Monday, 24 August 2015

Preserving the Harvest: Sugar Preserves

We are approaching the season of gluts in the garden with beans dripping from the vines and courgettes turning to marrows in the blink of an eye. That's why we need to be ready to capture this bounty for our larders and not let it become slug food! Here is a whistle-stop tour of preserving methods you can try out.

There are two main ingredients in food preservation: Sugar and Salt
These ingredients can preserve foods by creating an environment which food-decomposing microbes cannot survive in. They can also aid a fermentation process which encourages beneficial microbes to help preserve the food. In this post I'l talk about sugar preserves and I'll cover salt preserves in my next post.

Sugar Preserves


Roughly equal volumes of fruit and sugar are boiled to a setting point and then stored in hot, sterilised jars. The Jam cools and will store for months or even years if unopened.
Pectin is an ingredient naturally present in fruits (some have much more than others) which helps to make the jam set.

High Pectin Fruits
Low Pectin Fruits
Cooking aplles
Crab apples
Sour plums

If making jam with low-pectin fruits pectin can be added either in a processed liquid form or by including some high pectin fruits.

1 large cooking apple per kilo of fruit
1 250ml bottle of pectin per 2kg fruit

Alternatives to sugar can be used:

Jam will taste of honey. Expensive. Doesn’t always set as well.
Fruit concentrates
Concentrating juices yourself not practical. Concentrates can be bought- apple or grape are best. Jams don’t keep as long once opened: keep in fridge and eat within 2 weeks.
Sweetens but doesn’t preserve. Method is more traditional bottling method (boiling jars) but risk of botulism if correct method not followed.


Similar product to the method is different. Fruit is cooked separately first and the pulp is passed through a fine fabric jelly bag to make it clear. The Juice is then boiled with sugar to setting point.

1 part whole low-pectin fruit : 1 part whole high-pectin fruit
1l water : 2kg fruit (variable depending on juiciness of fruit
Same volume of sugar as extracted juice , eg. 1lb : 1 pint

Syrups & Cordials

These are concentrated juices cooked with sugar and stored in sterilised bottles. They normally need refridgerating once opened but will stay good for a few months. Fruit can be cooked to a pulp then strained through muslin. Flowers can be steeped in water and strained. Lemon juice is often added to preserve colour.

General ratios
1kg sugar : 1.5l water/juice

Vinegar (live)

Vinegar is created by natural air-borne yeasts which colonise sugary liquids and turn them sour. Other microorganisms can’t survive in the vinegar so the food doesn’t rot. Fruit vinegars are very easy to make using excess fruit, peelings and scraps.

Basic recipe:
200g Fruit
1l water
50g granulated sugar
·       Put chopped fruit or scraps into 1.5l storage jar.
·       Dissolve sugar in water and add to fruit.
·       Cover jar opening with a piece of muslin secured with elastic band
·       After about a week the liquid will darken
·       2-3 weeks will be fully sour – small and taste to check.
·       Strain out fruit and store in sterile glass bottle.
·       Keeps forever

Vinegar Preserves

Vinegars can then be used to preserve other foods, eg. Pickled onions which are ‘bottled’ in the traditional way (heat up ingredients, add to clean jar and seal. Add sealed jar to pan of water. Bring to the boil and boil for 10 minutes. Remove and allow to cool). There are an infinite number of different recipes for vinegar preserves from simple ones like pickled onions to complex spiced Indian and Chinese pickles.
You can also infuse vinegar with herbs and spices for use in salad dressings and cooking. Particularly for Japanese and Chinese cooking. I make rice vinegar and infuse it with garlic, ginger and Szechuan peppercorns.


Chutney uses both sugar and vinegar but the vinegar is the main preserving agent and the sugar is there to make it more palatable. The simplest method involves throwing all ingredients into a large heavy pan and boiling for several hours until it has reduced to the right consistency. Much less of an art than jams and jellies, but somewhat more energy intensive. There are many different recipes for chutney so try different ones to find what suits your taste.


Alcohol is created by yeasts which are naturally present on fruit skins and thrive in an anaerobic environment. Airlocks are used when brewing alcohol to prevent airborne yeasts from entering and making vinegar. It’s easy to make alcohol but tougher to make drinkable alcohol! I’m not an expert so I can recommend Andy Hamilton’s Booze for Free as a simple guide to get you started.

Alcohol liqueurs are very easy to make by combining fruits/leaves/flowers, etc with spirits and sugar. Sloe gin is a classic example and my rule of thumb for all is roughly equal parts fruit : sugar : spirit. Some examples are:

Hawthorn leaves & fruits
All kinds of mint
Beech leaves

Aquilegia leaves
Mint or lemonbalm


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