Everyone knows wild cherries are edible, but the pits are a little more complicated. Today I'm going to share with you what I've learned about them with a deep dive into traditional foods.
I love wild cherries. I crave them and make sure to please the landowners of my favorite patch with whatever I can manage. I didn't always like them though. The first time I harvested them I noticed a row of black cherries (Prunus serotina) growing at one of my favorite disc golf courses during one of my morning forays before work to gather ingredients for my menu.
After a couple hours, I had what I thought must be a great haul of cherries, maybe a gallon. I brought them into the kitchen, washed them up, put them in a pot with water just barely up to the top. I simmered them for a while, then mashed and strained the juice, for a sauce for the duck on my menu.
The cherry sauce was ok, after I cooked it with brandy, duck demi-glace, and instructed my cooks to mount it with plenty of butter, but I couldn't help but stare at the large amount of stones leftover.
I remember thinking that it was a waste of time. All that work for a little juice! I'll just buy some nice Bings. Had I known what I do now, I would have done things a lot differently. I would have paid anyone I could find for their wild cherries.
Sidenote: I have one friend who, extolling the virtues of a certain cake to me, told me that he had removed the flesh from individual black cherries to make the filling for the cake.
I'm a fan of many things most day-walkers might call tedious (acorns) but I will not be removing the flesh from wild cherries by hand.
As I wrote my book, well, after I scrapped the first manuscript and started over, I noticed a few things as I was working on the fruit chapter (90% of which got cut). When I turned to wild cherries, I tried to find as many historical and cultural preparations for them as I could could, and I noticed something really interesting.
I found not one, not two, but three different traditions from around the globe that had found ways to use the specific wild cherries of their region in their entirety: flesh, stone and all (although not necessarily together for some products like noyeaux and mahlab.)
Cherries and Cyanide
I was confused as I'd always thought that cherry stones are poisonous, along with plums kernels, peaches, and apricots. Essentially they are, but they're also edible after processing and used as a traditional seasoning.
Cooking with cherry pits specifically has been a huge inspiration for me, and the flavor they give to things is incredible. Just don't eat them raw.
If you're unfamiliar, here's the commonly held notions and facts about cherries (and other stone fruits).
The kernels inside the shells or pits, contain amygdalin, a compound that (long story short) the human body converts into cyanide after consuming if the shells containing the kernel are ruptured. This seems pretty simple. Don't eat stone fruit pits, right? Here's where it gets interesting.
The stones and seeds of many plants in the Rose family (Rosaceae), besides containing amygdalin in various concentrations, also have an intense flavor of almond, a flavor that cultures around the world have enjoyed and harnessed for culinary purposes for ages, using them to flavor everything from breads and pastries, to liquors, sauces and, even meat dishes.
They key to unlocking the almond flavor, without worrying about the effects of cyanide poisoning, is cooking and/or other types of processing such as drying. They are never consumed raw. Here's a list of a few products from around the world that I know of. If you have any to add, I'd love to hear about them.
Culinary products made with cherry and prunus stones
Named for the species of cherry it comes from, (Prunus mahlab), also known as mahlepi, is the kernel, and only the kernel, of the cherry, sans shell. It's dried and sold both as a powder (not as desirable as the flavor mellows quickly after grinding) and as the whole kernel.
It's typically used to add an almond flavor to breads and sweets such as Grecian Tsoureki. Use of it seems to be widespread across the middle east and Mediterranean, and I've seen packages labeled in Farsi, Greek, Egyptian, and Hebrew.
The most well known French infusion of Prunus kernels is a liquor that can function as a sort of extract for cooking and baking.
Bird Cherry Flour
The Russian incarnation is a flour reminiscent of the dried chokecherry patties of the Indigenous peoples of the American Great Plains in that it contains the entire cherry. To make it, wild cherries are dried whole, then ground to a flour and used for cooking, often after sifting.
On the American Great Plains, indigenous peoples invented the ingenious technique of taking whole wild cherries, crushing them, and making them into patties to dry in the sun. after the patties are dried they're shelf stable, and are reconstituted to make Wojape, the famous fruit sauce.
Other examples of harnessing almond flavor without almonds
The almond flavored liquor is typically infused with apricot kernels. In my book I outline a version (it's called wild cherry liquor) made with the leftover crumbs from sifting dried cherries that has a flavor of fruit and almond combined. It's incredibly potent.
Plum kernel oil
Also known as huile de noyeaux, and huile d’amandons de pruneaux, the latter translating directly to "prune almond oil". Mostly known in chef circles as a boutique finishing oil, plum kernel oil, as you might expect, tastes of almonds.
I would expect that other pits of similar fruits could potentially be oil crops, and I know Sam Thayer has pressed oil from wild plum kernels using his expeller and has reported the same results. It's seems to be mostly marketed as a skin care product.
The meristems of cherry and Rowan trees
A chef friend of mine who cooked in Japan told me that the young, tender growth of cherry trees is pickled in Japan and served, and that they taste of almonds. I cannot confirm or deny that yet, but It's on my list. If you've eaten them, please comment.
As far as Rowan trees, these are in the Rosaceae too. I've seen these used in culinary preparations cooked as a small vegetable and raw (infused into liquor) and, I've tried it myself. Cooked the flavor of almond isn't noticeable.
As for using them raw for infusions, I cannot recommend them (at least until I know more) as they have not undergone any sort of process of denaturization. If you have an example of how they've been used to harness the almond flavor, or have an account to share regarding their consumption, please comment.
Serviceberry Leather and/or Ferments
Not as well known as any of the other products, serviceberries are in the Rosaceae family, and their seeds taste of almond as well. The traditional serviceberry leather described to me by Melissa Price (Sam Thayer's wife) has a noticeable almond flavor, and recently I did a talk to a Canadian brewing group where one of the members asked me why a serviceberry liquor tasted so strongly of almond.
I think your bird cherry cake is what I love even more than acorn cake. Thanks hanks for all the most amazing treats!
Here in the Virginia Hunt Country, where wild cherry trees are plentiful, horse-owners are careful to not let their horse ingest freshly wilted cherry leaves (from a fallen tree for example). as as chemical reaction happens in the horse stomach (due to the stomach acids) that releases hydrogen cyanide that quickly passes into the horse's bloodstream. Dry leaves are OK though...
It was an incredible year for many fruits here this year, both cultivated and wild. The wild cherries were awesome. In rum they went - just 1 pint - very similar to your cherry whiskey, but w rum.
I sure hope that all those fruit recipes make into a 4th book in the series - maybe The Forger's Book of Poma?
Also, not trying to be picky, but note the correct spelling of noyaux (no e), while yes it is pruneaux (with an e). I could go int the whys of French spelling... but it would be enough to drive almost anyone crazy. 🙂
Pruneaux from prune, noyaux from noix. Nothing paradoxical there.
Moineau from moine, bouleau from boule, anneau from anne... 🙂
I cooked chokecherries then processed them using Foley food mill copy cat. After selecting the right size screen and replacing the coil spring with a shorter one (otherwise seeds come flying out like popcorn) the resulting chokecherry jam was delicious, edible with no added sweetener.
One more thing. The traditional French clafouti uses cherries on the pits - for that inimitable almond flavor. I learned to make sour cherry jam by putting the pits in a bag and cooking it with the jam. A short cut (that takes more time but all you have to do is wait) is to freeze the whole cherries for several months. In the winter, when you know the smell of cherry jam will scent the house, you thaw the cherries slightly and stone them stone when still half frozen (much easier than when fully thawed). The pits can still be used for an extract (everclear or such, and used for baking - it's incredibly potent with a very haunting almond flavor). When I pit sour cherries for baking or cooking, I either alcohol-extract or just cover the stones with sugar to make a cherry pit syrup that - again - I use cooked (10 last minute of a tart or a cake for example). Never just discard the pits!!!!!
I really enjoy reading your posts. Keep up the good work.
I love these ideas! I collect chokecherries every year for cordial. I’m always sad to throw away the pits and wished there were something I could do with them. Now there is!
Glad you enjoyed it.
Are Serviceberries also not to be eaten raw? We called them Saskatoons when I was a kid (on the Canadian prairies) and picked them every year. Mostly they went into pies.
Hello from Paris ! I spent a week driving between Santa Fe and Taos chasing down a site that someone told me about for choke cherries. I had gotten some sour cherries from them years ago, made cherry pickles for my mom and was forever hoping to get more. Here we were years later and all of their sour cherries had gone into pies. But I could find some up in Taos. So Up I went to Taos…slowly driving along a very narrow road I saw these dark purple berries. Could those be them I wondered ? Got out to look at the low bushes of these berries and the bark gave it away. Picked quite a few 🙂 Drove back to Santa Fe and was out walking near a park with my auntie and her helper. There not 5 minutes from her home was bush after bush of choke cherries. Moral of the story ? Look closely around your own backyard. What you find there might be treasure !
I envy you your haul of choke cherries! Not abundant at all here, I usually have to buy bird cherry flour online to make the sublime bird cherry cake. I used fruits from my baby Montmorency cherry tree this year, hope to have more in coming years, but may need to net the tree to get enough to do something with. But now you have awakened in me a plan to harvest our abundant serviceberries next year. Timing is hard, to get ripeness before they are gone to the birds. I have young ones planted in the food forest and am hoping they can act as guides, once they begin producing. Your blog is as important to me as my daily food, it's food for my spirit! Hope you never tire of sharing this with us. Cheers, Terry
As a Swede we use jelly of the Rowan tree to go with braised meats and roasts. I have yet to make a succesful rendition of my childhood strangley orange coloured jelly, but it is readily available to buy in any grocery store back home. Now I leave the "rönnbär" to the groosebeaks to feast on. They always make such a lively ruckus.
Great idea Kicki. I haven't tried it with venison yet.
Another you can add to this; in Mexico, indigenous people dry roast the pit of capulines (Prunus serotina subsp. capuli) and crack that open with their teeth to eat the kernel inside. My understanding is it is for respiratory health benefits and to keep the dentists busy, possibly
That's great to know. Thanks for sharing!
I really enjoyed this post, and I definitely think I need to try making bird cherry cake next year! Or at least try my hand at chokecherry patties. Like Jim above, I've also eaten plenty of serviceberries/juneberries raw. Do you know if they also contain amygdalin, maybe just in smaller quantities because the seeds are so small?
Also, do you know of any recipes like this for hawthorn berries? Most uses I've read about for them include a straining step to remove the seeds, but I wasn't sure if that's for safety or for texture. Thanks!
Re: hawthorn, that should be a textural thing, as well as flavor as I assume they could get bitter, but I also wouldn't eat the seeds in large amounts. Side note: the flowers, just before they're open, are a nice garnish, but you shouldn't eat lots of them either.
You say that the amygdalin is denatured by cooking and/or processing. Do you know if drying them is sufficient processing to denature the amygdalin? Or does heat need to be introduced?
Nevermind, I found another website that actually references your book, that heating to 140 F should denature it. I am curious about how the drying works out for denaturing the amygdalin, but am not seeing much reason to trust it except that it was used for some time by indigenous people here in South Dakota just by drying.
I would be curious to know if you have come across anything more specific about drying since the publishing of your book. I am very much looking forward to trying out that cake recipe!
Hi Evan, I was wondering if you could provide the link or resource where you found more info about the heating process? It would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
Marie Viljeon discusses the process in her book Forage Harvest Feast, and Ellen Zachos also describes the process on her website. I should probably add both of those as references.
Any idea if the same applies for pin cherries? I finally found some this year (just a small amount) and was wondering if I could get a dry run of making flour in before black cherries are ripe in a month or so.
It should work fine. I’ve been meaning to get some and try them.
With the warm weather I recently used my frozen away Serviceberries to make ice cream. I followed a recipe for Blueberry ice cream with boiling the serviceberies down do a pulp to reduce the water content. I smelled extremely like almonds. If you hold you nose over the pot almost nausecating. Anyways, after I unsuccessfully tried to strain the seeds out of the pulp I added the milk. Surprisingly all the milk proteins caked up with the pulp and I was left with only the liquid of some berries and the whey with much less flavorful.
Would you have an idea how to minimize the caking? Is there a process I could have done before to avoid this?
Hi Tom. I make lots of ice cream. You have a few options here, but I also need to know more to give you concise answers. If you're using milk-don't. You should be using half and half, or a mixture of cream and milk, or cream and half and half for the best result. One thing to keep in mind here is that serviceberries are very different from blueberries, they don't contain enough liquid to denature an ice cream emulsion. What I would do is this: cook some serviceberries to soften them with the sugar, mashing them up with a spoon. Add the dairy and warm it up, taste and adjust the seasoning, and go from there. The seeds are good to eat, and I wouldn't try to remove them personally. If you want a smooth version you should puree the mixture with the serviceberries, using a pulse setting so as not to puree the seeds. Strain the mixture through a sieve and proceed with the recipe. You could also dehydrate serviceberries, grind them to a flour, and use that in the ice cream base instead. Let me know if that makes sense.
thank you for your ideas - especially dehydrating the berries.
Indeed I would use eventually cream, but only after I added flavor to the milk (the Serviceberries). Like you mentioned I mashed the berries with sugar boiled it down to reduce the water content. When it was a marmalade consistency I added the milk which then denatured the it. I couldn't even add the yolk for the custard or finally adding the cream.
Are you saying instead using only milk in the beginning I should already use a cream/milk mixture (or half and half?) in which I add the berries? No custard base then?
Yeah, I thought the seeds would become too annoying, but after adding the leftover Serviceberry jam to the frozen not so good ice-cream as a topping it wasn't actually bothering.
I am curious what the difference is between half & half vs milk and cream using same proportions.