Preserving This Summer’s Bounty

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When it comes to summer produce, nothing tastes better than fresh, hands down. It is also the best for you nutritionally, because fresh always has the highest concentration of nutrients and antioxidants.

Although the harvest season is short, people have been preserving its bounty for years. The most popular methods are canning and freezing, but there are other options. There is no right one; the choice depends on personal preference, length of planned storage, and the particular type of produce being preserved. As with most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to each method.

Canning is the process of sealing food tight in various containers, usually canning jars. It alters the food chemically by changing the PH balance and moisture levels to protect against microbes, bacteria, mold, and yeast. Combining these processes with the physical barriers of glass jars, seals, and lids prevents decay. Canned foods, whether store-bought or home-processed, can be stored for years. Food will not spoil as long as the seals are not broken, although flavor and appearance may be compromised.

The downside of canning is that foods lose 65% of their nutritional value as compared to fresh. Of course, being able to enjoy the foods in the winter and getting 45% of the nutrients is better than not having them at all. However. improper processing and poor sanitation can result in deadly botulism. For this reason, a pressure canner is always recommended, as well as using sterilized jars, lids, and utensils.

Freezing perishables is a relatively quick process and only requires freezer containers and time. The texture of processed foods is a big reason why people prefer freezing over canning, or vice versa. Personally, I like green beans better canned while I like peas better frozen. Freezing also allows you to spread out the processing of fresh produce. Garden veggies usually all ripen at the same time, regardless of when planted. I am always hard-pressed for enough time to preserve corn, tomatoes, green beans, beets, and a host of other veggies simultaneously. Tomatoes and peppers especially lend themselves well to being washed, chopped, and frozen until later in the season, or even winter. It is much nicer to make salsa, chili sauce, and spaghetti sauce at a leisurely pace.

Blanching vegetables, which is simply the process of plunging them into boiling water and then into cold water, stops the enzyme activity and helps maintain the nutritional value by preserving some vitamins better than canning. Although vitamins B and C are lost in frozen foods and antioxidants are lower in frozen than fresh, vitamins A and E, carotenoids, fiber, minerals, and protein retain their values in frozen foods.

Other down sides to freezing are that most fruits and vegetables lose their crispness and, if left too long in the freezer, foods are subject to freezer burn, which affects flavor and texture. Of course if you live in rural areas then power outages are always a possibility, which could result in a whole freezer full of spoiled food.

There you have the upsides and downsides of canning and freezing, the two biggies when it comes to food preservation. Some of the lessor popular methods may merit a try, too.

Drying food is merely removing the water content, thereby inhibiting bacterial growth in foods. This method has been around since ancient times because, essentially, all that is needed is air. Modern dehydration does add convenience.

Dried foods keep indefinitely, which makes them perfect candidates for the type of food to pack for hikes, military missions, and the like. Another reason dried foods are favorites of hunters, fishermen and other outdoorsmen is that they are so light to carry, weighing only 10% of what the fresh food originally weighed. Dried foods, especially fruits, are a healthier sweet alternative to processed sugary snacks. Most spices and dried versions of original herbs add flavor to many dishes.

Of course once a food is dried it cannot be restored to fresh, and the flavor and texture are permanently altered. Dried meat can be excessively hard, as with jerky. However, sometimes this texture is preferred over the original. The other down side to drying is that, if all the moisture is not removed, the food is still subject to spoilage.

Pickling foods rivals freezing, canning, and drying for preservation. Pickling does add unique flavor, which the other methods do not. All of the dill pickle and pickled beets and olive fans out there know just how much flavor pickling can add. It puts the “zing” into ordinary foods, and the sky is the limit when it comes to choosing foods to pickle with a vinegar base. I have eaten pickled asparagus, green beans, and my Mom’s green peppers stuffed with cabbage and spices in a brine.

Many pickled or fermented foods provide a good source of nutrients such as vitamins, amino acids, and healthy bacteria. A little known fact is that pickle juice can help with hydration and can decrease muscle cramps caused by heat.

Although most pickled vegetables are canned, the process does not require a pressure canner since the vinegar is acidic enough to keep botulism at bay. However, usually salt is a main ingredient when pickling, so pickled foods have a high sodium level.

The process of burning or smoldering plants for the purpose of adding flavor, to cook, or to preserve foods is known as smoking. I remember as a kid, when our family would butcher, the wonderful aroma that would come from the smokehouse as my uncle smoked the hams and bacon. Nothing rivaled it. Smoked flavor can be altered by the type of wood used for the process. Mezquite, hickory, cherry, apple, and other fruit woods are popular.

Smoking extends the shelf life of foods by killing certain bacteria and slowing the growth of others, preventing fats from becoming rancid and preventing mold from forming. Smoking usually changes the color of meats by making them redder and giving them a shine. The smell and flavor of smoked meats are appetite enhancers in themselves.

Commercial smokers are regulated, but with home smoking it is hard to regulate the right amount of smoke and heat, which can result in meat spoiling before it is fully cured. Some scientists are of the opinion that the smoking process contaminates food with Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a carcinogen, although the jury is still out on that one.

Another method of food preservation that most people overlook is root cellaring. It is probably the oldest and simplest form. Root cellars keep foods at fairly constant temperature and humidity levels. Food stays pretty much as it comes out of the garden, making storing in a root cellar a greener alternative to freezing. It is pretty simple because you do not have to depend on external sources. Many folks use a section of their basement that is not heated, or dig a space underground.

This method is not intended for long-term storage. Different foods require different temperatures, and some foods shouldn’t be stored together — like apples and potatoes. The saying goes that one rotten apple spoils the rest, and that saying probably started in a root cellar!

The closer foods can be kept to the original source, the better they taste, and the better they are for you. Eating fresh from the garden is nature’s take on fast food. Especially here in the northern climates, our “fresh” season is short. Combining the various food preservation methods is the best way to enjoy summer’s bounty all year round.

Photo by Lois Hoffman