By Jude Blereau
I love preserving and seeing a pantry stacked with jams, chutneys, pickles and fruit gives me the most profound sense of security.
Summer is the season of growth and in preserving we take the bounty and find ways to slow the natural decay. Yes, it does take time (all cooking does) but once done, you have your own little supermarket so to speak. It enables you to make use of second-grade or damaged fruits and vegetables and fully utilise your own surplus harvest. There are many differing techniques for preserving, they are generally not interchangeable and suit differing fruits and vegetables.
Common Preserving Techniques
|Sugar||To saturate the natural moisture of fruit – jams, jellies and pastes.|
|Sugar and Vinegar||The two most common preservers and most often used for chutney. I like to use apple cider vinegar and rapadura sugar or apple juice concentrate as the sweetener. As both of these sweetener’s have less sucrose in them, I find I need to process the finished chutney in a hot or boiling water bath, like the Vacola system described below, to ensure they hold. If I use a brown sugar, where the sucrose is higher, it is fine.|
|Salt||Salting down sardines for example.|
|Salt and acid||Such as vinegar. Salt and acid such as vinegar. This is commonly called pickling. The vegetable is first salted to draw out the moisture, then packed in vinegar. I prefer to use apple cider vinegar.|
|Drying||You can buy great drying units, but with our hot sun, there’s no reason why you can’t use solar power and do it outside, under the sun.|
|Freezing||Only some fruit and vegetables can stand the slow freeze your kitchen freezer offers. The water in the food crystallises and destroys the cells walls in most foods so when they’re thawed, their taste and texture is lost.|
|Alcohol||Usually for preserved fruit (not for all the family)|
|Bottling||The hot or boiling water bath. This is one of the most interesting techniques – we know it here in Australia as the Vacola system. In essence, what we are doing when we bottle, is to use heat and an enclosed system to destroy micro organisms that cause food to spoil and create a vacuum in which remaining bacteria cannot grow.|
NOTE: A special note must be made here that preserving, and especially bottling, is all about understanding acidity. Clostridium botulinum (extremely toxic) grows in the absence of air (a vacuum), low acidity and a moist environment. Fruits are generally high in acidity, vegetables and especially meats, low acidity. That’s why most preserving books today will tell you to bottle or preserve your vegetables with vinegar added, i.e. pickling, and then bottling it.
Let’s talk Jam (which invariably means we will be talking about sugar). right now strawberries are at their peak, as will apricots be very shortly.
Not many things compete with the smell of strawberry or apricot jam cooking. It tastes so good and it’s incredibly easy to make at home. I am often asked if something other than sugar can be used to make jam – my answer is yes, but it is complex. Many of the sugar-free jams you see are made with white grape juice concentrate, use pectin and have been processed in a boiling water bath. Because there is not enough sucrose to saturate the fruit and preserve (and this is true of many other non-sucrose based sweeteners – stevia, agave, rice syrup) the boiling water bath is the preserving method. Once open and the seal is broken, the jam begins to deteriorate and must be kept in the fridge. so, yes you can do it, but I’m not a big fan. I prefer to use organic raw sugar in the smallest possible amount. Rapadura is too low in sucrose. most jam recipes call for equal quantities of sugar to fruit by weight. You need about 60 – 70 % sugar for good jelling to occur naturally (sugar, pectin, acidity). I find this way too much sugar and prefer a ratio of 30% sugar to fruit. Because the holy trinity of acid, sugar and pectin is disrupted, this will result in a softer ‘set’, which I happen to prefer.
JUDE’S UNIVERSAL JAM RECIPE:
A good pot is critical to making low-sugar jam. Mine is a traditional French copper preserving pan – shallow and wide. It’s about 12cm high, 36cm across the base, and 39cm across the top, with a 10 litre capacity.
June Taylor (the artisan jam maverick in San Francisco) uses a larger stockpot that is deep, but also very wide, and she only makes a small amount of jam in the pot.
The wide surface area encourages evaporation and reduction, thus cooking the jam quickly. It is extremely difficult to make jam in a deep pot with a small surface area. Unless your pan is very shallow and wide, it’s best to have less fruit.
Cooking time will vary according to the choice of pan and the amount of fruit. Cooking time from beginning to end and the optimum amount of fruit will vary according to your choice of pan but you can use the following examples as a rough guide.
- 10 litre French preserving pan
- 4 kg fruit for 1 hour
- 5 litre 8cm deep sauté pan
- 2 kg of fruit for 45 minutes
- 20 – 24cm typical home saucepan
- 1 kg fruit for 45 minutes
As you’ll be working with hot sputtering liquids, a long sleeve shirt is a good idea.
For 4 kg fruit (weighed with stones for stone fruit) use 1.2 kg of raw sugar and 1 medium sized lemon, skin on, cut into 8 bits.
Sterilise all jars and lids. I prefer to sterilise my jars the old fashioned way in boiling water for 12 minutes but many prefer in the oven – 120˚C for 20 minutes. Then place them on a baking tray lined with a clean tea towel and keep warm in a low oven.
Wash the fruit and cut into smaller portions and discard any stones or seed. As a general guide, leave blueberries and small strawberries whole but chop larger strawberries; cut apricots and plums into halves or quarters; and cut figs into quarters.
Put the fruit in your jam pot, together with sugar and lemon. Gently stir the sugar through.
Stage 1: Place the pot over a very low heat, allowing the sugar to dissolve – this takes about 15 minutes.
Stage 2: Once the sugar is visibly starting to dissolve, increase the heat slightly until you see a gentle bubbling. stir frequently. Continue to cook for 15 minutes (or longer if using a deeper pot) – the juices will have wept out from the fruit, thus increasing the amount of liquid in the pot.
Stage 3: Increase the heat to a very high boil until a ‘set’ is achieved. As you are now cooking at a high boil, you need to stir frequently to check the feel of the jam and to make sure it isn’t sticking to the bottom. As the jam reduces, it will thicken. You may need to reduce the heat to a slower boil as the jam thickens but keep stirring frequently. This stage should take about 30 minutes, but the deeper the pot, the longer it will take. It should take about 10 minutes if using 1 kg of fruit.
Stage 4: Set is generally considered to occur when the jam reaches 105˚C, but this doesn’t hold for low-sugar jams, where the relationship between sugar, acid and pectin has been disrupted. You need to rely on other techniques to judge when your jam is ready. I go by appearance and ‘feel’ and cook the jam until it is fairly thick and the bubbles become more volcanic and flat. Placing a small amount of jam on a saucer or dish and chilling it is another good method for checking the constancy. When the jam is cool, run your finger through the middle – you want to see a clear line of plate underneath. Any juices that flow into the line should look like lovely liquid jam and not at all watery.
Stage 5: The jam must be ladled into the warm jars immediately. It’s incredibly important that the jam goes into the jars very, very hot – this will create the vacuum seal on the jars. Make sure the jars are not on a cold surface – keeping them on the warm tray is a good idea. Fill the jars to within just over 5 mm of the top rim — a smaller air space will create a faster and better vacuum. Remove any jam around the edge or lip of the jar with a clean, damp cloth to help form a good seal. Seal the lid and leave to sit until absolutely cool. When cool, check for a concave dent in the lid – if there isn’t, store the jam in the fridge and use.