There is nothing better than sinking your teeth into a ripe, fresh off-the-vine heirloom tomato, or popping a few ripe Door County cherries into your mouth. Not only are local, organically grown fruits and vegetables super tasty, they are also some of the most nutritious foods you can put into your body! How would you like to enjoy these delicious, healthful foods year round?
Whether you purchase your organic produce from a neighboring farm, local farmer’s market, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), Willy Street Co-op, or grow it yourself—right now is the perfect time to stock up on the season’s bounty and preserve some of that summertime goodness for the cold winter months ahead! I mean, why purchase corn that has been shipped across the country mid-winter, when instead, you could grab a freezer bag of organic kernels that you froze yourself? Not only does putting up your own produce reduce the miles travelled by your food, it will reduce your own travel time by saving trips to the grocery store. Additionally, preserving produce at home helps stretch your food dollars, supports local agriculture and nurtures a healthful relationship with the food you consume and serve to your family. In the paragraphs to follow, you’ll find descriptions of a few easier-than-you-think methods of doing just that. One or more may be right for you.
Food Preservation 101
Before we get into specific methods of food preservation, it may be helpful to understand the factors that play a role in food spoilage. The high percentage of water in fresh fruits and vegetables makes them very perishable. Water is an ideal environment for the growth of undesirable microorganisms—bacteria, molds and yeasts. This, together with the activity of food enzymes and oxygen naturally found in fresh produce, begins to break down the food over time if it is not preserved. Another form of spoilage is due to moisture loss. Food preservation methods are aimed at mitigating these factors to “preserve” the color, nutrients and taste of the fresh produce.
A Few General Food Preservation Tips
- Round up your ingredients and equipment ahead of time. Whether it’s the pickling salt or a ring for your canning jar, you won’t want to have to hunt it up mid-process. Make a list and check it twice before beginning.
- Label all of your preserved foods with the product name, date and if appropriate, recipe used. (You’ll want to be able to duplicate your favorites!)
- Keep an inventory of items in storage, particularly your freezer, where it is hard to tell at a glance what is what!
- Rotate your stored food so the oldest product gets used first.
Local Produce Possibilities
What types of fruits and vegetables can be preserved and what is the “best” method? A few varieties that work well, and that can usually be found this time of year are as follows: apples, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, grapes, green beans, greens (such as Swiss chard, kale, bok choy, Chinese cabbage and various types of lettuce), kohlrabi, melons, onions, pears, peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, raspberries, snap peas, snow peas, spinach, string beans, summer squash, tomatoes, tomatillos, turnips, and herbs like basil, thyme, marjoram, tarragon and oregano.
Methods of Food Preservation
There are numerous ways to preserve fruits and vegetables. The right method depends on what is being preserved, time and space you have to devote to the process and personal preference. Here is an overview of common methods:
It is an idyllic vision of plenty: rows and rows of pantry shelves lined with jars full of colorful goodness. If you’re industrious and have space in your pantry, you may be able to can enough fruits, vegetables, sauces and condiments to nourish your family throughout the winter months. If your living quarters are more compact, you may simply want to try your hand at canning a signature salsa or a handful of preserves to give as gifts.
Begin with good-quality, fresh produce suitable for canning. Quality varies among varieties of fruits and vegetables. Examine food carefully for freshness and wholesomeness. Discard diseased and moldy food. Trim small lesions or spots from food.
Whenever possible, produce should be picked and canned at the peak of quality and ripeness. Vegetables generally should be canned within 6 to 12 hours after harvest for best results. Some fruits—such as apricots, nectarines, peaches, pears, and plums—taste best if they are allowed to ripen one or more days between harvest and canning.
Proper canning practices include:
- Carefully selecting and washing fresh food
- Peeling some types of fruits and vegetables in preparation
- Adding acids, such as lemon juice or vinegar (with 5-6% acidity), to some foods
- Hot packing (precooking food and placing in jars while hot)
- Cold packing (uncooked food is packed in jars, then covered with hot liquid to be processed)
- For recipes requiring salt, use canning salt rather than table salt. Additives in table salt can cause caking and clouding
- Using acceptable jars and self-sealing lids
- Processing jars in a boiling water or pressure canner for the correct period of time
- Store finished product in cool, dark place to preserve color and nutrients
Collectively these practices remove oxygen, destroy enzymes, prevent growth of undesirable bacteria, molds and yeasts, and help form a high-vacuum seal in jars. A good vacuum seal is essential to keep liquid in and oxygen and microorganisms out!
Many canning supplies, as well as “how-to” books, are available at Willy Street Co-op stores. Canning takes a little time and know-how, but it is a skill well worth cultivating.
Preserving food using salt and fermentation is an ancient technique that yields a product that is crisp—yet tender, salty and acidic. German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi (my personal favorite!) are both examples of fermented cabbage. Yet because of the different herbs and spices used in each respective recipe, they taste completely different. These are just two classic examples of fermented vegetables. Many other vegetables or vegetable combinations can be cultured into tasty ferments. Some that work particularly well are daikon radish, turnips, rutabagas, Jerusalem artichokes, green tomatoes, snap beans, cucumbers—just to name a few. Even some fruits can be fermented. (Certain fruits work better for fermentation than others. Blackberries have a lot of seeds that are noticeable in the finished product. Raspberries and strawberries tend to lose color. Cherries need to have their pits removed to make them easier to eat once fermented.) It is always a good idea to peel and slice produce before fermenting them and use ripe produce that is not damaged or bruised.
To begin fermenting, all you need is your choice of veggies, pickling salt, a heavy crock that has a tightly fitted lid, or an air tight glass container and some patience (5-6 weeks to ferment sauerkraut, 2-5 days to ferment kimchi). It is fun to watch for gas bubbles that indicate the process is working! Make sure to seal it back up tight after checking. Fermentation is an anaerobic process, so you don’t want too much air getting in. You can vary the time fermented to taste. The longer it is allowed to ferment, the more tart and sour the taste. Once the product is ready, you can pack it into clean hot jars and process in a boiling water bath for long term storage. If you are going to consume the product right away, you can simply place it in an air tight jar and store in the refrigerator for up to several weeks.
Did you know that fermented foods are super good for you? Yes, they are packed with vitamins and minerals, but it is also because during the fermentation process, good strains of bacteria—called probiotics—multiply by the billions. When consumed, these microscopic probiotics repopulate your digestive tract to aid in digestion, repair and protect junctions of the cell walls (to prevent things like food sensitivities and “leaky-gut syndrome”), and even help kill harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. coli, enhancing your body’s immune function. Not a bad side-effect!
A wide selection of recipe books and how-to guides on food fermenting are out on the market. One of my favorites available at Willy Street Co-op is Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, by Sandor Ellix Katz and Sally Fallon. This book specializes in recipes that ferment using naturally occurring bacteria found on the foods—no need for starter cultures or kits.
Freezing is often the easiest method of preserving produce. It is an especially good choice for asparagus, blueberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, corn, eggplant (in a casserole), green beans, lima beans, peas, peppers, pumpkin (puree), raspberries, rhubarb, snap beans, spinach, strawberries, summer squash and wax beans.
- Choose fully ripe fruit and vegetables that are slightly immature
- Blanch vegetables before freezing by steaming or immersing in boiling water for a few seconds. This sets the color, retains vitamins and stops ripening.
- Let cooked items (like sauce) cool completely before placing in the freezer. When you first place in freezer, leave room around the container so air can circulate. Once completely frozen, stack with the rest of the items.
- To “flash-freeze” berries or cut fruit, place individual pieces on a cookie sheet and place in freezer. Once pieces are frozen solid, transfer to freezer storage containers or locking freezer bags. This method keeps the shape of the fruit nicely and allows partial quantities to be taken out at a time.
- Prevent freezer burn and dehydration by removing any excess air out of containers and freezer bags. (If freezing sauces or purées, leave enough room at the top to allow for expansion of liquids! You don’t want any explosions in your freezer.)
- To freeze pitted fruit, rinse and gently dry. Cut unpeeled fruit in half, remove pit and slice into wedges. Place in freezer containers or bags.
- Freeze fresh corn kernels simply by placing in a container or re-sealable freezer bag.
- Freeze tomatoes as puree, sauce or juice (rather than tomato pieces)
- To defrost fruit, run under cool water.
- Store frozen foods at 0ºF or lower.
- Keep your freezer full for maximum energy efficiency (fill empty spaces with ice, if necessary).
Bin Storage or Root Cellaring
What could be simpler than placing fresh produce—no preparation necessary—in cool, covered conditions for the long haul? An old-fashioned root cellar is great, but all you really need is a cool, dark space that won’t freeze. A barn, a box built of hay bales, an unfinished basement or cellar, or a trashcan sunk partway into the ground will work. You can even just dig a hole, line it with straw, and place vegetables in the hole, in layers, with straw on the bottom, top, and between the layers. (Of course, you might need a secure lid to keep animals from helping themselves.)
The best candidates for “keeping over” produce in its natural state are: apples, cabbage, green tomatoes, pears, potatoes, pumpkins, rootcrops (like beets, carrots, parsnip, turnips, and rutabaga), sweet peppers, sweet potatoes, and winter squash.
- Store only crops that are disease-and-damage-free.
- Wipe, but don’t wash the produce before storing.
- Place a thermometer in your storage area, to keep close tabs on the temperature.
- Allow potatoes to cure for a week or two at 60- to 75-degree temperatures before placing in storage.
- While most produce prefers temperatures just above freezing, winter squash likes the temps hovering around 50 degrees.
- Keep most produce dry, but root crops do well when stored in wet sawdust.
- Separate different crops to keep flavors from melding.
- Use straw on the bottom and between layers of produce to keep dry and separate.
- Wrap tomatoes (green keep best) separately, in newspaper.
No added ingredients necessary! Air circulation and heat—from the sun, warm oven, or food dehydrator—are all you need to dehydrate many fruits and veggies for storage. Storage is uncomplicated too. Just wrap up thoroughly dry product in an air-tight container or bag, and store in a cool, dark and dry place—like a kitchen cabinet or pantry.
- You can make simple drying racks out of untreated wood and screen. The racks, which can be stacked, are designed to keep the food off the ground and allow air to circulate underneath.
- Placing cheesecloth on the screen under the produce will help absorb the moisture.
- When drying produce in the sun, also cover with cheesecloth to protect from insects and birds.
- You can purchase a dehydrator, which evaporates the moisture. These are made up of stackable trays that sit over a heating element. Stovetop dryers are also available. (While our ancestors would dry produce in the warming oven of a wood stove, using your oven isn’t an energy savvy method of dehydration, no matter how low the setting.)
- Don’t dry food in the microwave; the food will usually burn before it dries.
- To make fruit leather, dry thin sheets of fruit purée.
- Another simple dehydration method is to string and hang herbs, onions, and garlic.
- To dry veggies, blanch them first, then dry in the sun or a dehydrator.
- Store dried produce in an airtight container in a dark place.
No matter which method of food preservation you choose to use, stocking away a bit of this year’s bumper crops for later use is a decision you will not regret! This winter, you can enjoy a little taste of sunshine just when you need it most!
To learn more about food preservation:
- Contact your local county extension service.
- Check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation at http://nchfp.uga.edu/. This excellent online resource covers just about anything you would wish to know about food preservation!
- Buy or borrow a good food preservation book from your local library or bookstore (Willy Street Co-op has several to choose from. Some recommended titles are Putting Food By, by Janet Greene, and Keeping the Harvest, by Nancy Chioffi and Gretchen Mead.
- Ask a friend, neighbor, grandmother or other local expert... (Frequently, classes and workshops relating to food preservation are offered through Willy Street Co-op. Call the stores to see what is scheduled this month).
Best of luck to you and enjoy!