As someone who writes and talks about produce for a living, I probably know more than your average Joe about fruit. But since most of my work is done from behind a computer, getting the opportunity to take a few great food bloggers out to the Rainier Fruit Company cherry farms in Yakima, Washington was an experience I couldn’t turn down. I flew to central Washington with a few Whole Foods Market® colleagues and met Gaby Dalkin of What’s Gaby Cooking, Anjali Prasertong from Eat Your Greens and The Kitchn and Meghann Anderson of Meals and Miles for a two-day cherry immersion.
One of the most surprising parts of the trip was the climate in Yakima Valley, which is technically a desert (no Seattle rains there!) The days in the summer get hot – close to 100 degrees – and then drop 30 to 40 degrees at night, which is ideal for the crops grown there (besides cherries, there are also apples, blueberries, pears, wine grapes and hops).
We spent some time in the fields learning how to pick and what the growers look for. Size is key. Since the size of the pit within the cherry is practically the same for all cherries, the larger the cherry, the more fruit you get in relation to the pit.They also measure the sweetness, or Brix, of the cherry in the field and the warehouse using a refractometer. For cherries, this can run anywhere from 17 – 30 percent sugar.
We aren’t the only ones who love cherries – birds do too. Rainier employs several methods to keep their crops safe. Bird netting hangs over many of the crops which not only helps keeps birds out, but also maintains a more moderate temperature. They also have falconers who train falcons to help keep unwanted birds away.
Cherries are highly perishable, so right after picking, they are whisked away to the warehouse where they are quickly cooled with water to 40 degrees (optimal for testing) and then tested for five qualities:
- Stem diameter
The cherries then begin their “water slide” to get cooled and sorted. Rainier again uses hydrocoolers to get the cherries down to the right temperature for storage and shipping. It starts with a team who sorts the cherries looking for any defects (such as rain damage or size issues). Any cherries that don’t make the cut get pulled out and sold to companies that make maraschino cherries or jam. The cherries then slide through machines that sort them by size.
It’s usually just twenty-four hours from farm to truck, so often the cherries you see in stores were still on the tree just two to three days earlier, depending on where you are – talk about fresh! But eating them off the tree, it doesn’t get any fresher than that. The best part of the day was the side-by-side tasting of five different cherry varieties: Lapin, Skeena, Rainier, Sweetheart and Bing. I had to go back for several tastes, just to make sure I could pick a favorite. Mine happened to be the Sweetheart because of the balance between tart and sweet flavors, but they were all really delicious.
The varieties aren’t always called out on the signs in our stores, so next time you’re shopping for cherries, ask a produce team member which varieties they have in that day.
Thanks to our fearless bloggers for joining us in the fields and to Rainier Fruit Company for a great couple days learning all about cherries. Now I really am an expert in the field!
Do you fancy yourself a cherry expert? What’s your favorite variety?