I was asked to write a master class for making chutneys by Food Lover Magazine. Whilst I have been making them commercially for 15 years now, I would not profess to be a master at all, I am still learning. I would be delighted however to pass on tips I have learned along the way, and tips the older generations have kindly passed on to me.
Chutneys came about as way of using and preserving surplus fruit and vegetables from the garden. The key thing to remember is that chutney is made from surplus not inferior ingredients.
You need 4 key ingredients to make a lovely chutney; fruit and or vegetables, vinegar, sugar and spices – simple.
Fruit & Vegetables
Most (not all) chutneys have either onion or apple as a base ingredient to which other fruits and vegetables are added.
Apples – you can choose to use either a Bramley/cooking apple or a dessert/eating apple. The cooking apple will break down during cooking and give you a puree texture, eating apples will hold their shape and not break down. I tend to use eating apples in most of our chutneys because I want some substance. Where you use other fruits and vegetables that also do not break down so well, e.g. swede or green tomatoes, you might want to use a Bramley apple for a mix of textures in the chutney.
High water content vegetables – such as marrow and tomatoes (I know a tomato is a fruit but I am lumping them in with this). These have such a high natural water content that you could end up cooking the chutney for hours just to drive off the water, so the chutney is a reasonable thickness. If you prepare these vegetables, chopped in the size you want them for the chutney. Bag them up in the weight you want them for the chutney and freeze them, get them out of the freezer the night before and put them in a colander, as they defrost they loose the excess water, you now have your ingredient ready to use. Just remember they will now weigh considerably less because of the water loss but this would be the same weight as if you put them fresh into the chutney and cooked the water off. Word of warning, courgettes are not in the bracket, they do not like being frozen!
There are many different vinegars you can use. Experiment, different vinegars will give you a different flavour, just make sure they have an acidity of at least 4%, preferably 5%. I really like using cider vinegar but not a refined version, there are a number of less refined apple/cider vinegars available with a lovely flavour. If you decide to try a balsamic vinegar then I would recommend using diluting it with a white wine vinegar because the balsamic flavour will overpower everything. Malt Vinegar is not suitable for celiacs as it contents barley but you can use the non-brewed condiment alternative which is allergen free.
You need sugar as well as vinegar as a preservative. The difference between say demerara sugar and dark soft brown sugar is the level of molasses added to it. You don’t have to use sugar, you could use honey if you want to be decadent. Please do not use alternative sweeteners, even natural ones like stevia, they do not have the preserving properties so you chutney will not last.
Dried fruit absorb the moisture in a chutney, so I would be inclined to add these half way through the cooking to ensure the other ingredients are thoroughly cooked at the ‘liquidy’ part of the stage. Where dates are concerned, I always add these near the end of the cooking as they really do soak up the liquid and you can end up burning your chutney too easily.
There are so many spices available. If you are not that adventurous or confident, follow a chutney recipe then next time ‘tweek’ it a bit with your favourites. Chutneys need to be left to mature when you use dried spices; ginger, allspice, mustard, etc., but if you use fresh spices only like garlic and ginger the maturing process is not so critical. With dried spices you need to leave the chutney to an absolute minimum of 6 weeks but the longer you leave the better is will taste as the spices mature. A 6 months old chutney will taste very food. With the fresh spices it need only be 6 weeks old.
The Cooking Process
Always cook your chutneys on a low heat, slowly, don’t rush. You don’t have to put all the ingredient in at the same time. I tend to put the vinegar with the vegetable that take the longest to cook, i.e., onion, in first and cook for 30 minutes before adding the rest of the fruit and vegetables, followed by the sugar, then dried fruits. Always put your spices in at the beginning to get the maximum cooking time, there is nothing worst than a raw spice taste.
If your chutney is too runny or your recipe calls for a thickening agent, always use cornflour mixed with a little of the vinegar. Cornflour is gluten free. Always to this at the very end because thickening your chutney like this will make catch and burn easily. You need to continue cooking the chutney after adding cornflour for about 15 minutes so the cornflour itself it cooked but stir frequently.
Chutney into Jars
Always use clean and sterilised jars (pop them into the oven on low for 5 minutes) and new lids. Lids can be purchased readily. Don’t use a wax disk, the vinegar in the chutney will destroy over time!
Put your chutney whilst hot into the jars and screw lid on, when it cools you get that vacuum effect which will keep the chutney.
Later ….. open and enjoy the fruits (or veg) of your efforts. One last tip, make sure you have the recipe kept safe. I have heard too many people tell me of a fabulous chutney they made but they can’t remember the recipe!