Making preserves is my cooking comfort blanket. I wrap myself in its homeliness and bask in its warm glow. My need to preserve usually starts about now, as the first hint of autumn wafts in, and ends some time in late January when the baskets of golden Seville oranges arrive in the shops for marmalade making. Though bubbling preserve pans can make an appearance at other times, this is my main season.
Were I to analyse this need to fill the store cupboard I am sure I could come up with reasons, citing primitive urges to protect and feed my family ready for the dearth of winter. However, as I have Waitrose and the like to fulfill that need, I will say, honestly, it is because I like doing it. The ritual of collecting the ingredients, dusting off the preserving pan and dragging out jam jars judiciously rescued from the recycling bins of friends is pure pleasure.
An afternoon of chopping, stirring, potting and labeling plus the resulting messy, sticky kitchen are all worth the sight of my creations sitting securely in their jars and bottles. If the contents of those jars and bottles were also home-grown then it’s a jackpot.
Ah, I hear you asking, surely there are great jams, preserves, pickles and chutney to buy, so why go to all that bother? True, for a couple of quid you will find some excellent ready-made offerings out there. What you won’t find, though, is that sense of self-satisfaction when you pop open the jar of jam ready to slather on a scone, or the smug pride as you hand over a hunk of cheese with a dollop of your home-made relish or crisp pickled onion on the side.
And I have yet to meet someone who isn’t pleased to receive a gift of home-made preserves.
Jams, jellies, pickles, chutneys, smoking, salting, drying, canning and bottling were once all a part of the cook’s repertoire. Say thank you to the fridge, the freezer and the supermarket for, in the most part, the disappearance of these skills.
Fancy having a go? Begin with a simple jam or chutney from a recipe you can trust, from a recommended book such as Jams & Chutneys: Preserving the Harvest, which is chock full of great recipes from renowned cookery writer Thane Prince.
Preserving is generally a simple process. You don’t even need special equipment like preserving pans and thermometers, though they do make life a little easier and if you, like me, get hooked you’ll be glad you made the investment. To get cracking you only really need a heavy-bottomed roomy pan, a wooden spoon, recycled bottles and jars and away you go.
Preserving is now very much back in fashion and, though thought to be caused by the recession and the need to cut back, making jams and preserves isn’t necessarily cheaper than buying them. So perhaps it is for all the reasons above.
Here are my top ten tips for making jam, jelly or marmalade. Above all, have fun and think about those wonderfully groaning shelves you will have when you’ve finished.
Avoid damaged fruit as too much will spoil the result and the jam deteriorates too quickly.
Jam, jelly and marmalade set because of pectin, which occurs naturally in fruit when cooked with sugar, thickens and sets the preserve. If fruits are low in pectin, fruits with a higher level need to be added. Or simply add a few squeezes of lemon juice.
Granulated or preserving sugar are best for jam making. Granulated is fine for high-pectin fruits but preserving sugar, though more expensive, will help set low-pectin fruits without the need to add lemon juice.
4. Clean equipment
Make sure all the equipment you use is sparkling clean. For jelly making, always boil-wash the jelly bag or tea towel before using. Clean equipment results in sparkling jam.
Don’t attempt to make too much at once as large volumes of fruit and sugar will take a long time to reach setting point, causing the fruit to break up and eventually dissolve in the jam.
6. Setting point
A quick, easy test and no special equipment needed: place a small plate or saucer in to the fridge for 15 minutes. Pour a spoonful of the hot jam or jelly on to the plate and put back in the fridge for five minutes, then push the edges of the jam with your index finger: if it is all wrinkly and crinkly it is set.
Skim any scum that rises to the surface once setting point is reached by using a ladle or by adding a tiny piece of butter and stirring. This will dissolve the scum almost instantly.
8. Settling time
Leave the jam to settle away from the heat for about 15 minutes once setting point is reached. This prevents the fruit rising to the surface when poured into the jars.
Always use clean, sterilised jars. The quickest and easiest way is to wash them in the dishwasher. Otherwise, wash them carefully in soapy water, rinse and dry in a hot oven.
10. Sealing and storing
Cover the surface of the jam in the jar with a wax disc to prevent mould forming during storage, then secure with a tight lid. Once opened, only keep in the fridge.