I don’t like to waste food. Mostly because I prefer to eat it. I’m lucky to have not grown up with scarcity, but with a parental-instilled respect for anything that required energy to produce.
While some commit leftovers to refrigerated purgatory before making the final leap to the trash, I find satisfaction in transforming rogue bits into something new. And when, particularly during the harvest season, my freezer is full (or I don’t feel like cramming another container into it), I often make a quick, small batch of jam out of a few squishy plums or half pint of depressed berries. Micropreserving could be one of our best defences against food waste, if we know what to do with those bits that have lost their youthful vigour but are still completely cookable.
There is a widespread idea that making jams and other preserves is a time-consuming endeavour, one that requires a sink-sized pot, dozens of jars, flats of produce and a bag of sugar the size of a small child. And yes, there was a time when strawberries weren’t available in January and everything that grew in orchards and backyard gardens came into season at once, so preserving was a massive and necessary undertaking if you wanted fruit and veggies over the winter.
But these days we preserve more for pleasure. We dive into kimchi and other ferments because they’re intriguing and tasty science projects, not for lack of access to refrigeration, and we make interesting jams and compotes because we’re inspired by something we’ve come across at the farmers’ market or on Pinterest. Most of us have a steady stream of fruit coming through our kitchens year-round, which means we probably wind up tossing a fair amount on a regular basis, if it doesn’t wind up in a smoothie.
Here’s the thing: You can simmer any quantity of fruit into jam, chutney or some sort of soft, sweet compote, without requiring hours of spare time. Equal parts fruit and sugar was once a traditional ratio, but 2:1 fruit to sugar is becoming the norm and is perfectly sufficient, with plenty of wiggle room that allows for measuring by eyeball. You could drop the sugar even further, and add a squeeze of lemon if your fruit isn’t very acidic. And there’s no need to stick to one variety – jammy fruits such as Bank berries, peaches and plums get along beautifully, and I feel slightly fancier when spooning homemade cherry-blackberry or apricot-rhubarb onto my morning crumpet. Or, more realistically, into my plain yogurt and granola.
To hurry things along I’ve ditched pots and saucepans in favour of a skillet; the broader surface area helps jam cook down faster, and you can squish larger chunks with a fork or potato masher. Most who are nervous about the notion of jam-making tend to get hung up on ensuring it sets properly, but this, too is, easier than many recipes let on. Just cook your fruit and sugar until it thickens to a jam-like consistency, and your spoon leaves a trail on the bottom of the pan. In general, when fruit and sugar transform into jam, it looks like jam – and it’s easier to monitor the progression in a skillet. Some fruits contain more natural pectin than others and will gel more easily, but a soft, saucy jam is far preferable in my mind to a solidly set, gelatinous one. And if it ends up runnier than you’d like, call it sauce or compote and it will still be delicious.
Softer-textured, sweet-tangy chutneys are just as easy, with even less pressure to set. Mangoes, apples and stone fruits work well; toss in a small, finely chopped onion, a bit of grated garlic and ginger and some cider or other mild vinegar (about half as much as the sugar you use) and some mustard seed or curry powder along with the sugar. Simmer until it’s thick and saucy – this is all it takes.
Here’s another revelation: By making a single jar, or a quantity that won’t take months to eat your way through, there’s no need to process filled jars for stable shelf storage. But if you do wind up with a surplus, jams, chutneys and compotes freeze wonderfully, and take up hardly any space when stacked flat in Ziploc sandwich bags, to be decanted into jars whenever you’re ready. (Sugar acts as a preservative, so most jams and chutneys will last in the fridge for up to a month – if they’re lower in sugar, freeze any you won’t eat in a couple weeks.)
Preserving needn’t be a production, and a return to the techniques of generations past, albeit with far more conveniences and on a smaller scale, can lessen our environmental impact. To some it may be compost – to me, it’s breakfast.
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