It’s exciting when you suddenly have a large harvest of homegrown fruit and vegetables because it means you have the opportunity of turning them into homemade preserves. How delicious to serve a home-grown and cooked condiment with everyday meals. You can fill the pantry with a marvellous array of preserved gifts to give to friends and relatives. Even if you don’t have enough from your own garden, take advantage of fresh seasonal produce from a farmers’ market.
Many years ago, I made organic preserves for delicatessens and cafes and spent hours in a commercial kitchen, slicing large boxes of eggplant, grilling capsicum, peeling onions and filling lots of jars with a variety of produce. It was a hot and time-consuming but rewarding job. When making preserves at home, keep the produce you are going to prepare at one time to a realistic amount. Preserving requires patience and time, but the end result will be very special.
First of all, here are a few kitchen tools you will need to make preserving foods easier.
- A good preserving pan. It should be wide in shape to allow for rapid boiling and evaporation and for the setting point to be reached more quickly. It should hold at least 13 litres and it needs to be heavy-based for even heat distribution and to prevent burning or sticking. Stainless steel, aluminium and good-quality enamel are recommended for making sweet chutneys, pickles, jams, marmalades and preserves.
- Spoons. A slotted spoon to remove scum or pips and measuring spoons for ingredients. Those with long handles are the best as they won’t slip into the preserve and they keep your hand away from boiling hot liquid.
- Ladles. A couple of metal ladles of different sizes, one with a lip for easy pouring.
- Jugs. Measuring jug, cup measures and a metal or glass pouring jug for filling jars.
- Muslin. Muslin gauze to tie up pips and spices and also for straining preserves.
- Wooden board. To stand the hot jars on when filling them. Also, once they are filled they can sit on it to cool. (This prevents the glass from cracking, which can happen when placed onto a cold surface while very hot.)
- Sugar thermometer. For measuring the temperatures for setting point. Jams, jellies and marmalades are set at just below 105°C, when the sugar interacts with the acid and natural fruit pectin.
- Citrus zester. Removes only the skin and not the bitter pith.
- Funnels. These make it easier to accurately fill jars when pouring in hot ingredients. They are usually are made of plastic or stainless steel and come in a variety of sizes.
- Good-quality rubber kitchen or gardening gloves. These are good for handling hot jars, screwing on lids or picking up hot filled jars.
- Jars and bottles. Metal screw-top jars are best for most preserves except pickles or chutneys with high vinegar content. There are special preserving jars with a rubber band and wire seal clip for the lids. Jars with wide mouths are easier to fill. Corks can be used for bottles, but make sure they are placed on while the preserve is still hot.
- Sterilising containers. You’ll need to sterilise jars for preserving and the best way is to wash the jars in hot, soapy water and rinse thoroughly. Preheat oven to 160°C, place wet rinsed jars onto a baking tray and dry for 10 minutes. Remove and cover with a clean tea-towel until ready to use. You can use a dishwasher by running it on the rinse cycle at the hottest temperature.
Tips for successful jam, jelly and marmalade making
- Fruit. Pick slightly under-ripe fruit where possible, the exception being apples. Fresh-picked, straight from the tree or bush, will be high in pectin; the longer the fruit is stored, the more pectin will be lost. Pectin in fruit may be higher at the beginning of the season and lower towards the end. Over-ripe fruits will be low in pectin. Some fruits are naturally low in pectin and will need the addition of pectin in the form of pips and pith of citrus fruits, or apple or lemon juice, or commercial pectin.
- Sugar. Granulated white sugar is the main sugar used in jam making. Dark or raw sugar is often used when making chutneys.
- Water. Used to help cook fruit that’s dry, such as pears or apples; fruits such as strawberries or raspberries need less water.
- Pectin. The natural gum-like substance found in all fruits and some vegetables. Pectin is normally at its highest when fruit is just beginning to ripen. Combine high-pectin fruits with low-pectin fruits. The use of a commercial pectin mixture means fruit with little or no pectin can be set without the addition of fruits or citrus high in pectin. Keep in mind that the addition of too much commercial pectin will give the jam or jelly a dull and uninteresting flavour. As a guide, to 1kg fruit add about 15g of commercial pectin.
- Acid. It’s important that acid levels are sufficient in fruit for optimum setting of jam, jelly or marmalade. Fruits low in acid are strawberries, pears, sweet varieties of cherries, figs, feijoa, kiwi fruit, mango, melon, pineapple and tomato, so add 2 tbsp of lemon juice for each 2kg of fruit. Combining high-acid fruits with low-acid fruits will balance the jam. Citric acid can be added — 1 tsp per 2kg of fruit.
Testing setting point
First, always check earlier rather than later, and remove the saucepan from the heat while you check. Small amounts of mixture will reach setting point faster than larger amounts. When the thermometer reaches 105–110°, the jam will be sufficiently cooked and set.
Alternatively, take a small amount of mixture onto the jam spoon and drop onto a chilled saucer; as it cools, push a finger across the top and a wrinkly skin should form.
Any scum that may form on the top of the jam can be scooped off with a slotted spoon at the point of setting. Scum does not affect the flavour of the jam, only the look and possibly the clarity. If you are entering it into a preserves competition, you’ll be marked down for this, but no one at home will care!
The main ingredients are usually citrus fruits and the preparation of the skin or peel of the fruit dominates the texture and taste of the marmalade.
To make top-notch marmalade, here are some tips to help you out:
- Wash the fruit thoroughly, squeeze the juice and save all the pips. Pectin is found in the pips and white pith of citrus fruits.
- Lemon juice will add extra acid to marmalades for a better setting consistency where the fruit may be low in acid.
- Marmalade can go past its setting point and may not set at all if left to cook too long. It’s therefore important to check frequently to see if the marmalade is near setting point. Once setting point is reached, remove from the heat and spoon into prepared jars and seal.
Jelly making is similar to jam making except for the draining of the fruit through a jelly bag. The magnificent, clear, bright jelly is certainly worth the effort.
You’ll need a jelly bag made of cloth and conical in shape with four attachments for suspending it over a bowl. Wet the jelly bag before straining the fruit.
Although a jelly bag is the best way of getting the juice from the cooked fruit, a wet muslin cloth lining a large, conical sieve can work just as well.
Chutney, pickles and ketchup
Chutney and pickles usually have a blend of sweet and sour flavours and sometimes are spiced with added chillies or mustard seeds. Pickled vegetables normally have a crunchy texture.
Vinegar chosen for pickling should have at least 5–6 per cent acetic acid.
Store chutneys and pickles in a dark, cool cupboard until ready to use. This can be up to 3–4 months in some cases, to allow the preserve to mature and develop flavour.
Bottling by heat sterilisation
This method is used because there is low sugar, low acid or low vinegar in the liquid the produce is to be preserved in. Whole fruit and vegetables have been bottled and preserved for many years using a sterilising bottling kit. A special sterilising bottling kit is something to invest in if you are serious about bottling fruits and vegetables.
The bottling process involves sterilising the content of the jar by immersing it in water that’s brought to boiling and then cooked for at least 15 minutes. Proper bottling jars should be used.
It’s more efficient to dry fruit and vegetables in an electric food dehydrator, which will speed home preserving. Sun drying can be a bit tricky if the air is very humid and it can take 4–5 days of continuous sunshine to get the desired result. However, drying can be done in an electric fan-forced oven that can be set at a temperature 60°C; it can take up to eight hours.
Herbs are easy to dry and only need to be tied in a bunch and hung upside-down in a dry, warm spot. This is also a good way of harvesting seeds to plant again or to use in cooking with things like fennel, coriander and dill. Place the heads of the plant in a paper bag to catch any seeds that might fall out.
Have fun and create your own special homemade preserves — and don’t forget to label and date them. There is nothing worse than spreading a piece of toast with chilli tomato jam when you thought it was strawberry!
Source: Wellbeing Magazine