– By Emma Macdonald
Preserving is a way of making sure that fresh foods can be kept for longer, making sure they do not go to waste. This was very important in years past when the vegetable plot outside the back door provided the food that you ate each day. Preserving was a way to keep food on the table in the winter months. Today, when food is grown in huge quantities and imported year-round and commercial preserves are easy to buy, there is less reason to make preserves, yet many of us still love to do it. There is something very special about cooking a batch of raspberry jam from fruit picked from the garden, or making something delicious from foraged blackberries and apples.
What is Preserving?
Storing food for a long time needs a little bit of science. There are lots of methods you can use, such as curing, salting, drying and covering with a layer of fat, as well as cooking using sugar, vinegar and alcohol. All these methods help to prevent your preserves from spoiling and to last as long as you want them to.
All raw foods contain enzymes that help to sustain life as well as breaking them down, causing food to discolour and rot over time. Preserving halts the enzymes developing any further, keeping the food at its best. Preserving also works by drying up or killing off micro- organisms (for example, moulds, yeasts and bacteria) that might enter your preserves and spoil your hard work. A high concentration of sugar, vinegar or alcohol along with cooking at a high temperature will prevent the growth of micro-organisms.
Mould is not actually harmful to eat but it tastes and looks unpleasant and can indicate that bacteria are present. This is harmful as it can cause food poisoning. Yeasts cause foods to ferment, which is not wanted in your jam but can be a good thing in cider and breadmaking. In jam or other preserves, fermenting could mean that unwanted bacteria are present. Hygiene plays an important part in keeping your preserves bacteria free, which is why sterilizing your jars and lids is so important. There are many ways to preserve fruit and vegetables as well as meat and fish:
A combination of fruit and sugar cooked until they set to a soft, spreading consistency. The fruits used must contain pectin, which helps them to set. If the fruit is low in pectin, such as strawberries, it can be combined with a fruit high in pectin, such as lemon, to help the jam to set.
Similar to jams but are usually a soft set. The best fruits to use are soft fruits such as strawberries and raspberries; these are usually left in sugar for 24 hours to extract their juice before cooking for a short time. Some conserves are made with dried fruits, such as mincemeats.
Again, similar to jams but are made from citrus fruits, peel and sugar. The peel must be cooked for a long time so that it softens before the sugar is added.
Made from the juice of fruit, which is allowed to drip, then the sugar is added and the jelly cooked until set. Jellies can be served in the same way as jam but they are most often served with meat, poultry and cheese.
Made from fruit juice, sugar and eggs. Eggs are added to thicken the mixture to a rich, soft spreading consistency. Curds are considered a preserve as traditionally they were made when there was a glut of fruit, but they are not preserves in the true sense as they will keep only for a few weeks in a refrigerator.
Made from fruits and sugar that are cooked slowly for a long time until their consistency resembles soft butter.
Choosing the best fruit and vegetables and the correct sugar and vinegar for your recipe will ensure you get the results you want. Finding excellent fresh produce has never been easier. You can forage, grow your own, shop at farm shops and farmers’ markets, visit pick-your- own and swap home-grown produce at neighbourhood swap schemes. Preserve-making is so popular that you can find unusual sugars and vinegars and other ingredients in most supermarkets, and readily online. It is easy to get started!
I am not a great one for adding equipment to my kitchen cupboard and you can make a lot of the recipes without lots of specialist equipment. If you have a decent heavy-based saucepan you can get going, and improvise along the way. If you want to make lots of preserves, one or two purchases will make your life easier. A sugar or jam thermometer is probably the most useful implement to buy as it can help you to find setting points accurately.
Sterilizing Bottles & Jars
The importance of sterilizing cannot be emphasized enough; it is essential so that your preserves do not deteriorate during storage. Always sterilize an extra bottle or jar in case it is needed. Remove any labels if you are reusing bottles or jars, and wash all in very hot, soapy water.
To know more about preserves, equipment and methods to sterilize your bottles or jars take a look at The Bay Tree Preserving by Emma Macdonald.
The Bay Tree Preserving
Available from Watkins Publishing