We’re coming to the end of August, which means we’re getting ever closer to the end of summer (*sigh*). Nights will be getting darker, the days will be getting cooler and it’ll be time to exchange leafy salads and barbecue food for hearty casseroles, soups, stews and pies. Although there will be a good variety of root vegetables available throughout the winter, there is significantly less choice than provided by the abundance of fruit and vegetables on offer throughout the summer months.
Although, here in the UK, we are lucky enough to live in a world where we can buy pretty much any fruit and vegetables year round, imported food does not compare to locally grown, fresh from the field produce. With such a vast decline in available fruits and vegetables in the UK winter, it seems only right that we get the most out of summer bounty and look to preserve as much as possible for later consumption. There are a number of ways we can pickle and preserve our fruits and vegetables that will keep for several months or even longer, if stored correctly. And most of the methods are fairly easy to do, if you have the right knowledge and equipment. Homemade jams, jellies, marmalades, fruit curds, cheese, butters, pickles, chutneys and relishes are all inexpensive to make and allow you to keep enjoying delicious seasonal specialities the whole year round.
Most preserving techniques can be done using basic kitchen equipment which most of you will already own, but if you plan on getting your teeth into preserving then there are a few bits of specialist equipment that will speed you up and make your life easier.
The first is fairly obvious. You will need jars and lids. It is possible to reuse old jars if they are washed and sterilised properly. To make sure your glass jars are clean and sterile, they must be washed thoroughly in hot, soapy water. Once clean and soap free, stand the jars upright on a baking sheet and place in a pre-heated oven (around 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4) for at least five minutes or until completely dry. This dries the jars, sterilises them and helps prevent cracking when hot preserves are poured in. A lot of recipes demand a cooling period of 15 minutes or so before the contents are transferred to the jars, so this is the ideal time to wash and dry your jars in the oven, so there is less of a temperature difference between preserve and glass jar, so making it unlikely to crack.
Although as mentioned, you can sterilise and reuse old jars, proper preserving jars with an airtight seal are the best way forward to get the most out of your preserving. Kilner’s Preserving range is perfect for this and very affordable. If you are using a recipe containing vinegar or substantial quantities of lemon, lime or orange juice, you will need to use a plastic coated lid to avoid corrosion. Waxed discs are also incredibly useful for sealing your preserves and keeping them fresh. Made from circles of paper with a thin coating of wax, they are pressed over the jar top when the preserve is still hot so the wax melts and forms a seal. The lid can then be put on top of that to keep the seal ultra tight. Labels are also a must have, be them plain labels from the local stationers or something a little prettier to decorate your homemade jars. Kilner do a fantastic range of wax discs, labels and lids to decorate your finished products. Always remember to label your jars once they have fully cooled or the labels will most likely not stick.
An absolutely essential piece of preserving equipment is a large heavy based preserving pan. You could just use any large saucepan or stock pot, but be warned – preserves may spatter and can very easily burn. You need to make sure your pan is large enough to catch any spatter to avoid it catching you. Ideally a preserving pan with a lip for pouring and an ear shaped handle on the side plus a longer handle to carry with is perfect for the job. Around 9 litres should be big enough for most preserving needs, and if it has a graded scale on the side this is extra useful for jelly, fruit butters and cheese as the quantity of sugar etc added is dependent on the quantity of juice or puree.
Another handy piece of preserving kit is a jam funnel. Inexpensive but very useful when transferring contents from pan to jar, a jam funnel will help prevent you dripping mixture down the sides of your jars, or onto your kitchen surfaces.
Muslin squares are another cheap handy preserving accessory, which you will come to wonder how you coped without. In many pickles and preserves, you will need to add spices, herbs or fruit stones and if wrapped in a muslin square, this makes them far easier to remove before the cooling the mixture.
When you are making jams or jellies, you may find that a scum forms on the top. This is perfectly natural and harmless but you will, of course want to remove it. Once the pan is off the heat, you can skim the scum off the top, but if this does not fully get rid of it all, try stirring in a knob of butter to disperse it.
Once your preserves are potted, sealed, cooled and labelled, they should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place. Light and heat will adversely affect the flavour, while damp or steamy conditions can cause mould on the surface. If mould does form, this does not necessarily mean your preserve is for the bin. Scoop the mould off and remove the top 2-3 inches of preserve. Dip a waxed disc in a strong spirit such as brandy or vodka, to sterilise and then reseal your jar.
Although most preserves can be cupboard stored, relishes must be frozen, as must chutney recipes which are designed to be eaten immediately.
However, most chutneys are a little different to jams and preserves, as they can rarely be consumed immediately. Generally speaking, they need to be left to mature or they can taste vinegary. Over time, the flavour will mellow and the chutney will taste far better. You should leave a chutney at least four weeks to mature, but ideally about 3 months. This can be true of some pickles, so be sure to thoroughly check your recipe. This is yet another reason why labelling is essential, so you know the date your pickles or preserves were potted. It is also a good idea to leave a gap on the label to add the date the jar is opened.
One term you will see again and again in preserve recipes is “setting point”. This is something you need to know when making a preserve. The setting point is the point at which the mixture has been boiling long enough to solidify into a spreading consistency. Pretty self explanatory, but there are some tricks and tips to gauge when your preserve has reached its setting point.
When making jam, a sugar thermometer is the easiest way to check the setting point. If the temperature reaches 110°C/225°F, it should be removed from the heat and potted. If you do not own a sugar thermometer, you can try putting a small saucer in the freezer, and when you think your jam may have reached setting point, place a teaspoonful onto the frozen saucer. When cooled, push it gently with your finger and if it wrinkles, it is set. If the surface does not wrinkle, it needs to go back on the heat for a few more minutes. With chutneys and fruit cheeses, simply place some onto a saucer at room temperature and run a wooden spoon through the middle. If the channel made by the spoon remains clear and no liquid runs in, then you have reached your setting point.
All preserves, pickles, jams etc should be kept refrigerated once they have been opened, and should be eaten in the time (hopefully) stated in the recipe. If there is no time stated though, do not fear. You will be able to tell by the look and smell if it is no longer fit. Put simply, if doesn’t smell or look right, don’t eat it!
We intend to share several preserving recipes with you over the following month or so, but to get any of you amateurs started, here is a very simple Strawberry jam recipe.
Makes: 1.5kg Prep time: 5-10 minutes Cook time: 30-40 minutes
You will need:
1.5kg whole strawberries hulled and rinsed.
Juice of 2 lemons
1.5kg jam sugar
1 teaspoon butter
1. Place the strawberries and lemon juice into a heavy saucepan or jam pan, and simmer over a medium heat for 15-20 minutes or until the fruit is soft, stirring occasionally.
2. Add the sugar and heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the teaspoon of butter and bring to the boil. Boil rapidly for 10-20 minutes until setting point is reached.
3. Remove from the heat and cool for 8-10 minutes. Funnel into sterilised jars and cover with wax discs immediately. Seal with lids while the jam is still hot, then leave to completely cool before labelling.
Remember: store in a cool, dry place and place in the refrigerator once opened.