Weekend Project: Apricot Preserves, Capturing Summer in a Jar

Apricot preserves

I'm going to try to bring a little order to this 2 and a half year old site by posting certain themed articles on certain days. On Fridays, I plan to post slightly more involved recipes or food projects that are best tackled on the weekends. The first one is this really rather simple recipe for apricot preserves. It's easy to make but the preparation and cooking do take some time - a perfect project for a day off.

Making jam and preserves may seem like an out of date thing to do. The idea of having a pot of boiling sugar and fruit simmering away in the kitchen on a swelteringly hot summer day may seem to be a rather masochistic and unnecessary ritual. If we need to preserve the bounties of a garden, there's always the cooler option of freezing. Besides, nowadays we can just buy delicious jams and preserves from a variety of sources.

Still, I love to make sweet or savory little pots of preserves, pickles and liquors from fresh fruit and vegetables. It goes back to memories of my late oba-chan, my grandmother, making pickled umeboshi plums every summer (which I wrote about a few years ago); or my mother when we used to live in England making gooseberry preserves for the first time. Above all, each pot of jam or preserves seems to capture a little bit of the warm summer months in them, something that impersonal frozen bits of fruit and vegetable can't do.

Last week on on our next to last day in Provence, we went to the amazing Marché Agricole (farmer's market) in Velleron, a small town near Carpentras. One of the purchases we loaded into our car for the trip back home was a 5 kilo (about 11 pounds) crate of "Class II" apricots.

Apricots

Now I must confess - I am not a big fan of fresh apricots. While they smell like heaven, to me their texture is inferior to that of their cousins, peaches and nectarines. Cooked apricots are another matter though. Once they are heated, the fruit turns golden, fruity and luscious.

As soon as I spotted those large flats of smallish apricots, I was determined to turn them into preserves. Another advantage of making your own preserves is that you can control the amount of sugar in them to some extent, and that's what I did. These preserves are just a bit less sweet than commercial varieties, and are also a bit chunky in texture. I love it on plain yogurt or vanilla ice cream, though it's also terrific on a thick slice of fresh buttered bread.

The great thing about this recipe is that the apricots don't have to be perfect. They can be a little bruised, or even just a bit hard. The cooking will soften them and bring out their flavor. (But please make them when apricots are in season in your area. They will be cheaper then too!)

I've scaled down the recipe to a manageable quantity - just scale it up for larger amounts. If you don't want to go through the bother of properly sterilizing the jars and lids, you can store this in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a month or so, or in the freezer for longer.

Apricot Preserves

Apricot Preserves

  • 1 kg, or 2 lbs plus a few more apricots, of fresh apricots
  • 1 1/3 cups of granulated sugar (see notes below)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice

Equipment:

  • a heavy bottomed non-reactive pan (an enameled cast-iron pan is ideal, or a heavy stainless steel pan. Don't use aluminum or uncoated cast-iron.)
  • canning jars with rubber-seal jar lids.

Melt the sugar and water in the pan. Bring to a boil, then simmer until clear and slightly syrupy. (Watch the pot at this stage or you might end up with a potful of hard crystallized sugar!)

Carefully sort and wash the apricots. Halve them and discard the pits, making sure to get rid of the stem end. (To halve them I just rip them apart with my fingers - far easier than cutting them with a knife.)

Apricots

Optionally, crack open a few of the pits ([edit:] just a few, no more than a small handful! see the comments) with a nutcracker or hammer (wrap them in a cloth and smash!), wrap them in some cheesecloth and put in the pot. This imparts an intriguing almond flavor to the preserves.

Put about half of the apricots in the sugar syrup and simmer until the fruit is almost falling apart. Put in the rest of the apricots and continue simmering until they are almost falling apart, but not quite. The whole procedure will take about an hour or more, depending on how soft your apricots were to start with.

Add the lemon juice and stir. Simmer an additional 5 minutes, then take off the heat. Take out the cheesecloth with the pits if you put them in.

(If the jam gets burned on the bottom at any point, just pour out the unburned jam into a fresh pot and continue cooking. Don't scrape the burned bits into the new pot!)

Preparing the jars and lids

I always use canning jars with replaceable lids with the rubber seal built into the jar. They are very easy to handle. I re-use the jars, and replace the lids for each fresh batch of jam, preserves or chutney.

While you are simmering the preserves, sterilize the jars and lids. There are a couple of ways of doing this. If your dishwasher can sterilize baby bottles, you can use that setting for the jars and lids. Otherwise use one of the following methods:

  • The traditional boiling pot of water: Bring a big pot of water to a boil, and lower the jars into it, immersing them completely. Follow up with the lids. Boil for a few minutes to sterilize. Take them out with clean tongs.
  • The low oven method: Put the washed jars and lids into an oven heated to about 110°C/230°F. "Bake" the jars for about 20 minutes, or until the water on them is totally dried out. Take them out carefully using tongs and/or a clean oven mitt. This is the method I use.

Filling the jars

When you are handling the sterilized jars and lids, at no point should you touch the jars inside or on the rims, or inside the lids. Your hands are not sterile even if you wash them well, unless you scrubbed up like a surgeon.

To fill the jars, fill them up to the very rim with the boiling hot preserves, then immediately screw on a lid. Don't worry if some of the liquid spills - and whatever you do, don't try to wipe the exposed rim. Now, leave the jars until you hear and see the lids "popping" - they should be indented now. That's the indication that they are vacuum-sealed. (This happens because the hot air inside the jar contracted.)

Once the jars are cool, wipe off any dribbles outside the jar with a damp cloth, and store in a cool, dark place. Remember that an opened jar must be stored in the refrigerator.

This will make about 2 small jars of preserves. (My 5 kilos yielded 7 1-pint/ half-litre jars, plus a bowlful left over for immediate consumption.)

Regular sugar?

If you want the preserved to have that jellified state that commercial jams have, use either sugar for preserves or add pectin powder. I don't bother with this for these preserves. If they are a little runny don't worry, they will still taste terrific.

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