Sour cherry jam is anything but sour! Also known as tart cherries or pie cherries, these bright red beauties pack the most cherry flavor. Once you add a bit of sugar, you’ll have a cherry jam like no other!
Like any good jam, it all starts with the fruit. Sour cherries aren’t generally sold in stores because they don’t transport well. We grow our own crop of tart cherries in our permaculture orchard, and every year I find myself planting one or two more trees to make this sour cherry jam.
This past year we picked our trees clean and then headed down to the pick your own tart cherry farm about 20 miles down the road. An hour later, we left with a trunk full of sour cherries destined for jam, and my home-canned cherry pie filling.
Sour Cherry Jam without Pectin
Cherries, regardless of the variety, are low pectin fruits. Often jam makers add commercial pectin to shortcut the process, but I personally love old-fashioned sour cherry jam without added pectin. It’s just how it would have been made in my grandmother’s day, with a bit of lemon juice to add brightness to the fruit flavor, as well as extra pectin to help the jam gel all on its own.
With a little patience, sour cherry jam without pectin will come together and gel beautifully, and a longer cook time means more intense flavor in the finished jam.
Besides, I prefer the finished texture of pectin-free jams, and this one really stands up beautifully on a spoon…
I like my jams nice and thick, but this sour cherry jam recipe is pretty versatile. Like a runnier jam? No worries, just cook it less.
Start to finish, the cooking time on this extra thick version is about 45 minutes, and you’ll need to monitor the pot every minute. Few fruits foam the way that sour cherries do, and I’ve never had so many close calls with boil overs. That’s saying something, I make literally dozens of types of jam every summer and this one keeps me on my toes.
At about 35 minutes cook time, you’ll have a nice runny sour cherry jam if that’s your thing. Or keep on cooking it until it reaches full gel stage.
How to Make Sour Cherry Jam
Once you’ve harvested the sour cherries, it’s important to process them as quickly as possible. They’re so soft fleshed that any bump or bruise breaks their skin, and if you plucked them without the stems that little wound will begin to brown within hours.
Browning isn’t the end of the world, but they’re at the peak of flavor when freshly harvested. If you can’t make sour cherry jam immediately, get them into the freezer. Freezing them isn’t a bad way to pit them either, they break down in the freezer and then I pick out the pits by hand without a knife or pitter.
Either way, start by pitting the cherries. A sharp knife does the job in a pinch, but if you have more than a few pounds I’d strongly recommend spending the $10 for a small handheld cherry pitter. With an experienced hand, it only takes me about 10 minutes to pit enough for a batch.
Place the pitted cherries in a heavy-bottomed jam pot leaving ample headspace. This year I made it in an enameled cast iron dutch oven (6 quarts) and I really wished I’d used a deeper pot. This jam foams, a lot, and cannot be left unattended.
Add the lemon juice and cook the cherries for about 20 minutes, until they’ve completely fallen apart. If you’re adding pectin, this is when you’d do it, along with the sugar and then you’re jam is complete. (I’ve included this shortcut as an option in the recipe.)
If you’re making sour cherry jam without pectin, add the sugar and keep on cooking the jam for another 20 to 30 minutes until the jam reaches gel stage. Mine took exactly 45 minutes from start to finish on the stove, but stoves vary a bit.
Test for gel stage by spooning a small amount onto a plate that’s been in the freezer, or use an instant-read thermometer. Gel stage is generally 220 degrees, but lower at higher altitudes. For every 500 feet in elevation, it drops by 1 degree. Here at 1000 feet, I finish jams at 218.
Ladle into prepared canning jars and be extra careful to remove bubbles, I had a bit of trouble with de-bubbling this thick jam. Adjust headspace to 1/4 inch and cap with 2 part canning lids.
Canning Sour Cherry Jam
Sometimes it seems a bit silly to can sour cherry jam in my house. The first batch is always eaten up before the month’s out, and canning it almost seems like a waste when it isn’t in the jars for more than a few weeks. Now I just store it in the fridge, and it lasts there about a month.
That said, I always make more than one batch every year, and I squirrel away a few jars of the 2nd and 3rd batches for wintertime. Nothing brings back the warmth of July like a jar of homemade sour cherry jam.
The processing time for sour cherry jam is the same as most other jams, just 10 minutes in a boiling water bath with 1/4 inch headspace.
Be extra careful about de-bubbling your jars as this jam sets up pretty quickly and it can be tricky to de-bubble the jars before they go into the canner. I love these cute anchor hawking jam jars, but next year the cherry jam is going into straight-sided half-pints instead (for easier de-bubbling).
Sour cherry jam is just packed with incredible cherry flavor.
- 3 lbs sour cherries (2 1/2 lbs pitted, or 5 cups pitted)
- Juice of 1 lemon (2 Tbsp.)
- 2 cups sugar (see note)
- Pit fresh 3 lbs sour cherries. If working with pitted fruit, the total weight should be about 2 1/2 lbs pitted, or roughly 5 cups pitted fruit.
- Place the fruit in a heavy-bottomed jam pot along with lemon juice. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
- Cook the cherry mixture, stirring continuously to avoid boil-overs, for about 20 minutes until the fruit has completely fallen apart.
- Add sugar. (If adding pectin, now is the time, see notes).
- Continue cooking the jam until it reaches gel stage, about 25 to 30 more minutes.
- Test for gel stage on a plate that's been placed in the freezer, or with an instant-read thermometer (220 degrees F at sea level).
- Turn off heat and ladle jam into prepared jars. De-bubble, wipe rims and adjust headspace to 1/4 inch. Store in the refrigerator for immediate use (within 1 month), or process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes for a shelf-stable jam.
* With Pectin - I don't use pectin in my sour cherry jam, but this is how you'd do it:
If you prefer to use pectin in your jams, you can obtain a higher yield by adding it after 20 minutes cook time. Cook the cherries for 15-20 minutes first without sugar, then add the pectin and return to a boil for 1 minute. Add the sugar, then return to a boil for one minute. (This is important, as most pectin won't gel if you add the sugar first, but refer to the instructions on the packet as they can vary slightly by brand.)
After 1 minute of boiling, ladle the cherry jam into prepared jars with no further cooking.
If using sure jell, add one packet (1.75 oz) and double the amount of lemon juice to 1/4 cup, and sugar to 4 cups (because it won't gel at lower sugar levels, and the extra lemon is to help balance out all that extra sugar). Alternately, use low sugar pectin and keep the sugar level the same.
If using a low sugar or no sugar pectin, no need to increase the sugar or lemon juice.
Be sure to follow the instructions on the pectin packet, as they can vary slightly as to the order of operations and total cook times.
Liquid pectin works differently and is added after the sugar. Liquid pectin also requires more sugar to gel. I don't recommend liquid pectin, but if you do choose to use it you'll need to use 7-8 cups sugar and add the sugar first before the liquid pectin.
*Sugar Amounts ~ Most sour cherry jam recipes use between 2 and 3 cups of sugar for every 5-6 cups of pitted fruit. I've found this jam to be quite sweet, and the fruit flavor gets more concentrated when you use 2 cups of sugar. That said, the yield is lower. Feel free to increase the sugar to 3 cups if you like very sweet jams, and you'll get a higher yield (but milder cherry flavor).
*Yield ~ The sour cherries will cook down considerably, and though you're starting with a full 3 pounds of fruit the finished yield is just 2 pints. This results in the best cherry flavor in the finished jam, and though the yield is lower, I wouldn't increase sugar or add pectin to up the yield. Quality over quantity!
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Sour Cherry Jam Variations
This year I’d planned on making this sour cherry preserve recipe that includes bourbon as a flavoring, but I forgot once the fruit ripened. Really all I needed to do was add a few tablespoons of bourbon to my existing recipe near the end of cooking and I think it’d be just right. Next year.
I came across a recipe for Cherry Almond Jam by Pomona’s Pectin that looks spectacular. This cherry jam recipe is flavored with cinnamon and almond extract. It’s pictured with black cherries, but it’d work just as well with sour cherries.
While I don’t like to put pectin in my cherry jam, smooth cherry jelly is another story. This year I put about 10 pounds of sour cherries into my steam juicer because I just couldn’t pit one more cherry. The bright flavorful juice went into a batch of cherry wine, as well as a smooth cherry jelly thickened with Pomona’s pectin.
Cherry jam is pretty flexible, and you can add in whatever flavorings you choose, just do it with a careful hand. Things like almond extract, cinnamon, and other spices are quite strong and a little goes a long way.
More Easy Jam Recipes
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