Preserves are easy to make. It’s true. Making jam, conserves, marmalades, chutneys and pickles is not a dark art. But there’s a kind of mystery around preserving that stops many people having a go. What a shame. The satisfaction when you’ve potted up a batch of blackberry jam, strawberry conserve or green tomato chutney is fantastic. So if you’re a preserving novice, read on.
1. Fruit and veg quality
You really want your fruit and vegetables to be good quality for preserving. Think about what you’re after – flavour, texture and appearance. This is what you’re preserving. So really pick over your basic ingredients. Get rid of over-ripe and rotting fruits. You can cut out bad bits if you’re making jam or chutney, but if you’re preserving whole vegetables or fruits (see cherry pickle and green tomatoes in oil) they’ve got to look good as well as tasting good.
Make sure all your tools and equipment are really clean. Even though you’ve probably washed old jam jars before storing, wash them again thoroughly, then sterilise by boiling or (much easier) heating in a 100C oven for 15 minutes or so immediately before filling. And if you’re using screw top lids rather than cellophane jam lids, either buy new (Lakeland sell lids and jars) or make sure old ones are really clean and not rusty. In either case, boil the lids immediately before using. They need to be totally dry before sealing filled jars.
3. Sugar – more than sweetnesss
Sugar is your main preserving ingredient. It’s also one of the keys to a good set. Before starting to boil, ensure that all the sugar is thoroughly dissolved. If it’s not, your jam will be harder to set and it can lead to crystalisation in the jar. Not bad, but not the kind of glossy fruitiness you’re probably after. A good way is to gently warm sugar in the oven for 10 minutes or so before before adding to the pan.
With firmer skinned fruit, such as cherries or peaches, make sure the fruit has really softened duing the initial boiling before adding sugar. For soft-skinned fruit like strawberries or raspberries you can mascerate the fruit in the sugar before gently bringing to the boil – this also helps to preserve the actual fruit as sugar hardens the fruit. However, I still prefer to bring soft fruit to a gentle boil to release all their juice before adding warm sugar.
4. Setting jam
Getting the right jam set isn’t difficult and you really don’t need a thermometer. Before you start put 3 or 4 small plates in the freezer and once your jam is off to a rolling boil – and depending what fruit it is, see below – start testing after 3 or 4 minutes. Drop a small amount on a frozen plate and tip it. The jam should run but will be immediately cool so you can push on it with your finger. If it looks as though there’s a skin, it’s ready to set.
How set is another question. A conserve is more like a runnier jam, something to dip your warm croissant in at breakfast and a French favourite. Something a little firmer, is easier to spread on bread or toast. They’re both good. Basically, setting depends on a balance between pectin (natural or added – see below), acid and sugar… and the longer you boil, the firmer the set. And to get the glossiest, most jewel-like appearance, just set is how you want it.
5. Pectin or no pectin (or lemon)
Fruit varies with the amount of pectin it contains. Low and medium pectin fruits need more acid (lemon) added, or possibly commercial pectin that you can buy in most supermarkets in the sugar section. Special preserving sugar also contains pectin. You won’t need to add lemon, pectin or use preserving sugar if you’re preserving high pectin and even most medium pectin fruits.
- High pectin fruit include redcurrants, blackcurrants, damsons, quinces, apples and gooseberries.
- Medium pectin: early blackberries, apricots, raspberries and loganberries
- Low pectin: strawberries, late blackberries, cherries, pears and elderberries.
6. Handling scum
All boiled preserves produce scum. Actually, it’s mostly just a sugary foam and not bad in any way, but you don’t want to pot it in your jars. Deal with it right at the end, rather than during the cooking as you’ll just end up chucking out loads of actual jam. Right at the end add about 10 grams or so of butter. This will disperse the scum. Any left, just skim off once the pan is off the heat.
7. Help – it’s gone wrong
Well, it may seem so at first, but actually there’s a usually a rescue remedy because it’s really hard to ruin preserves.
Won’t set? Tip the whole lot back in the pan, add a bit more pectin or lemon juice, bring to the boil and test again. It will set – don’t panic.
Over-boiled? Spread out on an oiled tray or scilocon liner, dry and turn into fabulous fruit leather. Fantastic for kids lunch-boxes and not an E number in sight.
Too stiff? So what… call it a marmalade. It’ll still taste absolutely delicious.
In fact the only thing that can really ruin your jam is burning the bottom. That does leave a bad taste, so keep a hawk eye and a moving spoon to stop things sticking on the bottom.
8. Setting chutney
Chutney is a whole other ball game to jam or conserves. It takes far longer – mostly because you’re boiling away added liquid (vinegar) and generally melding together far more ingredients. What you’re looking for in a set chutney is the moment when you pull your spoon along the bottom of the pan and a clear channel opens exposing the bottom of the pan (think parting of the Red Sea, before closing over again.
9. Hot preserve in hot pots
Admittedly this part can seem a little hazardous, but with the right tools it’s very easy to control pouring your jam, chutney or marmalade into your prepared pots. If you can try and get a jam funnel (Lakeland are a great resource). This is a special wide topped, low funnel that sits inside even small jam jars for filling. This will almost eliminate spillages on the outside of the pot and make it much safer to transfer boiling jam from the pan using a normal ladle.
10. Label all your jars
If you make lots of preserves and at different times, it’s important to know what’s what and what needs eating first. Most jams, pickles and chutneys will keep for at least 6 months sealed up (perfect for Christmas presents). But it does help to know what’s in the jar and when they were made. Also, don’t even think of labelling your jars until they are quite cold.
And if you’re giving away your preserves as gifts, how about putting some effort into designing a special label. Really easy with a computer and printer!
Recipes for preserves on MIAMI
There are lots of recipes for preserves, jams, chutneys, pickles on the site. These are just a few.
- Redcurrant jelly from the allotment
- A first lesson in making jam Video (raspberry jam)
- Making cherry jam and cherry pickles
- Jam today – making strawberry jam
- How to make dandelion marmalade
- No sugar orange fig jam
Harvest and autumn
- Italian recipes for green tomatoes
- Making courgette relish
- A recipe for sweet tomato chutney
- What to do with green tomatoes
Marmalade, drinks and more advice
- Making jams, pickles and preserves
- Making marmalade in a pressure cooker
- A foolproof recipe for making marmalade
- Making elderflower cordial
- Top tips for making marmalade
For all your preserving and jam-making equipment and labelling needs we recommend Lakeland