As every foodie knows, there’s nothing like chutney to bring out layers of flavor that are both subtle and bold in everything from meat grilled over smoky wood to tofu-based vegetarian delights. Most grocery stores carry one or two different types of chutney, but making chutney that boasts a unique combination of flavors and textures puts a gold star in every home chef’s tall, white hat. It's important to know how to balance the sweet and sour to sing the perfect duet, the types of kitchen pans and utensils needed to compose a breathtaking chutney, and which herbs and spices offer the best high notes that will bring diners to their feet in applause.
Unlike jam, chutney isn’t just sweetness through and through. Jam is made to spread on muffins, toast, or other bakery items as a good morning or lunchtime treat. Chutney, on the other hand, is an intriguing condiment that walks a tightrope between tongue-purring sweet and cheek-popping sour. Rather than a spread, chutney advertises itself as a condiment, and its goal in life is not only to enhance the foods it’s served with but to make them leap into another dimension.
Making chutney begins with ingredients. Garlic, onion, vinegar, and lime or lemon cha-cha with dried or fresh mangoes, apricots, or citrus fruits in basic chutneys. Ginger and hot peppers give certain types of chutney a spicy kick, and others explore the universe of all possibility with everything from pomegranates and star anise to rhubarb, figs, and even shrimp. With virtually no fruit, vegetable, spice, or herb entirely off the table, the trick to making a great chutney has everything to do with how well one flavor complements another. One or two deep flavors should act as background music, and the other flavors should be subtly layered in note by note.
As most chutney recipes call for vinegar, lemon or lime juice, or other acidic ingredients, making chutney means using nonreactive bowls, pots, and utensils made of materials such as glass or wood. Aluminum must be avoided at all costs, as should brass, copper, and iron. Using these metals will affect the taste of the chutney as well as the color.
First-time chutney cooks will be happiest making chutney if they stick to herbs, spices, and other flavorings that have been used successfully in millions of kitchens over hundreds of years. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves lend the condiment a sweet personality, while ginger and cardamom ask it to dance. Mint can mellow a too-hot shot, and coriander offers its own kind of serenity. It’s fine to use prepared curry powder or paste early on, but with time, creative cooks will want to come at each chutney a little differently.