Turning peaches into preserves is easy, especially if you take Anne Byrn's advice and follow her aunt's unconventional way of preserving them. With fragrant Southern peaches coming into our markets, now is the time to relish the momentary pleasure of eating ripe, juicy peaches and preserving their flavor for the days ahead.
My aunt Mary Jo, who is now in her 90s, remembers everyone in Nashville used to make peach preserves a certain way. Always on the lookout for a unique recipe, Mary Jo liked the fact that she had a little prep in the beginning of the recipe but then she could go play golf. No standing over the stove and stirring a hot pot, no steam in her face and no spattering of hot syrupy juices on her blouse.
Preserves are different than jam or jelly because you've got tender pieces of fruit in the syrup. Traditional recipes call for a 40-minute cooking time, plus a lot of skimming of foam off the top of the preserves as they cook down. Mary Jo's recipe, on the other hand, is radically hands-off. It's like the difference between a hybrid and a gasoline-powered car -- you let the sun do the work.
Step One: The Ripe Peaches
Begin Mary Jo's recipe with good peaches. Local is always best. And choose a mixture of ripe and nearly ripe peaches. Why? You get the sweetness from the ripe peaches but the acidity and pectin in the almost ripe. When combined in preserves, the ripe and not-quite-ripe complement and create depth. Mary Jo would begin on a summer morning with 6 cups sliced peaches, 4 cups sugar, and a few tablespoons fresh lemon juice. She would simmer this for 8 minutes in a saucepan on top of the stove, then turn this mixture out into a glass casserole dish with a fitted glass lid.
Step Two: The Right Glass Dish
The glass dish, in which the peaches "cook" in the sun, is crucial. It's got to be glass to catch the sun's rays, and it must have a tight-fitting glass lid. This lid allows the sun to shine through but keeps the bees, flies and ants out.
If you don't have a glass dish and lid combination, you can use a clean sheet of glass or a glass plate to lay on top of the bowl. It is a little cumbersome taking this out of the sun, and into the fridge each morning and night, but it's doable.
Step Three: The Method
Begin on a sunny day. Check the weather reports if needed. And after you have cooked the preserves for 8 minutes, and turned them into the glass dish with lid, place the dish on an outdoor table for 6 hours of full sun. At dusk, you bring in the preserves and refrigerate. That's the perfect scenario. What if clouds roll in? If it becomes partly cloudy, keep the preserves outside for an extra hour or two. If it's completely cloudy, bring in the preserves, refrigerate, and start again tomorrow. Children are good helpers here and love this part of the recipe. In two to three days you'll have the most delightful, peachy-gold preserves you have ever tasted. The sun's gentle, gradual method of evaporation creates manna for buttered toast and biscuits. And you can turn the preserves into jars to share with others or keep them to yourself! Just be sure to store in clean jars with tight fitting lids in the fridge.
Summers are when we get our fill of peaches from Georgia to South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas and even Tennessee. Peaches are a signal of summer -- the partner to hot weather, the opposite of homework, the sweet food of the South. And they are with us only fleetingly, reminding us to savor and preserve them while we can.
Mary Jo's Sun-Cooked Peach Preserves
Makes 4 to 5 half-pint (8-ounce) jars
Prep: 2 to 3 days
6 cups peeled, sliced peaches (about 6 large, ripe, but still slightly firm peaches)
4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Place the peach slices, sugar, and lemon juice in a 2-quart stainless steel or enamel saucepan. Stir to combine. Let the mixture rest 30 minutes to let juices seep out of the peaches and so the sugar can dissolve.
Turn the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and let the mixture simmer 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat.
Turn the peaches and juice into a clean 2-quart glass casserole dish with a glass lid or a glass bowl on top of which you can place a clean sheet of glass or glass plate. Cover the dish with the lid or plate. Place on a table outdoors for at least 6 hours of full sun daily. Stir once or twice a day.
At the end of each day, bring the peaches inside and refrigerate covered. Depending on the amount of liquid in the peaches and the intensity of the sun, the preserves should come together in 2 to 3 days. The peach slices should look translucent and the juices should thicken, although they will not thicken as much as commercial peach preserves.
Pack the preserves into 4 to 5 sterilized (run them through a dishwasher cycle) half-pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace at the top. Secure with sterilized lids and jar rims. Refrigerate. Or, if the preserves are for family enjoyment, just transfer to a glass bowl and cover with plastic wrap before refrigerating.
These preserves will keep unopened in the fridge for up to 3 months. Once opened, they will keep for 2 to 3 weeks.