster, although no less messy. Whether manual or electric, they almost all involve some sort of plunger device which punches through the cherry, ejecting the cherry stone through the side of the fruit and leaving a ragged hole like that in a pitted ripe olive. Indeed, a cherry pitter and an olive pitter are very similar and can sometimes be substituted for one another (depending upon the kind of olives one is pitting).
I don't pit cherries often enough to warrant another piece of kitchen gadgetry, although that has never stopped me before. What truly stops me is that there is another way to pit cherries that costs essentially nothing and is sufficient for my needs. I use a paperclip.
It isn't as fast as the plunger technique, especially if the plunger model one purchases has a hopper which automatically feeds the cherries into the plunger. However, it leaves the fruit pristine, with a single small hole in the stem end. There's very little loss of juice, and the fruit has better texture because it is mangled less. When pitting a small quantity of cherries, a paperclip is more than adequate.
Also, a paperclip is usually easy to find!
How to pit a cherry with a paperclip
First, you will need a clean standard sized ''gem'' paperclip (not a tiny one, and not a jumbo one, just a normal everyday paperclip). Wash it off and make sure it isn't rusty, scaley, or otherwise going to leave a nasty metallic residue in your fruit. Next, separate the two loops of the paperclip, bending it open into a flat S shape. If the paperclip breaks, get another paperclip. You need the whole clip for leverage.
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Which end you use as the business end depends upon the size of your cherry stone. I generally use the larger loop, although smaller cherries (such as sour cherries), may work better with the smaller loop. Try both ends to see which works better for your fruit.
Wash your fruit prior to pitting. Washing the cherries afterwards will fill them with water and wash off the juice.
To pit a cherry, remove the stem and push the round end of the paperclip loop into the stem end of the cherry (it may take a bit of effort to breach the skin), on a slight angle so that the wire scrapes against the side of the cherry stone. Keep pushing and angling the paperclip so it follows the curve of the cherry stone instead of poking out the side of the cherry. When the end of the paperclip reaches the bottom of the cherry stone and starts to hook under it, twist the paperclip (or the cherry, whichever is easier) so the wire loop scrapes all the way around the pit. You may need to do this more than once, or dig around a bit to find a spot you've missed. You'll be able to feel when the pit is loose, at which point, angle the loop to pop out the pit.
After the first few, I find myself developing a knack and it goes much faster. Each cherry tends to give up at most one large drop of juice. There will be very little flesh stuck to the cherry stone, as well. You will stain your fingers, though, and your hand may eventually get a little sore where the ends of the paperclip digs into it. Also, once in a while, a cherry will squirt. So don't wear anything that minds a few drops of cherry juice! This technique works equally well on firm and soft fruit, although it tends to be easier to push the paperclip into a soft cherry.
Keep the pitted fruit refrigerated if you don't use it right away. It's best to use it within a day. If you are really frugal, wash off the paperclip, dry it, and store it away for next time!
E2 Recipes in which you could use pitted fresh cherries: rumtopf, Cherry almond muffins, Apple Cherry Muffins, Cherry Strudel Cups, Frooty frooty muffins, Cherry Coffee Cake, Almond and cherry loaf, chocolate-cherry pie, Boozy Fruit Cup, Cherry Squares, Cherry Pottage, Fruit Tart, Fresh Fruit Tart, Cobbler, Trifle, Sauce aux cerises, Glazed Fruit Pie, Tiny Fruit Salad, Double Chocolate Fondue, Parfait, sangria (although I don't usually bother to pit them for this). Cherry Shortcake anyone? Also, take a look at Tart and Pie Recipes for some inspiration. Keep in mind that cooked cherries tend to have more body than berries, so you can probably use less thickener if you are substituting cherries for strawberries, etc.
Muffins and quick breads are particularly amenable to the addition of fresh cherries, just as they are wonderful with fresh berries. You may wish to cut the fruit up first, however, for smaller items such as muffins and scones. Use your judgement!
You can make your own cherry topping for cheesecake, ice cream, or to use instead of the canned pie filling called for in many of these recipes. Note, these are guidelines, and you can increase/decrease any ingredient to suit your preferences: Boil a half cup of water in a pot large enough to handle all the fruit. Mix together 1/8-1/4 c. sugar (more if they are sour cherries) and 2 tsp. cornstarch. Add the sugar/cornstarch mixture to the water, and cook, stirring frequently, it until it is thick. Add 4 cups of pitted cherries, and any other flavoring you may wish to add (brandy, bourbon, lemon juice, cinnamon, almond extract, etc.). Depending on how you plan to use the cherries, you can cook it just a bit, or let it cook until thoroughly heated through, and the juices are vivid and thick. Keep in mind that it will thicken further upon cooling. Much better than canned, in my opinion!
Later I've now had experience with ripe Montmorency cherries, which are a sour cooking/drying cherry with absolutely outstanding flavor once processed. They are more tender than bing cherries, and very juicy when pitted. They are easier to pit as well, since a ripe one is softer. The primary places a cherry stone is connected to the interior of a cherry are the stem scar and the narrow edge of the stone with vertical ridges. These ridges will match up with the flat or grooved edge of the cherry, depending upon the variety. If you stick the paperclip into the cherry aiming for this side of the stone, you can simply scoop out the pit. This will probably be the same for all soft cherries as opposed to firm ones which require a full twist around the stone.
Montmorency cherries are small and very juicy. I found that they dripped and it was a good idea to pit over a basin. 9 pounds of cherries exuded almost half a cup of juice.
If you are interested in canning whole cherries, this is what I did: ratio of 4 cups whole pitted cherries to 3/4 c. sugar. Cook over medium high heat until just hot. Do not bring to a boil unless you like very soft fruit. Hot pack can (pour into clean, hot glass jars, wipe rim, and apply new lids and screw the bands fingertip tight), and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Remove, let cool, and store for a week before serving, to allow the sugar to penetrate into the fruit. The cherries will be plump, sweet-tart, and absolutely delicious. 1-3 teaspoons of brandy can be added to the jars prior to sealing them, but I actually find the plain ones taste more intensly cherry. Makes about 5 1/2-6 cups although I canned again and 6 quarts of cherries turned into 11 pints. That's 24c. of pitted cherries and 4.5c. of sugar = 22c. or so. So they lose a bit of volume. I think my sister filled her measuring cup more....
My sister makes jam simply by following the Sure-Jel pectin recipe, which involves 4 pounds of cherries, pitted, a box of the low sugar pectin, and several cups of sugar. Most of the cherries are chopped in a food processor, and a few cups are cut in half. They are placed in a heavy pot, brought to a simmer and the sugar and pectin are added per the instructions. One minute later, they are decanted and canned just like the whole cherries. A sweet, luscious jam that needs no additions.