With the growing season just beginning to hit its stride, now is the time to start planning to take advantage of summer’s bountiful fruits and vegetables. There are many different ways of preserving produce as it becomes available on the market, some of which require very little kitchen skills or special equipment. For budget-conscious families, spending a little money now, and investing a little time in “putting up” the harvest, will serve to ease the burden of grocery spending later on in the year.
Traditionally, fruit and vegetable preservation has consisted of five approaches: canning, freezing, drying, cold storage, and pickling. There was a time when these methods were integral parts of how families stayed fed during the long winter months. However in the last century, two world wars, modern refrigeration, television, the microwave oven (1955), the expanding roles of women in the workforce, easy access supermarkets, and fast food franchising, provided the perfect environment for the movement towards consumption of ready-to-go convenience foods. Rapidly, home food preservation went from the front burner to being completely removed from the kitchen and household. There was a brief resurgence during the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the approach of the United States’ bicentennial celebration that prompted an interest in pioneering life and getting back to the basics of living. This eventually and perhaps inevitably became overshadowed during the economically booming 1980s and ’90s.
It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. However, we can go one step further and say that necessity is also the fuel to spur survival. Since the financial crisis of 2007, many families have been put into dire survival situations, the greatest of which can be simply affording to put food on the table. The best way to ease this burden is to become proactive in preserving food while it is at its cheapest, and simultaneously, at its best.
The question is how do we go about it? Surprisingly, it is not as hard as it seems. Some methods are incredibly easy:
This is the no-brainer of all methods, as it is a simple matter of properly storing fruits and vegetables in an unheated northeastern part of the basement, attic, or outbuilding (garage or garden shed). Older homes often had a room designated in the basement for a “root cellar,” or made use of the outside access to the basement for storage. Produce may be stored on open shelving, stackable bins and even (new and clean!) garage cans, depending on the type. To use this method, the produce must be mature, unblemished (no bruises or cuts) and relatively free of insect damage. For root vegetables, it is better to leave the dirt on rather than washing. Simply shake loose dirt off. Some vegetables, like potatoes, onions and squash require “curing,” which means that they need warm temperatures for a few days before being moved to the basement. Others, such as pumpkins, squash, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and rutabagas prefer exposure to a frost before being harvested for storage. There are also some fruits and vegetables, such as apples and cabbage that give off ethylene gas, and should not be stored near potatoes. Temperature and humidity are very important to proper cold storage. Fortunately, the Cornell Cooperative Extension provides an excellent chart on which produce requires a cold and moist, cool and moist, cold and dry, and warm and dry conditions, and can be found at www.gardening.cornell.edu/factsheets/vegetables/storage.pdf.
Produce that stores well using this method include: apples, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, celery, onions, parsnips, pears, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, rutabagas, winter squash, sweet potatoes, and turnips.
Many fruits and vegetables are suitable for freezing, as demonstrated by your local grocers’ frozen sections. To preserve the flavor, color and sometimes texture, it is important to inhibit an enzyme action by briefly blanching produce in boiling water and then submerge in cold water. The Iowa State University Extension and Outreach program provides an excellent guide on blanching times and procedures for a wide range of fruits and vegetables at www.extension.iastate.edu. In addition to plastic freezer bags, sealed tight plastic or glass containers approved for freezing can also be used. Fruits and vegetables that have higher water contents, such as asparagus and raspberries, will change in texture.
Fruits and vegetables that freeze well include: asparagus, beans of all kinds, blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cherries, collards and other greens, corn, okra, onions, peas, peppers, raspberries, summer squash, and turnips.
There are several means of drying fruits and vegetables, with the most common being: sun drying, oven drying, and food dehydrators. Drying reduces the water content of produce, thereby reducing the growth of bacteria. Fruits (including tomatoes!) with high sugar and acid content are especially suited to all types of drying. Vegetables, on the other hand, have low acid and sugar, and can only be dried by oven or dehydrator. Dried vegetables will also have to be reconstituted before use. Before drying fruit, wash in cold water, and then treat with an ascorbic or citric acid dip to prevent discoloration. Vegetables will need to be steam or water blanched prior to drying.
Sun Method: Place the fruit on raised stainless steel, plastic or Teflon screens. Cover with cheesecloth to protect from insects and birds. Be sure to place in areas with full sun, and bring the trays in as the sun goes down. If there is no sun the next day, the fruit may have to be finished using the oven or dehydrator. Fruit dried in the sun will need to be sealed in plastic bags and placed in the freezer for 48 hours, or in the oven at 160˚F for 1/2 hour, to kill any insects. Then the fruit is ready for storage. In addition to fruit, herbs may be preserved in this fashion.
Oven drying: Set oven to lowest setting. Line trays with parchment paper and distribute the fruits or vegetables in a single layer. Place trays in the oven and then allow the produce to dehydrate. Most will take between 5 to 7 hours.
Electric food dehydrator: Follow the guidelines supplied with the dehydrator for use and drying times.
Mention food preservation, and this is the method that comes to mind. This process does require special equipment, including a pressure canner, water bath canner and rack, canning tongs, canning jars, lids and bands, and canning salt (different from table salt.) The water bath canner will be used for high acid fruits and pickles. The pressure canner will be used to can low-acid vegetables. While this process requires an initial investment, most everything can be recycled for years to come.
Canning requires special care during the process to ensure that bacterial contamination and spoilage is prevented. Fruit and vegetables must be in their prime, and cannot be overripe or damaged. Each will also have different processing temperatures and times. It is very important to follow these times and temperatures, particularly with low acid foods, as under-processing will allow Clostridium botulinum spores to grow, producing dangerous neurotoxins. For specific times and temperatures, visit the University of Minnesota’s Extension website (www.extension.umn.edu/food/food-safety/preserving/canning/canning-quick-reference-chart/). To gauge for different altitudes and time for processing, visit the Montana State University Extension website (www.msuextension.org/judithbasin/Home-canningPressuresandProcessingTimes.pdf).
There are countless instructions and videos online to learn how to home can. In addition to the valiant shared efforts of home canners, the Alltrista Corporation, producer of Ball and Kerr canning equipment, provides detailed instruction for both hot water bath and pressure canning on their website (www.freshpreserving.com). If you prefer a more hands-on instruction, many university extensions, and school district adult continuing education programs often offer classes and workshops on home canning.
Pickling involves the use of vinegar and salt in the form of a fresh-packed brine or fermentation process to preserve vegetables. For fresh-packing, a brine is prepared and poured into jars packed with fresh vegetables. Some recipes may call for soaking the vegetables overnight in the brine before packing, or being boiled in the brine before packing. There are two types of brine, sweet and sour, with the difference being in the amount of sugar and salt used. Fresh-packed pickling requires at least 24 hours refrigeration before serving, and will generally keep for up to one month in the refrigerator. Vegetables suitable for this process include: cucumbers, beets, cauliflower, green beans, pears, peaches, tomatoes and even watermelon.
Fermentation pickling involves placing vegetables, such as cucumbers, cabbage or green tomatoes in a large container that is filled with a vinegar/salt/spice brine and weighted down with a plate or lid to keep the vegetables submerged. This process can require from one to three weeks before being consumed.
The Benefits of Food Preservation
Obviously, the first benefit of home food preservation is to go easy on the budget by buying produce when it’s abundant and in season. However, equally as important is the knowledge of what actually is in your food. This is an opportunity to build a pantry, root cellar and/or freezer with wholesome, healthy foods that are free from artificial preservatives, flavors and additives. Not only will it liberate your budget and diet, but it can help to bring your family together in the preparations, as well as preserve your family should you face natural disasters, illnesses, or when you simply don’t want to have to go to the supermarket.