The one bright spot in winter and even early spring is all of the lovely citrus it brings. The array of lemons, oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, and limes is staggering and begs to be savored and preserved. But, let’s be honest, the latter can be pretty intimidating. This is why I have turned to three canning gurus for advice on saving every last sun-colored drop of citrus goodness (and beyond), as well as three unique recipes on how to preserve the season. (Trust me, you won’t want to miss the recipes–a honey-sweetened marmalade, a three-citrus liqueur, and preserved lemons!)
I am beyond-excited to be joined by Domenica Marchetti of Domenica Cooks and author of seven cookbooks, including Preserving Italy; Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars and author of three cookbooks, including the most recent Naturally Sweet Food in Jars; and our very own Maggie Battista, author of Food Gift Love.
WHY DO YOU PRESERVE CITRUS OR OTHER ITEMS?
Maggie: Citrus is sunshine. And when the snow is falling up in New England or the days are super grey, opening a jar of anything lemon, orange, or grapefruit changes the entire outlook on my day. Citrus is so compelling that I often buy and pile too much on my counter so preserving it lengthens its life and prevents food waste (my biggest pet peeve).
Domenica: Of course, the original intent of preserving was to fill up the larder for winter, when food was scarce. I do it for enjoyment, so that I can enjoy homemade orange marmalade on toast, to stretch my abilities as a cook, and to lift myself out of the winter doldrums. Isn’t it wonderful the way Mother Nature knows just what we need? I can’t think of a more perfect antidote to cold and dreary weather than a dose of citrus.
Marisa: The chief reason I preserve citrus is because the products you can make with citrus are delicious and useful. Additionally, citrus comes into season at a time when there’s not much other preservable produce available, which makes it the perfect thing for those of us who can’t go too long without a preservation project of one stripe or another.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE CITRUS TO PRESERVE? WHY?
Domenica: I actually like mixing various types of citrus, as I find it gives the finished preserve a more complex flavor. For marmalade I use a combination of blood oranges, mandarins, lemons, and kumquats, though the mix often depends on what I can find. For liqueur, a combination of lemons, Meyer lemons, and mandarin oranges makes a really nice twist on classic limoncello.
Marisa: Meyer lemons are my very favorite. They are fragrant, precious, and can be transformed in a dozen different ways. They also remind me of my grandma Bunny, who lived in Southern California and grew rosemary and Meyer lemons in her sloping, hillside yard.
Maggie: I agree with Marisa. It’s Meyer lemons all the way. Their heady perfume lured me in and they were the very first citrus I preserved, in a Meyer lemon marmalade. These lemons are perfect for savory use too, especially if you preserve them in salt. Just a little diced preserved Meyer lemon can turn a dip or dressing on its head, in a good way.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MISCONCEPTIONS/PITFALLS OF PRESERVING CITRUS?
Domenica: Citrus can be expensive to preserve if you don’t live in an area where citrus fruits grow. Selection and quality can also be limited.
Maggie: As Domenica mentioned, it’s tough that some of the most beautiful citrus in the country doesn’t grow in my neck of the woods. Thankfully, the Internet is your friend and you can ship most anything to your door these days. (I’m looking at you Lemon Ladies.)
Marisa: I think people think that the only thing you can do with citrus is make marmalade. Truly, there are so many more options. You can make curd, whole fruit jams (similar in flavor to marmalade, but way easier), jelly, salt preserved citrus, infused spirits, dehydrated citrus rounds, and much more.
WHEN IT COMES TO PRESERVING CITRUS, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD AVOID?
Domenica: Because the peel is such an important ingredient in citrus preserving (it carries most of the flavor and essential oils), I always look for organic citrus, so that no pesticides are transferred to the preserve, whether it’s jam, marmalade, or liqueur.
Marisa: There’s nothing I would avoid, but I would counsel beginners to start small. Don’t take on a batch of marmalade that starts with five pounds of fruit right off the bat. You will lose your will to be halfway through. Choose a recipe that begins with just a pound of fruit to start. You’re more likely to enjoy the process and end up with a product you can happily use.
Maggie: I would definitely start small, too. During one of my first preserving sessions, I made a 12-fruit batch of orange marmalade and it felt like it took all day. That sort of experience may turn you off of learning more about preserving, forever. I would preserve 3 or 4 lemons in salt to begin and build up from there.
WHERE DID YOU LEARN TO PRESERVE?
Domenica: I picked up some from my mom, who used to make traditional Italian preserves such as giardiniera, pickled peppers, and quince jam. I also learned from friends and family in Italy who keep those traditions going. And I learned by doing. The more I got into it the more I wanted to know.
Marisa: I learned to preserve by helping by mom prep blueberries and blackberries for jam when I was a kid. I came back to the practice as an adult and learned a great deal more than my mom had taught me. But the initial education came standing next to her in the kitchen.
Maggie: I am 100% self-taught; I learned just by trying, getting it not-quite-right, and trying again. I wish I had stories about making jam in my family kitchen but my family was more into savory food preparations, from homemade ravioli and cannoli (the Italian side) to long-cooked tamales or beef braises (the Latin side). Perhaps I taught myself to preserve fruits, and principally citrus, as a bright antidote to all the rich food of my childhood.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST THING YOU REMEMBER PRESERVING?
Domenica: I remember the first time I tried to make blueberry jam, as a young adult. By unfortunate coincidence, I chose the hottest day of summer to make a batch of blueberry preserves. It was actually evening, a very sticky evening. I didn’t know much about pectin and jelling, so I’m not sure what went wrong, but even after adding the commercial pectin to the bubbling mix, it never set. I stirred and stirred and stirred. Finally, I ladled the jam into jars and processed them anyway. I ended up with several nice jars of blueberry syrup.
Marisa: The first project I remember helping with was a batch of blueberry jam when I was nine years old. We had moved to Portland, OR just a few months before and were taking advantage of all that the Pacific Northwest had to offer, including inexpensive u-pick blueberry farms.
Maggie: Funny that you both started with blueberries. Blueberries aren’t really my thing. They’re superb in muffins and great on pancakes but I’d much prefer to eat them fresh or frozen than preserve them into a jam. (Kids love frozen blueberries, too.) I mentioned earlier that Meyer lemon marmalade was my very first preserve. I think my second preserve was orange marmalade so, yes; consider me the lady who tackles the most difficult preserves first.
WHAT IS ONE THING YOU WISH YOU KNEW WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED PRESERVING?
Domenica: That it is not nearly as scary and intimidating as many people think.
Maggie: I also used to think the entire canning process was super scary. Between water baths and pressure canning and sterilization, it was overwhelming. But once I gave it a shot, I was surprised more folks didn’t preserve – it’s not nearly as scary as some cookbooks make it out to be. (The cookbooks from my fellow authors make it way easy, though!)
Marisa: I learned over time the value of small batches. They allow you to test drive unfamiliar preserves and keep the making process fun rather than tedious.
WHAT IS A TIP OR INSIDER SECRET YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE FOR THOSE NEW TO PRESERVING?
Maggie: You don’t really need to use refined sugar in traditional preserve recipes. I love to sub in honey in jams and marmalades and even use maple sugar in pickles. Certainly, regular sugar is going to give a color and flavor more true to classic recipes but recipes are meant to be made your own and a little honey or maple provide such a lovely flavor switch.
Domenica: You don’t necessarily need to add pectin to low-pectin fruits such as strawberries to get your jam to set. Just grate a small green apple into your fruit mixture ~ and/or toss in some citrus peels ~ and your fruit should set nicely.
Marisa: I’m not sure if this is a tip or an insider secret, but I want to share a bit of permission. It’s okay to make something and decide you don’t like it. It happens to all of us at one time or another. Recipes don’t always meet their potential and it’s okay to chalk various projects up at learning experiences. Don’t force yourself to eat something you actively dislike.
WHAT’S YOUR ABSOLUTE, MUST-PRESERVE INGREDIENT EACH YEAR? AND HOW DO YOU DO IT?
Maggie: If it’s a fruit that grows locally and organically, I always freeze it, at the very least, all spring and summer long. Freezing fruit preserves it for a future project and let’s me enjoy summer without slaving over a hot stove. I must preserve blueberries in frozen form, especially the sort we pick up in Vermont, because my husband loves them, pancakes just aren’t the same without them, and he may cry if he doesn’t see them hanging around in the winter months. For me, I must preserve rhubarb, either infused into a spirit or frozen for cold weather jam, and cranberries because they’re only around for a spell and their tart, pectin-rich flesh is awesome in jams, chutneys, pickles, cakes, and scones.
Domenica: Hard to choose! I think I have to go with something impractical, and yet, for me, indispensable: my grandmother’s sour cherries preserved in alcohol. She would dry the cherries in the sun, but because of the humidity where I live I dry them in a low-heat oven. Then I add sugar and let them macerate a few days until the sugar has dissolved into syrup. Finally, I add booze ~ Everclear and Cognac ~ plus spices and let them cure for a few weeks. They are delicious spooned over ice cream or pound cake. And they make the best Manhattan.
Marisa: Tomatoes. I make puree, whole peeled tomatoes in water, tomato jam, and pizza sauce every year and my kitchen simply cannot operate without these ingredients.
WHAT MAKES A REALLY GOOD JAM?
Domenica: Really good fruit, fruit that is in season and, hopefully, locally grown and freshly picked. It makes all the difference in flavor.
Marisa: At its core, good jam comes from good fruit. Organic is always best, since the process of making jam is one of concentration and reduction. Beyond that, I recommend staying present and focused during the cooking process.
Maggie: We all agree. The highest quality organic fruit – taste it beforehand if you can, even just a little sliver – and adjust your cooking to accommodate for flavor. If it needs more sweetness, add it. If the beautiful organic fruit you picked from the farm down the road is lacking, add something else like vanilla beans, almond extract, or even a little liqueur to perk it up.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME, LADIES. IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK EACH OTHER?
Domenica: Maggie, what is your favorite citrus preserve in your pantry at the moment?
Maggie: Meyer Lemon Marmalade – I used a reliable whole fruit recipe from Marisa’s site. It’s a recipe I just love and play with all the time.
Marisa: Domenica, what was it like to translate the Italian preserving tradition into an American context?
Domenica: It was such a rewarding challenge, especially sourcing hard-to-find ingredients. For example, I was determined to include a recipe for mosto cotto, grape must syrup, which is made by cooking down the freshly pressed juice of wine grapes. In Abruzzo, mosto cotto is made with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grapes. I found myself reaching out to the wonderful winemaking community in Virginia, where I live. And thanks to the winemaker at Horton Vineyards, I was able to make an “Americanized” version of mosto cotto using grapes such as Petit Verdot, Syrah, and even an indigenous Virginia variety called Norton.
Maggie: If you two could travel anywhere to preserve the produce of that region, where to and why?
Domenica: Japan! My dad used to travel to Japan often on business and he always brought back wonderful edible treats. I would love to learn more about the Japanese traditions of salting, fermenting, and pickling.
Marisa: I often wish that I could spend some time preserving in the UK. They are rich in things like gooseberries, elderberries, crabapples, and other hedgerow fruits that are often hard to come by in the US.
Maggie: I have another question for the both of you. Do you freeze produce seasonally and, if so, what’s your most frequent use of that frozen fruit?
Domenica: Yes, I freeze summer produce, mostly berries and cherries, which freeze well. I always have a bag of sour cherries in the freezer, which I use to make sour cherry crostata, sour cherry pound cake with mascarpone, and sour cherry preserves.
Marisa: I do freeze some produce for use in other seasons. I typically have frozen apricots, cranberries, and sour cherries in my freezer. I use them primarily to supplement batches of jam so that I can make unusual combinations like Apricot and Meyer Lemon Jam.
Domenica: Marisa, before we go, I’m curious about your recipe for pickled kumquats, which sounds delicious and unusual. How did you create this recipe?
Marisa: I first made pickled kumquats on a whim. I’d been wanting to make a sweet and savory pickle from citrus and kumquats seemed like the most obvious candidate. They’re not something I always have in my pantry, but whenever I have the around, I like to toast sturdy bread, smear it with creamy goat cheese and dot them on top.
WHOLE FRUIT MEYER LEMON JAM
From Naturally Sweet Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan
- 11/2 pounds/680 g Meyer lemons
- 3 cups/710 g filtered water
- 2 cups/680 g honey
- Wash the lemons and place them in a saucepan that can hold them in a single layer. Cover them with the water and bring to a boil. Once the water is bubbling, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the lemons for 25 minutes, until the skins are tender but still hold together. Remove the pot from the heat and let the lemons cool completely.
- When you’re ready to cook, prepare a boiling water bath canner and 4 half-pint jars. Cut the cool lemons in half and remove the seeds, reserving as much juice and flesh as you can.
- Place the deseeded lemons, the reserved juice and pulp, and two cups of the cooking water in a blender carafe. Blend at low speed to break up the lemons, taking care not to puree them into a smooth puree.
- Pour the lemon mix into a wide, nonreactive pan and add the honey. Bring the contents of the pot to a boil over high heat. Once it is cooking vigorously, reduce the heat to medium-high.
- Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring regularly. The jam is done when it thickens and sheets off the back of your spoon or spatula. Another sign of doneness is that it will hiss and spit as you stir.
- When the jam is finished cooking, remove it from the heat. Funnel it into prepared jars, leaving 1/2 inch/12 mm of headspace. Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
From Preserving Italy by Domenica Marchetti
- 4 organic lemons
- 3 organic Meyer lemons
- 3 organic mandarin oranges
- 1 (750 ml) bottle 151-proof grain alcohol, such as Everclear, or 100-proof vodka
- 3 cups (600 grams) vanilla sugar (bury a piece of vanilla in a sugar canister)
- 3 to 4 cups (710 to 940 grams) water
- With a vegetable peeler, peel off the zest of the lemons and oranges in strips, removing only the thin top layer and leaving behind the white pith. Reserve the fruit for granita or another use.
- Put the zest in a 2-quart glass jar. Pour in the alcohol and cover the jar tightly. Place it in a cool, dark spot and let it be for 2 months. Give it a shake from time to time to mix up the peels. As the alcohol site, it will turn to a pretty soft orange, and the peels will lose their color.
- Combine the sugar and 3 to 4 cups water–depending on how strong you want to make your liqueur–in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook, stirring, on low heat to dissolve the sugar. Raise the heat to medium and cook, stirring now and again, until the syrup reaches a boil. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. The syrup must be fully cool before it is mixed with the alcohol or the liqueur will be cloudy and opaque rather than translucent.
- Strain the citrus alcohol through a fine-mesh sieve into a different 2-quart jar. Pour in the cool sugar syrup and swirl or stir to gently combine. Give the ingredients a few minutes to mingle. The liqueur will not be perfectly clear, but rather a pearly and translucent orange.
- Line a narrow-neck funnel with a coffee filter and set it into the neck of one of three clean 500 ml swing-top glass bottles with rubber gaskets. Fill the liqueur into the bottle, leaving 1 inch headspace. This process takes a little while, so just be patient and feed the funnel as needed. When the bottle is full, transfer the funnel to a second bottle. Check the filter, if it is clogged with debris, discard it and replace it with a new one. Filter the rest of the liqueur into the remaining bottles. Wipe the rims of the bottles and secure the lids. Let the bottles sit in a cool, dark spot for 2 to 4 weeks before using. Store the liqueur in the freezer for up to 1 year. Serve directly from the freezer.
From Food Gift Love by Maggie Battista
- 5 tablespoons plus 2 cups fine sea salt, divided
- 13 small Meyer lemons, organic (if possible), washed and dried
- 1 regular Eureka lemon (keep 2 to 3 on hand, if needed at 5-day test)
- Sterilize five half-pint jars and airtight lids.
- Juice 2 Meyer lemons and the Eureka lemon into a bowl, straining out any seeds. Dispose of the rinds and set the juice aside. You should be left with at least 8 tablespoons of juice, but may get a bit more – save it for the 5-day check.
- Slice the remaining 11 Meyer lemons into half vertically. Slice each half into 3 equally-sized wedges. Place Meyer lemon wedges into a large mixing bowl. Add 2 cups of sea salt and stir gently until all parts of the exposed fruit are covered in salt.
- Pour the lemon mix into a wide, nonreactive pan and add the honey. Bring the contents of the pot to a boil over high heat. Once it is cooking vigorously, reduce the heat to medium-high.
- Pour 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the mixed lemon juice into each jar, leaving about 1/4 inch of headspace. Wipe the rims clean and seal the jars.
- Shake each jar to create more juice and distribute the juice and salt well. Leave jars on the counter at room temperature, shaking a little each day, for five days. Your salt and juice may separate a bit – that’s okay – just keep shaking to aid distribution. After five days, check the jars — open them up — to ensure most of the lemons are covered in juice. If more than a sliver of Meyer lemon is exposed, add more lemon juice to make 1/4-inch of headspace. Wipe the rims down and re-seal.
- Place the jars in the fridge for three weeks. The lemons are ready to use at that point and will keep in the fridge for 4 months. I’ve had jars that have been beautifully kept for more than 6 months.
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