Food Preservation – Preserving Your Harvest
It’s that time of year in Vermont… apple season. We live near several family owned orchards that have a plethora of apple options – pre-picked, pick your own, utility apples, fresh pressed cider, and mouth-watering apple cider donuts. It’s also the season for some wonderful wild mushrooms such as Black Trumpets – a relative of chanterelles. Of course, it’s time for my herb garden to end the season – if I actually plant an herb garden. Obviously I can’t keep all of this bounty in its current form for the winter, so now I’m in the process of preserving what I’ve grown, gathered, picked, and purchased. Here’s an overview of my favorite food preservation options:
Food Preservation – Canning
I love canning; but I truly believe it’s the messiest food preservation option out there. It also requires the most specialized equipment. You’ll need a pressure canner or water bath canner and jars and lids. Canning also requires the most preparation; but this includes preparing jams, jellies, applesauce, fruit butters, tomatoes, etc.
There are two types of canning – water bath and pressure canning. High acidity foods like fruits and tomatoes can be canned using the water bath method. The Ball Kerr website has a great step-by-step guide to water bath canning. Water bath canning can be done using a special water bath canner, a pressure canner or a large stockpot with a lid.
Pressure canning is necessary for low acid foods to ensure there won’t be spoilage. Pressure canners are not cheap and I recommend that you buy the best one you can afford. Remember, a pressure canner can become a bomb if used improperly. Don’t let this scare you; using a pressure canner correctly can store your entire harvest. Again, the Ball Kerr website has a wonderful step-by-step guide to pressure canning.
Be sure that the jars seal. You can hear them seal when they pop as they cool and the lids will be slightly concaved. Never eat any foods from a jar with an unsealed lid or a broken seal. Never reuse a lid; they are made for single use only. Jars and rings can be reused again and again.
Canned foods take up more storage space than dehydrated and frozen foods.
Food Preservation – Dehydrating
Dehydrating is probably the easiest food preservation method with the least amount of preparation and special equipment. Dehydrating is simply removing the majority of the moisture from the food.
Before you actually start the process you need to prepare the items. Most often you need only to cut or slice the produce; think commercial apple chips or sun-dried tomatoes. There is no hard, fast rule for this. Simply reduce the size of the item and expose the “wetter” interior of the item. Smaller, thinner pieces are going to dehydrate faster, but may not be what you want your final product to be. Most fruits benefit from a short soak in water with a bit of lemon juice. This keeps the fruits from browning. Note – this doesn’t change the fruits, but keeps them from browning too much.
Fruit leathers and jerky take more preparation. Fruits must be pureed for fruit leathers and spread thinly on a baking sheet or fruit leather tray for your dehydrator. For jerky, the meat must be sliced thinly with the grain then marinated. There are lots of recipes, suggestions and even premade marinades available. Select very lean meat, as the fat increases the possibility of spoilage.
The actual dehydrating can be done in your oven, in a counter top – or larger – dehydrator or out in the sun. A dehydrater can be counter top or larger. There are so many options than run from <$50 to several hundred. I have this Nesco model and love it. What I like about my dehydrator is that it doesn’t tie up my oven and my baking sheets. To use your oven, simply spread your prepared produce in a single layer on a baking sheet and put into your oven heated to 150F-200F.
If you want to dehydrate in the sun, all you actually need is something on which to spread your prepared produce. Of course, this leaves it exposed not only to the sun, but also to the wildlife. A quick, inexpensive trip to the hardware store or a browse about the garage, and you can make a dehydrating frame. Make a square frame with wood- 2x4s work well because they allow some space for the items. Tack wire hardware cloth or small gauge chicken wire to one side. You can spread you prepared items on a flat surface and cover with the screen or you can make two screens and stack them. Use clamps or something heavy to weigh down and make it harder for furry thieves. Using the sun will take longer than using a dehydrator or your oven, but it adds a little something extra that’s difficult to define.
Be sure to remove as much of the moisture as possible before storage. Once your items are dehydrated, they need to be stored in a sealed container – a vacuum sealer is great for this.
Food Preservation – Freezing
Freezing produce retains more of the items “integrity” than other options. Freezing requires very little preparation of the items, usually just washing then cutting or chopping the item. The only equipment you need is a freezer (duh) and freezer-safe containers. Reusable containers are great, but require more space in your freezer and initial investment. Zipper bags are also good options. The biggest issue with these options is freezer burn, be careful that you remove as much air as possible from your containers. This is where a vacuum sealer is worth the investment. Seriously, why spend the effort of growing, harvesting and gathering or spending the money on produce if it’s going to be ruined with freezer burn?
Vacuum sealers are available at most big box home stores and department stores as well as my favorite vendor, Amazon. I have a FoodSaver GameSaver model. This gives me the option of using the film as well as special reusable containers. I’ve learned that wider, flatter bags store better and defrost faster. Unless your seal breaks or the film is punctured, you won’t lose any food to freezer burn.
Before you prepare stacks and stacks of containers for your freezer, be sure you have the freezer space. Refrigerator freezers have extremely limited space and should really only be used for short term storage since the door is opened so often giving fluctuations in the temperature. Chest or stand freezers are available everywhere – Lowes, Home Depot, Amazon, Walmart, Craigslist, etc. Get one that works with your space and lifestyle. Remember, bigger is not always better, especially with a chest style. Things tend to get lost at the bottom and you may find something you put in there 10 years ago. It’s good to keep an inventory of your frozen foods to keep things from getting “lost”.
Food Preservation – Root Cellar
When I was growing up, I was a little afraid of my grandparents’ root cellar. It was built into the side of a hill and had a damp, mustiness about it that was in comforting in a way. I wish I had one just like it. Traditionally, root cellars were below ground but that really isn’t necessary. Root cellars are basically below-ground rooms to store food with a consistent temperature around 35F-40F with high humidity of 90%-95%. Ventilation is also very important; good circulation inhibits mold growth. Potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, rutabagas and even apples can be stored for the winter in a root cellar. I found this great article to help you set up your root cellar. My husband and I keep trying to figure out where we can put one.
Don’t let all of the effort and expense you spent over the summer go to waste. Start small and within your budget, space and resources. Enjoying these foods throughout the year is why we do this, right?