The arts of food preservation go back to civilization's beginnings. In ancient Mesopotamia, families saved their produce for lean times. They dried dates, apples and figs. Their meat might be smoked, dried, or salted meat. Softer fruits could be preserved in honey. Now we have cane sugar, pressure cookers, refrigeration, packaged pectin, and so much more to make the process easier. Preserves and pickles have gone gourmet and exotic with exciting flavor combinations to enjoy and share with others. Yet the reason behind preserving comes down to a desire to save today's abundant food on hand to be savored at a later time.
What is pectin?
Pectin is naturally a part of the fruit, and it is needed to thicken preserves. Not all fruit contains enough pectin to gel its own preserves. Apples, for example, have a lot of natural pectin, but blueberries and strawberries do not. To make jam from low-pectin fruit, recipes will call for additional pectin to be added. This is readily purchased at most grocery stores during harvest seasons. Usually there needs to be present an acid, such as lemon juice, to make the gel set up properly. Once again, some fruits are high in acid, and some, such as strawberries, are not. Store-bought pectin may contain additional acid to make the recipe work easily.
The last important ingredient is sugar. Sugar—whether from the fruit itself or added in some other form—is necessary not just for taste but also to work as the preservative in the mix. Some recipes will call for mild honey as an added sweetener, but plain cane sugar is standard in most recipes.
Want to make something pretty and tasty that can go with your winter feasts? Consider a conserve. Conserves are a mix of different fruits and often include nuts, raisins and spirits. They work well when paired with meat and fish or as a topping for baked brie.
Brandied Peach Conserve
This recipe from Cooks.com uses a microwave to cut down on steamy kitchen time.
3 1/2 c. peeled, pitted peaches, chopped fine
1/2 c. dark seedless raisins
1/4 tsp. grated lemon peel
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
A box powdered pectin
5 c. sugar
1/2 c. brandy
1 c. sliced almonds
In a 3-quart casserole, blend together peaches, lemon peel, lemon juice, cinnamon, and pectin. Mix well. Cover. Place in microwave and cook on high for 10 minutes, stirring after 5 minutes. Add sugar to hot mixture, mixing thoroughly. Cover. Cook on high for 6-8 minutes, stirring after 4 minutes. Cook until mixture reaches a full boil. Stir and cook for 1 minute more of boiling. Remove from oven and immediately stir in brandy and nuts. Skim off foam if necessary. Pour into glasses and seal.
Canning, whether by simple boiling water bath or with a steam pressure canner, works by sealing out the air so bacteria doesn't have a chance to grow. It is critical to create an air-tight seal. Steam pressure canners work at higher temperatures and, when used correctly, can be used to preserve foods that are lower in acids, such as fresh vegetables, meat and milk products. Backyard gardeners who want to preserve their produce without significantly altering its taste should probably consider purchasing a steam pressure canner, which range in price from around $40 to $100, for standard models.
Sour or sweet, pickles are very popular, and you can make your own. Pickled cucumbers are certainly the most popular kind in the United States, but there so many other possibilities: sauerkraut (pickled, shredded cabbage), okra, artichokes, peppers, and the pale part of the watermelon rind. This method of preserving food is low in calories. There's often no sugar involved at all, unless it's used for flavor. Other spices such as mustard, garlic, cinnamon, and cloves may be used to kick up the taste. But what's important to the pickling process is the preservation which is done by adding substances to kill bacteria. Some simple pickle recipes use salt; others use vinegar. Aside from the often high sodium, most pickles are a relatively good nutritional choice. They are low in calories, high in fiber, and often pack substantial punches of B or C vitamins.
This recipe comes from the late NYT food writer Craig Claiborne's early collection, An Herb and Spice Cookbook:
3 pounds 4-inch pickling cucumbers
6 to 7 small onions, peeled, quarters
6 to 7 (inch) celery pieces
1 Tablespoon mustard seed
4 cups white vinegar
2-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup pickling salt
1 cup water
Wash cucumbers, cut lengthwise into eighths. Soak in ice water 3 hours. Drain, pack into clean jars. Add 1 onion, 1 piece celery and 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed to each jar. Combine vinegar and remaining ingredients, heat to boiling. Pour vinegar solution over cucumbers to within 1/2 inch of top, making sure vinegar solution covers cucumbers. Cap each jar at once. Process 10 minutes in boiling water bath. Makes 6 to 7 pints.
Food Timeline: Mesopotamia through Shakespeare
Sauerkraut at Wikipedia.com
Books for Canning Planning and Preserving the Deserving
Art of Preserving by Jan Berry
Jan Berry combines inventive flavor combinations (Apricot & Cardamom Chutney and Whiskey Tangelo Marmalade, for example) with old-style methods of preservation to produce a cookbook that's a step above the ordinary batch. Good for confident cooks.
The Ball Blue Book of Preserving
There's an old trueism that if you want a really outstanding recipe, check the back of the box. It's true for pecan pie, and it's true here as well. Ball makes many of the jars and lids that are essential for proper preserves. They know about canning in a basic kitchen with basic supplies and also include instructions for pressure canning. This book has been around for generations and is a classic of its kind, filled with preserving recipes.
Better Homes and Gardens Presents America's All-time Favorite Canning & Preserving Recipes
An easy-to-understand book with classic recipes sized for families.
The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest by Carol W. Costenbader
This book combines mostly basic methods with a wide range of recipes and tips.
The Complete Book of Year-round Small-batch Preserving: Over 300 Delicious Recipes by Ellie Topp & Margaret Howard
Recipes are for stored-on-the-shelf as well as stored-in-the-fridge preserves. Not for beginners or those who want only basic recipes.
The Food Lover's Guide to Canning: Contemporary Recipes & Techniques by Chris Rich, Lucy Clark Crawford
Excellent for nervous beginners, the many illustrations show equipment, what to do and what not to do. Many recipes are for pressure canners.
The Joy of Pickling: 200 Flavor-packed Recipes for All Kinds of Produce from Garden or Market by Linda Ziedrich
A nice combination of basic and unusual pickling recipes using mostly ordinary ingredients.
Preserving Summer's Bounty: A Quick and Easy Guide to Freezing, Canning, Preserving, and Drying What You Grow edited by Susan McClure and the staff of the Rodale Food Center
Shows both ultra traditional and very modern ways to preserve food. Lots of good tables and special sections give information on freezing, canning, preserving, pickling, drying, juicing, & root cellaring.
Preserving the Taste by Edon Waycott
This California author sells her gourmet jams and now shares her recipes for preserves that are high in natural virtues and low in added sugar. The recipes are relatively simple but the flavors are intensely interesting.
Quick Pickles: Easy Recipes with Big Flavor by Chris Schlesinger, John Willoughby, and Dan George Not interested in steaming over a hot water bath? Try some quick pickles. These easy recipes have an international as well as a home-grown flair: Mango Pickles with Scorched Mustard Seeds, Pickled Peaches in the Style of India, El Salvadoran Pineapple-Pickled Cabbage, and yes, good Old-Fashioned Bread & Butter Pickles.
Basics of Jam, Jelly and Preserve Making
A friendly, little article with tips for those starting out.
National Center for Food Preservation: How Do I..? Jams and Jellies
A good beginning for those who need straight advice and many basic recipes. Includes jams, freezer jams, jellies, conserves, preserves, marmalades, and reduced sugar recipes.
Preserves & Pickles Recipes — Vintage Recipes
Many, many old-fashioned recipes from antique cookbooks—some using unusual fruit: quinces, crab apples, damsons, barberries, and quinces, in addition to cucumbers, blueberries and tomatoes. Check recipes for Brandied Peaches and Tutti-Frutti for old-fashioned flavors. Due to the less than modern techniques employed, these are mostly of historical interest.
RecipeZaar: 894 Jams and Preserves Recipes
If you like to browse exciting recipes, you've come to the right place. Traditional, nouveau, hometown or exotic, there are preserves here to suit most every taste. Use the Recipe Sifter to browse by ingredients, cuisine, method of preparation, and more.