The first mention of strawberries in literature comes from ancient Rome, where they were used for medicinal purposes. They are also found in the 15th century manuscripts of European monks, as well as in Flemish, Italian and German miniatures.
One source suggests that the whole strawberry plant was used to treat depressive illnesses. Thankfully, however, at some point in history, people and civilisations discovered the culinary uses of strawberries and, by the time of King Henry VIII, that famous archbishop Thomas Wolsey had put together that delicious concoction we still love and enjoy — strawberries and cream.
Although strawberries are available all year round in most parts of the world, in Pakistan they are found in abundance and at a good price from mid-January to about early March. This is the perfect time to buy the fruit and preserve it for future use in the summer, and even into the winter if you ration your supplies well. Here are some ways to do it.
One of the best properties of strawberries is that they freeze extremely well and can be kept for long periods of time. The easiest way to do this is to buy them when they are in season and wash them in cold water with a little vinegar added to it. The next step is to dry them thoroughly, hull them (cut off the top leafy bits) and then store them in large freezer-safe bags. It is quite important to wash the strawberries with their tops intact; otherwise the fruit will absorb too much water.
Frozen strawberries can be used in a variety of ways: my favourite is to add them to pancake or muffin batter, but you can also blitz them to make homemade strawberry jelly or syrup to add to cake sponges. Of course, you can also make strawberry ice cream, add them to yoghurt or milk for a delicious, Vitamin C-packed breakfast, or use them to make any number of desserts.
It’s important to note that, if you’re following an online recipe for a strawberry-based dessert, always be sure to check if frozen strawberries can be used, as some dishes do require fresh fruit for the best results.
Roasting strawberries is a great way to preserve them and this is something that many people do not usually think of. Roasting the berries in the oven allows them to release their juices, which then caramelise to give them an incredibly rich and delicious flavour profile.
The easiest way to do this is to wash and hull 450g of fresh strawberries and spread them in a single layer over a baking tray lined with baking paper. Sprinkle about ¼ cup of sugar (you can use less if you prefer) and a half teaspoon of vanilla essence (this is optional). Toss the fruit to make sure the sugar and essence are evenly distributed, and then let them roast in the oven at 180 degree C for 25 to 30 minutes, checking them every now and then to make sure they do not burn.
Remove from the oven and transfer the roasted strawberries, along with their delicious syrup, in sterilised glass jars. Seal the jars tightly, and invert them for about 30 minutes (this helps the preservation process), then store them in the fridge.
Roasted strawberries make an excellent topping for scones or shortcakes, and they can be pureed to add to buttercream or even used in milkshakes and smoothies.
Making strawberry jam
My favourite way to preserve strawberries is to make jam with them. Jam-making can be a long and tedious process. The good news, however, is that, even if you are too busy to do this during the season, you can make jam with frozen and thawed strawberries.
Strawberries are low in pectin, which means they need some help to set into a jam. Most international recipes call for adding pectin. However, because this is not readily available in Pakistan, lemon juice can be added to mimic the results, as citrus fruits have high levels of pectin.
I like to start the process the night before by taking 650g of frozen or fresh strawberries in a large bowl, adding 400g of caster sugar and the juice of one small lemon (you can multiply or dial back the quantities while keeping the same ratio, based on the number of strawberries you have on hand).
Leave the strawberries to macerate in the fridge overnight. The next morning you will want to start early. First, take the macerated strawberries and put them into a large sieve over a bowl (or 2-3 sieves if you have more fruit) and leave for 30 minutes, so that all the juice collects in the bowl underneath.
Next, prepare your jam jars. Use glass jars with metal lids for best results. Wash the jars and lids thoroughly with warm, soapy water, and then line them up on baking trays. Put the jars and lids in the oven at 120 degrees C for 20 minutes to make sure they are well-sterilised. Once the jars are sterilised, make sure you do not touch them on the inside.
Put the juice from the macerated strawberries into a large stainless-steel cooking pot and cook it on a medium flame. You will notice some white foam accumulating on top of the juice — keep a bowl of water on the side and keep skimming off the foam with a large spoon and dip it into the water to clean it. Cook the juice to 125 degrees C on a sugar thermometer and then add the macerated fruit. You may notice some more foam rising to the top; again, skim it off with a spoon.
Cook the jam to 103 degrees C on a sugar thermometer. Another way of checking to ensure it is done is to drop a spoonful on a cold plate. If it jellifies and stays in place, your jam is ready. Use a ladle to transfer the hot jam to the bottles, seal them tightly and then invert them over a baking tray for 30 minutes.
Store the jam in the fridge and enjoy it on top of toast every day!
The writer is a professional chef and holds a diploma in pastry from Le Cordon Bleu.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, February 21st, 2021