By Hattie Ellis 

Seasonality, thrift, provenance and the best flavours all come together in preserving. A craft that once seemed a touch old-fashioned is now bang on trend.

Home-preserving brings out the hunter-gatherer – not just in hedgerows but also in shops.  I was delighted to find Mike in Carrolls Greengrocers in Ore, a man happy to help those in search of a bargain. In late summer, £13.50 got two full trays of ‘grade two’ produce: perfectly ripe and tasty fruit and veg with the odd bruise or visual flaw. 

A couple of kitchen sessions later, a shelf was satisfyingly laden with sweet-and-sour pineapple chutney, tomato and pepper spicy chutney, peach melba coulis, toffee apple curd and bottled plums.

Homemade jams are full of fruit and not bulked out with sugar. Chutneys are no longer murky over-vinegared sludges full of wizened sultanas – recipes now often pre-salt the main ingredients to get rid of some of the water for a quicker cook and fresher flavour. The produce might then be cooked with a tangy paste of garlic, ginger and spices, along with vinegar and sugar, to make vibrant-tasting and beautiful potfuls.

Some useful tips:
• No need for a jam pan, a large pan will do for small batches and two or three pots. Just make sure it isn’t more than half full. Jams bubble up; chutneys reduce down, but both contain hot sugar.
• A wide-necked funnel (sold by the excellent Chef’s Ware in Queen’s Road) is a handy bit of kit. It saves mess and loss as you pour or ladle your preserves into the pots, especially whole fruit jams, marmalades and chutneys.
• Jars can be reused but try to keep separate lids for sweet and vinegary preserves. Modern twist-on lids form a good seal and are better than plastic lids, for example from old coffee jars, which won’t have the same good seal and risk spoilage.
• Don’t use a wax disc to cover the preserve – these date back to the days of cellophane and a lack of an air-tight seal.
• Play around with different types of sugar, honey and different vinegars to add special layers of flavour.

How to sterilise jars

Sterilise jars and lids by washing and then drying them, open-side up, in a 120°Fan/140°C oven, or put them through the dishwasher (set at minimum 60°C) shortly before they are needed.

Fill sterilised jars right to the brim when both jar and preserve are hot and seal immediately with a twist-on lid. As it cools, the air contracts and forms a vacuum which keeps the preserve. 

Setting point

To get the best spreadable texture, jam must reach setting point through a chemical reaction between the sugar with the pectin and acid in your ingredients. Pectin is the natural gel-like substance in the cell walls of fruits and is higher in some than others (cooking apples, damsons, quinces and redcurrants are high; strawberries and pears are low – a decent preserves cookbook will give a chart showing pectin and acid). Recipes add citrus juice and pectin-rich fruits to low-pectin and low-acid fruits such as strawberries to help them set.

A digital or jam thermometer shows setting point (generally 103°C-104°C) but this is strangely less fail-proof than knowing from experience what the bubbles look like when the jam is ready and, crucially, using the gel test. Chill a saucer in the freezer and drop on some jam. Leave for a minute and then push it with your finger. You want a light wrinkle, not a thick ridge. 

Jam will continue to set in the pot for a couple of days. If it’s still runny, then you can reboil it and retest for setting point.

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