That bright red maraschino cherry adorning the top of your ice cream sundae evolved from a treat reserved for royalty. As a child you popped them into your mouth without a second thought. Now you probably look at them and wonder if they are even real cherries, especially those bits and pieces of candied cherry in fruitcake.
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A Colorful History
Centuries ago in the Adriatic region, sour marasca cherries were preserved with liqueur as treats for royalty and the rich. The delicacy eventually made its way to upscale American establishments in the 1800s. Prohibition put a squeeze on the liqueur used in maraschino cherry production, reinforcing a trend toward a method using brine similar to pickles. This more modern method ensured an affordable supply of sweet, bright red maraschino cherries for everyone.
Maraschino cherries today are made with different varieties of sweet cherries such as Royal Ann and Rainier. After soaking in brine to preserve and crisp the cherries, they are pitted and rinsed, then sweetened with corn syrup. The bright red comes from food coloring. The classic flavor of a red maraschino cherry is predominantly almond extract, while the green variety are usually peppermint. Most maraschino cherries wind up as a garnish on ice cream and baked goods or in cocktails.
Candied cherries, also called glace cherries, are essentially maraschino cherries that have been processed further by cooking them in thick flavored syrup. This gives them a texture and intense sweetness similar to other candied fruits such as orange peel and pineapple. Although candied cherries are available all year, they make a special appearance at Christmas on trays of sweets and in fruitcakes.
The Cherry On Top
With a sugar content nearly three times that of a fresh cherry, maraschino cherries are intended as a treat. That goes double for candied cherries, which have almost twice the sugar of a maraschino. Like raisins, these sweet treats do have some positive nutritional aspects. In a report for the National Cherry Growers and Industries Foundation, food and nutrition consultant Roberta L. Duyff reports that cherries contain a variety of antioxidants, including anthocyanin, as well as quercetin, a flavanoid that might actually increase with processing. To try a lighter version, soak fresh cherries for several weeks in either maraschino liqueur or a flavored syrup without dye and less sugar.