Homemade maraschino cherries are easy to make, so tasty, and much better for you than store-bought ones. Use them to top ice cream sundaes, cupcakes, or as the perfect cocktail cherries!
What Are Maraschino Cherries?
When most people think of maraschino cherries, they think of the store-bought version – dyed-red cherries that are super sweet from soaking in a sugar syrup. However, maraschino cherries can be easily made at home by steeping fresh cherries in either alcohol or juice.
These cherries are used in many ways:
- The iconic topper to any cupcakes, like classic vanilla cupcakes or cherry cupcakes.
- Topping all kinds of cocktails (kids love them in Shirley Temples and I always use them on my Shirley Temple cupcakes).
- On ice cream sundaes.
- Placed inside of pineapple rings on pineapple upside-down cake.
How Are Maraschino Cherries Made?
The way that the cherries were traditionally made differs from both the process used to make store-bought maraschino cherries as well as the more modern, kid-friendly way of making them.
Classic Cocktail Cherries
Traditionally, Croatian locals preserved Marasca cherries by pickling them and storing them in a liqueur also made from these cherries. These came to be known as maraschino cherries.
The modern, homemade version is frequently called Luxardo cherries. These are made by boiling fresh sweet cherries with maraschino liqueur, a clear, relatively dry liqueur made from these sour Marasca cherries.
These cherries taste like tiny shots of liqueur encased in a piece of fruit.
Store-Bought Maraschino Cherries
The process for making commercial maraschino cherries may turn your stomach.
According to Buzzfeed’s maraschino cherry exposé:
At the processing center, the cherries are bleached in a solution of calcium chloride and sulfur dioxide until they turn yellow. Next, they’re marinated in huge vats of high fructose corn syrup and Red #4.
Of course, this varies by brand. There are plenty of quality store-bought options. For example, Tillen Farms makes one that is free from dyes, corn syrup, artificial colors, and flavors. I suggest reading the ingredients before you make a purchase of any store-bought maraschinos.
Homemade Kid-Friend Maraschino Cherries
This alcohol-free version is made by steeping pitted cherries in juice and spices. I use pomegranate juice, sugar, lemon juice, star anise, and orange peel.
These maraschino cherries are tart, sweet, surprisingly complex, and incredibly inviting.
My recipe was adapted from a recipe that I found in a NPR story by Kara Newman, sourced from Raising the Bar by Nick Mautone. The original recipe called for grape juice, but I switched it to pomegranate to give it more of a grenadine flavor. (If you didn’t know that grenadine comes from pomegranate juice, be sure to read my post on homemade grenadine!)
Which Type of Cherries Work Best?
If you want to be really technical about it, maraschino cherries should be made with Marasca cherries. It’s the cherry that was traditionally used and the one used to create maraschino liqueur.
However, most of us don’t have access to that type of cherry, and really, any cherry will do. When selecting cherries:
- Look for cherries that are really red. You can always add food coloring, but why not try to find cherries that are naturally nice and red?
- Find cherries with long stems. These cherries make a visual statement when you serve them – and they don’t look nearly as nice if the stems are missing or stubby.
- Only buy fresh cherries. This is also about the stems as they are always removed on frozen cherries.
The cherries must be pitted. If you don’t own a cherry pitter, you will definitely want to invest in one. I like the pitters that can pit a bunch of cherries at a time.
How Long Do Maraschino Cherries Last
Both the cocktail cherries and the kid-friendly cherries get better with time. You can eat them right away, but after a few days, the flavors will seep into the cherries a bit more.
Homemade boozy cocktail cherries have a long shelf life because of the alcohol content. I leave those in the fridge for up to a month.
My kid-friendly maraschino cherry recipe lasts for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.
Commercial maraschino cherries last basically forever. I’ve never had one go bad, and I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve had a jar in my fridge for over five years!
Homemade Maraschino Cherries
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 cup pomegranate juice
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 1/2 fluid ounces lemon juice juice from about 3 lemons
- pinch salt
- 1 whole star anise
- peel from one large orange
- 1 pound fresh cherries any kind will do, but I use Rainier cherries
- Remove cherry pits using a cherry pitter.
- In a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat, add everything except the cherries.
- Bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat and simmer until the sugar has dissolved, stirring periodically.
- Add the cherries.
- Simmer on low heat for 10 minutes or until the syrup has a bit of a cherry flavor. (Yes, tasting is part of the recipe. This is the rough part. :)) You don't want to cook the cherries - you just want to bring out some of their flavor.
- Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the entire contents to a bowl (so it doesn't continue cooking).
- Let cool to room temperature.
- Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate.
- Wait about three days and then top your cupcakes, shakes, ice cream sodas, sundaes, Shirley Temples, and anything else you can think of with them. The cherries last for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.