Amarena cherries have long been adored by Italians and foodies everywhere for their intense cherry flavor, sweetness and versatility. The word amarena refers to a specific variety of dark wild cherry from the Bologna and Modena regions of Italy. The name of the variety is derived from the Italian word for bitter, amara, and although these cherries are slightly bitter when compared to other varieties, they are most frequently sold preserved in a sweet, luxurious syrup that completely rids the cherries of any hint of bitterness. The cherries often come in beautiful little reusable amphorette bottles, an artful display for a delicious gourmet treat.
The versatility of amarena cherries is second to none, making a welcomed replacement for those old jars of maraschino cherries found in pantries everywhere. When compared to American maraschino cherries there really is no contest, amarena cherries win hands down for every single application. They add a touch of fruity sweetness to anything you might use maraschino cherries for, and more. Most frequently used in ice cream and atop other desserts like pastries, cakes and cookies, they can also be used to bake with and are especially good in tarts, pies and cupcakes. Not only that, they make an even better substitute in cocktails, adding a lovely flavor to alcoholic drinks. The syrup that amarena cherries are preserved in is incredibly delicious, imparting an aromatic, cherry infused essence when poured into drinks or on desserts and ice cream. In addition to their superior flavor, amarena cherries are full of nutritional benefits. They are high in antioxidants, vitamin c, potassium, magnesium and iron, as well as free of fat and sodium.
So why else should you replace those so called maraschino cherries sitting in your cabinet or refrigerator? First off we should distinguish them from the real and original version of maraschino cherries, which are pretty delicious and certainly hold their own in the gourmet pantry. Produced in Italy, the original maraschino cherries are made with sour cherries soaked in Maraschino liqueur, a liqueur made with a variety of cherry called marasca. True maraschino cherries are actually nothing like the maraschino cherries that most of us are familiar with in the US.
The original maraschino cherries slowly transformed into what we know today in much the same way as many mass produced foods. In an effort to make the production of maraschino cherries more profitable and consistent, American producers began to inject the cherries with small amounts of food coloring and sweeteners. During prohibition an alcohol free version became in demand and thus the virgin maraschino cherry was born. Eventually the amounts of sweeteners and food dyes increased, making the fruit itself no longer the star of the maraschino cherry.
Today’s production process begins with first soaking the cherries in a brine solution to remove all of their natural color and much of their flavor, after which they are impregnated with high fructose corn syrup and red dye. Flavoring is then added, specifically a bitter almond flavoring to the red colored cherries. Here’s another fun fact: maraschino cherries can actually be purchased in a variety of crazy neon colors spanning the whole rainbow, with flavoring added to suit the particular color dye used. The maraschino cherries you find at an American grocery store today are basically just candy, a round “cherry” mold encasing a cheap, sugary, unnaturally red, goopy ball. And while you’ll never find us discrediting the joys of candy, why not put those calories and sugar to good use in a higher quality pay out? If what you really want are preserved cherries, do yourself a favor and try amarena cherries instead, or spring for the original version of maraschino cherries preserved in alcohol. You won’t be disappointed.