September, for most parts of the country, is summer’s last big splash. Summer produce has reached an immense bounty and many gardeners have given away more than a few tomatoes or baskets of beans. Despite the plenty now, midwinter will soon have us wishing for summer flavors, and three time-tested preservation techniques can prevent a bland winter.
Drying, freezing, and canning are all common preservation methods. Each has its advantages and drawbacks for different types of food, but common theories apply to all. The old aphorism “garbage in; garbage out” is important to remember; use the best fruits and vegetables. Preservation doesn’t improve produce; it only holds it, in terms of quality and flavor. The preparation area and equipment should be scrupulously clean, well lit and well-maintained. Knives should be sharp and cutting boards should be dedicated to only the foods being prepared to prevent cross contamination. Preservation can cause changes in flavor and texture, so understanding the methods can save future frustrations.
The easiest and oldest method of preservation is drying. While drying is not appropriate for all crops, it is useful for many. Removal of moisture from produce typically concentrates the flavor. For this reason, dried herbs are needed in less quantity than fresh. Many herbs are great candidates for drying – most cooks have shelves lined with glass bottles and jars from stores. However, home drying allows the cook to create custom blends. Try drying peppermint and stevia, then powdering them together for a flavorful and low-calorie sweetener for tea.
Herbs can be dried out of direct light at room temperature in most climates. A sweater drying rack covered in net can be used successfully for herb drying. Garlic and chilies are typically dried and hung in braids that are both functional and ornamental. These are called ristras, and the New Mexico State University Ag Extension service has a very good brochure on making ristras. Sun drying tomatoes is another gourmet food preservation method with delicious results. Methods abound for drying tomatoes, but the cleverest use of hot air I have seen is dashboard drying tomatoes on cookie sheets. No one I asked about it was too keen on my offer of Toyota-dried tomatoes, but the only drawback seems to be that one food writer commented that it made her car smell like a pizza. Besides laundry equipment and automobiles, specialized products exist to make drying easier and more efficient. An oven at low heat dries many foods well, and a dehydrator is dedicated to the purpose.
Another simple preservation method is freezing. Frozen fruits and vegetables typically maintain their nutrient profiles, at least initially, because freezing does not involve high-heat processing. However, prolonged storage and oxidation can damage nutrients, so frozen produce should be labeled, dated, and used as promptly as possible. Despite its simplicity, freezing does have a couple of drawbacks in that it requires freezer space – which is finite in most homes, and some whole produce suffers because of freezing.
For most vegetables, freezing is best undertaken after blanching: a simple quick boil followed by a plunge in icy water to stop the cooking process. Individually quick freeze berries or vegetables by washing and drying them, blanching if necessary, and then arranging them, without contact, on a cookie sheet. Pop the sheet in the freezer, and once they are frozen, move them to the storage container. This makes it easier to retrieve a few strawberries for a smoothie, as opposed to frozen chunks of fruit that are indigestible to most blenders. Produce can also be pre-prepared and then frozen. I have frozen roasted green chilies for use in stews and sauces, to good effect, and freezer jam does not require the effort of canning. Frozen tomato sauce from garden-fresh tomatoes is a wonderful pick-me-up in the winter and can serve as the base for a tomato soup.
Canning is worthwhile for some produce that can’t be kept other ways. Sweet little cucumbers would wither away upon dehydration and would be unpalatable after freezing. Therefore, pickles are the most logical solution. Cucumbers are hardly the only vegetables to pickle – green beans, carrots and peppers and watermelon rinds are all candidates. Pickling and brining are often used in the canning process to add acid, reducing the risk of contamination.
Botulism is a terrifying prospect for any home canner, but certain precautions will minimize the risk of food poisoning. Understanding the importance of acidity in canning is important, as is using the correct equipment. Canners can either be hot water bath canners or pressure canners which allow the bath and jars to reach temperatures beyond boiling. The less acidic the food is, the more likely that a pressure canner will be needed. Home pressure canners can only reach certain temperatures, so it’s best to leave certain risky produce like pumpkins to those with industrial caliber equipment. The work associated with canning can be divided at a canning party, and each person can focus on a specific task, from prepping the produce to sterilizing jars. Due to safety issues, it’s necessary to follow reputable, procedures like these from Clemson University.
Amy Ambrosius is a writer and budding gardener living deep in the heart of Texas with her family. She owes her interest in writing, food, and gardening to family; having learned to cook and appreciate poetry under the tutelage of her great-grandmother.