feasting with friends

Michigan Monday: Traverse City Cherry BBQ Sauce

The state of Michigan has many good things going for it… the Great Lakes, the 2 peninsulas, the auto industry, Motown… but one of the things it’s most famous for is cherries.


The shore of Lake Michigan is lined with cherry orchards. Michigan’s cherry production is over 250 million pounds and accounts for approximately 75% of the tart cherries and 20% of the sweet cherries grown in the United States each year. Not too shabby!


Here are a few cherry facts to contemplate…

  • There are about 7,000 cherries on an average tart cherry tree. It takes about 250 tart cherries to make a cherry pie, so the average tree produces enough cherries for 28 pies.
  • The average American consumes about one pound of tart cherries per year.
  • The third week of July is usually the peak of the cherry harvest. Most sweet cherries are still picked by hand, but most tarts are harvested using a mechanical shaker.


The city of Traverse City is host to the National Cherry Festival each July. The festival, from what I hear, was a huge hit this year… it was in the beginning of the month. Thankfully, we are able to acquire these juicy sweet cherries with a short trip to Eastern Market in Detroit. We can arrive at Eastern Market it about 40 minutes, whereas Traverse City is a 4 hour drive.


Visiting Traverse City is a welcoming experience. The area has so much to offer… and as much fun as the festival is, I much prefer visiting the area when there are fewer tourists.


The day I made the BBQ sauce, it was to use on chicken we were grilling for dinner. We had a lot of chicken because I thought Travis was coming to dinner…he didn’t, which meant leftover chicken had taken up residence in the refrigerator. The salad you see above was born from those leftovers.

BBQ chicken, fresh cut mixed greens from our garden and an array of veggies on hand. For the salad dressing, we concocted a superb vinaigrette by simply mixing (about 1/2 and 1/2) the Cherry BBQ Sauce and my Creamy Greek Yogurt Vinaigrette (recipe, here). It was the perfect topping!


So… let’s get back to the sauce. The “hardest” part is pitting the cherries… the rest is simply measuring, stirring and pureeing. Best part? Only one pot to wash!

Note: I used a 1 quart jar of canned tomatoes, but you can easily substitute a 25 ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes. 

Traverse City Cherry BBQ Sauce

  • Servings: about 2 quarts
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

3 Tablespoons butter
1 Vidalia onion (or other sweet onion if Vidalias are not available), chopped
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 quart tomatoes (or 25 ounce can whole, peeled)
3 cups pitted sweet cherries
1 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
2/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 Tablespoon Kosher salt
1 Tablespoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ancho chili powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper

Melt butter a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the rest of the ingredients, stir well to combine. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat until a low simmer is achieved.

Simmer approximately 1 hour, or until sauce is thickened and reduced by about one-third.

Puree the sauce by either transferring the sauce to the jar of a blender or using an immersion blender.

Store BBQ sauce in the refrigerator for up to one month.

Recipe adapted from here.



  1. I love the flavors, it sounds amazing with the addition of the cherries Nancy. Thank you for sharing with us this post “Michigan Monday” and btw Cherry blossom are spectacular! 🙂

    • I quite agree, Linda… the cherry blossoms are spectacular! The sauce is a welcomed change of pace to the standard fair… It’s my new favorite. Thanks for visiting. 🙂

  2. I didn’t know that Michigan was known for cherries. I enjoyed reading the facts about them. I bet they are so good in bar-b-q sauce. I never would have thought of it. It really looks delicious, and I love that you put chipotle chilis in it! Thanks for sharing your recipe, Nancy! I would like to try it sometime.

    • Michigan is a cherry lover’s dream locale in the summer. You can find just about any type of food product with cherries as an ingredient. Aside from the usual baked goods there’s cherry salsa, cherry wine, cherry butter …cherry craziness! If you want to try the sauce, I’ll be serving it with smoked beef brisket sandwiches on Sunday…come on by! Thank you, Shari…hope you enjoy these last days of July!

  3. I’ve been enjoying munching on these sweet cherries for the past couple of weeks – guess I should try to do something with them. The last time I made a cherry sauce was with American Spoon’s sauce which was quite good. Lots more fun to make your own – looks extra yummy Nancy 🙂

    • I’ve been munching away too, Judi… It just got to the point {gulp} when I couldn’t possibly eat another cherry. Guess I bought too many, lol. Making this sauce was the answer for me…and I’m so glad I did! Good to see you, hope you’re enjoying the summer!

  4. skd

    My taste buds are tingling at the look of that sauce…mmm….i want to taste it right now Nancy. I am already thinking of a million ways to use it. And thank you for sharing the info about cherries too.

    • Thank you for the kind comment, Ana. 🙂 The sweetness of the cherries lend a nice contrast to the spicy peppers…I’m having fun experimenting with the uses!

  5. Nancy, nothing quite like cherries this time of the year, and wow, you’ve really taken those cherries to another level in your barbeque sauce. I can only imagine the flavors on really any grilled meats.

    • If you’re imagining the flavor is wonderful, you’ve got it right, Loretta. Lol. So far we’ve had it on chicken and pork and it paired perfectly with both! Thanks so much for visiting!

  6. Michigan, my Michigan. Love cherry season and I’ve got 20 cups of the tart little devils in my basement freezer. (Did I mention that they’re pitted?) I’ve been considering using some for a sauce and here you are with a great sounding recipe,. Granted, you’ve used sweet cherries but i think tart would work, too. Maybe I should try it both ways? Life is good. 🙂

    • Already pitted?? Since most of the work is already done, you have no reason not to make some sauce, John! I was wishing I had some tart cherries to make the recipe, as I imagine they’d offer an excellent variation from the sweet variety. We were so happy with the final product, I’ll be making another batch and canning it so we can have a taste of summer all season long. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. My mouth is watering just looking at the photos and the recipe! I love this sauce! You are right–Michiganders love to use cherries in just about everything! Thanks for sharing this great recipe!

  8. I think the state of Michigan should hire you on the spot for such great PR! 🙂
    The sauce looks so tasty I just love all the ingredients in it. I hope to get some nice cherries and give it a try soon. Besides chicken I can also see it pairing well with cheeses.

    By the way an old trick to pit the cherries fairly easily is to use old fashion hairpin (or paper clip if you can’t find the first.) It works much better than all the expensive gadgets. 🙂

    • We are awash in cherries here in Arizona, too, these days. I have a really old gizmo that minces garlic at one end and pits cherries at the other. Not sure how old it is; can’t remember ever having been without it. It looks exactly like this one:
      Same writing on the side.

      I had not grocked that it was also a nutcracker, even though I had taken note of the serrated bits on the handles. Duh!

      Virtual hugs,


    • Hah…that’s just what I need…another job, lol.
      I’ve never heard the hairpin trick, I use my old school, handheld cherry/olive pitter. It’s the “one at a time” that bugs me, lol.
      I love your idea with cheese! Please let me know how your taste buds rate the recipe if you give it a try. Thanks so much, Ronit!

      • I know, it’s quite frustrating to pit cherries one by one. That’s why I like the good old hairpin trick, as it’s the quickest I know.
        I will definitely let you know once I’ll be making this sauce. 🙂

        • I pit ten of the cherries every morning for the pile of fruit for our cereal . . . yes, one at a time. I hold the pitter and the cherry down in my deep sink since there is considerable splashing of cherry juice. If the stone is not too large, it pops right out through the hole and into my hand, usually spraying juice in all directions, and thence into my sink garbage container. If it IS too large, it either gets stuck in the device, or stays somewhat stuck inside the cherry itself. Before I remembered I had that little gizmo tucked away (I almost never use garlic, so I’d kind of forgotten about it), I was using a tee-tiny paring knife to cut the fruit away from the pit. I’m not sure that wasn’t quicker in the long run. It doesn’t matter what size the pit is for that method to be effective.

    • I’m happy you like the sound of it, Fae. The cherries take the sauce to a whole new level. Thanks so much for visiting, it’s always nice to see you!

  9. Wow Nancy, thats a terrific sauce. Cherry BBQ sauce!! Never would have thought to add cherries. The pitting is the hardest just as you said. Really delicious sounding and looking and great facts about Michigan and the cherries grown there.

    • Michiganders find a way to use cherries in everything, Suzanne. Lol. Yes, the pitting can leave behind stained fingertips, but the rewards are worth the effort. The sauce is a great marriage of sweet and spicy…my favorite mix. Thanks so much for visiting. 🙂

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