Several years ago we planted a Morello cherry tree in our garden. I was a little disappointed to later realize that it would never grow much bigger than 7 to 8 feet tall… until we started pulling in more cherries than I could figure out what to do with.
Wait… I know what you’re thinking. Duh, Dorie, you eat them. Riiiiight. Sure. You first. This variety of cherry tastes about as lovely as eating an unripe lemon straight off the tree. Not as bad as an uncured olive, but we’re not talking pleasant here. For some reason this didn’t stop my grandson from popping a few in his mouth, pit and all, and then going back for more. But he’s two. I don’t think he qualifies as a “foodie” just yet. And no, he didn’t spit out the pit.
Despite my grandson’s pilfering, we still harvested nearly two gallons of the bright red, dainty cherries this year. My usual go-to recipes include traditional Greek spoon sweets and making sour cherry brandy (seriously good on a cold winter’s night), and I would be totally remiss if I didn’t make a classic American cherry pie. (Click here for all the recipes I have so far that use these cherries. I have a lot of options!) These are the cherries to use, not sweet cherries. But I also wanted something that could be a little more oriented to day-to-day kind of use.
It is quite amazing how far a little sugar (or maybe a lot) can go to making something that seems rather unpalatable into a delightful treat that makes you come back for more. Just like in pie, sour cherries turned into a preserve will lose the lip puckering, eye watering tartness but not their unique flavor when cooked with just the right amount of sugar. This jam works well in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but is seriously good on a piece of hot, buttered toast. Fruits with a hint of tartness go fantastically with the salty creaminess of melted butter. Extra butter on mine, please.
Some quick notes before you begin:
Sour cherries are naturally high in pectin, so that means you don’t need to worry about going to the store to buy any. I actually don’t ever use commercial pectin anyway, because it’s too fussy and often requires an exorbitant amount of sugar to gel. (For things I need pectin for, I use apple scraps! Read here for more info.)
Despite the high amount of pectin in these fruits, you will prepare this jam using the “cook down” method, rather than by temperature set. This is actually an easier process and allows you to decide when you have your desired thickness. You could leave it thin to be more of a syrup, or thicker like a typical jam.
Unlike many other fruits, the cherries are too firm to fall apart on their own during cooking, so chopping them up becomes necessary to have jam, and not spoon sweet. A few pulses in a food processor will do the job nicely, or a rough chopping with a knife and a cutting board works, too! Of course this means you will need to pit your cherries if they are not already done for you. Check out this link for a sure-fire method to pit without waste!
Absolutely yes, you can use frozen or canned sour cherries for this! Allow the cherries to defrost if frozen, and catch any juices that come out as they do so. Also, keep the liquid from the canned cherries, too, since this will have a lot of cherry flavor. You will still use the water in the recipe even with the liquid. In the end, any excess liquid will be cooked off.
The temptation to do large batches of jams all in one go is hard to resist. Resist anyway. The larger the batch, the longer it takes to cook down, the more the natural pectin breaks down, the more likely your product will be scorched, and the more degradation to the quality of your end product there will be.
Since this jam is not cooked to the same high temperature as jams set by gelling point, you will want to water-bath process them to reduce risk of contamination. Ten minutes for half-pint jars is recommended. If you’re not familiar with this process see my post here about canning.
Sour Cherry Jam (No Added Pectin) Recipe
- 1 pound tart cherries, weigh after pitting
- 1 cup granulated sugar (you can use 1/4 cup more or less than this depending on how tart your cherries are or your personal preference, remember that the sweetness will be concentrated after cooking down)
- 1/4 cup water
Have at least 6 or 7 clean half-pint jelly jars and their lids ready to go. Heat jars in your water bath pot, and lid flats in a small pot to boiling, then keep hot until your jam is ready. Be sure to have a ladle and wide mouth funnel ready, as well. See my post on canning if you are new to this process.
Roughly chop cherries, either by knife or with a few pulses in a food processor. You don’t want it to be pureed, and it’s okay if the pieces are not all the same size.
Put the cherries, sugar, and water into a large stock pot and mix together. Choose a wider over a narrower pot as this will allow the water to evaporate out more efficiently and save you time standing at the stove. Cover and allow the mixture to stand for a few hours to draw out more of the moisture from the cherries and dissolve the sugar. You could let it sit for a day, or even longer in the refrigerator if you don’t have time to get to it right away.
When you are ready, uncover the pot and turn the heat to high on the stove. Bring just to a boil then turn the heat down enough to maintain a gentle boil that doesn’t cause the jam to foam up and overflow the pot. If this happens just remove the pot immediately from the heat and wait for it to settle down and lower your stove’s setting. Eventually the jam will thicken enough that this will no longer happen and you can raise the temperature as needed.
Continue cooking the mixture, stirring frequently to prevent the cherries from sticking and scorching on the bottom. As the jam thickens, it will splatter with more intensity, so be careful! Reducing heat and regular stirring will keep bubbles from splattering and possibly burning you.
The jam will be ready when it is a little looser than what you want. It will thicken more as it cools. If you wait to reach your desired thickness, it will be too late. You can test your jam by putting a small amount on a cold plate and allowing it to cool. What you see will be the texture it will be once cooled. If you realize you cooked it down too much, just add a little more water, stir it in and test it again.
Remove jars and lids from the hot water. Ladle your sour cherry jam into the jars, leaving a 1/4 inch headspace. Cover with lid flats and rings, and invert the jar upside down. Fill, cover, and invert one jar at a time. After all jars have been filled, turn them back over (careful, they will be hot). If you have a partially full jar, allow it cool and place in the refrigerator for using right away as they are not as safe for long term shelf storage. Process your full jars in a water bath for 10 minutes, then remove and allow to cool. Any jars that don’t seal should be placed in the fridge and used right away. Enjoy!