The heat is upon us again, my friends: it’s 90 degrees in my neck of the woods this afternoon and it was 94 yesterday. Not nearly as drastic as most of the rest of the country (nor as frightening as the conditions in Colorado right now) but still: hot.
Last week, in the midst of a few back-to-back 96-degree days, I brought home a boatload of sweet cherries, following a lovely, lazy afternoon visit with Julia, her son splashing in the kiddie pool to cool off, her chickens unbothered by the near-triple-digit temps. Because everyone brings home a bushel of cherries to preserve in the middle of a heatwave, right? And given the hot & humid weather, the lack of air conditioning in my little cottage-in-the-woods, and the state of the CSA-ladened fridge, I knew I needed to get through the bulk of the cherry preserving pronto. Either that, or drive myself and the cherries around in the only AC available – my car – for the next three days. Gas prices being what they are: I armed myself with an old, grubby T-shirt, my trusty cherry-pitter, and a Can-Do attitude (see what I did there?).
I started pitting and pitting and pitting away. Pounds & pounds went into the dehydrator (which went out on onto the deck) for dried cherries. Others went into the freezer, spread on trays, to freeze in batches, then get jammed into the already-packed-in-June chest freezer. Yet others got tossed under sugar + booze (and some chipotle peppers!). And then, when I just couldn’t stand to pit another cherry, and all I wanted to do was lay on the couch with a popsicle and a cool, crisp white wine spritzer, I made this: sweet cherry butter. Perhaps the easiest way to dispatch a big pile of fresh cherries with a minimum of muss & fuss.
Take 6 lbs cherries: rinse well and pluck off the stems. Add to your Crock-Pot or slow cooker, preferably placed outdoors, or in the garage, or failing all else, the bathroom (which I did overnight, so as not to share my cherry bounty with the local raccoon population): somewhere with minimal potential to add any heat to the house. You need some liquid, which seems counter-intuitive, since the whole point of fruit butter is to cook the liquid out, but if you’re not going to pit the cherries, you need to get them soft enough to mash, and this will happen when they are simmering, nearly submerged, in liquid. Let them go like that for a while, until they are good and soft: then mash ’em up and strain out the pits (you need a large mesh colander for this; be warned. I tried every colander in the house before I used the pasta basket, which worked like a dream.). Not only does this method save you the effort of pitting 6 pounds of cherries, but it adds some of the flavor and body of the pits to the final product. After that, the rest is easy: I propped the lid on the Crock-Pot and left my cherry pulp to reduce overnight; after a stir or two and a couple more hours in the morning, the butter was fully reduced. I blended and stuck it in the fridge (you could also freeze it, if need be) for a cooler day on which to fire up the canner.
The resulting butter is tangy, smooth, intensely cherry-flavored, with a hint of bitterness from the pits that saves it from that cloying Cherry-Vicks flavor. With just over a cup of sugar to 6 pounds of cherries, this is a very low sugar option, and the maple syrup adds just a whisper of maple flavor to the final butter. Spread an old quilt in the shade and enjoy this butter on crackers & cheese, with plenty of ice-cold drinks on hand. Stay cool!
- 6 lbs sweet cherries
- 1 and 1/4 cups brown sugar
- 1 cup red wine vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- Wash & stem cherries. Then EITHER pit all of the cherries, OR use unpitted cherries and proceed as follows. Combine cherries, 1 cup sugar, water and vinegar in the Crock-Pot. Cook on HIGH until cherries are very soft and easily mashed with a food mill or potato masher, about 2 hours. If you’ve used pitted cherries, proceed to Step 2. Using a potato masher, mash cherries in the Crock-Pot vessel, then strain through a large-mesh colander (I used the pasta basket from my stockpot. I think my grill basket may have worked in a pinch.). If you don’t have a large-mesh colander or basket, you might try a food mill (the pits got stuck under mine and it would not turn). Return the strained cherry pulp to the Crock-Pot.
- Reduce heat to LOW, stir cherries + juice and prop one edge of the lid open with the handle of a wooden spoon. Stir occassionally, keeping an eye on the heat (lower to WARM if necessary) until volume has reduced to approximately 1/4 of the original, about 8 hours in my Crock-Pot. Blend with an immersion blender or or transfer to blender/food processor: return to Crock-Pot if needed and continue to reduce until desired thickness: butter should mound on the back of a spoon, and be the thickness of a thin commercial ketchup. At this point, I transferred the mixture to an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 days, until the heatwave broke.
- Prepare canner, lids and jars.
- Scrape cherry butter mixture into a large, wide-bottomed preserving pot. Add maple syrup, mixing well. Taste and adjust flavorings (I added the last 1/4 cup of brown sugar and lemon juice here). Bring to a simmer over low heat, using a splatter guard if possible. Simmer about 5 minutes, until heated through and well blended. Fill hots jars with hot butter to 1/2-inch headspace, making sure to bubble jars thoroughly. Wipe rims, affix lids and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
- The small amount of sugar here helps to provide texture to the cherry butter and works as a preservative, while adding sweetness; however, with 6 lbs of cherries and wine vinegar this is a tart butter overall. Sugar or maple syrup can be increased, or decreased to taste. Maple sugar would be a lovely option here, if you can source it affordably.
- Vanilla extract, bean, or a warm, brown liquor (bourbon, whiskey, etc.) stirred in at the end of the cooking time would be good flavor accents.
- Should you choose to pit the cherries before adding to the Crock-Pot, you can cut down on the added liquid: about 1/2 cup total, of either water, wine, vinegar or your liquid of choice, should keep the cherries from burning while they heat up enough to soften and release juices.
Canned, store in a cool, dark spot for up to 1 year.