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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.

I tested more recipes from more trusted sources, all with underwhelming results. Could the glory of that long-buried original be a cherry-colored herring?

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.

Click here for the maraschino cherries recipe and behind-the-scenes photos.

See all the posts in the Super Food Nerds series.

See even more of Cooking Channel’s Adventures in Cooking.

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.

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