When the harvest is coming in heavy, it’s often hard to know exactly what to do with it all. After all, your family can only eat so many jars of jelly or pickles in a year. Fortunately, there are many ways of preserving food at home so that your family can have a variety of food from your garden all year long.
Preserving Food by Canning
Canning is a great way of preserving food at home. It’s a great option for someone who doesn’t have a lot of freezer space or someone who wants shelf stable food. Almost any food can be preserved by canning, however, there are some safe canning rules that should not be broken. There are two types of canning, water bath canning and pressure canning (the USDA has not recognized oven canning as a safe canning method since WWII.)
Water bath canning is safe for foods that are acidic (have a ph of 4.6 or lower). Many times adding lemon juice or vinegar is called for to make the preserves more acidic; however, the ph is for the whole concoction. So if you’re making spaghetti sauce and add onion, garlic, basil, rosemary, thyme and Parmesan cheese you would need to add quite a bit of lemon juice or vinegar to lower the ph level enough to water bath can it. It would be more like pickled spaghetti sauce….yuck.
If you’re just beginning to preserve food at home, a good place to start is by canning jam and jelly because it’s hard to mess up and it tastes really good.
Pressure canning is safe for almost any food but it can turn things like fruits into mush. However, any food that has a ph of 4.7 or higher MUST be pressure canned. There are a lot of articles on the internet that suggest that you can just water bath can a low acid food by boiling it longer. That’s really unsafe and not worth the risk.
There also seems to be an unfounded fear of using a pressure canner among new food preserving enthusiasts. As long as you follow the directions that come with your canner, it will all be fine.
The FDA has a great list of the ph range of various foods that you can use as a guideline. You can also use ph strips to test the ph of an item for yourself. If you are following a tested recipe, such as one in the Ball Blue Book of Preserving you don’t need to test the ph.
To preserve food by canning you need jars and lids, and a large pot for water bath canning and a pressure canner for pressure canning. You don’t need an official water bath canning pot, you can use any large pot and just put a towel on the bottom to keep the jars from sitting on the bottom of the pot.
You also need a wide funnel, something to lift the hot jars out with and some common kitchen utensils. If you don’t have these items, you can often find these items in thrift shops, from older friends and relatives who no longer can foods, or you can purchase them in a set.
Preserving Food by Freezing
Freezing is another great way of preserving food at home, however, most people are limited to how much they can freeze because of their freezer space. Freezing retains more nutrients in the food than canning does and, of course, the process is easier.
However, you usually need to let things thaw out before eating them which takes a bit of time.
While the texture of canned food is very similar to cooked food (because it is cooked food), the texture of frozen food is often quite different. For instance, frozen green beans are notorious for having a squeaky (for lack of a better word) texture.
Most preserving books will tell you to blanch most vegetables before freezing them. Blanching just means to dip the vegetables into boiling water for 1-3 minutes and then to immediately put them into ice water to stop the cooking process.
Different vegetables require different times, you can find the suggested times in this guide by the University of Minnesota Extension. Blanching slows or stops an enzyme action that causes flavor, texture and color loss.
I’m going to suggest that you experiment with not blanching some of your vegetables and blanching some of those same vegetables to see if your family prefers them one way or the other. Blanching does not help retain nutrients nor does it help preserve the food, it’s used for aesthetic purposes.
To freeze food, you need a freezer and something to hold the food. I use a combination of jars, zipper bags, and vacuum bags. The vacuum bags are the most pricey option so I only use them for things I think will be in the freezer for longer than 8 or 9 months and for meat.
I use glass jars for things that don’t have a lot of moisture in them and I’m not worried about the food getting freezer burn. I use zipper bags the most but wash and reuse them over and over.
Preserving Food by Dehydrating
Dehydrating is one of the oldest ways of preserving food at home, it’s also one of the cheapest. The key to preserving food by dehydrating is to get all of the water out of the food, it needs to be completely dry. Of course, the texture will change and dehydrating isn’t a good option for all foods. Some foods, like bananas or apples, taste wonderful dehydrated but other food, like corn, needs to be reconstituted in water before it can be used.
Dehydrated food can be stored in glass jars or zipper bags and stored on the shelf – if you’re sure you removed all the moisture. If you live in a high humidity area, you might want to use food safe moisture absorbers or store your dehydrated foods in the freezer.
You can also use your oven as a dehydrator, just lay your produce out on a baking sheet and turn the oven on the lowest setting (150°F or lower). If you wanted to dehydrate your food the old fashioned way, you can use the sun by either building or buying a solar dehydrator or by laying the produce out on a sheet on the ground and then covering it with another sheet or screening to keep the birds away. I will often do this on our trampoline instead of the ground to increase airflow.
Preserving Food by Fermenting
In our modern times, fermented food is often thought of as spoiled, however, people have used fermentation to preserve food for thousands of years. In fact, the fermentation process is the only way of preserving food that actually increases the nutritional value of food.
Fermentation uses salt, naturally occurring yeast, and good bacteria to preserve the food. Common fermented foods are sauerkraut, kimchi, wine, beer, cheese, and yogurt. Some of these foods can be preserved with nothing more than salt, others need a particular yeast or bacteria added to it.
What you want to ferment will dictate what supplies or equipment you need. If you want to make lacto-fermented spicy beets you just need beets, pepper, salt, water, and a crock (or a mason jar with an airlock system). If you want to make wine, you’ll need quite a bit more. The good news is, you can buy complete kits and all you need to provide is the fruit and storage bottles.
By using a variety of these food preservation methods you can make sure you get the most out of your summer harvest and enjoy summer goodness all year long.
What ways of preserving food at home do you use most often?