Maraschino cherries (pronounced mare-uh-SHEE-no) get their name from the traditional manufacturing process used to preserve them. Originally, sour marasca cherries from the Dalmatian Coast were soaked in maraschino liqueur, an Italian spirit distilled from the pits, stems, leaves, and flesh of the same cherry. In the United States, most commercially available maraschino cherries are cured in brine, preserved in a sugar syrup, and dyed a vivid red.
- Common Uses: As a garnish for cocktails and desserts
- Distinctive Characteristics: Bright red and syrupy sweet
- Where to Buy: At a liquor store or with the ice cream toppings at the grocery store; online for imported classic maraschino cherries
What Are Maraschino Cherries?
Italian-style maraschino cherries made their way to America around the turn of the century but then Prohibition prevented the sale of those liquor-soaked cherries. The modern maraschino cherry, developed by Oregon Agricultural College professor Ernest H. Wiegand in the 1920s, gave cherry farmers a way to preserve their sweet Royal Anne cherries without alcohol. Wiegand devised a process to brine the fruit with calcium salts, which removed the flavor and color from the cherries. He then poached them in sugar syrup and injected them with red dye, creating the candied cherry best known for its use in the Shirley Temple mock cocktail.
The modern maraschino cherry is more akin to chewy Skittles candies than to fresh fruit. In addition to the customary red, you can purchase them in a variety of fruity flavors and colors, including purple, green, orange, blue, and yellow.
Natural varieties found in organic and natural foods markets contain no artificial coloring or preservatives, using beet or radish juice for color. They tend to be darker and a bit softer, but generally with the same pronounced sweetness as the mass-market versions.
Imported brands of maraschino cherries use an Old World recipe, preserving the fruit in its own juice. They're generally smaller and darker and retain the natural sour flavor of the cherry.
How to Make Maraschino Cherries
In the U.S., cherry season lasts from spring through much of the summer. Picking and pitting fresh cherries takes a lot of work, but preserving them for later use is quite easy.
Maraschino Cherry Uses
From Manhattans to piña coladas, maraschino cherries adorn many classic cocktails. They also add a dash of color to the top of a whipped cream mound on banana splits, ice cream sundaes, and other nostalgic desserts. Chopped or mashed maraschino cherries can be incorporated into batters and sweet doughs, and the syrup they come bottled in can be used to sweeten and color frosting.
While you can just drop them into your glass or set them on top of the ice, it's also fun to incorporate cherries into elaborate cocktail garnishes:
- Flags: Made with an orange, pineapple, or a similar slice of fruit, the cherries are pinned to the fruit with a cocktail skewer. It's often seen on tropical cocktails such as a piña colada.
- Boats: Cut a slice from a whole large orange and wrap it around itself to make a funnel shape. Pin it in place with a skewer, then place a cherry in the center. It's a great garnish to float on top of juicy highball drinks such as a tequila sunrise.
Unless the cocktail calls for it specifically, always serve a cherry with the stem intact so the drinker can easily pop it into their mouth if they choose.
What Do Maraschino Cherries Taste Like?
The modern maraschino tastes more like candy than fruit. While it adds intense sweetness, it does not add much depth of flavor to a cocktail or dessert. Classic maraschino cherries preserved in maraschino liqueur retain more of a true cherry flavor with a hint of almond flavor from the cherry pits used during distillation.
Where to Buy Maraschino Cherries
In supermarkets, look for maraschino cherries with the ice cream toppings or in the baking aisle. You may also find them with other fruit preserves. Cherries preserved in maraschino liqueur using the Old World recipe are harder to find, but you can purchase them online or at high-end liquor stores. They do command a higher price tag, though. You can also buy imported brands of maraschino cherries preserved in marasca syrup; look for Luxardo, the original producer, or Fabbri, both from Italy.
The high sugar content of maraschino cherries means they last for a long time if you store them properly. Store unopened jars in a cool, dark location. Once you open them, keep them tightly sealed between uses in the refrigerator for up to a year. While you can safely freeze maraschino cherries, they might turn unpleasantly mushy when you thaw them.
Nutrition and Benefits
Maraschino cherries deliver none of the nutrition of fresh fruit. While one cherry contains only 8 to 10 calories, on average, they pack nearly 2 grams of sugar apiece, the equivalent of 1/2 teaspoon. While they can certainly be enjoyed as an occasional treat without doing any real nutritional damage, you may want to avoid the artificial flavorings and colorings found in many of the mass-produced brands.