Preserving Summer’s Bounty

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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I love this time of year when smells from fresh-cut hay, vegetables ripening in the garden and flowers all mesh into one fabulous scent. I call it the summer smell.

I also love this time of year because it’s like a veggie and fruit smorgasbord with the combined bounty of our garden and farmers’ markets. The only trouble is, no matter how we stagger the planting, everything seems to ripen at the same time. You can only eat so much.

Thank goodness for home preserving because you can put the tastes of summer in a jar. Canning and freezing are basically the two options for saving summer’s bounty. Which method you choose is a matter of personal preference and convenience and also which type of range you own. Some models of glass-top electric ranges are not suited for canning. Be sure to check your owner’s manual. Either way you go, freezing or canning, come winter your fruits and vegetables will taste better than what you buy in a store.

Home canning is making a comeback. It is economical because canning jars can be used over and over, and you only have to purchase new lids each year. The recommended shelf life of home-canned food is two to three years whereas that of frozen fruits and vegetables is only one year. It doesn’t mean food is spoiled after that time limit, but there may be a decline in color, flavor and nutritional value.

There are three methods for home canning: using a pressure cooker, hot water bath or open kettle canning. The USDA only recommends using a pressure cooker because it will kill the organisms that cause the deadly botulism. Using this method, jars of food are processed under pressure at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time.

The hot water bath method consists of filling the jars with acidic foods such as tomatoes, cucumbers and berries and covering with lids. Then the jars are submerged in an open kettle of water and boiled until a seal forms under the lids and forces air out of the jars, creating a vacuum in an acidic environment where bacteria can’t survive. This method can only be used with acidic foods, and jars can’t be set on the bottom of the kettle. Rather, they must set on a towel or wooden cutting board to prevent breakage.

The open kettle method consists of bringing the food to a boil in a kettle, then filling hot jars with the boiling food and securing a canning jar lid with a ring. The jars are allowed to cool until the familiar “pop” is heard. To sanitize jars thoroughly, they should be put in a 225 F oven for 15 minutes and the lids put in a pan of boiling water.

I am half old-school on this and half new. I have always done our pickled beets the open kettle method and tomatoes the hot water bath, even though these methods are not recommended any longer. My thought is there is enough acidity in both of these (vinegar in the beets and natural acidity in the tomatoes) to make these methods safe. However, newer varieties of tomatoes are not like the heirloom varieties of yesteryear. The new hybrids are sweeter because that is what people prefer, thus reducing the acidity.

If you don’t want to get this complicated, freezing may be a better and simpler option. The downside to freezing is if you lose power, you risk losing frozen goods to spoilage.

Foods tend to freeze best in heavy-weight containers (freezer boxes) or freezer bags at 0 F or colder. Remove as much air as possible from freezer bags to reduce freezer burn, a condition where food is damaged by dehydration and oxidation by air reaching the food. It is not a threat to food safety, but it definitely reduces the food quality and taste.

The best vegetables to freeze are low acidic ones like corn and peas. The first step is to blanch the veggies by pouring boiling water over them and then submerge them in ice water to prevent them from further cooking. Blanching prevents enzymes from damaging the color, flavor and nutrients. It also destroys microorganisms that may be present.

As a rule, fruits don’t require blanching. Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries can be frozen by simply arranging them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freezing. When frozen, transfer the berries to a freezer container. To keep fruits like apples and peaches from browning prior to freezing, dunk them in a solution of 1 quart water to 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Some fruits tend to be mushy when thawed. To prevent this, try eating them before they are completely thawed.

Whether you choose canning or freezing, you will be so glad you chose this labor of love when the winter winds are howling outside and you can still savor the freshness of summer.

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