I Just Made Homemade Preserves for the First Time, and Here's What I Learned
A few weekends ago, staying with my parents at their home right outside of Charleston, South Carolina, I found myself with a free morning and a tree full of figs. Despite the fact that the tree has occupied a corner of their backyard since I was young, I didn't find myself enamored with its fruit (beyond their inclusion in much-loved—and much-processed—Fig Newtons) until three or four years ago. Now, each summer, I eagerly await the arrival of my parents' figs as impatiently as I anticipate South Carolina-grown peaches at the Pig and the heirloom tomatoes that spill from baskets at roadside produce stands.
Feeling emboldened by a sudden strike of inspired curiosity and a lack of plans (beyond protecting the health and wellbeing of others, there are perks to this whole social-distancing thing), I decided to attempt homemade preserves with the two pounds of fresh figs taking up space in our refrigerator.
Patience is not my most practiced virtue, so I found an approachable recipe that promised results with just 90 minutes of work. Here's what I learned.
Go by sight and feel, rather than time.
Boiling sugar and water into a syrup requires a lot of watching and stirring. The recipe advised to add the figs and lemon to the saucepan once the sugar-water concoction was clear and "just thick, around 15 minutes." The first batch of preserves I made, I didn't see the note about 15 minutes, so I stirred the boiling mixture until it was clear and just started to resist the movement of the spoon. I dumped in the figs, and voila! We were good to go. The second batch, I stirred and waited for 15 minutes, but that proved to be a hair too long: The mixture browned into a rich gold syrup and the batch of preserves came out tasting more like tooth-achingly sweet candy. Now I know to just feel it out instead of watching the clock.
Lemon juice works just fine.
The recipe called for half of a lemon, sliced thin, but I didn't have one, and I didn't want to make an extra trip to the grocery store. While I'd imagine that real slices of lemon add more pronounced flavor, the lemon is really there to bring down the pH level. That helps the preserves "set," and it means you can seal the jar in a boiling water bath in about 10 minutes. (Lower-acid foods would take a lot longer to safely seal, and nobody has time for that.) It's also there to keep bacteria from growing in your preserves. All of that to say: Bottled lemon juice takes care of the pH level and the bacteria-prevention as well as a real lemon would, so substituting 1-1.5 tablespoons of juice for the half of a lemon is an easy, effective workaround.
A microwave is a quick way to produce a hot, clean jar.
The recipe called for "clean hot sterile jars," and I'm not saying a medical professional or a professional preserves-maker would agree with my methods to procure such, but filling the jars halfway with water and sending them for two-minute spins in the microwave seemed to do the trick. (Just be sure to use oven mitts to take said jars out of the microwave. Hot, they were.)
In the end, I think I created more of a jam than preserves, as I pulsed them in the blender to make them more spreadable. Whatever they are, my dad declared them "very sweet, like the kind the little old ladies at home used to make." Home for him is a tiny rural community two hours inland of Charleston, so this was a compliment of the highest degree. Those ladies know what they're doing.
It was just a few jars of jam/preserves, but I felt incredibly accomplished and cooed at them in wonderment and awe for an entire day, as if they were newborns. A little dramatic, to be sure, and I exhausted my family with pleas to coo with me. ("Look at them! Aren't they the prettiest preserves you've ever seen?") They may not have joined me in my fussing over them, but they ate toast spread thick with fig preserves for breakfast a few days in a row—and isn't that the same thing?