Here we are, in the season of mellow fruitfulness, and most of us are busy making jams and jellies, pickles and chutneys. If we feel adventurous we could make some sauces or even dry some apple rings. One thing most of us won't be doing is bottling, or canning.This is a shame as there are certain things that really shine when bottled, in a way that they don't so much as a jam or chutney. Peaches
and cherries for example. Any kind of stone fruit - plums, greengages, nectarines, apricots are all superlative preserved in a boozy syrup. My rhubarb and orange breakfast compote has been really popular - not just for breakfast - it makes a delicous crumble base. Tomatoes - try bottling your own passata for winter use, add some herbs and garlic or go the whole hog and make batches of ratatouille with the Autumn glut.
For many though, the bottling process is a mysterious alchemy that is too daunting, which is a shame. There are two main methods - either the oven method or the water bath method. For either of these it is best use the special jars - ordinary jam jars could be used providing they are big enough. We stock all of the jars in a variety of sizes and you need to use a jar which will accommodate the size of fruit you intend to process - peaches will need to be in the bigger sizes for instance. My main issue is that the ordinary jam jars are not particularly attractive in the biggest sizes.
Before you think about packing the fruit into the jars the metal seals, the rubber seals and the screw rings will need to be sterilised along with the jars. Place everything into a large pan and cover with cold water, slowly bring to the boil then turn the heat off and leave in the water until you are ready to
pack the fruit. Be careful removing everything from the hot water - use tongs! there is no need to dry anything before using. Make sure that the rubber sealing rings are in good condition and replace any that have become damaged or perished.
If you prefer, plain water can be used when bottling fruit, or salt water for vegetables, but many fruits benefit from being packed in a syrup and it saves time when you come to use the preserve later on. The strength of the syrup will depend on the type of fruit and how much natural sugar is present. Gooseberries and plums will need more than perhaps peaches or cherries, but it is largely a matter of personal preference. In any case the syrup is prepared by dissolving the required amount of sugar in water and boiling together for about one minute. Other flavourings can be added - brandy or other spirits, orange or lemon zest and spices of choice.
The ratios of sugar to water are as follows:
for a light syrup use 100g sugar to 600ml water
for a medium syrup use 175g sugar to 600ml water
and for a heavy syrup use 250g sugar to 600ml water
Honey can be used if you prefer. The syrup needs to be hot when poured over the fruit in the jar
The main thing is to use unblemished fruit which is not over-ripe. Of course, remove any stalks, leaves or stems and rinse if absolutely necessary.
For stone fruit such as plums, greengages, damsons or cherries you can remove the stones - or not, as preferred - then pack into the jars leaving as little space as possible.
For pears and apples, peel and core then cut into quarters. Drop into a bowl of water with lemon juice or salt added to prevent them turning brown while you get all the fruit prepared. Remove and drain when ready to pack into the jars.
Peaches, nectarines, apricots and tomatoes can be peeled easily by placing in a large heatproof bowl or jug and pouring over boiling water. Leave for one minute, then drain and rinse in cold water. The peel should come away easily. Stone and slice the fruit as desired.
Gooseberries should be pricked with a sterilised sewing needle to prevent them shrinking in the syrup.
Soft fruits such as raspberries or currants should be handled sparingly and only rinsed if necessary. Remove any leaves or stalks.
Rhubarb should be chopped into even length pieces of around 3 cms and left in a light syrup solution overnight before packing into jars the next day.
If you take care when packing the fruit you will get more into each jar and therefore need less jars or have some spare for another crop. The fruit does shrink when processed so you need to get in as much as possible but avoid squashing or bruising it. Be sure to stand the hot jars on a wooden chopping board or a thick layer of newspaper as you pour over the syrup - be careful as the syrup will be very hot. Make sure the rim of each jar is clean and that any air bubbles have dispersed. Use a wooden skewer to 'pop' or twist the jar carefully without spilling the syrup.
With this method you will be able to process more jars in one batch than by the water bath method but it does take longer, but sometimes is less troublesome. The oven needs to be preheated to Gas Mark 2/ 150 deg C. Place a thick pad of newspaper or a folded cloth onto a deep baking tray and place the filled jars onto the pad about 5cms apart. If you have the screw band type jars fit the seals carefully in place, place the lids of the clip seal on the top of the jar, but do not seal either type of jar at this stage.
Process in the oven according to the chart below, then remove from the oven one at a time and seal immediately by either screwing on the metal ring or clipping down the seals. Leave on a protected surface to cool completely overnight.
Water Bath Method
You will need a deep pan plus a cooking thermometer for this method - line the pan with newspaper or folded cloths to prevent the jars breaking by being too near to the heat source. The pan will need to be deep enough to cover the jars completely with water. Pack the jars with your fruit and the hot syrup
and if using the screw band type of jar, fit the seal and the metal ring, then undo by a quarter turn to allow the steam to escape. Seal the clip top style of jar as the steam can escape but no water will be able to get in. Place in the pan and then cover with warm water. Bring to simmering point ( 88 deg C ) over 25-30 mins and then maintain for the timings shown in the table below. ( with thanks to Pam Corbin's book 'Preserves' )
Ladle some of the water out - carefully - to make it easier to remove the jars one at a time. If you intend to do a lot of bottling then the jar lifting tongs that are available are a godsend.Seal the rings tightly on the screw top jars and then leave undisturbed on a protected surface overnight to cool completely.
Check the Seals
Next day, when the jars are cold undo the screw bands or clips and carefully lift the jars by the lids whilst supporting underneath with your other hand. Ensure the seals are airtight and then refasten the clips or rings. Label the jars with the contents and the date then in a cool dark cupboard until required. If the seals are not airtight the jars can be reprocessed or you can eat the contents straightaway!
If you intend to do a large amount of this type of preserving - or wish to preserve things like meats, soups or cassoulet, for instance, then a very worthwhile piece of kit to invest in is a pressure canner. I have recently started using one and am so impressed that we have them for sale on the website. The processing is very precise, exact timings have to be observed and there are various factors to take into account. The canner comes with comprehensive instructions though, which are simple to follow, and the results are very good. As the contents of the jars are processed under pressure the temperature is very much higher so it takes less time and quite a large number of jars can be processed in one go. It also means that meats etc can be safely preserved because of the higher temperature - it is not safe to process items like this with the oven or waterbath method. Of course, in many parts of the World preserving in this way is routine - it is not always possible to run equipment like freezers and canning fruit, vegetables and meat is a way of life - just as it used to be for us.
Have a go - the Brandied Plums in my previous blog are really easy but delicious!