Although we have encountered maraschino cherries most of our lives—from the "cherry on top" of the sundae to the garnish in a Manhattan cocktail—we may not have thought much about them, like how they get to be that artificial red color. The fact is, commercial maraschino cherries are loaded with chemicals; the light-colored cherries are first bleached and brined and then soaked in a bright red dye. Even though most of us don't eat maraschino cherries by the handful and often have just one at a time, knowing how much processing is done to produce them makes these cherries quite unappealing.
Luckily, we can make our own at home with this recipe. As with any canning project, it will take some time, mostly standing time, but the effort is well worth it.
To make the brine, bring water and pickling salt to a boil, stirring until salt is dissolved. Let cool for 10 minutes, then pour over pitted sweet cherries. Cover and let sit 12 hours or overnight.
Drain cherries, discarding brine, and rinse in cold water. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, water, lemon juice, and red food coloring, if using. Bring just to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar, and remove from heat. Pour over cherries, cover, and let stand for 24 hours.
Drain cherries, reserving juice. Set cherries aside. Bring reserved juice to a boil again. Remove from heat and stir in almond extract. Pour juice over cherries.
Pack cherries with juice in hot sterilized jars and seal according to manufacturer's recommendations. Place in a water bath canner and process 20 minutes for pint jars or 25 minutes for quart jars.
Tips and Variations
This recipe calls for using sweet cherries. Cherries are available either sweet or sour, and, of course, without tasting them, it may be challenging to know which variety is sweet. You want to look for a cherry that is heart-shaped with firm flesh; They will be larger than a sour cherry, and range in color from almost black to dark red to golden with a red tint. Varieties are Bing, Lambert, Royal Ann, and Tartarian.
If you have trouble finding pitted cherries, you can pit them yourself. (Make sure to wear an apron as this can be messy.) This can range from somewhat simple to kind of difficult depending on whether you want to keep the stem and the shape of the cherry or not. If you don't care about how the cherry looks, you can pit it similarly to how you pit an olive: place on a cutting board and press down hard with the side of a large chef's knife—the pit should pop out. If you'd like to keep the cherry rounded, you can use a straw or the large end of a chopstick. Push it through the cherry from the stem-end until the pit pops out. You can also buy a cherry pitter which—if it is a good one—should simplify the process.