There’s almost no way around the fact that making preserves is a process. But for me that’s what is so enjoyable about it. I am, to a fault, a process person. I revel in precision and attention to detail — these are my superpowers. They’re why I’m drawn to making preserves. In returning to the tradition each year, I have found that I’m always seeking the same thing: to capture memories of farm visits, perfect produce and the season’s warmth in small glass jars.
Whether it consumes half an hour or a few days, I know I’ll end up with great jams and jellies to adorn a few slices of buttered toast, a bowl of ice cream or a meaty roast. I’ll also have a way to share my experiences through my joyful end-of-summer preserving. My husband once asked, after I had cooked and canned a market haul of quinces into nearly two dozen jars, if we had more jars of jam than friends and family to give them to. The answer: Never! Homemade preserves make delightful gifts for those we love — a little something to drop off, ship out or offer on visits.
To make preserves, you need fruit, sugar, acid and pectin, which thickens when activated by heat to set the resulting preserves. Pectin is found in most fruits, especially in their skins and seeds. Fruits high in pectin, including stone fruits, guava, figs, apples, pears and citrus, will thicken naturally when simmered. For low-pectin fruits like berries, and no-cook jams, the addition of store-bought powdered pectin is crucial. Because pectin levels among fruits will vary, it’s important to rely on instructional guides from pectin packages if you’re substituting one fruit for another or using a blend of two or more.
I use a variety of methods to capture the sweetness of summer fruit. Regardless of the method you choose, the fruit should be at or near peak ripeness. (If the fruit have a few blemishes, that’s not a problem: Cut out any bruised spots while prepping.) Any additional herbs, aromatics and spices should complement the fruit, not dominate it.
No-cook jams, often referred to as freezer jams or refrigerator jams because they’re not canned, most closely replicate one of the most treasured food memories of summer: biting into ripe, juicy fruit. Quick no-cook jamming skips the simmering and canning. Instead, chopped and slightly crushed raw fruit are combined with sugar and pectin. The resulting condiment should be stored in clean containers and frozen or refrigerated immediately.
My plum-ginger jam evokes the feeling that led the poet William Carlos Williams to eat the delicious plums that were being saved in an icebox, rapturously describing them as “so sweet / and so cold.” Before chopping your plums, slice off a bite of each and taste to ensure it is just right. You want the boldest flavors for a no-cook preserve.
Our next technique is a classic gentle simmer, which suits the figs in this jam well. By cooking fruit with sugar and thickening its juices, you create something easily spreadable but still visibly fruity. Fresh herbs add balance to the sweetness of the first bite. Rosemary is ideal with figs because it lends a light grassy note to the fruit’s subtle sweetness.
Our last method is a jelly, the result of cooking fruit to extract juice and pectin, then straining away the solids. Making jelly from fresh apples is a process-lover’s dream. I love the transformation: The apples are gone, but their juices remain suspended in a translucent, vibrant spread. This jelly recipe captures the floral, aromatic and acidic qualities of peak fall apples. Like a good marmalade (usually a citrus preserve with softened cooked pieces of peel), a good jelly should be a balance of tart and sweet.
Food preservation is at the very heart of every cuisine and serves to extend the essence of fresh ingredients. Dehydrating, pickling, brining, smoking, fermenting and oil-packing work with a wide variety of ingredients, both savory and sweet. Whether we are making chutneys, confitures, cheong or conserves, we are saving the best of a season for the months ahead. Each of these recipes captures what makes summer fruit so irresistible. The process of making them will require your attention, but preserving summer’s best flavors is your sweet reward.