The ultimate guide to preserving apples, plums and pears

It’s been a great year for fruit harvests but you don’t need your own orchard to put a glut to good use

Grab yourself a bottle of summer with these brilliant fail-safe recipes for preservation 
Bottle of summer with these brilliant recipes for preservation  Credit: Andrew Crowley

The apple trees at the Barley Wood Walled Garden, a few miles south of Bristol, are straining under the weight of fruit. The branches of a pear tree bow with their crop of fat comice. Plums came early, espaliered on the warm Victorian brick walls, but a few cling still, fat drupes of sweet juice in rosy skin.

“It’s the best I’ve ever seen,” says Matthew Pennington, chef at The Ethicurean, the garden’s restaurant (which is currently providing picnics to eat in the walled garden). Whether it’s a lockdown dividend – more insects, more pollination, more time to tend our gardens – or that glorious weather that marked those early weeks of summer, this is shaping up to be a fantastic year for fruit.

No fruit trees of your own? Me neither. But gluts aren’t just for allotment holders and country dwellers. Walk past urban parks and gardens with your eye on the pavement – where there’s a splattering of ripe fallen fruit, look up to find a fruit tree or blackberry bramble.

It’s worth asking garden owners nicely if you can harvest any fruit they don’t want, giving them a portion and raking up the mess of fallen fruit as a thank-you, or offering to make a donation to their favourite charity. Another route is to post on local networks such as Nextdoor, offering to pick surplus fruit, or simply scouring greengrocers who often have bargain boxes for sale.

Once you’ve got your hands on the bounty, it will need preserving while it’s at its best. Later in the year, the apples can be stored whole, spread out on racks, but the early crop, such as Discovery, don’t keep well like this, even supposing you have the space. Freezing is great, if your freezer is big enough. But there are other good options.

Take your pick: Apples can be dried, bottled or juiced for drinks and desserts Credit: Andrew Crowley

Drying fruit works brilliantly to eat as a snack, or you can rehydrate it for crumbles and winter fruit salads. Try soaking it in cold black tea, too.

I’m a convert to bottling, and not just because the jars look stunning on a shelf. Heat-treating the containers by boiling them means that you can use far less sugar than conventional preserves – or even none at all.

Don’t feel you have to make enormous batches. Although massive jars look impressive, smaller containers, 500ml or so, are better for most families and are easier to fit in a pan of water. A single pot of plums can be prepared in minutes and simmer while I’m making supper. Turns out you can bottle summer.

How to dry fruit

Drying fruit is a great way to use up a glut, taking up minimum space even though the dried snacks never last for long. Very ripe fruit works brilliantly, especially pears and plums; the ones that are too soft for bottling. The concentration of flavour is dazzling: even dull-flavoured specimens taste fantastic.

What to use

 From 50-60C is the right temperature for drying fruit. A dedicated dehydrator is a useful bit of kit, doing the job at a precise temperature. On the downside, they are bulky and not cheap for something you may pull out only one month a year.

The alternative is to use your oven, setting it as low as it goes, ideally that magic 60C – much hotter and you may end up toasting the fruit before it dries. If you have a four-door Aga, the warming oven runs at about 60-80C, so that will work too. If you do invest in a dehydrator, I swear by my Excalibur, which has been going strong for years. From £139 from ukjuicers.com.

The Excalibur 4 Tray Dehydrator (£115, Sousvide)  makes drying fruit easy and fuss-free 

How to prepare fruit for drying

 Cut the fruit into evenly sized pieces so it all dries at the same time. The drying time is determined by two factors: how small or thin your pieces are, and how much is covered by fruit skin.

Yes, if you would eat the skin normally, then it will still be edible (and full of healthy fibre) on dried fruit. But fruit skin’s role in nature is to protect fruit from drying out, and if there’s too much on the pieces, it’ll double or triple the drying time needed.

A mandoline is useful for perfectly even slices (available from £15.99 from lakeland.co.uk).

 As you cut the fruit, drop it into a bowl of water. Adding a spoonful of lemon juice, vinegar or salt will help slow the browning of the fruit.

 Lay on the dehydrator rack or on a tray lined with non-stick parchment in the oven to dry. Turn the pieces halfway through the drying time. They are done when slices are firm and chunks are springy but not squishy. Store in airtight containers.

 Part-dried fruit, still soft, is delicious but needs to be kept in the fridge (for up to a week), or freezer (for up to a year).

Bowled over: Pears, apples and plums make great dishes when dried Credit: Andrew Crowley

Pears

 Use soft, ripe pears. Cut unpeeled pears on the vertical to make slices about 4mm thick for wafers, or 1cm thick for chewier pieces. There’s no need to core them. Or peel, halve and core small pears (quarter large pears) using a melon baller or teaspoon.

Drying time: six-10 hours for slices, 12-18 hours for halves and quarters. Unpeeled pear halves take 36 hours or more.

Apples

 Slice unpeeled apples through their equator, coring them first ifyou like. Or peel and core the fruit and cut it into eighths before drying.

 Drying time: six-10 hours for slices, 12-18 hours for chunks. 

Plums

Prunes are dried plums, but the kind we are used to, the sweet black breakfast-buffet stalwart, are made from particular varieties that have low acidity when dehydrated. Home-grown dried plums tend to be much more tangy and lighter coloured, but are delicious too.

Choose the ripest plums, and halve and stone them, as it can take days to dry whole plums, even if you pierce the skin in several places. Pressing on the skin side of each half to pop it “inside out” speeds up the drying time too.

 Drying time: 10-12 hours.

How to bottle fruit

Credit: Andrew Crowley

Bottling fruit is a great way to preserve fruit without taking up lots of freezer space. Boiling, or processing, the jars means that you can use minimal sugar and they will still keep for a year.

Proper preserving jars are vital, with either clip-top or two-part screw cap. Kilner is a British company with a great range. Le Parfait is the French counterpart, Ball are American and Weck German.

If they are being processed in boiling water for more than 10 minutes, you don’t need to sterilise the jars, although they should of course still be scrupulously clean. Waresofknutsford.co.uk has a good selection of all kinds.

You’ll need a deep pan to place the jars in – although if you stick to 500ml jars a good-sized pasta pan may do, as long as you can completely submerge the jars in water. For single jars, dust down your asparagus steamer if you’ve got one: it’s perfect for the job. Otherwise, invest in a Kilner canning pan, which comes complete with a jar rack and will double as a stock pot (try catersupplies 
direct.com).

A proper set of jam jar tongs make it possible to lift hot jars out of scalding water without burning yourself. Pretty much essential (try jamjarshop.com).

Bottling: how to process jars in a water bath

  1. After following a bottled fruit recipe (see below) tap the filled jars on the worktop and swipe a flexible spatula around the inside of each one to release any air bubbles. Wipe the rims carefully (any smears can stop the lid from sealing properly) and clip down the lid with its rubber seal. For screw-on lids, screw them on as tightly as you can before turning back a quarter turn.
  2.  Heat a large deep pan of water, putting in a tea towel to line the bottom, or positioning a specially designed rack. This is important: the jars may break if sitting directly on the base of the pan.
  3. Now lower the jars into the (tea towel-lined) pan: the water should come over the tops of the jars by a couple of centimetres. Bring to the boil and boil gently for 20 minutes (for up to half-litre jars) or 25 minutes (for up to one-litre jars). Leave to cool in the pan for five minutes before lifting out with jar tongs on to a wooden board. You can leave the jars to cool in the water if you don’t have tongs. Leave the jars undisturbed overnight.
  4. The next day, wipe down the jars (they may be sticky) and test the seals. For clip jars, undo the clips on the jars, and lift the jars by their glass lids. The lids and rubber seal should stay firmly attached to the base. For two-part screw caps, check that the top of the lid is slightly concave. It shouldn’t pop up and down when pressed. Unscrew the ring around the lid: the top should stay firmly attached. Store the jars without the ring.  If any fail to seal tight, you can decant the contents into clean jars and repeat the heating process. Or just pop them in the fridge and eat over the next few days.
  5.  Properly sealed, the jars should last at least six months. However, if you notice any leakage during storage, or they become unsealed, or when you open the jar it fizzes or pops, then throw away the contents.