Preserving food

Food preserving was initially a survival skill and it has been used since people first learned to cook. Probably, cooking was done then as much for preserving food as for making food easier to digest and more palatable. Today, there is no need to worry about preserving food at home; it is just a way of keeping flavors at their best.

Why preserving food?

All food is perishable in the long term. Bacteria, yeasts, moulds, other micro-organisms and tiny insects would thrive in our food, if it was not processed in some way. A number of them are harmless; most are not. The purpose of preserving is to prevent all decay, keeping food edible and nutritious. Sugar, salt, vinegar and alcohol help to conserve food. Heat treatment can preserve fruit. Drying has been used for centuries, it is a traditional way to preserve food; freezing, is a new one. Canning is done commercially to the highest degree, and more people are drawn to do it at home.

Jams, jellies and preserves are ideal to take advantage of excess fruits and vegetables. Though the word preserve has often a much wider meaning, including all recipes that can be canned or preserved at home.

You do not need to be a declared environmentalist to enjoy making preserves at home. When you have excess of fruit in your garden, turning it into jams, jellies and chutneys, will let you enjoy it through the winter and beyond. Even if you don''t have a garden, you can buy some fruit or vegetables to make sweet jams and crisp pickles, which will have a far better flavor than many you find in shops. If you visit a pick-your-own farm, get some extra fruit for jam.

Food preserving equipment and ingredients

Consider a good quality preserving pan a sensible investment if you intend to make preserves from year to year. You can choose between a boiling water canner or a pressure canner. This last one is essential to process low acid foods, like vegetables, meat, poultry or seafood. The spores that produce botulism are not killed just by using boiling water.

If you have to improvise, never use copper for pickles or chutneys; this metal reacts easily with the acid vinegar and completely ruins the flavor. In the absence of a preserving pan, use a wide pan with a heavy base, made from stainless steel. Enamel or heat resistant glass, are other good materials to cook acid pickling mixtures or fruits. Aluminum is under suspicion. If using an aluminum pan, don''t leave fruit to stand. The acid in the fruit may attack the metal, chipping the surface.

You will need glass containers. You may use those jars several times, provided they have been thoroughly sterilized. You will need an airtight sealing. You can get commercially produced waxed paper and paraffin seals to cover your jellies. Screw top lids are suitable for chutneys and pickles, as long as they have plastic linings. Don’t forget sterilizing the lids in the same way as the containers.

The special glass canning jars are the ones recommended for safe home canning. They are heat resistant and designed to fit the jar lids and canning closures, really ensuring that tight seal we were speaking of. The jar lids are protected with a coating safe for food, they have a unique sealing compound, specifically designed for home canning, and the metal screw holds the lid in place while heat processing.

Fruit butters require a sieve. You can buy a jelly strainer and bag for jellies, though it is easy to strain the juice through some six layers of cheesecloth, first scalded; or even use a clean, scalded tea towel, or a sugar bag.

Choosing fruit and vegetables

Select fresh, good quality fruit and vegetables. Choose slightly under ripe, acid fruit for jams and jellies; even-sized fruit for bottling; crisp, young vegetables for making relishes, chutneys and pickles. Cucumbers, the most popular vegetable to pickle, and green tomatoes should be pickled within 24 hours from picking.

Other ingredients

Good vinegar, free of sediment; pure granulated salt; whole spices are better as they keep flavor for longer. For jams and jellies, you will need granulated sugar and possibly pectin, in liquid or crystal form. Preserving sugar with pectin already mixed is available.

Food preserves have many possibilities

One of the joys in making preserves is to give them as presents. Home-made gifts have a special charm. It is not difficult to achieve. Add a few drops of liqueur to elegantly bottled fruits; offer candied fruit in ornamented jars, boxes or pottery, nicely gift-wrapped.

There are many other possibilities. That jam recipe from grandmother could become the success in the next country fair. That relish born entirely from an effervescent imagination could make it to the top in the next cooking contest. As people tend to have less time for cooking and they rely more in external help for flavor; that next experiment with chutneys could hit the right formula, getting a place in the next gourmet food exhibition. Any of them could be the beginning of a new business.

Even those not interested in food preserving stardom would derive great pleasure from trying their creativity. Friends and family will appreciate all their efforts. There is always the risk of those pickles to die for becoming the “must invite to all our barbecues,” keeping the cook extremely busy, but surely never bored.