Find out how to turn wild black cherries (Prunus serotina) into fermented wild black cherry cordial – a delicious, fizzy, probiotic health tonic!
Native black cherry trees: trash or treasure?
Our native wild black cherry trees (Prunus serotina) seem to be held in generally low regard. The only people who seem to like the trees are cabinetmakers and furniture makers due to the beautiful colorations and grain patterns of the dense wood.
However, farmers dislike the trees since cyanogenic compounds in the leaves sicken or kill their livestock when eaten. And nobody seems to care much for the tiny bittersweet wild cherries that the tree produces, other than some old timers who make them into jellies, pies, and sauces.
Nevertheless, we’ve absolutely fallen in love with wild black cherry trees ever since we experimented with the fruit for the first time. So in case you were wondering: yes, wild black cherries are edible and they can make really good food and beverages IF you know how to use them…
Foraging wild black cherries
Years back while out foraging for chanterelle mushrooms, we walked out of the woods into a clearing to find a patch of black cherry trees with low-hanging branches completely covered with ripe wild black cherry fruit. We quickly found room in our harvest basket for both mushrooms and wild cherries.
A little over a week later, we’d turned them into a test batch of fermented “sparkling” (due to the bubbly effervescence) wild black cherry cordial ready to drink. We LOVED it, as did our dinner guests.
What do wild black cherries taste like?
Wild black cherries taste similar to domesticated cherries, but: a) they’re far less sweet, and b) their flavor is much more intense. This flavor difference is likely due to higher concentrations of the wild cherries’ unique antioxidant compounds.
The key to getting the best tasting wild black cherries is to pick them at peak ripeness when they’re so dark purple they appear black and the small fruits are plump and slightly soft to the touch. Under-ripe fruit is more bitter and less flavorful.
The wild fermentation process in this recipe (below) adds sweetness and bubbles. This combination enhances the flavor of the drink while adding a visceral dynamism to each sip.
Chokecherries vs chokeberries vs wild black cherries
Before diving into the recipe, an important botanical distinction between three fruit species with similar names that often get confused. What’s the difference between chokecherries, chokeberries, and wild black cherries?
Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) is another wild cherry species similar to wild black cherries (Prunus serotina). Yes, chokecherries are edible, but they’re not as good for eating as their wild black cherries. Nevertheless, you could substitute chokecherries 1:1 for wild black cherries in this recipe.
- Chokecherry fruit is more bitter in flavor and ripens to dark red, unlike wild black cherries which ripen to purple-black.
- Chokecherries are a large shrub common in the northern half of the US, but they don’t grow in the southern half of the US. Wild black cherries are trees that grow in the eastern half of the US from Florida to Maine.
Chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa) are in a completely different genus than either wild black cherries or chokecherries, e.g they are not cherries. Chokeberries would NOT make a good substitution for wild black cherries in this recipe.
- Chokeberries and wild black cherries both produce dark purple-black fruit when ripe. However, chokeberries’ flavor is extremely astringent.
- Chokeberries are small shrubs. Wild black cherries are trees. Both species have significant range overlap (the eastern half of the US).
Read our article Aronia: How to grow or forage the world’s highest antioxidant fruit for more on this plant.
How to make fermented wild black cherry cordial (steps and process photos)
We share our exact fermented wild black cherry recipe at the bottom of this article, but we also wanted to add some process photos to help you more easily make this recipe:
Step 1: Smash the cherries.
First, you’ll want to mush the cherries to get them ready for fermentation. You can use a kitchen implement such as a potato masher for this part if you’d prefer, but using your hands is easiest and doesn’t risk significantly damaging the pits. (Like cherries, peaches, and other stone fruit, wild black cherry pits contain amygdalin, which is a type of cyanogenic glucoside.)
You want the skins on all the fruit broken open to accelerate fermentation and flavor release.
2. Add other ingredients, then cover container with breathable cloth.
Next soon add water, sugar, and citric acid to the cherries.
We recommend using a glass or ceramic container, not plastic (including so-called “food safe” plastic) or metal. Otherwise, compounds from the container will likely leach into your fermentation.
Cover your jar with a breathable lid, such as a linen towel. Then affix the linen to the container with a string or rubber band. Place your wild black cherry ferment in a cool spot out of the sun, and begin stirring it vigorously with a clean spoon for about 1 minute every 12 hours. We stir ours in the morning after we wake up and at night before going to bed.
In the above picture, notice the stratification of the layers prior to stirring:
- Bottom – The bottom layer is full of sediment, pits, and fine particles, including lees.
- Middle – The middle layer is water/juice.
- Top – The top layer is comprised of larger pieces of cherry skins and pulp that float to the surface atop millions of tiny CO2 bubbles created by the respiring microbes. You can tell by the quantity of bubbles that there’s a lot of good microbial activity happening here!
3. Stir and taste until your wild black cherry cordial is done after about 1 week (or according to your taste preferences).
After 2-3 days, your fermented wild black cherry cordial should start to look very bubbly, like the picture above, especially as you stir it. Each time you stir, taste a small amount of your cordial to monitor how the flavor and effervescence are progressing. (Don’t double dip, or you’ll be introducing microbes from your mouth.)
When is your fermented cherry cordial done? That’s somewhat subjective, depending on your taste preferences. Less days = sweeter and less bubbly. More days = less sweet (aka dryer) and more bubbly.
Our personal preference? We usually consider our fermented wild black cherry cordial done after about 1 week, from start to finish.
4. Strain, bottle, and refrigerate.
Once your fermented wild black cherry cordial is finished to your liking, you’ll want to strain out all the solids. We start with a metal pasta strainer to get the large bits out (be sure to squeeze out those solids by hand to get out the liquid!).
After a couple runs through the pasta strainer, we use a fine-mesh strainer to get out the smaller particulates. From there, we pour the cordial into airtight jars.
Swing-top bottles work best. However, over the years, we’ve also used canning jars and old wine bottles. Regardless, don’t use plastic or metal.
Once bottled, immediately store your fermented wild black cherry cordial in your fridge. The cold will arrest fermentation, slowing the microbial activity to a crawl. This also slows the rate of respiration meaning CO2 bubbles aren’t rapidly building up inside the jar (just enough to make it nice and bubbly when you open and serve it).
Tip: Use a sticker or permanent marker to denote what’s in the jar and the date you put it in your fridge. Otherwise, if your life (and fridge) is like ours, you’ll soon forget.
Warning: Whatever you do, do NOT bottle and store your fermented wild black cherry cordial at room temperature. Pressure from the active fermentation inside will eventually build up to the point that the bottles explode, which could be quite dangerous.
How long will your cherry cordial store in the fridge? Many months.
In fact, our family has even found accidentally “aged” cordials in the back of our fridge that were up to a couple of years old. The flavor was far less sweet and more nuanced than young ferments, but still delicious.
Can you make other fruit cordials using this method?
We’ve got wonderful new for you: you can use the same method from this wild black cherry cordial recipe to make delicious ferments from virtually any fresh, seasonal fruit you pick! The same basics also apply to fermented flower cordials: wisteria, elderflowers, honeysuckle, etc. (See recipe links at bottom of this article.)
Modify ingredient ratios according to your tastes and the inherent sweetness/sugar content of the fruit you’re using. For instance, strawberries are much sweeter than wild black cherries, so we’d bump down the sugar and bump up the acid/lemon juice.
Recommended items for making wild black cherry cordial (and similar fermented beverages)
Here are a few things we mention in the recipe that we highly recommend you get if you plan to regularly make fermented beverages:
- Anchor Hocking Heritage Hill Glass Jar (2 gallon or 1 gallon) – *Again, we don’t recommend putting acidic foods or making ferments in plastic containers even if they’re labeled BPA-free
- Reusable, flip-top brew bottles that automatically release the potential pressure building in your stored jars caused by the CO2.
- Organic raw cane sugar – Contains more flavor and micronutrients than highly refined sugar and it’s grown in a way that isn’t absolutely horrid for the environment and farm workers. (Read here and here for reference.)
- High quality citric acid
Recipe: Fermented wild black cherry cordial (from Prunus serotina)
Now let’s get fermenting!
Fermented wild black cherry cordial (Prunus serotina)
A surprisingly simple recipe that lets you turn wild black cherries (Prunus serotina) into fermented wild black cherry cordial - a delicious, fizzy, probiotic health tonic!
- 5 cups ripe wild black cherries raw/uncooked
- 15 cups cold water
- 5 cups raw organic cane sugar
- 2 teaspoons citric acid if you'd prefer to use lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon powdered citric acid = 1 Tablespoon lemon juice, so use 8 tablespoons of lemon juice
If necessary, clean cherries by floating them in a large pot of cold water. Any debris or insects will rise to the surface and can be poured off into the sink. Then strain out the cherries.
In a large glass jar (we used a 2 gallon jar linked in the supplies section above article) thoroughly smash the raw cherries by hand or with a kitchen implement.
Add in all the other ingredients, and stir until the sugar has dissolved. If the sugar doesn't completely dissolve no worries - it will over the next 24 hours.
Cover jar with a cheese cloth or a linen towel (tie on with string or rubber band to ensure cloth is secure). It's very important that the cordial can breathe but no insects like fruit flies can get into the container. Store in a climate controlled location out of direct sunlight - ideally a kitchen counter.
Set a phone/calendar reminder to stir the concoction at least once every 24 hours, but every 12 hours is ideal. This helps the native yeasts and beneficial bacteria on the fruit breathe and proliferate. They're the good critters that you're selecting for and feeding with sugar and fruit juice/skins. The longer you allow the fermentation to continue, the more sugar the culture will consume and the less sweet the final product will taste. As the sucrose (sugar) is digested by the yeasts; they produce carbon dioxide, which creates the delightful tiny bubbles in your ferment) and a small amount of ethanol (alcohol).
Taste a teaspoon of your wild cherry cordial daily after each stir so you can bottle it exactly at the point that you prefer it. We like a slightly sour, very bubbly wild cherry cordial, which usually takes between 5-7 days.
Once the flavor and bubbles are just right for you, strain out all the pits, skin, and pulp so all you're left with is a dark red/purple liquid. You may need to strain a few times and/or do final strainings through a fine-mesh strainer.
Pour strained liquid into jars and store in your fridge immediately. The cold temps of your fridge drastically slow microbial activity, essentially putting the microbes to sleep and slowing the fermentation process to a crawl. This allows your living cherry cordial to be safely stored in the fridge for months or even years. Drink and enjoy!
Is fermented wild black cherry cordial an alcoholic beverage?
In case you’re wondering, this recipe produces a very lightly alcoholic beverage on par with homemade kombucha, probably somewhere in the ABV range of 1 – 2.5%. If you want a more alcoholic beverage, you can use the cordial as a base for a mixed drink.
Let us know how your first (or next) batch of fermented wild black cherry cordial turns out!
Is fermented black cherry cordial a probiotic or prebiotic?
Our fermented wild black cherry cordial falls into the category of a “probiotic” because it contains lots of beneficial gut-friendly microbes. However, since the fibrous parts of the fruit are strained out, it’s not a “prebiotic.”
What other recipes can you make with wild black cherries?
Another delicious wild black cherry recipe you’ll love is wild black cherry chilled soup, inspired by the Eastern European dish meggyleves:
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