Bottled Sunshine – Preserving Fruit Goodness
There’s not much better on a cold winter’s morning than breakfasting on preserved summer fruits. But just how do you go about preserving that essence of summer sunshine?
A summer job that has just been completed here in my corner of Australia is that of preserving fruit. There are many ways to preserve fruit, but one of my favourites is bottling (also referred to as canning).
According to Wikipedia, bottling involves cooking food, sealing it in sterile cans or jars, and boiling the containers to kill or weaken any remaining bacteria as a form of sterilization.
Australia has a long history of bottling fruit and the system I use (Fowlers Vacola) was first locally developed in 1915. The great thing is that because the Fowlers Vacola system has been around for so long, there are plenty of places to purchase the components, either new or second hand. I’ve even picked up perfect (but slightly dirty) Fowlers Vacola bottles for free at the local tip shop.
The Fowlers Vacola bottles and seals are available in different sizes, where each size is given a simple part number. For example, I only use a number 27 bottle (900ml capacity) which requires a number 3 lid and rubber seal (3 inch lid and seal). Such a system is easy and standardised. As an interesting side note, the company ceased manufacturing the number 27 bottles (which I use) in the early 1970s, so you can get an idea of just how tough the glass is.
Some points to consider when bottling
Preserving by bottling is easy, but there are a couple of things to consider before you set out on your preserving journey:
- Preserving does not improve the taste of fruit. It is therefore important to preserve only sun ripened fruit with flavour. Preserving green tasteless fruit is a waste of your time;
- Apricots are my preferred stone fruit to preserve as they are usually very full of flavour and have a firm dry flesh which pulls away from the stone (seed) easily. This makes cutting up the fruit much easier. I have noticed that soft stone fruits such as nectarines and peaches become mushy during the preserving process;
- Fruits that are higher in acid are better for preserving as they are far less likely to harbour clostridium botulinum, which is the bacteria that produces the botulinum toxin (the presence of which is not good for your continued good health). Low acid fruit and most vegetables are at risk of contamination by this bacteria and therefore require different preserving systems than for high acid fruit. A litmus test should be able to confirm the acidity if you are at all concerned;
- The bottling process forms an air tight seal between the bottle and the lid. If after storage, the seal has broken, the lid has raised at all, or the contents are mouldy or bubbling then it is probably not a good idea to consume the contents;
- Once the bottle has been opened, the contents must be consumed within either a short period of time or refrigerated immediately; and
- In these litigious times, the official instructions from the manufacturer are that the cooking process is to be undertaken at 92°C (197°F). The old timers however used a temperature of somewhere between 77 (170°F) and 92°C. I use the lower temperature, but having said that it is always best to follow official recommendations.
Phew, that was a lot of warnings and disclaimers!
Bottling is a common sense process which involves, following the instructions, using clean equipment in good order and preserving only quality tasty fruit. In all of the years I’ve been preserving food, I haven’t had a bad batch yet, so it is a robust, easy process.
The preserving process:
- Wash the fruit;
- Cut the fruit into small pieces and remove the stone. I usually cut a single apricot into 8 pieces. The stone is a seed for a fruit tree so I collect all of them and throw them randomly about the farm and if conditions suit their germination I end up with a seedling fruit tree;
- Pack the cut fruit into the bottle so that it is about 2/3rds full. Compact the fruit so that empty space in the bottle is taken up, but do this gently so that you do not squash the fruit;
- Add 3 tablespoons of sugar (I usually use raw sugar) on top of the cut fruit in the bottle. The sugar helps the fruit to retain its bright colour and firm texture;
- Continue to pack more fruit into the bottle until it is about 1cm from the top of the bottle;
- Add cold or room temperature water into the bottle so that the fruit is mostly covered with water;
- Use a knife (or other implement) to remove any air bubbles that have formed;
- Top up the water to within 1cm of the top of the bottle;
- Put the rubber seal onto the bottle. There is a groove in the glass which the seal sits in. The instructions recommend replacing the seal with every use. Again I recommend to follow the manufacturers instructions, however I closely inspect each rubber seal after use to ensure that it has no cracks or chunks. If the seal passes this examination then I reuse it the following year. If the bottle for whatever reason has not sealed properly, then discard the seal, the lid and check the bottle closely for signs of damage;
- Place the lid on top of the bottle. It should slide neatly onto the rubber seal;
- Lock the lid in place by using the clip device. This simple clip places pressure on the lid, allowing air inside the bottle to escape during the cooking process, without allowing water into the bottle. It also depresses the lid. This is important because when you eventually get around to opening the bottle, you can immediately tell whether the bottle has sealed properly as the lid should still be depressed;
- Put the bottles into the stove top water bath unit. This is really just a huge steel pot with a raised internal bottom so that the bottles are raised slightly within the pot. I use a stove top water bath unit as it holds 12 of the number 27 bottles. Modern units are electric but hold only a few bottles at a time, whereas the stove top unit has had (and will continue to have) a long life. In addition to this it has the added advantage of being able to be heated by either the wood heater, solar electric stove or gas stove;
- Fill the stove top water bath unit with cool or room temperature water so that the bottle lids are completely covered with water;
- Heat the stove top water bath unit to 92°C (197°F) and maintain that temperature for 45 minutes; and
- Remove the bottles from the stove top water bath unit once the 45 minutes at the required temperature is reached. To do this you have to lift them out of the water (using tongs to avoid getting scalded) and sit them on a cooling tray so that the bottles cool to room temperature. Should you leave them in the stove top water bath unit to cool, the fruit will continue to cook even though the water is cooling and the fruit may be ruined.
Once the bottles have cooled you can open them and enjoy bottled sunshine at your leisure.
Components sugar, lid, clip, rubber seal, knife, bottle and fruit.
The author cutting up apricots
Sugar placed in the bottles.
Using a knife to remove air bubbles.
The bottles in the stove top water bath unit
Plastic lid on the stove top water bath unit with thermometer
Removing the bottles from the stove top water bath unit.
Other preserving methods
There are many other methods of food preservation and they have a long history and tradition. They were historically very important because in climates where it was impossible to grow food all year around, they provided continuity in food supply.
Of the many different methods available, here are a few of them that I regularly utilise:
- Jam making. Most fruit which has good flavour can be made into tasty jam. I use apricots, wild plums, strawberries, rhubarb and blackberries. Jam making is reasonably quick and foolproof as a preserving method;
- Alcohol. Converting produce into alcohol has a very long history. Honey can be fermented into mead. Apples can be fermented into either cider or vinegar. Even sugar can be fermented into a wine. Alcohol is simply another preserving method. Old timers even used to use alcohol itself to preserve summer fruits. I’ve tried this process using brandy crocks to preserve cherries (too sweet for my taste), limoncello to preserve citrus and fragoncello to preserve strawberries;
- Relishes and chutneys. Any tomatoes that have not ripened by early June are cooked up into green tomato chutney which is used as a sauce; and
- Pickling. In recent years I’ve been pickling home grown onions in apple cider vinegar. They make a very tasty snack.
There is a huge tradition of preserving foodstuffs and I’ve barely scratched the surface in this article. However, the next time you have to face a cold winter’s morning, just remember that summer sunshine is just a bottling session away.