Sour cherries are usually red. Sweet cherries have greater variation in color—some are dark-skinned and others light-skinned. Dark-skinned sweet cherries far and away dominate the market, with Bing being the most popular in this category.
Bing cherries are usually available from the end of May through early August, with their peak in June and July. Most Bing look-alikes appear in markets until mid-August. Keep in mind that the varieties appearing earliest and latest in the season are softer and less sweet than Bings. Any cherries sold after August probably come from cold storage.
Cherry varieties include:
- Balaton: This is a deep burgundy sweet-tart cherry that combines the tangy taste of sour cherries with the richness of sweet cherries.
- Bing: There are many commercial varieties of sweet cherries, but the leader is the Bing, developed first in Oregon by a pioneer grower, just over 100 years ago, who named it for one of his Chinese workmen. Bings are large, round, extra-sweet cherries with purple-red flesh and a deep red skin that verges on black when fully ripe. There are a number of other dark, sweet cherries that look just like Bings, and most people would not know the difference because their taste and texture are similar.
- Lambert: The second most popular variety after the Bing is the Lambert, a small, heart-shaped red cherry similar in taste and texture to the Bing.
- Maraschino: Maraschino cherries are not a variety of cherry, but cherries first preserved in brine with chemicals added to bleach the cherries. Then they are soaked in a sugar syrup, generally high fructose corn syrup. Maraschino cherries are typically made from light-colored sweet cherry varieties like Rainier or Royal Ann. Their intense color comes entirely from food coloring—most often FD&C Red 40—added to the sugar syrup.
- Morello: This tart cherry is sometimes eaten fresh when fully ripe, but is usually used in cooking. It has very dark red flesh and dark juice.
- Rainier: The Rainier, a sweet cherry with yellow or pinkish skin, is grown in limited quantities and is milder and sweeter than the Bing.
- Royal Ann: Another light-skinned variety, the Royal Ann is often canned or made into maraschino cherries.
- Sour cherries (pie cherries): Most commercially grown sour varieties—such as Montmorency, the best-known type—are canned or frozen for use as pie fillings or sauces, although you can occasionally find fresh sour cherries during the summer months at farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Sour cherries are smaller than sweet cherries and are a bright scarlet.