A few weeks ago I gathered my courage and tried my hand at making preserves. A sweet couple in our church gave me a bucket of figs, some advice, and a vague recipe. I glanced at a few more recipes online, then plunged right into the world of preserving and canning. My Balsamic Fig Preserves were very good (especially eaten with pork tenderloin,) but the Vanilla Fig Preserves were our favorite. JD and I ate a whole jar in a week.
So, when my father-in-law brought me a HUGE bucket of pears, I knew just what to do with them. Now, my father-in-law is one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met. He not only brought me pears, but he and my mother-in-law took Piper home with them to spend the night! They got to play with Piper, she got some quality time with her grandparents, JD got the TV to himself, and I got some uninterrupted time in the kitchen. Win-win-win-win.
I have no idea what kind of pears these are. They came from the backyard of a cute old man named Chief. They’re much harder than the pears I buy in the grocery store, but very sweet and crunchy. Once, at a family reunion, I picked some pears similar to this from my great-aunt’s pear tree. I didn’t have a vegetable peeler back then, so I peeled them all with a paring knife. That was awful. Pure torture. This time around, I was very thankful for that peeler.
If you’re so inclined to try making your own preserves, here’s what you need to do:
First, wash and peel the pears. I did this four pears at a time. I don’t really know why I chose to do it that way, but it just worked for me. Next, slice them thinly. I started out quartering the pears and using a paring knife to remove the seeds and core. But these pears were so hard that it was really time consuming. Plus, I’m clumsy and was afraid I’d cut myself. So, I started cutting around the core Barefoot Contessa style. I may have lost some of the good meat of the pear, but it was worth it to ensure I didn’t lose any fingers! As you slice the pears into a bowl, cover them generously with sugar. I added about a cup to a cup and a half of sugar after every eight pears. Just add as much or as little as you want keeping in mind that the more sugar you add, the sweeter and more caramel-ly your preserves will be. And don’t even think about using fake sugar. That stuff will kill you. Keep it real, and remember that these are a treat. If some sugar is good, more sugar is better!
Here’s where I added my secret ingredient: vanilla. I was surprised when none of the pear preserve recipes I looked at called for vanilla. It just seemed like a no-brainer to me! And I didn’t just use any vanilla; I used my best. This stuff, Los Cinco Soles Vanilla, was given to me by a couple at church who had just returned from a cruise to Mexico. (Being the preacher’s wife really does have some perks!) This is seriously the best vanilla I’ve ever tasted, and I’ll be ordering some more from here when I run out.
Just add a few drops to a teaspoon-full over your pears and stir them up. After all your pears are sliced, sugared, and vanilla-ed, cover them with plastic wrap and let them sit in the refrigerator overnight and macerate. They’ll release all their juices and soften a little bit. Here’s what they’ll look like the next day:
See? I didn’t add any water – that’s all pear juice. I was curious at this point and tasted a slice, and oh my goodness, it was so good. It was still crunchy, but extra sweet. A good foretaste of things to come.
Next, just dump the pears and all their juice into a big pot and turn it to high. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and let it simmer away.
The pears will need to simmer for a while – probably two or three hours. Remember, they are hard pears and will take a while to soften. They need to cook low and slow, and as they cook, the sugars will begin to caramelize and add that yummy caramel flavor that we’re going for.
This is about halfway. The pears are getting softer, and I’m starting to break them up with my spoon as I stir. And by the way, as I was cooking these, I was doing other things around the house and watching the Olympics. If they’re cooking slowly over medium heat, they only need stirring every ten to fifteen minutes.
They’re almost done now. At this point, you need to watch them more closely to make sure they don’t stick on the bottom. You can keep chopping at them with a wooden spoon or use a potato masher to break them up. I like a smoother consistency to my preserves, so I mashed them up pretty good.
Notice the pretty caramel color? That’s what we’re going for. I once heard a tv chef say that in culinary school, if you’re asked your favorite color, the correct answer is always golden brown. That’s the idea here. Golden brown = sweet and caramel-ly.
Now, the hard part for me was deciding when the pears were done. Being inexperienced at preserves, I decided I was finished cooking them when all the liquid had cooked out and they were starting to “gel.” If you scrape across the bottom of the pot and the preserves stay separated for a few seconds, they’re probably done.
Now, here’s where we can do things several different ways. You should sterilize your jars and lids. (I washed the jars in the dishwasher and kept them hot using the plate warming setting until I was ready to use them, and I boiled the lids and rings in a small pot.) But after you put the preserves into your sterilized jars, they need sealing. You can use a water-bath method or a pressure canner, or you can cheat, like I did.
I can’t remember where I learned this method, but it’s a keeper. After your jars are filled, wipe the rims clean and screw on the lids. Then, just flip the jars upside down. The heat from the hot preserves will seal them. After 30 minutes or so, you can flip them upright and press down the seal. If it stays in and doesn’t pop out, it’s sealed and you’re good to go!
My HUGE bucket of pears yielded 12 jelly jars of preserves (in two batches.) They’re super yummy and taste like caramel. We’ll be eating them on biscuits and toast, and I’m sure I’ll find a way to cook with them, too.
Operation Pear Preserves = Success!