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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.

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Super Food Nerds, Behind the Scenes: The Cherry on Top

Close your eyes and picture “cherry red.” What do you see? I’d wager you’re picturing a color that has been witnessed in a fresh cherry precisely … never. What you are seeing is a maraschino cherry — maraschino red, that is.

Which is odd, because the maraschino we’ve come to know bears only the faintest relation to a real cherry. Today’s maraschino is a preserved fruit of a particularly brutalized sort, the result of chemical brines, artificial dyes and “natural” flavors that would shame even a cosmetic surgeon. The jarred stuff starts with sweet cherries (typically Royal Ann or Rainier); these are saturated with calcium salts, which firms the cherries’ texture while stripping color and flavor. The resulting specimens are then pitted and macerated in sugar syrup. After a month of maceration, the cherries are dipped in red dye, stem and all, and packed in almond-flavored syrup.

The resulting product is indisputably an eye-catching garnish; whether it is an edible foodstuff is debatable. With its impossibly cloying sweetness and synthetic taste, the maraschino is rich in meaning, poor in flavor. But it persists because flavor is beside the point. The maraschino exists as an ornament, a bauble, a visible sign that says, “Now we are treating ourselves.”

Flavor hasn’t always been an afterthought, though. For centuries, before they became a cliche, maraschino cherries were a rare and coveted luxury item. Their distinguished pedigree traces back to 16th-century Dalmatia (a region of modern-day Croatia), where Dominican monks first distilled the wild marasca cherry — a sour variety celebrated for its spicy cinnamon flavor — in a clear liqueur. With time and tinkering — like sweetening with cane sugar and distilling the cherry pits separately (which lent bitter, almond notes) — the monks arrived at the spirit that came to be known as maraschino, still produced in Italy today.

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