Canning and drying are two great ways to process a glut of fruits and vegetables into food that can be stored for months, providing you with a supply of nutritious, vitamin-packed preserves when fresh garden produce is scarce.
Here are some of the most common ways to preserve your garden fruits and vegetables:
Jams & Jellies
Jams and jellies can be made from fruit such as raspberries, blackcurrants, or apples, or even food foraged from the wild like brambles, elderberries or rosehips. In order to set, jams and jellies rely on how much pectin the fruit used naturally has in it. Fruits with little pectin can be combined with other fruits that have lots, or you can add commercial pectin or specialist preserving sugar which contains pectin.
To make jam, you need good quality, unblemished fruit, washed and cut up into pieces of about the same size. Simmer it with the specified amount of water from your recipe, and then add the sugar and boil until the setting point. To check for fruit set you can use a jam thermometer, but to be doubly sure put a blob of jam on a cold saucer (one that has been chilled in the fridge first is ideal) and let it cool a little. If it’s runny it’s not ready, but if you can push it with your finger and it wrinkles, then it has set. Be careful though, as it will be hot! Let your jam cool, and put it into your sterilised jars.
Making jelly is a great way to use up fruits that need to be strained to remove seeds. Cut up ripe fruit roughly and mix it in a pan with the specified amount of water from your recipe. Strain through muslin or a jelly bag overnight into a bowl, then add the strained liquid to your sugar and boil until a set is reached.
To make jams and jellies you’ll need either a water bath canner or a pot that’s big enough to immerse the jars fully, with an inch or two of water above the jars, and a rack for the jars to stand on in the pot.
Jars are reusable, but lids usually are not. Both need to be sterilised, either by putting them in the oven for about 20 minutes at gas mark 1/275 degrees Fahrenheit/130 degrees Celsius, or in hot water (again for about 20 minutes before use), and they need to be kept warm while you prepare your ingredients. Remove any air bubbles with a non-metallic spatula and make sure to wipe the rim and threads of the jar to remove any food debris.
There are different types of lid, but the most popular is the screw top. Place the disc onto the jar, then tighten the screw top band and pop the jars into a boiling water bath for about 30 minutes to kill off any potential contaminants and to ensure a tight seal. Then, leave them to cool. After 24 hours, check that the seal is airtight – if not, the jar must be reprocessed or the contents eaten very soon. As long as it has sealed properly, the jars can be stored for up to a year.
Pickles and Chutneys
Almost anything can be pickled! Cucumbers are probably the most popular vegetables to be turned into pickles, but beetroot, onions, cabbage and peppers also work well.
Cucumbers or other vegetables can be left whole or cut into chunks, spears or slices, but it’s best not to slice too thinly – the thicker the slice, the more crisp it will remain once pickled. Some veggies need to be soaked in brine before covering with vinegar in order to keep them firm. You can include your favourite flavourings such as bay leaves, dried or fresh chillies, dill, mustard seeds or garlic to make your home-made pickles your own.
Like jams and jellies, pickles and chutneys will need to be processed in a water bath. The exception to this is if you’re making pickles that will be used within a few weeks and will be keeping them in the fridge.
Chutney is usually made using a mix of vegetables and fruit washed, cleaned and chopped into small pieces to make it easy to spread. It’s useful for using up vegetables such as green tomatoes or onions – what could be better than caramelised red onion chutney paired with a good quality sharp cheddar and some rustic oatcakes?
Near the end of the cooking you can test to see if your chutney is ready by making a channel with your spoon in the mixture. If it doesn’t backfill with the mixture, it’s ready.
Chutneys do need acetic acid adding so that they can be preserved, as they are made from lower acid foods. It’s important to follow a tried and tested recipe to ensure you have the correct amount of acid in your preserves, as this prevents harmful bacteria from forming. Alternatively, you can process them and other low-acid foods at much higher temperatures in a pressure canner.
Pickles and chutneys are best left to mature for several weeks or months before using for best flavour, but the unopened jars will store for up to two years.
Drying (or dehydrating) is an excellent easy way to store fruit long-term. Drying changes the texture of fruit without compromising the flavor. You can buy specialist dehydrators, but it’s easy to dehydrate fruit in your oven. Wash and thinly slice your chosen produce and arrange it in a single layer on a baking tray – berries can often be left whole, or halved if they’re large. Set your oven to its lowest temperature and leave for several hours until the pieces have shrunk and dried out, then store in a sterile, airtight container and consume within a few weeks. If you want to keep them for longer, sterilise them first by freezing them for a couple of days.
Apples and pears are great candidates for drying, but it’s a good idea to soak them in a mildly acidic solution to preserve their color first – you can use citric acid concentrate, or equal parts water and lemon juice if you only have a small batch of fruit to dry.
You can also make fruit leathers by mashing or blending ripe or over-ripe fruits into a puree, then pouring the puree onto a non-stick sheet and drying them at a temperature of around 135 degrees Fahrenheit/57 degrees Celsius, for 4-8 hours. You can pair fruits that taste great together and add spices to make them even more delicious – some fruits may need a sweetener such as sugar or honey added. Damsons and blackberries make great fruit leathers.