There’s almost no way around the fact that making preserves is a process. But for me, that’s what is so enjoyable about it. I am, to a fault, a process person. I revel in precision and attention to detail – these are my superpowers. They’re why I’m drawn to making preserves. In returning to the tradition each year, I have found that I’m always seeking the same thing: to capture memories of farm visits, perfect produce and the season’s warmth in small glass jars.
Whether it consumes half an hour or a few days, I know I’ll end up with great jams and jellies to adorn a few slices of buttered toast, a bowl of ice cream or a meaty roast. I’ll also have a way to share my experiences through my joyful end-of-summer preserving. My husband once asked, after I had cooked and canned a market haul of quinces into nearly two dozen jars, if we had more jars of jam than friends and family to give them to. The answer: never! Homemade preserves make delightful gifts for those we love – a little something to drop off, ship out or offer on visits.
To make preserves, you need fruit, sugar, acid and pectin, which thickens when activated by heat to set the resulting preserves. Pectin is found in most fruits, especially in their skins and seeds. Fruits high in pectin, including stone fruits, guava, figs, apples, pears and citrus, will thicken naturally when simmered. For low-pectin fruits like berries, and no-cook jams, the addition of store-bought powdered pectin is crucial. Because pectin levels among fruits vary, it’s important to rely on instructional guides from pectin packages if you’re substituting one fruit for another or using a blend of two or more.
I use a variety of methods to capture the sweetness of summer fruit. Regardless of the method you choose, the fruit should be at or near peak ripeness (if the fruit have a few blemishes, that’s not a problem: cut out any bruised spots while prepping). Any additional herbs, aromatics and spices should complement the fruit, not dominate it.
No-cook jams, often referred to as freezer jams or refrigerator jams because they’re not canned, most closely replicate one of the most treasured food memories of summer: biting into ripe, juicy fruit. Quick no-cook jamming skips the simmering and canning. Instead, chopped and slightly crushed raw fruit are combined with sugar and pectin. The resulting condiment should be stored in clean containers and frozen or refrigerated immediately.
My plum-ginger jam evokes the feeling that led poet William Carlos Williams to eat the delicious plums that were being saved in an icebox, rapturously describing them as “so sweet / and so cold.” Before chopping your plums, slice off a bite of each and taste to ensure it is just right. You want the boldest flavours for a no-cook preserve.
Our next technique is a classic gentle simmer, which suits the figs in this jam well. By cooking fruit with sugar and thickening its juices, you create something easily spreadable but still visibly fruity. Fresh herbs add balance to the sweetness of the first bite. Rosemary is ideal with figs, because it lends a light grassy note to the fruit’s subtle sweetness.
Our last method is a jelly, the result of cooking fruit to extract juice and pectin, then straining away the solids. Making jelly from fresh apples is a process-lover’s dream. I love the transformation: the apples are gone, but their juices remain suspended in a translucent, vibrant spread. This jelly recipe captures the floral, aromatic and acidic qualities of peak fall apples. Like a good marmalade (usually a citrus preserve with softened cooked pieces of peel), a good jelly should be a balance of tart and sweet.
Food preservation is at the very heart of every cuisine and serves to extend the essence of fresh ingredients. Dehydrating, pickling, brining, smoking, fermenting and oil-packing work with a wide variety of ingredients, both savoury and sweet. Whether we are making chutneys, confitures, cheong or conserves, we are saving the best of a season for the months ahead. Each of these recipes captures what makes summer fruit so irresistible. The process of making them will require your attention, but preserving summer’s best flavours is your sweet reward.
Plum-ginger freezer jam
Makes: 6 to 7 cups
Total time: 10 minutes, plus chilling
1.4kg ripe but firm plums, pitted and cut into 2.5cm pieces
200g superfine sugar
2 tbsp scrubbed, grated fresh ginger
2 tbsp lemon zest (from 4 lemons)
2 tbsp lemon juice, plus more to taste
¼ tsp calcium powder, if needed (see tip)
4½ tsp powdered pectin (see tip)
½ tsp salt
1. Using a potato masher or fork, gently crush the plums in a large bowl to release some pulp and juices while keeping the fruit chunky. Toss with the sugar, then add the ginger and lemon zest and juice. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Measure the volume of your fruit mixture; you should have about 6 cups.
2. If your package of pectin comes with calcium powder, stir ¼ teaspoon of the calcium powder into ¼ cup water to dissolve. Set aside. Place the 4½ teaspoons pectin in a stand blender, or have it measured and ready if using an immersion blender. Bring 1 cup water to a boil, then pour it into the stand blender and blend (if using an immersion blender, add the pectin to the saucepan and blend). The mixture should become very smooth and look like a soft gel. Stir the pectin mixture into the fruit until evenly combined, then stir in 4 teaspoons of the calcium water, if using. The jam should thicken and be softly set. Add the salt, stir and taste. Adjust after tasting with more teaspoons of lemon juice, if necessary, for a good balance of sweet and tart.
3. Transfer to clean airtight containers, cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours and up to 2 weeks before serving. Or, store in the freezer for up to 3 months; defrost completely in the refrigerator before serving.
Tips: There are different brands of powdered pectin, so the amount needed may change depending on which you buy, and the package may include calcium powder. If the package includes instructions for no-cook freezer or refrigerator jam, follow them and adjust the amount of pectin needed based on your volume of cut fruit.
Fig jam with rosemary
Makes: 3 to 4 cups
Total time: 45 minutes, plus canning or cooling
900g fresh ripe figs, stemmed and chopped
4 large sprigs fresh rosemary (wrapped and tied in cheesecloth)
2 tbsp lemon zest (from about 4 lemons)
60ml lemon juice (from 1 to 2 lemons), plus more to taste
½ tsp salt, plus more to taste
1. Place the figs in a 3.7L heavy-bottomed pot. Pour in 1½ cups water and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the figs soften and the liquid begins to thicken, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the rosemary and sugar, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the syrup thickens, the figs are mostly broken down and the jam goes from a rapid boil to slow bubbles, about 25 minutes. Remove and discard the rosemary.
3. Stir in the lemon zest and juice and kosher salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for another minute for a runnier jam or up to 8 minutes if you prefer a thicker jam. Taste and adjust with more lemon juice and salt as needed (adding lemon juice will thin the jam, but it does thicken as it cools). The jam should be sweet and tart with a hint of fresh rosemary.
4. Transfer to sterilised jars and can, or cool to room temperature, then store in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks.
Makes: 4 to 5 cups
Total time: 2 hours, plus cooling and canning
1.5kg cooking apples, such as Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Jonagold, Braeburn or Honeycrisp, or a combination, scrubbed
60ml lemon juice (from about 2 lemons), plus more as needed
½ tsp salt
1. Cut the apples into 2.5cm pieces without peeling or coring, but discard any damaged or spoiled spots.
2. Place the apples in a large nonreactive pot and pour in 8 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower heat to maintain a simmer and cook without stirring until the apples soften, 35 to 40 minutes.
3. Remove from the heat. Set a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth or a muslin bag over another large pot, and pour the contents of the pot into the sieve. Do not press on the apples to prevent the jelly from becoming cloudy. You should have at least 7 cups of juice. Some apple varieties absorb more water and may need 2 to 8 hours for the juice to naturally strain out. If that’s the case, refrigerate the pot.
4. Place a small plate in the freezer to use for testing the setting point of the jelly. Set the pot with the juice over medium-high heat (discard the fruit). Add the sugar and lemon juice, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to a boil, skimming and discarding any foam that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the liquid reduces by about three-quarters and a candy or deep-fry thermometer registers 225C, 40 to 50 minutes. To test for doneness, spoon a small amount of liquid onto the cold plate from the freezer and return to the freezer to cool completely, about 2 minutes. Drag a spoon through the jelly. The setting point has been reached if it wrinkles and the wrinkles hold their shape. If they don’t, continue to cook the jelly and test every few minutes on the cold plate.
5. Once the jelly is done cooking, add the salt, stir to dissolve and adjust with more lemon juice, if needed, for a nice balance of sweet and tart with a floral taste. Ladle the hot liquid into clean, sanitised jars, screw on the lids and follow steps to can, or allow to cool to room temperature and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks.
© The New York Times