Preserving garden and orchard bounty is an easy way to save money while packing away some very good food for wintertime eating. Through the years I have canned thousands of jars, dried just about everything under the sun and filled my freezer many times over with our own homegrown produce. Why? For the simple reason that home-preserved foods from garden-fresh fruits and veggies are healthy, taste wonderful, and you know the exact
conditions in which that produce was grown.
Pick your preference
Canning, freezing and dehydrating are three tasty ways to preserve the garden’s bounty from season to season. The method you choose depends on the type of food you’ve grown, your eating preferences, and the type of equipment that you buy, borrow or already have on hand.
Some foods are fantastic when canned, especially pickled foods (pepper relish, dill pickles and sauerkraut, for example), prepared foods (such as fruit sauces, homemade pasta sauces and soups), certain vegetables (particularly tomatoes, green beans and corn), and fruits (especially peaches, apricots, apples and Asian pears).
Freezing is great for retaining the color, texture and nutrients of many fruits and vegetables. The amount of prep time involved depends on the produce – certain vegetables need to be blanched before freezing in order to preserve the texture. You might need a bigger freezer to accommodate the results of your freezing endeavors.
Dehydrating is an economical way to preserve certain foods since it requires very little equipment. And the significant reduction in size from fresh to dehydrated makes dried foods easier to store.
Proper canning techniques – which include sustained high heat – destroy enzymes, stop the growth and activity of microorganisms that cause foods to spoil and contribute to food poisoning, and create a vacuum seal to prevent further spoilage.
Trust me, canning is not difficult. But following the rules and paying attention to detail are critical to ensure safe food and high-quality results. Before you start, I highly recommend that you get your hands on an updated canning book such as the Ball Blue Book, or contact your local county extension agent so you have all the step-by-step canning information needed.
Foods can be canned in either a pressure canner or a boiling-water canner. Acidic foods with a pH of 4.6 or lower can be safely processed in a boiling-water canner (212 degrees Fahrenheit). These include fruits, jams, jellies, relishes, most tomatoes, and anything pickled in a vinegar solution, such as pickled vegetables. To increase the acidity of low-acid tomatoes, add 2 tablespoons bottled lemon juice or 1⁄2 teaspoon citric acid per quart of processed tomatoes.
Low-acid foods are processed at a higher temperature (240 degrees) using a steam pressure canner with either a weighted or dial gauge. These include all seafood, meats, milk and fresh vegetables, with the exception of tomatoes. This is where canning can become a bit more complex. If you’re new to canning, it’s best to start with something simple like blackberry preserves or dill pickles.
Other canning essentials include glass canning jars designed to withstand heat shock. Use jars with narrow openings for semi-solid foods like jams and sauces. Wide-mouth jars are easier to pack and retrieve pickles, peaches and other solid foods. Each jar will need a two-piece lid consisting of a new metal vacuum lid and a metal screw ring (band). Rings may be reused, but lids must always be new. You’ll also need a funnel for filling jars, a heat-resistant spatula for removing air bubbles, a rubber-coated lifter for removing the hot processed jars from the canner, and a cooking timer.
Freezing preserves fruits and vegetables, and their fabulous freshness, flavor, texture and nutrients, by slowing down enzyme activity and growth of microorganisms via extreme cold set at zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
Fruits and herbs are ideal to freeze as are many vegetables. Young, tender vegetables are best for freezing. (Vegetables that are mature or slightly past mature are better suited to canning.) Fruits can be frozen using the “flash-freeze” method, or by packing them in syrup (wet pack). To flash-freeze, place washed and drained fruit in a single layer on trays lined with wax paper and freeze until fruit is firm. (Chop or slice large fruit such as apples; leave berries and other small fruits whole.) Flash-frozen fruit stored in airtight freezer containers or snap-and-seal type freezer bags makes it easy to pour out the exact amount needed for blueberry muffins or apple pie.
When cutting certain fruits, such as peaches, apples and pears, you’ll need to coat them with lemon juice, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) or honey prior to freezing to keep them from turning brown. Either mix it with the prepared fruit and syrup for the wet pack method, or mix with water and dip fruit prior to flash-freezing.
Many vegetables and herbs (including whole corn kernels) can be frozen for up to four weeks by “flash-freezing” or popping them directly into a freezer-safe container or bag. However, if you plan to store food for longer than four weeks in the freezer, most veggies will need to be blanched first.
Blanching involves heating food for several minutes in boiling water to inactivate enzymes and prevent the breakdown in the texture, flavor and color of vegetables.
Green onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, most herbs and sweet peppers cut into strips or chunks are the exception to the blanching rule and will freeze well without it. The key to blanching is to process veggies in small batches, then immediately cool the blanched batch in ice water to stop the cooking process.
Drying is easy
You can dry foods in several ways: Sun drying, oven drying and using a food dehydrator. Regardless of the drying method, the process is basically the same – warm air temperatures evaporate the moisture in foods. Remove the moisture and you remove the potential for spoilage. The key is to keep the surrounding temperature between 95 and 140 degrees. Foods dried at lower temperatures are subject to spoilage; higher temperatures will cook foods rather than dry them. Adequate air circulation and less than 60 percent relative humidity are also essential to successful drying.
Sun drying can take up to five days, plus food can lose up to half its nutrients, and temperatures are often inconsistent. The downside to oven drying is that the oven is in use so you can’t cook meals. Fruit dried in the oven may also be less flavorful.
The food dehydrator is the best of the bunch and well worth the investment. Garden produce from zucchini, corn, sweet peppers and tomatoes, to grapes, cherries and strawberries can be dried 24/7 without your constant supervision. (High-moisture foods like cucumbers and melons do not dry well and are best suited to freezing.)
Drying time varies from several hours to a day or two, with food dehydrators with a fan or blower drying the fastest. The smaller and more uniform the food, the faster it dries.
Whether canned, frozen or dried, always use quality produce, wash fresh fruits and vegetables, and be sure to process them within hours of harvesting. Have all your food and supplies prepared and ready before you begin. And make sure you label each jar, container or bag with both name and date. In the end, you may discover that you enjoy preserving your harvest as much as you delight in growing it.
A food writer and recipe developer, Kris Wetherbee has canned, frozen and dehydrated more food than she can remember, and loved every bite of the preserved garden bounty.