Lifestyle

How to preserve almost everything – from jam-making to chutneys

You don’t need a glut of garden apples or courgettes to create mouth-watering preserves that will last you through the months ahead.
Sugar, spice and all things nice … a selection of homemade preserves and pickles. Photograph: Yuliia Chyzhevska/Alamy

More than any domestic appliance, preserving is the home cook’s secret weapon. If you have a vegetable garden, fruit trees or an allotment, it is the age-old way of making the summer glut and autumn harvest last through the winter dearth when there is nothing to grow or pick. Even with year-round fresh produce in the shops, a gleaming row of gem-hued jars filled to the brim with crunch and spice can brighten up the most lacklustre meal.

The idea of making your own kimchi or bottling a batch of chutney might scare you off. But all you need is a few key ingredients and some patience. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

What to preserve

Knowing what is in season wherever you are in the world is key. In the UK now, you will find the last of last year’s apples and pears, but cauliflower and cabbage are going strong and a soft-fruit glut is just around the corner. Come springtime in the US, meanwhile, Serious Eats’ Preserved column suggests rhubarb-strawberry jam and tomato jam, among others.

More than any domestic appliance, preserving is the home cook’s secret weapon. If you have a vegetable garden, fruit trees or an allotment, it is the age-old way of making the summer glut and autumn harvest last through the winter dearth when there is nothing to grow or pick. Even with year-round fresh produce in the shops, a gleaming row of gem-hued jars filled to the brim with crunch and spice can brighten up the most lacklustre meal.

The idea of making your own kimchi or bottling a batch of chutney might scare you off. But all you need is a few key ingredients and some patience. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

What to preserve

Knowing what is in season wherever you are in the world is key. In the UK now, you will find the last of last year’s apples and pears, but cauliflower and cabbage are going strong and a soft-fruit glut is just around the corner. Come springtime in the US, meanwhile, Serious Eats’ Preserved column suggests rhubarb-strawberry jam and tomato jam, among others.

It sounds obvious, but be sure to go for something you like the taste of, and in quantities you can reasonably get through. I say this from experience: there is no point in filling a two-litre Kilner jar with pickled, skin-on kiwis if you are the only one who is going to eat them. Use small jars. Use flavours you enjoy. The point is not to waste anything.

It sounds obvious, but be sure to go for something you like the taste of, and in quantities you can reasonably get through. I say this from experience: there is no point in filling a two-litre Kilner jar with pickled, skin-on kiwis if you are the only one who is going to eat them. Use small jars. Use flavours you enjoy. The point is not to waste anything.

ccc Spotless … sterilising Kilner jars in the oven. Photograph: CW Images/Alamy

As Toni Kostian of Grön restaurant in Helsinki puts it: “Preserving is about having only the right kind of bacteria in your produce and getting rid of any harmful ones.” Pickles, jams and ferments can be safely done at home with basic cooking equipment.

Be sure to clean hands, surfaces, utensils and produce thoroughly. Wash all jars, bottles and lids in warm soapy water, and rinse thoroughly. They need to be hot, dry and sterile when you fill them. So, for preserves you intend to use up quickly, place your jars in a 140C (120C fan)/285F/gas mark 1 oven for 20 minutes, timing it so that they are ready when your product is. And top whatever you are storing with a circle of wax paper before sealing.

For anything you intend to keep a long time in a store cupboard, use proper canning jars (which close with lids and rings) and, ideally, the boiling water-bath processing technique. This is more than any novice needs to attempt on their first go – but if you want to learn how, check out Marisa McClellan’s tutorials on foodinjars.com.

Into the briny … ingredients for dill pickle. Photograph: George Fisher/Alamy

Pickles

Quick – or refrigerator – pickles are what the food writer Rachel Roddy calls entry-level pleasers. She uses a simple pickling brine: 550ml white wine vinegar, 200ml water and a heaped tablespoon each of fine salt and sugar (plus the aromatic of your choosing: chilli, garlic, bay, dill …) for 1kg of chopped-up garden fare (carrot, turnip, red cabbage, beetroot, fennel, red onion). Bring the brine to a boil, add the veg for one minute, then divide among the jars (into which you have spooned one tablespoon of olive oil), cover with the liquid and spices and seal. The pickles can be eaten within 24 hours, and will last for two months in the fridge.

Rice wine vinegar makes gentler quickies, although the lower acidity means they have a shorter lifespan. You can go very sweet (Kylee Newton’s Japanese brine adds 380g of sugar to 450ml rice wine vinegar and 450ml water, with only ¼ teaspoon of sea salt and a few peppercorns) or not sweet at all (Anna Thomson infuses her brine – 350ml rice or white wine vinegar, 800ml water, 4½ teaspoon salt – with lemongrass, garlic, fresh ginger and red chillies.)

Another great thing to have in the fridge is mixed spiced pickles – half salad, half condiment – such as Malaysian penang acar. The veg here requires a bit more preparation. Huangkitchen.com’s Angie Liew says to mix 200g each of chopped-up cabbage, carrots, green beans and pineapple with 500g cucumber (skinned, soft centre removed, and sliced) with 1 tbsp salt, and leave it for 30 minutes. Squeeze out the liquid then blanch in boiling water and vinegar, before draining and leaving to dry out for an hour. Meanwhile, grind together a mix of 10 fresh and 5 dried chillies (soaked in water until soft), 10 shallots, 5 garlic cloves, 2cm each of turmeric and galangal root (I would substitute these last two with a 4cm piece of ginger if I couldn’t find any), 20g each of coriander seeds and shrimp paste, and a few candlenuts (or use macadamia nuts or cashews instead). Fry this spice paste in oil until fragrant, then stir in 200ml vinegar, 180g sugar and 1 tsp salt, followed by 100g ground peanuts, the vegetables and lastly 100g toasted sesame seeds, mixing well after each addition. Store for at least 24 hours before serving, and up to 2 weeks in the fridge.

There are the more pungent varieties that take time to mature. Some version of cucumber pickle is found in most countries, but everything from green beans to new peas work too. For Iranian torshi bademjan, aubergine is first parboiled in equal parts vinegar and water, then squeezed, sliced down the middle and stuffed with garlic cloves, dried mint and a little salt. Pack tightly into a jar small enough that the pickling liquid (125ml fresh cider vinegar to 1 tbsp boiled and cooled water) covers the veg. Seal and store them in a cool dark place for at least a month and keep in the fridge once opened.Advertisement

Fruit, too, loves to be pickled. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall bottles cherries – stones, stalks and all – in a hot syrup (200ml water, 300ml white-wine or cider vinegar, 250g caster sugar, 6 black peppercorns, 3 bay leaves, 2 juniper berries, and 2 cloves) and leaves for a month before using. Nigel Slater uses a similar syrup for stone fruit, but cautions that since no amount of vinegar will soften hard fruit, it’s best that peaches be first stoned and parboiled, then skinned; with apricots, he leaves the skin on. Conversely, these pickles are ready within three days. Which is to say: follow recipes carefully. Don’t skip any steps and stick to all specified timings.

Alive and kicking … fermenting cauliflower and vegetables. Photograph: Maryna Mashkina/Alamy

Ferments

For Kostian, lactic fermentation not only comes with reputed (though unproved) health benefits but flavour-wise is the most interesting place to start. He recommends gooseberries, though any other fruit will do. For quick ferments, your jars don’t need to be sterilised, but they do need to be squeaky clean. And you need to use good filtered water (no chlorine) and good sea salt (no caking agents).

Mix 1kg of fresh berries with 30g of salt in a large lidded glass jar, and lay clingfilm over the top of the produce, pressing it down with a small weight. Then put the lid on, loosely. Leave at room temperature (18-22C) for 15 to 30 days. Taste after 15 days, and decide if you want to take the funky flavour further.

Yeast or moulds can grow on the surface if whatever you’re fermenting comes into contact with the air, or if your kitchen is too hot. Trust your senses. If anything smells off-putting, start again. If not, remove the top layer and carry on. The food writer Regula Ysewijn recently found two jars of sourdough starter – essentially, fermented dough – in a box in her cellar, where they’d sat, forgotten, since she moved house two years ago. One smelled rank, and she binned it. The other smelled sweet, like traditional dark rye bread, so she fed it till it bubbled and is now baking with it.

Variations on sauerkraut use celeriac, apple and carrot, as well as cabbage – and are ready within seven to 15 days

For something quicker, try the two-day carrot and cabbage ferment from Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s studio kitchen in Berlin: mix 2 grated carrots and a small shredded cabbage with 1 tbsp salt and place in a large glass jar with a lid. Leave in the fridge for a couple of days, or longer, for a stronger flavour.

Of course, the more time you have to make your preserves the better. For a proper sauerkraut, massage 1 tbsp salt into 1kg shredded cabbage until it releases its juices then pack tightly into a jar, pressing down until the liquid rises above the surface (add a little filtered water if needed). Seal and leave at room temperature for at least four days, until bubbles appear. The chef Tom Hunt says that at this point, you can continue fermenting at room temperature for months or even years. Putting it in the fridge will slow down the process, and temper the flavour. Online you’ll find recipes for kraut variations using celeriac, apple, and grated root veg.

Kimchi is another wildly adaptable cabbage-based ferment. Koreanbapsang.com’s Hyosun Ro has over 20 different recipes, from easy to vegan to trad. Food52, meanwhile, has an excellent how-to for making any kind of kimchi without a recipe. It is a world unto its own, so do read up.

Olia Hercules makes fizzy tomatoes by placing 500g medium-sized fruit in a large sterilised preserving jar and covering with a cooled brine (1 litre water, 7 tsp salt, 5 tsp sugar), along with some allspice berries, black peppercorns, 2 heads of dill, 1 bay leaf and 4 chopped up celery sticks. She leaves the sealed jar in a warm place in her kitchen (25C) for one week, then transfers it to the refrigerator or a cellar, where it can be kept unopened for months.

Lastly, for something quite thrillingly slow, make Clare Lattin’s lime pickle. Mix the wedges of 2-3 limes (250g) with 1 tbsp salt and 1 tsp sugar. Pack into a sterilised lidded jar and leave to ferment for four weeks (put a note in your diary). When ready, heat 4 tbsp mustard oil in a pan, and fry the spices (1 tbsp turmeric, 3 tsp cayenne, 3 tsp mustard seeds and 1 tsp fenugreek seeds) until the seeds start to pop. Add the limes with all their juice, along with 1 tbsp cider vinegar, and cook for five minutes. Leave to cool, then pack back into the jar and store for another week, so the flavours can combine. No citrus has ever been this rewarding.

Chutneys

Newton likes how you can use anything a bit overripe in a chutney (just remove brown or bruised bits). Her apple and ale medley is a good place to start. Put 900g diced onions, 600ml cider vinegar and 400g granulated sugar in a large, wide-rimmed pot and bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes, until reduced by one third. Mix in 1.5kg apples (peeled, cored and diced) and the zest of 2 lemons. Fill a little muslin bag with 1 cinnamon stick, 1 star anise, 1 tsp chilli flakes, 1 tsp peppercorns and 1 bay leaf, tie with a string, and add to the pot. Bring to the boil and simmer, stirring occasionally (cover the surface with a pierced round of parchment paper) for 20 minutes. When thickened, stir through 2 tsp salt and 300ml ale and simmer for five more minutes. Fill warmed sterilised jars to 5mm from the rim, seal, label, date and store in the cupboard for up to 12 months. Once open, keep in the fridge for up to three months.

Getting stuck in .. homemade raspberry jam with chia seeds. Photograph: NelliSyr/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Jams

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Sweet preserves range from creamy curds (lemon, but also blackberryraspberrygooseberryorange and blueberry) to jellies and whole fruit recipes. You name the fruit, sugar will do wonders with it. The Irish chef and founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School Darina Allen points to raspberry jam as a good starting point. To win over panicked students, she sometimes makes some scones, then gets to work on the jam. “By the time the scones are out of the oven,” she writes, “the jam is made. It’s that easy!”

Mash 900g fresh or frozen berries in a wide, stainless-steel saucepan and cook for three to four minutes over a medium heat until the juice begins to run. Add 900g warmed sugar and stir over a gentle heat until dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook for about five to six minutes, stirring frequently. Test for set by putting about a teaspoonful on a cold plate and leaving it for a few minutes in the fridge. If it wrinkles when you press it, it is set. Remove from the heat immediately. Skim, pour into sterilised jam jars and cover immediately.

Infusions and aromatics will embellish the basic idea, from Nigel Slater’s plum with almonds and rosewater to Lillie O’Brien’s fig and earl grey tea. And roasting your fruit – as Anna Jones does plums – will enhance its built-in sweetness. Some fruit – grapes, say – are sweet enough to need no added sugar. Of course, the sugar being the preservative, the less you use, the shorter the lifespan of your product.

Chia seeds, meanwhile, make a cheat’s instant jam, which lasts about two weeks. Simply stew some fruit, then mix in a sweetener, some lemon juice and the chia seeds, and leave for five to 10 minutes to thicken.

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