How? By making jam! And chutney, and pickles, and bottled fruit, and infused booze, and ferments, of course, but jam almost always occurs as our first thought when we’re faced with a glut of fruit.
Grow your own
As you may know, we grow some pretty interesting plants in our rental permaculture garden, and we use lots of the principles along the way, which you can read about here. Probably most surprising to people is the fact that we grow long-term crops such as rhubarb and asparagus, and we have a highly productive apricot tree. People are surprised as they associate these sorts of crops with established homeowners’ gardens, not the dingy paved backyard of short-term rental properties.
But all too often, it can be challenging to grow all the foods you would like to eat and preserve when you’re at the mercy of the changeable rental market. Fear not: permaculture principles 1 (Observe and interact), 8 (Integrate rather than segregate), 10 (Use and value diversity) and 11 (Use edges and value the marginal) have got you covered…
Foraging and friendship
To supplement the food that we grow, we’ve become knowledgeable about the local terroir wherever we live. We go on observation walks where we earmark fruit trees and lush patches of edible weeds and flowers, and keep them all written down in a little journal. Having familiarised ourselves with what times of year different species flower and fruit, we can head back to those patches when it’s time to share some of the harvest with nature. Summer and autumn are magnificent times to forage in southern Australia as there’s an absolute abundance of wild and feral food to be found. Apples, plums, quince, pears, medlars, figs, feijoa, blackberries, elderberry, native raspberry, wild fennel, peach, nectarine, apricot, hawthorn and so, so many more.
As well as homegrown and foraged fruit, we also have an influx of produce gifted or swapped with us from local growers, friends, and people connected via online permaculture networks. So it’s not unusual for the dining table in our rental property to be absolutely groaning with fresh produce even if we haven’t grown that much. You can see how being prepared with equipment, time and knowhow is vital if we want to do justice to the baskets and baskets of fruit that make our dining table groan at certain times of the year!
Knowledge is power
We have an extensive library of preserving books which we refer to often. We pick lots of these up at op-shops, and if there’s a special new book just released that we’d like to add to our collection, we pop it on our wish-list for birthdays and/or Christmas. Many books have duplicate or very similar recipes, but having a broad range of sources to refer to mean we’re able to produce a vast range of preserves from each abundant harvest, rather than just cupboards and cupboards full of one type.
Being prepared ahead of time is vital when you’re wanting to preserve lots of produce, especially if it’s something that perishes quickly like blackberries or figs. Thinking ahead and purchasing or sourcing clean, sound jars and lids in spring pays off when you have 25kgs of summer plums turn up in a week. If you leave it until summer to source your jars, more often than not you’ll discover that other people are doing exactly the same thing, and you may struggle to find enough before your fruit harvest begins to rot.
In the same way, having sugar, lemons and spices on hand can mean that you’re able to whip up a few quick smaller batches of jam in the evenings after work rather than trying to process mega batches and finding you’ve spent your entire weekend up to your elbows in preserves. Equipment such as jamming funnels, clean teatowels & muslin, large saucepans or jamming pots, and spoons & ladles is good to keep separate from your regular kitchen utensils so you’re ready to jam at the drop of a hat.
What’s in a name?
Jam, jelly, conserve, preserve, paste, butter, curd… these terms are used in most preserving books and can be a bit confusing when you’re not familiar with them, so here’s a basic rundown:
A sweet spread made from fruit and sugar boiled to a thick consistency. Contains pieces of pulpy fruit.
A sweet spread much like jam, but with larger, more defined pieces of fruit
A type of clear gelatinous jam. Contains no fruit pieces. Usually sweet, but can be made savoury with addition of herbs and/or chilli.
A jam made primarily with citrus fruits. Usually a relatively clear jam with pieces of shredded of chopped citrus rind suspended in it.
A thick, spreadable soft fruit spread made by boiling pureed fruit paste with sugar. No dairy involved.
A thicker, more dried out version of fruit butter. Either boiled or baked very low & slow until it sets solid when cool, the most famous paste/cheese is Quince Paste (known as Membrillo in Spain)
A creamy, smooth spread made by gently cooking fruit juice, eggs, butter and sugar. No fruit pieces, and must be kept refrigerated. Short shelf life.
Whole fruits suspended in a sweet, heavy syrup.
Where to begin
The easiest sweet preserves to make, technically-wise, are straight up jam and jelly.
Our mental recipe – which is really handy to keep in mind when you’re wanting to develop your own recipes – for each of these goes as follows:
- Chop up peeled/washed/trimmed fruit.
- If it’s hard, cook it with a little bit of water until it’s soft then add sugar. If it’s soft, mix it with sugar and leave it alone overnight (called ‘macerating’).
- Boil it until it Sets.
- Jar and seal while hot.
- Chop fruit, cores, skins and all.
- Cover with water & simmer until it’s really squishy.
- Strain through a scalded teatowel/muslin. Keep liquid.
- Add sugar to liquid.
- Boil it until it Sets.
- Jar and seal while hot.
What are the Important Things to know?
- Check out which fruits are really low in pectin, as you’ll need to add something to them to help your jam/jelly to Set. Chucking in a grated Granny Smith apple or some crabapples will do the job nicely.
- Jams & jellies often call for added lemon juice. That’s because citric acid helps lower pH and allows pectin to bind properly, leading to a Set.
- A jam/jelly is at Setting point when it gels enough to form a wrinkled skin when you push your finger through it. The simplest way to test this is to drip a bit of boiling jam/jelly on a cold plate, letting it cool for 5 minutes or so, then giving it a poke. If it doesn’t look gelled enough, continue boiling for another 5 minutes and try again.
- Many recipes call for equal fruit:sugar ratios. This will lead to quicker Setting jams/jellies, but we find it detracts from the actual fruit flavour, and it’s not necessary anyway. A ratio of 4 parts fruit (or strained liquid)to 3 parts sugar is plenty.
- Using thoroughly clean equipment, ensuring all jars & lids are sound and undamaged, and sterilising your jars and lids are all vital to ensure your jam/jelly seals properly, and remains free from harmful bacteria.
- Many US recipes call for preserves of all sorts to be water-bath ‘canned’. This is an extra step used to keep preserved foods free from harmful bacteria, but if you’re making jam or jelly with a 4:3 fruit:sugar ratio, it isn’t actually necessary. Just ensure you use sterilised, sound jars and lids, fill the jar full, wipe the rim free of any drips, and seal while it’s hot hot hot, and you’ll be fine.
- Never fill your pot/pan more than 1/3 full with fruit & sugar. When it gets to a ‘rolling boil’ (which happens as you’re getting hot enough to reach a Set), the mixture will froth and bubble up a LOT, and if you overfill your pot, that’ll end in a sticky mess and wasted jam.
Some handy tips that you may find useful
- For jams, use fruits that are ripe and unblemished. For jelly, you can use less perfect ripe fruit (‘windfall’ fruit like apples are great) as it won’t physically feature in the final product.
- If you can, add a few slightly underripe fruits to your jam or jelly. The pectin in them is what helps them Set.
- White sugar or raw/demerara sugar are the best to use for jam and jelly making. They help preserves reach Setting temperature (around 105C degrees) easily, and they give a clearer result.
- “Scalded” means treated with boiling water to kill off bacteria. Scald a teatowel for making jelly by dunking it in a bowl of boiling water for a couple of minutes, then drip as much water off it as you can before pouring your cooked fruit/water mixture through it.
- Scaling up isn’t always a great idea. Larger volumes of fruit & sugar take longer to reach Setting temperature, and the added cooking time can lead to darker colours and the complete break down of any fruit pieces.
- If you do split your batch over 2 pots, make sure each pot has the right ratio of sugar and fruit.
- When cooking a batch in 2 pots, combine them once they’ve reached Setting point and you’ve turned the heat off. This helps the jam stay hot while you fill your jars.
To get you kicking along nicely, here are a few recipes for jams and jellies that we’d confidently give a grade 5-6 student to attempt: we’re sure you’ll find them easy enough, and before long you’ll be jamming every fruit you see!!
This is a really versatile recipe which you can make using all sorts of combinations of fruits that are abundant in summer.
Wild Plum & Port Jam
This recipe is full of lots of extra hints and tips, so is well worth a read. And it uses foraged fruit to make the most delicious jam – perfect for Yuletide gifts!
Apricot & Vanilla Jam
A great example of how to macerate soft fruits for jam.
Fig & Star Anise Jam
So easy, and a great way to use up lots of fruit.
Once you’re feeling comfortable with these, here are a couple more recipes you can level-up to.
Cumquat & Vanilla Marmalade
Time-consuming, like all marmalades, but it’s so sweet and delicious, and you WILL be offered cumquats once people know you make preserves, so it’s a good one to have on hand.
Bush Lemon Marmalade
Like the cumquat marmalade, this one is great to have on hand when you get given a basket of lemons. More of a traditional bitter marmalade.
There are a lot of little things that will improve your success as a jammer, but try not to get overwhelmed. Remember that people have been using this method of preserving fruit for centuries, often with very basic equipment and knowledge. Like with any new skill you learn, start small, and increase your learnings and practises slowly as and when you’ve experienced success and gained confidence.
Permaculture Principle 1: Observe and interact; 2: Catch and store energy; 3: Obtain a yield; 5: Use and value renewable resources and services; 6: Produce no waste; 9: Use small and slow solutions; 10: Use and value diversity; 11: Use and value diversity; 12: Creatively use and respond to change.