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Tips for preserving herbs, fruits and vegetables

Suzanne Elvidge is a writer, editor and proofreader specialising in healthcare, technology, business and eco-issues. You can visit her at www.pharmawrite.co.uk/.

Preserving the summer's bounty

Summer is gone all too soon, but preserved herbs, fruits and vegetables will remind us of those long, hot days while you are in the depths of winter. Preserving isn't hard to do, and, bonus, it makes original (and low-cost) gifts perfect for the holidays. Here is your guide to drying herbs and preserving the summer's fruits and vegetables.

Canned Fruit

Drying herbs

Homegrown herbs have an amazing flavor, zero food miles, and are easy to grow. However, they can be challenging to grow all winter. Drying herbs keeps the flavor of summer alive throughout the year or until spring arrives and these flavorful little plants are easy to grow again.

1. Pick your herbs. Herbs taste best if they are picked and dried before they flower. Pick healthy looking sprigs of herbs on a dry day before it gets too hot. Then you have the option of air-drying or oven-drying them.

2. Air-dry. To air-dry herbs, tie sprigs of herbs together into a bunch by the stems and put it upside-down in a paper bag. Make holes in the paper bag to allow the air to circulate, tie the bag closed with twine around the stems and hang it by the tie in a warm, dry room. Check every couple of weeks until completely dry.

3. Oven-dry. To oven-dry herbs, spread leaves or sprigs onto trays and put them in a cool oven (45-55°C/110-130°F or Gas Mark 0) for three to four hours or until completely dry. Herbs can even be dried in a microwave oven – spread a single layer of herbs on a kitchen towel, lay a piece of kitchen towel over the top, and microwave for one minute. Continue in 30-second bursts until the herbs are completely dry.

4. Store dried herbs. Crush the dried herbs and store them in airtight (preferably dark) containers, or store as whole leaves and crush just before use.

Try your dried herbs in this easy herb pizza.

Making herb oils and vinegars

If you don't want to dry your own herbs, you can preserve their distinctive flavors in infused oils and vinegars.

1. Sterilize a jar. Wash a large jar with a non-metallic lid thoroughly in soapy water, rinse it well and sterilize it by plunging it in boiling water. Let it dry completely.

2. Steep the herbs. Fill the clean jar with fresh herbs, cover with vinegar or warmed (not hot) oil and leave vinegars for two to four weeks and oils for about a week. Strain the flavored vinegar or oil through muslin or a fine-mesh sieve.

3. Prepare glass bottles. Thoroughly wash and rinse some nice-looking glass bottles with stoppers or lids and submerge them in boiling water to sterilize them. They must be completely dry before filling. Colored bottles are particularly attractive, and the dark glass will help preserve the color and flavor of the oil and vinegar.

4. Label and decorate. Put a fresh sprig of herbs into each bottle, fill with the flavored oil or vinegar, and tightly seal. Label with the name and date, and decorate with ribbon or raffia if giving as a gift.

5. Store infused oil and vinegar. Keep flavored oils in the fridge and use within two to four weeks. Herb vinegars can keep for up to two years in the pantry.

Experiment with different combinations of herbs with different oils and vinegars, and try adding a chili or some garlic cloves for an extra bite. Using herb oil or vinegar in a simple vinaigrette (three or four parts oil to one part vinegar, with mustard and seasoning to taste) makes even an ordinary salad taste deliciously of summer.

Canning

Canning is a popular and age-old way to preserve the summer's bounty.

1. Fill mason jars. To can (also known as bottling), pack chopped or whole fruit or vegetables into sterilized jars and cover with syrup, water or brine, or fill jars with fruit or vegetable puree. Do not fill jars to the top; leave a 1/4- to 1/2-inch space.

2. Seal the jars. Close the jars loosely and heat them in a water bath or pressure cooker which kills any microorganisms and drives the air out. Seal the jars, and as the contents cool, this creates a vacuum in the jar.

Canned fruit and vegetables should keep for about a year. Try this applesauce carrot cake.

Fruit preserves

Fruit preserves, including jams, jellies, marmalades, fruit butters and fruit cheeses are delicious ways to preserve fruit, and these sweet treats can be used as spreads, toppings and fillings all year round. Simply use the canning method described above and store in the pantry.

According to June Taylor of June Taylor Jams, the secret to making good fruit preserves is to use good quality fruit that is not overripe, and to make sure that the jars are hot when filled with the hot preserves. On those long winter nights, use your preserves in a classic English trifle or on PB&J French toast. With every yummy bite, just think of the delicious fruit ripening in the summer sun.

Fruit syrups

Fruit syrups have a wonderful flavor, but are often expensive to buy. Making your own fruit syrups with gluts of fruit is cheap and, even better, it means your sweet syrups will contain no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

Fruit syrups are made by boiling fruit (often berries, such as raspberries, blueberries or black currants) with sugar and water and then straining the liquid into clean, sterilized bottles. Crushing some of the fruit before cooking releases more of the flavor. Store the finished fruit syrup in the refrigerator.

Fruit syrups make a great base for homemade sodas – just pour the syrup over ice and top up with seltzer. They are also perfect for flavoring milkshakes, iced tea or plain yogurt, and for drizzling over fruit or pancakes – the uses are almost endless!

Take the time to preserve summer's herbs, fruits and vegetables and enjoy summer's flavors into winter and beyond.

More ways to preserve summer's bounty

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