Traditionally paired with Indian food, versatile, sweet-and-sour chutneys are a lively complement to a variety of foods, from sandwiches to cheese plates to spicy curries.
Chutneys can feature a variety of combinations of ingredients.
Photo By Tim Nauman
Chutney is a condiment akin to relish, and it’s also similar to chow-chow and piccalilli. Depending on the source, you’ll find a variety of definitions for each of these zingy condiments, all of which have storied histories and traditional associations — curries in India, cold meats in England, hot dogs in North America. Chutneys make plain foods exotic, lend a kick of spice, and are a forgiving outlet for creative experimentation.
Chutneys (from the Sanskrit word chatni, meaning “to lick”) are intended to complement other foods. They are easy to make and chunkier than sauces — a great way to add interest and variety to meals.
Probably the most famous chutney, Major Grey’s, is not a brand name but a type of mango chutney, according to Mimi Sheraton in The New York Times. “Considered a mild chutney, as compared to spicier blends such as Colonel Skinner and Hot Bengal Club, Major Grey’s is the most popular in the United States,” the Times reported in a 1982 article.
Sheraton repeated British condiment company Crosse & Blackwell’s story that Major Grey was an officer in the Bengal Lancers, and, while in India, “he or his Bengali cook created this chutney by combining mangoes, raisins, chiles, garlic, vinegar, sugar and spices.”
The original formula “is very sweet, soft and jamlike; it is made in this country with ingredients such as corn syrup, caramel coloring and dehydrated onion, which one doubts could have been part of the original recipe.”
Sheraton also reported that “Major Grey’s Chutney was unknown in India, where storebought chutneys were regarded with scorn,” and she relayed a charming limerick by John P. Mackay:
All things chickeney and mutt’ney
Taste better far when served with chutney.
This is the mystery eternal:
Why didn’t Major Grey make colonel?
Chutneys usually mix fruits (or fruit juices) and vegetables. They are pickled with vinegar, spices, herbs and sugar, and are cooked for a long time. Today’s versions are often sweeter than the originals, but the tart-hot flavors haven’t changed. Usually chunky, chutneys can sometimes be more finely ground than pickle relishes.
Plop one spoonful of mango chutney on your plate, and you’ve added a sweet, hot, tangy, tart and sour explosion of flavor. Apples and tomatoes, onions and mangoes, raisins and green peppers — homemade chutney combinations are endless.
Chutney-making is so simple, practical and versatile that Janet Chadwick, in her book The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food, says she makes three condiments from one experimental cooking session. “I found that I could make an Indian relish, can half of it, and save half. To the half I saved, I added peach preserves to make a great-tasting sweet-and-sour sauce. I canned half of that. To the half remaining, I added nuts and raisins and ended up with a marvelous chutney (so good I like to eat it right out of the jar!).”
“These are pickles to be eaten in the same mouthful as other foods,” says Linda Ziedrich, author of The Joy of Pickling. The following is a short list of foods that chutney complements:
• Cheeses, hard and soft, with or without crackers
• Toasted breads
• Grilled and roasted meats, especially pork and poultry
• Indian curries
• Rice dishes
• Hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages
• Chicken or tuna salad
• Sandwiches of all kinds
• Ice cream
Chutney also makes an excellent glaze for roasting meat. When grilling, use chutney for basting. Sweet chutneys tame spicy foods, while spicy chutneys boost bland foods.
Most of the time, food preservationists should use perfectly ripe, unblemished ingredients, but chutneys are less demanding because of their long cooking. This is the place to hide your less-than-perfect produce: green tomatoes, bruised peaches and woody beets.
While blemished produce can be OK in preserving, stale spices and herbs are not. Most spices should be used within one year.
Chutney is ideal for canning. It’s a good place to start if you want to learn to can. Because of its high acidity, chutney can be put up via the easy canning method known as the boiling water bath. To learn more about canning and find plenty of recipes, go to Home Canning Guide: Learn How to Can Your Own Food.
Substitute various sweeteners for white sugar in recipes, if you like, but keep in mind that many of them will darken the final result and add new flavors. Many, such as honey, are also sweeter than table sugar.
While sugar and spice are somewhat adjustable, don’t alter the amount or type of vinegar in a canned pickle recipe. The vinegar is important to the perfectly pickled result. If your homemade chutney is too tart, add sweetener instead of reducing vinegar.
You can use various vinegars in refrigerator pickle recipes, but the best vinegars for pickling have 5 percent acetic acid. Don’t use homemade vinegars in pickling; their acidity is inconsistent. Different vinegars add their own flavors and cider vinegar can darken pickles.
Though chutney recipes are infinitely variable, do not alter recipes intended for canning. Recipes for canning have been tested to ensure safe food storage without refrigeration.
Marisa McClellan, who writes the blog Food in Jars, recommends opening chutney an hour before serving it. “Just like wine, chutney needs a bit of time to breathe,” she says. “Otherwise, all you’ll taste is the vinegar.”
Once you’ve seen how easy chutneys are to make, you’ll want to make more.
Try these three homemade chutney recipes:
Nectarines, like peaches, make excellent chutneys. Here’s a nectarine chutney from our sister publication, Mother Earth Living: Nectarine Chutney: A Reader Favorite.
Chutneys can be mixtures of herbs as well. This Coriander Chutney is also from Mother Earth Living: Coriander Chutney.
Read more: If you’re new to making chutney, try this Beginner’s Pepper-Peach Chutney Recipe. Also, for more peach recipes read Peachy Keen Peach Recipes: Putting Summer’s Sweetest Fruit to Use.
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