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A Primer on Preserving Fruit, According to Main Line Area Farmers

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Main Line area farmers give advice on how to preserve fresh fruit for jellies, jams, butters and marmalades to use throughout the seasons.

We’re fortunate that international trade allows us to shop for fresh fruit in our supermarkets year-round. Growers in the Southern Hemisphere or greenhouses anywhere can provide us with what our local climate can’t. In fact, some of this summer fruit arrives on ocean-going vessels docking at the Port of Wilmington.

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When the seasons change, our farmers can return the favor. And so begins our warm-weather exodus to local orchards, farmers markets, vegetable stands, and honor-system tables at the end of rural driveways. We can also preserve some of that fresh fruit for jams, jellies, butters, marmalades and other forms of preserved fruit. Sure, it’s work. But it’s worth the effort.

For those of us who’d rather not go down that sweet and sticky path, Brandywine Valley farmers and orchardists are more than happy to oblige. “If I have any fruit left over, I take it to a small mom-and-pop operation up Route 100 that makes it into jams and butters,” says H.G. Haskell, owner of SIW Vegetables south of Chadds Ford.

“We make dozens of different kinds of butters and fruit preserves,” says Alan Hodge of West Chester’s Highland Orchards, where one wall of the market is lined with jars.

If you’ve never tried preserving fruit, the most common additional ingredients are sugar and pectin, though not all recipes use both. There are many different kinds of preserves, but let’s begin by looking at the basic ones:

  • Jams. Crushed or chopped fruits that are usually cooked with sugar and thicken in the process. Technically, they must have 65% soluble solids.
  • Jellies. For those who want the fruit flavors without the jam texture—perhaps the same people who prefer juice to a smoothie. Jelly doesn’t have seeds or pulp and usually has added pectin to help hold its shape.
  • Butters. Concentrated fruit that’s been blenderized. “Most jams can be 50% sugar, while butters are 90% fruit with a little honey and lemon added,” says Haskell. Butters have to cook for hours. When I was a farm kid, apple butter was often prepared outdoors, bubbling overnight on a wood fire in a huge copper kettle, with someone constantly pushing a long-handled stirrer to keep it from burning.
  • Conserves. Like jams, but a blend of two or more fruits.
  • Marmalades. A jelly with citrus rinds to give a bit of a bite to your morning spreadable. Coarser versions are often referred to as “rough cut.”
  • Chutneys. A fruit preserve with an Indian-influenced blend of spices and vinegar. If marmalade gives a zip, chutneys provide a savory zap.
  • Compotes. Derived from whole pieces of fruit cooked with sugar and often spices like cloves, cinnamon and pepper.

There are a few basic methods for making these concoctions. All involve first putting the fruit, spices and liquids in jars to be superheated to kill any bacteria and process the fruit. One involves using a pressure cooker. A second utilizes an unpressurized boiling-water bath. A newer method uses an atmospheric steam similar to the water-bath method. All require a modest investment in canners, jars and lids, and there are plenty of books and online tutorials on canning to help you along. Simpler, if less elegant, means of preserving fruit without making jams, jellies and marmalades involve natural or oven drying or using a kit for dehydrated fruit. Another option is freezing.

Finally, a quick note on the amount of fruit needed. Five cups of diced rhubarb convert to about four pints of jam, 12 peaches equate to five or six pints of marmalade, and two quarts of blackberries yield approximately three pints of jelly. So a little goes a long way. You can get artistic with the labels on the finished jars, which make great gifts—ones that most likely won’t be regifted.

Related: Nano-Farming Grows in Popularity Across Delaware and the Main Line