Rose Mary's mother and all of her aunts are great Southern cooks. She likes to think she's not so bad herself.
A Long Love Affair With Fig Preserves
Fig preserves are a special sweet treat that I have taken for granted most of my life. My mom always had canned homemade fig preserves, so we’ve always had them in the house. We’re pretty much purists—eating them like you would jam or jelly, but we do have a couple of variations.
Mom likes figs on a Ritz cracker with a smear of butter or peanut butter. My favorite way to eat figs is with a scoop of peanut butter and a spoon—no crackers. I like leftover Cracker Barrel biscuits with fig preserves, too. Occasionally, when a batch of preserves yields a lot of extra juice, we might use it as pancake syrup.
Mom has a fruitcake recipe that is a standout because of the special ingredients—fig preserves and homemade scupadine wine (made from scuppernong grapes). These are ingredients that you can’t get from the grocery store.
The Art of Cooking Preserves
Recently, I took pictures of Mom making a batch of figs, and I wrote down ratios and instructions. So, I’m ready to make a batch, right? Not so fast! Making preserves is not like following a recipe to bake a cake. There’s a lot of art involved, art that comes from lots of experience. You cook them until they feel right when you stir them and until the color is right. Then there’s the whole process of sterilizing the jars, as well as hoping your preserves will seal after you put them in the jars and they start to cool.
I’ve watched my mom make preserves many times over the years, but I’m not sure I’m ready to brave it on my own, especially with Mom 1200 miles away. A Texas friend has a fig connection—someone she can possibly get figs from. They are seasonal, usually available mid-and late summer. We’ve made a tentative pact to brave it together next year.
Preparing and Cooking the Figs
The actual recipe sounds pretty simple, except I know it’s not.
- 1 part sugar
- 2 parts figs
- Cut stems off figs.
- If the figs are small, leave them whole. Cut them in halves or quarters for larger figs.
- Put the figs in a large (12–20 qt) stockpot.
- Pour sugar over the top of the figs.
- Cover them with a lid or with cheesecloth or muslin and tie it to secure it. Let them sit overnight.
- Cook on medium and stir to dissolve sugar.
- Simmer uncovered for 2 to 4 hours, depending on the amount you are cooking. The juice will thicken, but they should still have a fair amount of juice. Cooking too much of the liquid out may make them “turn to sugar."
- Prepare jars for canning while figs are cooking.
- Fill jars to the bottom of the rim of the jar. Place the lids and screw on the rings. Leave them on the counter until sealed and cool.
Measuring the Figs and Sugar
Mom uses a 3-quart saucepan. For every 2 pans of fruit, she uses 1 pan of sugar. Be careful not to add too much sugar, or canned preserves will “turn to sugar” after a few months. Err on the side of caution when in doubt. Use a level spoon (or even a little less) instead of a rounded one when measuring the sugar.
What Does “Turning to Sugar” Mean?
If you put too much sugar in your fruit or cook the fruit and sugar mixture too long, the sugar may crystalize. This definitely changes the texture of the preserves, making them hard and thick, and crunchy. I won’t say they are always inedible, but they certainly are not something I would waste calories on. Mom hasn’t had this happen in years. Experience! For more information, you can view a video from Penn State on the subject of crystallization.
Canning in Jars
Mom doesn’t have a dishwasher, but she washes jars and lids in scalding water. Some cooks use pint and half-pint jars, but we’re big fans of fig preserves, so Mom cans in pint and quart jars. She puts the scalded jars in the oven in a water bath (a couple of inches of water in her 11” x 13” pan) to keep them warm. Mom uses a canning funnel to fill the jars. I have one and use mine all the time (even though I have yet to can anything).
She fills jars to the bottom of the rim or bottom of the lid ring. Mom does not use paraffin, which some canners use as an extra assurance of getting a seal. Mom sometimes recycles jars from pantry items but never uses the original screw top. She uses old-school rings and lids.
Put the flat lid on the jar, then screw down the ring. Mom leaves the filled jars on the counter until they have been sealed and cooled. You can usually hear the “pop” sound when each jar seals. You can see that the lid has gone flat or slightly concave.
Sometimes there is a straggler or two that don’t seal. Mom will push on the lid with her fingers and watch and hope. If the lid stays depressed, it probably will stay sealed. If a jar doesn’t seal, put it in the refrigerator, and eat now instead of later. You could find recipes that call for jam or preserves, like peanut butter and jelly bars.
Bonus Recipe: Strawberry Figs
A variation on fig preserves is “strawberry figs.” The “strawberry” comes from strawberry Jell-O. The figs, in this case, are peeled and mashed with a fork. This is a good way to use overly ripe figs. They turn out a beautiful red color, and an occasional friend or relative has thought they were eating strawberry jam.
- 3 cups peeled and mashed figs
- 3 cups sugar
- 2 3-oz boxes of strawberry Jell-O
- Mix the ingredients in a saucepan and cook to a hard, rolling boil for 5-7 min.
- Sterilize the jars and lids.
- Pour the strawberry figs into the jars.
- Cover with lids and secure with rings.
Peeling the Figs
For this version, you peel away the thicker outer part of the fig. It is not necessary to get every bit of the outer part. The thicker part is on the stem end. The other end is often very thin, and cannot be easily removed, so don’t! Most of the parts that need to be removed can be done by peeling with your fingers; no knife is necessary.
© 2018 rmcrayne