Among the many programs at Billings Forge, are some cooking classes at The Kitchen. I was a little intimidated, having never attended a cooking class outside of 7th grade home ec, but a girl has to learn somehow, and books and youtube only go so far.
I'm happy to say this won't be my last time there. The class was great. We met in the dining area, and had an introduction to what Billings Forge is about, what the Kitchen does and met our instructors. There were about 8 students in the class (3 pairs, me and another woman who came by herself) and 2 instructors, so there was lots of attention. We had a short lecture on safety, and why it's important to follow instructions when it comes to preserving fruits and vegetables (botulism, among other reasons). We also learned the difference between 'refrigerator' recipes versus recipes which require hot water baths and proper sealing. We would be making refrigerator types of preserves, which won't last as long, but are much faster to make (and, after tasting my peach preserves, these won't be lasting long anyway, as i want to eat it all NOW!).
We also learned that we'll be using a lot of sugar. And this is critical, because that's what acts as the preservative binding with water in the fruit and preventing the growth of microorganisms, much like salt does in some recipes. Then we headed to the kitchen to begin our hands on work!
Our instructors already had all the prep done for a pepper jelly, which they gave us the recipe for. I don't have a lot of experience with savory jellies, but after trying a sample of this recipe the instructor had made a few days earlier, i'm excited to try some new things out! The smells from the pot as it boiled were amazing.
As we learned about pectin, we began to cut up our peaches for a preserve. Pectin is extracted from fruits (some fruits have more pectin in them than others) and is used to make things gel. It's in a number of products, in liquid or powder form. We were recommended to check out Pomona Pectin, produced in Massachusetts, not only because they apparently make a great product, but it comes with a recipe book and a how to do your own recipe guide. Liquid and powder pectins will produce different results, so you can't just substitute one for the other. We would be working without pectin, which means we wouldn't be getting a really hard set product (hard set would be like Smucker's, when you scoop it out of the jar it sort of holds it's shape).
I cut up 6 peaches unpeeled cut into small chunks and added 2.5 cups of sugar and just a little water to prevent the sugar burning before putting it on the stove. A good stir to get things going and then we let them go! Some people added herbs to theirs, such as rosemary (i got to try a drop of this, and it was ZOMG good). Basically we just let them boil, stirring occasionally, hoping to get to approximately 220F.
Because there are only so many burners on a stove, we made 1 large batch of the blueberry preserves (i forget what this was officially called), using the same process. Lots of fruit, lots of sugar & a little water, setting to a boil and stirring occasionally. Again with the wonderful colors and smells!
We were told we could skim off the foam if we wanted from our preserves, it was just an aesthetic thing. Some folks use a little butter to deal with the foam. I didn't, and mine looks lovely anyway. We also discussed how to tell if things were set without a thermometer. Our instructor had a very fancy instant read thermometer, but you can also get an idea of your set with a frozen plate, and seeing if a skin forms or if it is runny.
We also spent some time discussing techniques for packaging, fancy jars, and trying some pickled items that had been made at the Kitchen, including beans, beets, onions, radishes and garlic snapes. When things were ready we used a canning funnel to pour into our jars and ta-da! Really, it was as simple as cut, stir, heat, stir more & pour.
This class really boosted my confidence about making preserves, both sweet and savory, and answered a lot of my questions regarding technique. I just ordered a copy of Well Preserved, which focuses on small batch preserving, which fits with my food quantities better, and am looking forward to more adventures in preserving!.