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Saturday, 26 May 2012

Shelf Life

The shelf life of a batch of jam or chutney is generally about 2 years before opening. After this time the contents of the jar are not likely to give you food poisoning but they will be "past their best". That's to say, the colour, flavour and/or texture of the preserve will not be as it should be. You could if you wanted still use it up, although probably best in cooking rather than on your toast or on the side of your plate.

Of course, the very point of jams and chutneys is to preserve the ingredients so it hardly surprising they have such long shelf-lives. They are after all, full of sugar and vinegar in the case of chutney, both of which are natural preservatives. They are also cooked at a high temperature and bottled whilst still hot into sterilised jars. The lids too can be steriled in the oven or sterilised by turning the jam/chutney upsidedown to rest on the lid whilst still boiling hot.

Some people comment to me that they sometimes find that their jam goes mouldy after opening. This shouldn't really happen but it does sometimes. There are always mould spores in the air and these can get into the jars whilst the lids are off or from the knives and spoons poked into it. One of the worst things to do is to push your knife into the jam after you have spread butter or margarine on your bread as the breadcrumbs and butter are a lovely starting point for mould. Generally however, jam should be fine to store at room temperature after opening but eat it up within a  few weeks of opening. Jammy Cow jams are perfect for this because they come in small jars.

At this time of year I like to make Elderflower Cordial but in the past I have been limited to the number of bottles I could fit in my fridge as they tend to go mouldy in the bottle at room temperature. The problem with Elderflower cordial is that it is left out (covered of course) for a day or so for the flavours to infuse and it is bottled cold. Not deterred, I did a bit of research and found out how to pasteurise it so that it could be stored at room temperature until the bottle is opened. This turned out not to be too tricky so now I can make lots more bottles and offer them to the public for sale.

The cordial is poured into sterilised bottles to within about a centimetre of the top. The bottles without lids on are stood in the preserving pan and packed out with empty jam jars so that they are held tight and are not at risk of falling over. It then takes 3 kettle fulls of boiling water to fill the preserving pan. This is then heated on a fairly gentle heat until the cordial temperature reaches 70°C. The heat is reduced and the temperature is maintained for 20 minutes, in which time the cordial expands in the bottle to fill it completely. After that the tamper-proof lids are applied and secured and then the bottle inverted to sterilise the lids. The cordial remains sterile then until opened, after which it needs to be refrigerated and used up within about a month.

I'm pleased to have cracked this technique and increased the shelf-life of this lovely product and I think I shall be experimenting more during the summer to pasteurise our other family favourites such as Blackcurrant & Lemongrass cordial and raspberry and strawberry syrups which are great for flavouring milkshakes, yoghurts and pouring on ice-cream sundaes.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Spring clean your food cupboard

May is an obvious time to spring clean. Maybe it has something to do with the bright sunshine coming in through the windows, highlighting the layer of dust or maybe it is something more primeval - similar to whatever it is that drives the birds to build nests. Whatever the reason, I always feel like having a good sort out at this time of year and I make the most of that feeling because it doesn't last long! In the kitchen it is the perfect time to sort out your food stores. The old season is over now and the new harvest is just about to begin. By next month there will be the first glut of the year and it will be handy to have somewhere to put it.

I'm in a fortunate position of having two freezers - one just for fruit and vegetables for my preserves and one for family food. At this time of year the fruit and veg freezer is very nearly empty so it is the perfect time to defrost it, temporarily moving the remaining fruit into the family freezer. Once that is done, I move everything from the family freezer into the fruit freezer, defrost that and return it. However, this time not everything makes it back into the freezer because it has been in storage for just too long and needs throwing away. I hate food waste but sometimes it is necessary. It is weird when this job is done to be in the unusual position of knowing the entire contents of my freezer. However, I take advantage of this and write down a meal plan for the next week or so, using up things in the freezer that need to be eaten soon.

The next job is the fridge. I admit that I clean the fridge about once a month so I never get too ghastly a surprise but I usually stumble across something like the soggy end of a piece of cucumber or similar that I have missed in the meantime. It is important to keep your fridge clean and I think in many kitchens it probably contains the least wiped down surfaces in the place. When I tackle the fridge cleaning I start at the top and work my way down, placing the contents of each shelf in turn on the worktop, removing the shelf, cleaning it, drying it and returning it before replacing all the food that is still edible.

Finally the food cupboard. I tackle this probably twice a year, again working from shelf to shelf, top to bottom. Out of date food is thrown away, the shelves are wiped down and things are returned in a lovely ordered arrangement. Oh how I wish my cupboard always looked like this. It is worth reviewing your herbs and spices at least once a year because they do lose their flavour with time. Although they won't go mouldy and need throwing away they may be so old that they are not worth using anymore. On the note of herbs, now is a good time to buy some growing herbs from the supermarket to put on your window sill. They should do very nicely there for a few weeks or even longer if you pot them on or plant them out come June and are nicer than dried herbs.

When deciding what food to throw away and what to keep, bear in mind that if it is past its "use by" date it could potentially cause food poisoning. However, a best before day just means it was probably better before that date. It is "stale" rather than "off" and you can use your own judgement as to whether it should be thrown away or if you can still use it up. If you are throwing food away, think about the container it is in and whether it can be re-used. Certainly, if it came in a glass jar then wash it out, stick in a cupboard and refill it with homemade preserves in a month or so.

Here's one of my favourite recipe for using up stale food cupboard ingredients. For this use stale biscuits and the remaining bag of mixed dried fruit left over from mince pie or Christmas cake making in December. Then when you are all done with the spring cleaning, make yourself a cup of tea, put your feet up and reward yourself with a slice of tiffin!


8 oz (225g) stale biscuits
4 oz (110g) butter
1 good tablespoon golden syrup
8 oz (225g) mixed dried fruit
2 oz (55g) glacé cherries, chopped
7 oz (200g) milk chocolate

Place the biscuits in a bag and bash with a rolling pin until crumbed. Melt together the butter and syrup in a pan over a low heat. Combine the biscuit, butter mix and fruit and stir well. Grease a suitable tin and press the mixture into it and level. Refrigerate for at least half an hour until solid. Melt the chocolate over a pan of hot water then spread over the biscuit base, level out and return to the fridge. Once solid, cut the tiffin into small squares and transfer to an airtight container. Keeps well.