sour cherry compote

Growing up, we had a sour cherry tree in the backyard. And I hated it. I hated it because it was cruel in a way that kids think they’re intimately familiar with–shiny, perfect-looking thing dangled inches from your face that when you reach for, is totally disappointing, crushing even (because when you’re a kid, it’s all very dramatic).

Sour doesn’t even aptly describe what these cherries taste like; they’re more along the lines of “caustic” and “acerbic,” especially if you’re a kid. I never understood how something that looked like the very embodiment of cherry perfection–round, bright red marbles hanging from a tree–could taste so awful, but they did.


I don’t think it was until I had moved to New York that I came across sour cherries in a format I wholly approved of: a sour cherry crumble bar. Unfortunately, it was very “unapproved” way–in a take-away box from some uppity coffee shop in my apartment refrigerator, and it belonged to my roommate. So I only had A Taste. (Don’t ever live with me, people. I cannot be trusted.) Just a little evening off the side, and then a little more leveling so it looked better, and then pushed it so far back in the fridge I believe the roommate found it months later and didn’t recognize it.

It was, in a word, amazing. And it had taken me 27 years to realize that sour cherries made the best kind of dessert. Of course, when I called my mother to say that I finally had the perfect plan for those sour cherries that mostly went to waste she told me that the tree? It died. And they’d had it removed. Like, years ago. And I was crushed.


So when Alex picked up the prettiest batch of sour cherries from the Greenmarket last month, I had great plans for them. But, as the days got busier, I realized I wouldn’t have time to do anything grand with them, so I pitted and froze them and there they sat in the freezer for four weeks, taunting Alex. (Who, sour-lover that he is, found them to be as delicious as ice pops.)

pour some sugar

With the summer almost gone and still lacking any interest in cooking things that take more than 20 minutes, I was feeling the pressure to use these guys up while they were still vaguely seasonal, when I remembered a recipe I’d seen for a compote that takes no time at all. In the week since, we’ve put it on everything from slices of angel food cake to my morning yogurt. I can only imagine how amazing it would be over ice cream or panna cotta or cheesecake or pancakes or or or… your spoon. Yes, that too.

sour cherry compote

Cherries, previously: Sweet Cherry Pie, Coconut Pinkcherry Yogurt and Cherry Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake

One year ago: Double Chocolate Torte

Sour Cherry Compote
Adapted from an old Bon Appetit recipe

Makes 2 cups

2/3 cup water
6 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
2 1/2 cups (1 pound) cherries, pitted

Combine water, sugar and lemon juice in heavy medium saucepan. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into saucepan; add bean. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil until thin syrup forms, about 7 minutes. Reduce heat to medium; add cherries. Stir 1 minute. At this point, if you would like to keep your cherries whole and lovely as they are, stop cooking it and you’re done. I ended up letting mine simmer about 5 minutes more, until the cherries were slightly more broken down, but quite far from a jam. Cool the compote, then cover and chill until cold.

Do ahead: Keeps in the fridge for at least a week.

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71 comments on sour cherry compote

  1. I thought all cherries tasted that way until just last week when I tried some sweet cherries at my mom’s. I could never figure out what kind of crazy people would eat cherries. Now I get it. And I need a pie recipe.

  2. nia

    we have a sour cherry tree in our yard and my husband uses the cherries to make the northern wisconsin favorite “cherry bounce.” (cherries, sugar and brandy) we had a great harvest in july and i made a sour cherry sauce with shallots, vinegar etc and poured it over grilled pork tenderloin…yum. i agree they are a cruel fruit they look like maraschinos, taste like lemons….

  3. i love, love, love sour cherries but, i didn’t even know sour cherries existed until like 5 years ago. all i had ever had were the very dark red variety. sweet and wonderful, but too sweet for cherry desserts. this compote sounds so good.

  4. SAS

    I love sour cherries and was thinking they would be really good in that blueberry crumble bar recipe of yours! Could use a few cans of the Oregon (brand) sour cherries. Try Eagle Brand Cherry Cream pie if you love sour cherries! My family has been making that pie for years!

  5. My god I love this blog.
    The beautiful pictures add so much to the already amazing recipes.
    An alternative name could be “the daily drool”…
    So, greetings and thanks all the way from Sweden, I appreciate this blog alot and once I get my kitchen up and running Im gonna try and make some of the delicious stuff thats on here…

  6. Nancy

    We, too, had a sour cherry tree in the back yard. If you think they tasted nasty, try getting squirted in the eye when you were pitting them! We would can them, freeze them, and make pie filling. Once a year, Mom would surprise us and make “Cherry Puddin’.” That’s how we prounounced it: pud · in. We always looked forward to it because we would have it for dinner! Yes, dinner. It really wasn’t a pudding, it was more like a cake. But too sweet and dense to be a traditional cake. In bowls with just a tiny bit of milk (because I didn’t want mine turning to mush and destroying that sweet crust on top) with big frosty glasses of milk. My brothers and sister and I would fight for the corners, all caramel and crusty.
    Oh, thank you for that sweet memory! Now, I gotta go find some sour cherries because my sister’s coming to spend the weekend.

  7. I also learned to appreciate the tartness of sour cherries later in life. I can’t say that I eat them from the tree now, but I love cooking them down to draw out their natural sweetness. The compote looks amazing… I would opt for the ice cream option :)

  8. I think I had the same tree– and my siblings and I would dare each other to eat them, or scam the neighborhood kids in to trying them to see their faces pucker up. It has screwed me up for good though– I just tried my first sweet cherry last year and while I finally understood how people can like them, I still can’t get past the sour memories. I wish I could though, this looks lovely!

  9. I grew up with cherry trees on our farm. Then I bought a house that had a lovely sour cherry tree in the front yard. I was lucky and made use of all those fabulous cherries, whether picking and eating them straight from the tree or baking them in a pie.

    Now I live in a city, and have not one single tree in my yard. Sigh…

  10. Looks great, Sour cherries are hard to find where i live (UK), But i will look for frozen ones in the shop.Your recipe looks easy enough to make and photos look cool too:-)
    X M

  11. Over ice cream…yep, gonna have to try that one. I’ve never had a sour cherry. Cherries were not the most popular fruit where I grew up, so it’s only now that I’ve ventured up north a bit that I’m realizing what I missed all those years!

  12. Susan

    We had neighbors that had 2 sour cherry trees in their front yard when I was a kid. Fortunately, the neighbor was generous and shared with my Mom. Oh how I loved Mom’s cherry pie and her steamed cherry pudding. The only sour cherries I get now are in a can or dried. Smart you for freezing them for this. Sometimes I think previously frozen fruits work better than fresh for recipes that are baked in pies or cook at high heat with sugar. They seem more resilient and hold shape better. I actually prefer blueberries that have been frozen in a pie and will freeze fresh ones deliberately if I’m going to use them for that purpose. Cherries, I imagine, would be better that way as well.

  13. Maggi

    I love, Love, L O V E sour cherries! So much so, that for Mother’s day this year, my husband planted two sour cherry trees in the back yard so I will (hopefully) be able to pick cherries right in my own back yard instead of driving an hour to haul back (I kid you not) 30 lbs of cherries each trip.

    To me, sour cherry is what *real* cherries taste like. And making a compote or cherry pie filling (same recipe, just add some cornstarch) is an easy way to enjoy them.

  14. roohbaroo

    i’ve made a sour cherry pollo (iranian rice dish) before that’s outstanding – but only with sour cherries in a jar (which are pretty hard to find). i’m ashamed to say i didn’t even know you could buy them fresh! i’ll be on the lookout.

  15. Christina

    I, too, LOVE sour cherries. I can’t bear to eat the sweet ones in any form. And it must be genetic, because both my children have happily gobbled up cherry pie that I forgot to put the sugar in! When I brought cherries home from the Greenmarket this year, the one-year old wouldn’t eat anything else.
    I gotta figure out how to get a backyard with cherry trees for Mother’s Day.

  16. Allie

    are they still in season in northeast – since you bought them a week ago? if not, are they sold frozen? btw, you should do a post on what to do with perishable items one buys and then needs to ignore for a while (freezing pitted cherries is a great idea; what can you do with other fruits and veggies?)

  17. ekg

    Living in Oregon you’d think I’d have plenty of access to sour cherries. Cherries come from here! But, alas, all I can find are sweet cherries ~ Bings, Raniers, etc. Every year I search for sour cherries to freeze for Thanksgiving pies and so far, nothing but disappointment. I’m not giving up, though! I will have my sour cherries! Or, sigh, make the cherry pies with canned fruit… again.

  18. deb

    Allie — They might still be in season. I saw them at the Greenmarket as recently as two weekends ago. However, these were purchased last month. I have seen sour cherries sold frozen, and see no reason they wouldn’t work if you can’t find them fresh. Sour cherries have a very short season, so I’d definitely look out for them sooner than later.

  19. Heather

    My mother in law has a sour cherry tree. Before I met my husband, I did not like anything cherry (too reminiscent of cough syrup from my childhood). She made a cherry pie and reluctantly I tried it (to be a good daughter in law to be). It was amazing! Since then I have been confiscating sour cherries from her to make pies, crisps, cobblers, and put them in steel cut oats and muffins. This is definitely a recipe I will try. This year I bought ten pounds of cherries from a local farm market and froze a bunch. Can’t wait!

  20. I’m thinking these cherries would be good in that early fall coffee recipe of earlier. I’m just betting they will be good there. Ummm …
    I last made a sour cherry pie about 20 years ago. I love them!

  21. Tim

    Mmm, sour cherries. Unfortunately it’s not cherry season here, but summer’s just around the corner (when it’s as cold as it is now, 6 months counts as just around the corner).

  22. I order a 10# tub of pitted sour cherries every summer.A local apple orchard takes orders for Michigan cherries. I bag them in freezer bags(enough for a pie)and have sour cherry pie all winter. (Thanksgiving, Christmas,Valentines,and of course Washingtons’ Birthday) It’s my brothers favorite pie. I always save back a bag forvisit from him, as he lives across the country from me.

  23. ooh sour cherries, I love them too, and do you know cherry soup? it’s more or less the same recipe that you do, just add small semolina dumplings and don’t let the soup get too cold, it tastes great when the weather is boiling hot, cold or even heated.

  24. Ahh, you’re so lucky that you have a sour cherry tree in your yard, growing up – it’s far too cold where I live to have fruit trees :0( That compote looks incredible!

  25. This might sound strange, but I don’t think I’ve ever had sour cherries before. Maybe I’ll luck out and they’ll show up at the grocery soon, but its been nothing but sweet and rainier for me (which I love, but I’m always up for something new). This compote sounds like a great thing to have around

  26. Hey Deb
    Great post, and one that I can appreciate only too well. I recently did a post about the “little” sour cherry tree I have, but had completely forgotten. After picking the cherries, I too was in a temporary quandry as to what my next step would be. After “storing” the cherries for a couple of days, I wound up making a lovely sour cherry coffee cake. Thanks for the warm memories.

  27. santadad

    What Deb doesn’t remember is that the “tree” involved us in a battle each year with the birds and squirrels. If we didn’t get to the tree on the first day that the cherries were ripe (make that the first hour), the birds and squirrels would leave it bare.

    The cherry wood made great aromatic fuel for our fire place though.

  28. ella – looking for advice!

    Hi Deb –
    Nothing to do with sour cherries, but I am in a bit of a quandary and hope you (or one of your readers) can help! I tried to make these pumpkin chocolate truffles. I doubled the recipe but I goofed the pumpkin – used half a 15-oz can instead of half a cup. Now the mixture is goopy and won’t shape into nice round truffles. So instead I made a flourless chocolate torte. My question is, can I use some of the truffle goop to “frost” the cake so I don’t have to throw away all that good chocolate? thx in advance!

  29. “Keeps in the fridge for at least a week”

    Oh yeah. Like it would last that long.I can see myself sitting down with the pot and eating it all with a spoon, beating off the kids with a flyswatter. Cherries around here (South Georgia) are as expensive as fine wine, so I don’t buy them. Peaches we have, but not cherries. Alas.

    BTW, your photography is inspiring. I am trying to do some of my own, but I haven’t figured out the aesthetics of it all yet.

  30. My grandmother had a sour cherry tree in her back yard, and the most disappointing part for me was not how sour they were, but that the birds and squirrels ate them all before I could ever get to one.

    …and this compote does sound delicious. If I run into any sour cherries, I’m going to have to give it a try

  31. oh my!!! I just discovered sour cherries this summer at the farmers market and can’t wait until next year :)

    love your site, great stories, fantastic photos, and the recipes!

  32. Lo

    Oh, how I love sour cherries!
    This compote sounds like just the thing to add to my summer fruit recipe collection. The photo of the cherries sizzling away in the pan is fab!

  33. Sam

    I used to live up in the foothills southwest of Denver (live in the city now). My next door neighbor had a sour cherry tree and she’d tell me every year to come over and pick it clean since she got “so tired” of them. So, every year, I’d pick it clean for her. I couldn’t stand the tartness of them but got around that just fine: you wouldn’t believe how many jars of Sour Cherry Chutney I made in those years! A terrific way, besides compote or pie, to use the things!

  34. Pat Hendrickson

    If you are planning on planting a cherry tree I would recommend a Semi-Dwarf Montmerancy.We had one for years on our Kansas farm. It was small enough to pick from with a step ladder and produced many buckets of fruit. The cherries had a less tart flavor than other cherries, and there seemed to be enough for us and the birds.

  35. Johanna

    Here in Ontario, Canada, we can buy frozen cherries in pails. This blog has inspired me to haul that big pail of cherries out of the freezer and make some compote with it, but I would love the Cherry Crumble Bars recipe!
    We can buy beautiful baskets of sour cherries brought to our Farmer’s Market from the Niagara Peninsula during early July. Pitting them is truly a labour of love, but once a year I make a fresh sour cherry pie. Heaven on earth!

  36. Oooooh yum yum yum. I love sour cherries, and I often buy tons of them for the 8 minutes they’re in season and pit and freeze them. And I might have eaten some frozen, right out of the bag like Alex, maybe I might possibly have done that…

    Your compote sounds divine and I think I might have some of those cherries left in the freezer… :)

  37. My fellow rollergirl and I went crazy this year with the urban foraging of sour cherries in our town. We’d drive as close to a tree as possible in her truck, set up a step ladder in the back bed, and then climb all over the thing picking as many cherries as possible. Then we’d move on to the next tree.

    I have 4 bags of precious precious frozen cherries.

  38. Karen

    We just this year discovered our sour cherry tree (last year, when we first moved in, a frost had killed all the blossoms that spring). While fighting the birds, we managed to get enough for the equivalent of three pies–not shabby.

    At first, my husband was suspicious. They were sour, he said, and therefore not cherries. They could be poisonous. Even though I had Googled sour cherries and pointed out the resemblance between them and our tree, he insisted on eating the first slice and waiting 24 hours for any ill effects before the rest of the family ate any.

    He said he had no idea there were two kinds of cherries, and that he always had wondered why the fresh cherries we bought to eat tasted so different from those in cherry pie. :)

    I love pie cherries, and could eat a ton of this compote.

  39. If you still have an Agway store near you, you can often order frozen goods from them. Much of it is prepared food, but we can buy unsweetened frozen sour cherries. They are IQF (individually quick frozen) so you can scoop out just what is needed for any given recipe. I belong to a Community Supported Agriculture farm where we have the opportunity to buy them (low spray, not organic) each year mid-July. I drain the juice out of the bucket and savor it for days. Then I spread the cherries on cookie sheets overnight and throw them in one big bag in the morning – my own IQF!. It’s time consuming that first day, but you’re set for the rest of the year – just grab and bake.

  40. Julianne

    What does one do with a compote exactly? I’m still learning my way around the kitchen and this looks good but do you eat it by itself or put it on something?

  41. Chris

    LOVE LOVE LOVE sour cherries. Made this compote, very tasty, but I think I’d have omitted the vanilla – it was awfully overpowering (so I ate all the compote with vanilla ice cream and hardly noticed). Next time I’ll probably just add a dash of almond extract (cliche, I know, but some cliches exist for good reason).

  42. arlene christiansen

    I bought a pail of sour cherries. Do I drain off the juice? or measure out 4 cups of cherries for a pie and add juice?


  43. MJ

    Late to the party here, but having just made a double batch of the compote (with the vanilla for a single batch), I too would leave out the vanilla. I also ended up re-boiling the syrup for quite a while to thicken it a little. This is the first SK recipe that I’ve made, of many, that hasn’t totally wowed me. If you’re looking for a way to use the fabulous sour cherries now on the market, try Deb’s sour cherry slab pie, which is to die for.

  44. TerriSue

    Dear Deb,
    Since I have been with you from almost the very start I was surprised to find a recipe I had never seen. What caught my eye though was your description of living with a cherry tree growing up. I did too, but I had a completely different reaction. I used to love to go out in the hot afternoon just to pick a few cherries and pop them in my mouth. I loved the hot sour juice explosion. We live in Texas now and you can’t get fresh sour cherries here for love nor money. The trees won’t grow here, so I’m stuck with canned or frozen. I can’t wait to try your recipe.

  45. Catherine

    With sour cherry season leaving us quickly, I had to share my favorite way to make a basic cherry compote. I found it in my grandmother’s copy of Larousse Gastronomique, and I’ve never seen it done this way anywhere else.

    Basically, for every pound of pitted cherries, you cook 300g of sugar with 90g of water to the firm ball stage (245 degrees F). Then you quickly add the pitted cherries and their juice and stir it together. You cook the whole mess, covered, over low heat for 8 minutes. (Don’t let it boil over like I did.) Afterwards, you can flavor it as desired (vanilla, almond, lemon, etc.) It keeps the cherry flavor very, very fresh. I was so excited by my results I had to call to tell my mom. (Moms are awesome!)

  46. I just made this compote and it turned into a watery soup. What did I do wrong? Wish I had read the comment about re-boiling the syrup before I made this. It was still yummy though. We have a sour cherry tree in our yard, but we compete with the birds for the cherries. The birds won this year, but I still picked a nice big bowl of goodness. Also, I added some fresh raspberries and fresh blueberries at the very very end and they were a pretty addition.

  47. Betty

    My compote recipe is very similar, but I add a tablespoon of Cointreau at the end. Triple Sec will have a similar result. The alcohol cooks out, but it really adds depth to the flavour. I add some cherry compote in my peach pie and also in peach grunt (fruit stewed with dumplings); the sweet and the sour combine well together and it’s quite pretty. It’s great in gelato too. I tried clafouti for the first time (Martha Stewart recipe); not bad, but will have to work on this a bit more. This compote freezes really well if you can’t use it all at once. Sour cherry trees easily grow where its cold. I’m from Calgary, Alberta Canada and the fresh fruit on our tree is lovely tasting and bountiful.

  48. Madame Baker

    I was one of those people who ate sweet cherries by the bowlful as a child. When my husband planted a cherry tree a few years ago, I was thrilled! It was much to my dismay to find out it was the sour variety of Montmorency. Thanks to you and this recipe these cherries are now absolutely delicious! Our otherwise inedible cherries were wonderful over vanilla ice cream last night. I can’t wait to come up with other uses.

  49. Sara

    I just made a double batch with cherries from my friend’s tree. Delicious over vanilla ice cream! The entire family loves it!

  50. James

    I have a sour cherry tree in my back yard so I decide to make this, minus the vanilla, and I put it on my homemade New York cheesecake. Super yummy!

  51. Nicole

    I will make this today with a bag of sour cherries from my neighbour’s tree. I have been looking everywhere for a recipe for a sour cherry topping on a pavlova. I think it will be a winning dessert for our Canadian Thanksgiving tomorrow.

  52. Susan Epstein

    I know this is a very old post and don’t know if you’ll see this. As a former Michigander who visits Traverse City (“cherry capital of the world”) I have to tell you that NY sour cherries don’t hold a candle to those. I used some NY cherries from my farmers market last summer for your slab pie, which was delicious and a big hit but didn’t really satisfy my cherry jonesing. I may try buying frozen Michigan cherries one of these days.

  53. Caroline Scott

    Yes, this is a very late response to this post, but I see that someone else was late to the party too! I found an on-line source for sour cherries that are individually frozen, that I am going to use this year when I make Tart Cherry Jam. I usually frequent the small Russian Groceries, here in the Boston area, but they do not always carry them, or, I can try the Armenian Grocery Stores, but they are hit and miss. I love sour cherries, always have, and prefer them to sweet cherries. I knew of an abandoned tree as a child, where no one else would eat them because they were sour, so they were all mine! Unfortunately, someone chose to cut down that tree and then I moved and could not find them. I will post if the cherries I have found on-line are as good as I hope they are. There are never enough sour cherry recipes in my mind!

  54. Sarah

    I made this tonight with sour cherries I had picked, but didn’t know what to do with. This was so delicious! I ate some on top of plain, Greek yogurt with a drizzle of honey and it was so delicious I couldn’t help but eat a second bowl. I can also see how this would be so good served on ice cream, especially warm right off the stove so the ice cream melts a bit! Thanks for another delicious recipe, Deb!