Cook, author and ‘urban farmer’ Rebecca Sullivan shares her definitive guide to making pickles and preserves
Words: Rebecca Sullivan
Preserving and pickling can often seem a bit intimidating, but there is absolutely no need to stress, as it’s really just a matter of experimentation and giving it a go. The first few times I made jam I just could not get it to set, so I have noted a few handy tips below that I have learnt over time through practice, advice from other jammers, and grandmothers the world over. The results will be so much more pleasing than any shop-bought jar and they make thoughtful, smile-worthy, economical gifts for friends and family.
For jam, you need three things for the perfect set: sugar, acid and pectin. For chutneys, pickles and relishes, you need salt, or sugar and vinegar, to prevent the formation of pathogens that may cause the food to spoil.
The basic procedure is to simmer the fruit or vegetables until soft, then add sugar or vinegar, boil until set or tender, then bottle. When gauging quantities of the finished product, bear in mind that soft fruits reduce more than other fruits, so the yield from these will be less in the jar.
The golden rules
—Sterilise your jars or bottles properly (see below).
—Don’t introduce water to the cooked preserves or mould will form.
—Always use just-ripe or slightly under-ripe fruit for jam. Over-ripe fruit will not set properly and always takes a really long time to cook—use this fruit for stewing.
—For a good crisp pickle, use fresh vegetables.
—Pickles are always best left for at least 1-2 months before eating so the flavours can really infuse into the vegetables. They can normally be kept for up to two years, but check the recipe, as some pickles are ‘fridge’ pickles and only last a few weeks.
—Jam can be eaten straight away, or kept for up to 2 years if the jars are sterilised correctly.
—Your cooking pan should be a large, wide, heavy-based saucepan that allows the preserving mixture to only come halfway up the sides of the pan. This is to ensure that when the contents are boiling rapidly they don’t spill over onto the stovetop. Special preserving pans are best, but any large saucepan will suffice.
—Large, wide, heavy-based saucepan
—Silicone mixing spoon
—Slotted spoon for skimming scum from the surface of jams jar tongs
—Jars and lids
—Jam funnel or jug for pouring jam into jars
—Heatproof chopping board
—Labels and a marker
—Jam jar tongs (these are special wide tongs that make it easier to handle jars)
Sterilising jars and lids
Heat the oven to 100C. Wash glass jars in hot soapy water and rinse them with hot water (or wash them in the dishwasher). Handle them with jam jar tongs as you need the water to be really hot. Stand the jars upright on trays and put them in the oven while your jam is cooking. Remove them from the oven one by one as needed—but do not add cold food to hot jars, or hot food to cold jars, as the jar will crack.
To sterilise lids, jam funnels and ladles, boil them in a saucepan and remove as needed. Place onto a paper towel. Use the paper towel to wipe them totally dry—even a droplet of water may cause the food to spoil—and use them straight away.
Always sterilise more jars than you think you will need. If you end up with more than anticipated, it’s too late to start sterilising once the food is ready.
Take care when making preserves, especially jam, as it boils at a higher temperature than water and bubbles quite fiercely—jam scalds are very nasty. For jams, jellies, curds and chutneys, fill the warm jars to the top, wipe the rims with a damp cloth then cover with a disc of waxed paper (waxed side down) while the filling is still hot.
Allow to cool—if there are large chunks, it can take 10 mins or so to allow the fruit to settle—then cover with cellophane, securing with a rubber band. Wipe off any spills with a damp cloth, dry and label the jars. For long-term storage, secure the cellophane with a screw-top lid.
For pickles and preserved fruit or vegetables, fill the warm jars to within 2.5 cm of the top. Pour over the preserving liquid (such as oil, vinegar, brine, sugar syrup or alcohol) to within 1cm of the top, making sure the fruit or vegetables are completely covered. Immediately cover with a disc of waxed paper (waxed side down), then cover with cellophane and seal with a screw-top lid to prevent the preserving liquid from evaporating. You might hear the odd ‘pop’ as the lids contract—this is normal, and the sign of a good seal.
For vinegars and oils, fill the warm bottles to within 2.5 cm of the top then seal with a non-corrodible screw-top or a cork. Always fill jars to the level suggested—if the last of the batch of jam isn’t enough to fill a jar, pour it into a clean small ramekin and use it within a couple of weeks.
Always store preserves in a cool, dark place unless the recipe says otherwise.
Choosing sugar for your jams, chutneys and pickles
White sugar: ordinary white sugar, sometimes known as granulated sugar, is best for jam-making.
Jam sugar: white sugar with pectin added to it, is available in supermarkets. It costs more than ordinary sugar, but it can take the pressure off getting the perfect set with your jam. I would recommend it if you are short on time, and only for berry jams, as they have less pectin than other fruits.
Raw sugar: more costly than white sugar, but it’s good if you don’t want to use processed sugar. It does require more work, as the sugar takes longer to dissolve because the grains are larger, and it needs watching closely as it can burn easily.
Brown sugar: using brown sugar changes the colour and taste of your product dramatically. I love to use it in chutneys and pickles more than in jam, as it has a rich aniseed flavour when cooked. It’s not great for delicate jams but it’s wonderful in marmalades.
Honey: honey cannot entirely replace sugar in your jams, as it burns easily. However, it can add another flavour profile to the jam if you use about 10 per cent honey to 90 per cent sugar. A greater ratio of honey can be used in pickles and chutneys.
Choosing vinegars for your pickles
Malt vinegar: the cheapest of the vinegars and the one most commonly used in pickling, malt vinegar is dark in colour and best used for strongly flavoured foods that won’t be overwhelmed by it, such as onions.
Apple cider vinegar: sweet and fruity, this vinegar is great for chutneys and delicate pickles such as courgette. You can use any cider vinegar—it doesn’t have to be apple.
Wine vinegars: made from grapes, these are best used when you don’t want to overpower the produce. They are normally more delicate but also more expensive than other vinegars.
Tips for making the perfect jams and marmalades
—Only wash the fruit if totally necessary. If you know the fruit hasn’t been sprayed, there’s no need to wash it. Citrus fruit bought from the supermarket might be waxed, in which case it will need to be scrubbed.
—For berry jams, combine the berries and sugar, cover the pan with a tea towel and leave overnight to draw out the pectin from the fruit. In hot weather, put the pan in the fridge to prevent fermentation.
—Always dissolve the sugar properly over low heat; if it’s not completely dissolved, it will set like a rock in the jars.
—To disperse any scum that may form on top of your jam, mix about 1 tbsp butter into the cooked jam. Alternatively, skim off the scum with the back of a large spoon.
Testing for the perfect set
So long as you use the measurements provided in the recipes and don’t try to guess your ingredients too much, your jam should set once cooked without having to add pectin. Pectin is a complex carbohydrate that occurs naturally in fruit, and in greater quantities in some fruits (such as citrus) than in others (such as berries).
If you want to be absolutely spot on, the easiest thing to do is buy a jam thermometer: when it reads 104.5C, your jam is set. Alternatively, try the saucer test. Place a saucer in the fridge before you begin your jam. When the jam has been cooking for the time stated in the recipe, drop less than 1 tsp on the cold saucer, leave for 1 min and then gently push your finger through the middle. If the jam crinkles, it is set.