Preserves, Pickles, Chutneys and Ferments — Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lockdown
When the lockdown started, I, like most other people found myself with nothing to do. This was fine. This meant that I had all the time in the world and could focus on all those long-awaited projects that I never got round to back in the before-times when I had a life. Again, like most other people, this meant a lot of baking. But that wasn’t all. You see, I’m a cook primarily, not a baker. Yes, there is a difference. So I also turned to preserving things. It made sense, it was simple and gave me a reason to keep an eye on the calendar during the great amorphous blob of time that is lockdown. So, why write this article? Well, firstly, because I want to. Secondly, I think this is an underrated ingredient to both eat and make and feel that others would benefit. Thirdly, in my country, we’re entering another lockdown. So I’ve got my plum chutney bubbling away and am ready to slide back into (hopefully) good cooking habits.
The subject I’m writing about is pretty huge, in case my incredibly long title didn’t give it away, so today I’ll be going into a basic overview of the ‘things in jars that last for ages’ genre. I might get more specific at another time. So, let’s break down the ‘things in jars that last for ages’. What is the difference between preserves, pickles, chutneys and ferments? It’s pretty self explanatory, which is handy for me, an idiot. I mean, I even forgot that jam was a thing when writing this article, so I need all the help I can get. So, we’ll go through each in turn with a quick definition and an overview of what they are and how to use them, then I’ll spend a few paragraphs rambling on vaguely and getting distracted. Or so it says in my carefully laid out plan. Ahem.
‘Preserve’ can refer to all of the above, but usually is used to refer to something preserved using sugar, so your jam or marmalade. I’ll mostly be talking about jam, as it’s what I’m most familiar with. Simple jams are usually a 1:1 ratio of fruit and sugar, although some recipes may very. One issue some people have making jam is that it can be overly runny, the most common reason is that their jam is short on pectin. Pectin is what makes your jam set. The simplest and most fool-proof way to ensure you have enough pectin is to use jam sugar, which has pectin added. This isn’t necessary though, some fruit has enough pectin naturally to set your jam. Apples, citrus rinds and redcurrants come to my mind. So if I’m making a strawberry or raspberry jam, for example, I’ll usually stick some apple or citrus rind in there to help it set. The citrus can be picked out later. You can even sieve your mixture and, if it’s particularly high in pectin, you’ll end up with a nice jelly. I usually do this with redcurrants. Okay, I’ll going to stop saying pectin now. Homemade jam is delicious and easy, you can use frozen fruit and as long as you have sugar, an apple just in case, and a spare jar, you should be just fine. It’s ready as soon as it cools.
Next up is chutneys, because I’m a maverick and like to go out of my predetermined order. Also, I like to consider chutneys a kind of middle ground between preserves and pickles. They can have a few things as a preserving agent, most commonly a combination of sugar and vinegar or oil. Chutneys have roots in India, and many famous chutneys are specifically Indian. You’re probably familiar with mango chutney, which is usually sweet with a slight kick and goes fantastically with any curry. I like to put it in cheese sandwiches. Which handily leads into another common type of chutney, designed to go with cheese. This is an Anglo-Indian creation (you know how much I love those) and is sweet and tangy. Chutneys are often made using sugar, vinegar and spices, along with whatever you’re preserving. Soft fruit is popular option for both types of chutney, but traditional Indian chutneys are much more varied. Recently, I’ve made a mango chutney and a plum chutney. The plum chutney is sweeter and not at all spicy, but does have a vinegary tang. The mango chutney has Indian flavours and a little bit of heat, although I felt like it could be hotter. They are usually made by cooking all the ingredients slowly until they meld together, then jarring. Some chutneys last for ages, some last just a few days. Finally, some recipes call for being left awhile before opening, much like many Indian pickles.
Speaking of pickles, let’s… speak about pickles. Again, there is some variation in pickles, but the defining feature is that the vinegar (or saltwater) is the preserving agent. Are we starting to see a theme develop? First we have our simple pickle, which most people are familiar with. These are usually a vegetable (although eggs are fair game, apparently), such as cucumber, onion, or radish, which are combined with some spices in a jar and have hot vinegar poured over them. Simple pickles are fantastic and, well, simple to make. Also, pickling your own onions is sexy (probably). But, like life and people, pickles can be complicated. India rises up again to rule this world, presenting lime pickle and aubergine pickle and… other pickles that I can’t think of right now (research is for losers). Now, complicated doesn’t mean hard, don’t worry. It just takes a little longer and has a few more steps. Lime pickle, for instance, involves salting and jarring your limes and leaving them to (very slowly in my British case) cook in the heat of the sun streaming through your window for 2 weeks. Or for 45 seconds in the microwave before sitting coldly and forlornly on the windowsill for two weeks. After that, you can move onto adding the rest of the spices and wonderful things to balance the flavour. The pickling liquid ends up being the salty lime juice.
Finally, for the funky among us, we have ferments. Now, I’m not familiar with every ferment, but when I have fermented things, I’m banking on the preserving power of lactobacillus bacteria. You know, the friendly neighbourhood bacteria who doesn’t kill you. I most commonly ferment chillies for hot sauce and cabbage for sauerkraut (sound familiar?). The way this works is simple, the subject of the fermentation (the fermentee, if you will) needs to be in some kind of solution of at least 2% salt, I shoot for 2.5-3% but that’s just me. The method of achieving this salinity varies, but this is the level of salinity that allows the lactobacillus to thrive while other bacteria struggle. The lactobacillus then feeds on the sugars of the fermentee and produces carbon dioxide, which also stops nasty things growing on your ferment. A sign that your ferment is active is bubbles forming as the carbon dioxide is produced, you know, like fizzy drinks. The gas will need to be released every now and then, either through regular burping or a special valve that allows gas to leave the container but doesn’t allow oxygen in. After a while, your ferment will be all grown up and ready to eat. The fermentation process changes the texture and flavour of the fermentee, adding that signature funky tang while softening the product. How far you let it go is up to you, it’ll only get funkier.
Finally, finally (I lied earlier), there are the outliers. Some foods are definitely preserved but not in these ways. There are a few methods to preserving meat, which I haven’t mentioned because this article is already getting long. There are also things like preserved lemons (kind of a pickle I guess) which don’t fit neatly in the earlier boxes. Also, many things are preserved entirely in oil, roasted peppers and sundried tomatoes are good examples of this. Yes, drying is yet another method of preserving things, also curing. It’s almost like there was a time before refrigeration when people had to get creative so as to not die when they couldn’t get fresh food.
So, onto the paragraph where I ramble pointlessly, I mean, explain why I think this thing is great. It’s easy to buy most of this stuff, even the slightly more exotic products are readily available. So why bother? Well, if the satisfaction of making something yourself doesn’t do it for you, then quality should. When you preserve something yourself, you know exactly what’s in it and can experiment to suit your needs. For example, the next time I make mango chutney, I’ll stick a few chillies in there. Also the flavour is so much better. My lime pickle was so much punchier than anything I could get in the shop. My chutneys have depth, rather than just being overly sweet with the odd mustard seed. My sauerkraut is just at the level of fermentation I like it, not young or too far gone. Also, depending on what you’re making, it could work out cheaper, a cabbage for a large jar of sauerkraut is less than 50p where I live. Even if it doesn’t, I usually end up with loads of high quality product, which helps balance the cost of ingredients. What I’m trying to say is, if you have some spare time, or even if you don’t, try to make something you can stick in a jar and label with your name. Who knows, you might get hooked and end up buying a whole bunch of preserving jars and fill your cupboards with random pickled goods. Ahem.