Making Homemade Preserves
This week’s The Food Programme looks at how we have preserved food through the ages. Autumn is the perfect time to start preserving, whether you grow your own or forage amongst the hedgerows. With just a little time and effort, a large heavy-based pan, wooden spoon and a handful of jars you can make fantastic preserves at home.
Dan Lepard has some great advice on making marmalade and jam and this is a good basic apple chutney recipe, but that’s just the beginning. At this time of year, you could also try apple jellies, quince paste, elderberry cordial, piccalilli and sloe gin. You can tick a few people off your Christmas list too as these make fantastic presents.
Whether making sweet or savoury preserves, granulated sugar is the most versatile sugar to use. Soft brown sugar and molasses add depth to savoury chutneys, particularly onion-based recipes. The caramel flavour of demerara sugar is delicious in Seville orange marmalades, fruit syrups and fruits in alcohol.
As far as vinegars are concerned I love using cider vinegar to boost the colour and flavour in fruity chutneys. I also feel it helps reduce the time chutneys need to mature. Wine vinegars give a more subtle flavour and are good for pickling spiced fruits such as plums or peaches. Making your own fruit, herb or spice vinegars can add another dimension to your pickles, chutneys and dressings. To make raspberry or blackberry vinegar put 450g/1lb of fresh raspberries or blackberries into 600ml/20fl oz white wine vinegar and leave for a week before straining through muslin and pouring into sterilised bottles. Or make herb vinegar, substituting the fruit for 25g/1oz of fresh tarragon or mint.
Any preserve made with vinegar needs a little time to mature. Chutneys need to be left for a few days, possibly a little longer if malt vinegar has been used to allow the flavours to develop. Vegetable and fruit pickles contain larger amounts of vinegar and less sugar and so need 2- 4 weeks before they are ready.
Salt is used to draw out the moisture from vegetables when making pickles. Unlike chutneys where ingredients are cooked slowly until the excess water has evaporated, pickled vegetables need to remain crisp and crunchy. Water laden vegetables like cucumbers must be salted overnight to remove excess water, then rinsed and drained before being quickly cooked in a vinegar, sugar and spice mixture.
Flavoured oils are surprisingly easy to make. Chilli oil is probably the most popular and versatile. But you could try adding fresh herbs, orange peel and crushed coriander seeds, lemon peel or chillies to olive oil (not extra-virgin) or sunflower oil. Leave in a cool dark place for a couple of weeks, remembering to shake it everyday, then strain into bottles and use within 6 months. Don’t use raw garlic as it can cause botulism, not a welcome gift in any hamper. Roast it beforehand or cook for several minutes in the oil before straining.
Steeping fruit in alcohol is one of the easiest preserving methods. Sloe gin is probably the best known, but you don’t have to stop there. The only thing is, you will have to be patient – it takes at least a few weeks and up to a few months for the fruit and alcohol to really mingle.
Sloe gin - worth the wait
After putting in all that time and effort, the last thing you want is your preserves spoiling. You can avoid problems by taking a little care in the following areas. (Just make sure you have enough jars and lids so there’s no last minute panic!)
- Sterilising jars – Sterilisation kills off any micro organisms that could spoil your preserves. Wash your jars and lids in hot, soapy water and then rinse thoroughly, or put them through the hot cycle in the dishwasher. Invert the jars onto a baking tray and put in the oven to dry for 15 minutes at 140C/275F.
- Filling jars – Remove the hot jars with tongs from the oven. Be careful not to get your fingers in the jars, you don’t want any bacteria getting into them. Immediately ladle your hot preserve into the jars (as the temperature starts to drop the likelihood of bacteria forming increases).
- Covering and sealing jars – Cover the jars once you have filled them. Once the jars have cooled down, recheck the seals and tighten the lids to prevent any air entering and causing mould formation. Alternatively, you can cover the jars with a waxed disc of paper and cellophane.
- Storage – Keep your finished unopened preserves in a cool, dark, dry place. Sunlight can have an effect on the colour and humid places may cause fermentation. Chutneys and pickles have at least a year’s shelf life, fruit liqueurs and fruits in alcohol up to two years. Once opened store in the fridge and use within four weeks.
Once you’ve tried a few, feel free to tweak recipes, adding your own favourite ingredients and spices. So, you don’t like raisins, add chopped dates instead. Not enough apples? Add pears, plums or quinces. Always make a note of your alterations, because if you’re like me you’ll be kicking yourself when you’ve forgotten what spice you put in that fantastic pickle all your friends were raving about last Christmas.
What seasonal delights will you be preserving for the winter months ahead?
Michelle Roper-Shaw is the Pickles and Preserves course tutor at the School of Artisan Food.
Listen to this week’s The Food Programme on Sunday 16th October at 12.30pm