Vegetable Processing and Preservation
By Sarah Joplin
Keep what you grow by sticking with what you know!
When the euphoria and celebration of a bountiful harvest subsides, we gardeners and homesteaders are presented with a new task: preserving the abundance so that it will feed us rather than rot. After the long season of planting, growing and harvesting, we are fatigued and somehow the work of processing and preservation, while gratifying, can seem overwhelming. Maybe it is compounded by the fact that this work is time-sensitive; our produce is perishable. Though I try to take the long view of the season when it begins in the spring and consider how I will preserve and eventually cook and eat the yield from my seed selection, the reality is that I often fail at strategic planning and find myself staring at baskets of vegetables thinking: “Now what?” My dear boyfriend has helped me expand my options in recent years, first gifting me a vacuum sealer, then a deep freeze, next a food processor, and this year, a dehydrator.
Unless you’ve processed and preserved your own food, you don’t realize how much sheer work it is. Sorting, washing, peeling, chopping and generally preparing vegetables to be processed takes considerable time and effort. The actual preserving also takes time, no matter the method. Pace yourself: this is a marathon, not a sprint. Often you can process and preserve vegetables throughout the growing season but there is always a glut to harvest as the deep frost nears.
There are numerous options for preserving your vegetables. Below is a very brief survey of those I’ve tried and found to be reliable and manageable. How you choose to store your harvest depends on a lot of factors including time, equipment available and storage space options. We must also bear in mind the responsibility of eating our own preserved foods. A good food safety resource is the National Center for Home Food Preservation. They provide insights and parameters for most foods and methods.
Some vegetables can be kept in a cool, dry place with minimal processing. These include potatoes, garlic, onions and gourds. Each vegetable has its own best curing and cleaning method as well as keeping duration. A root cellar or equivalent is great but needs to be used methodically so that vegetables don’t rot or go to waste.
Water Bath Canning
Using glass jars and a large stockpot, a canning rack and tongs or comparable equipment, you can preserve highly acidic foods. I haven’t graduated to pressure canning yet but hope to soon. Tomatoes are a love of mine and we use copious amounts of spaghetti sauce, diced tomatoes and related goods, so I’ve found water bath canning is quite effective for my needs.
Vacuum-sealed vegetables freeze well.
Photo by Sarah Joplin
This can often be a quick and effective option once vegetables are prepared. Some can be frozen directly while others require blanching. While Ziploc freezer bags work well, freezer burn is always a risk and I have found that vacuum sealing is preferable. It helps minimize this issue.
On a side note, in case you didn’t know: you can freeze eggs! (just slightly scrambled, they last about a year)
Keep dehydrated goods in air-tight containers for best storage.
Photo by Sarah Joplin
Once you make the initial investment, you’ll find all sorts of things to dehydrate. The trick is to make sure that the items are absolutely dry and keep them that way. Moisture wants to penetrate, so airtight jars or bags are a must once drying is complete. Many fruits and vegetables are great candidates for dehydrating (as are meats for jerky).
Several options exist for preserving food and eventually I’ll expand my skills and try more of them. When you are under the pressure to process hundreds of pounds of produce in a short time, you stick to what you know. After the growing season is behind you, time constraints loosen up a bit and it seems a luxury to research, learn and test new methods. Maybe this winter I’ll have a chance to become more versed in pickling, fermentation, salting, and smoking.
Food Preservation Books
You might want to add a book on the history of salt to your winter reading: Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. It is a fascinating compilation of short stories that underscore the culinary and cultural importance of the mineral. The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich is another good resource. Fermenting Food Step by Step by Adam Elabd is another.
Local university extensions always have good information and there are equally compelling volumes on the history of food preservation that I’ll have to investigate. It certainly is a long-standing, universal topic. And so, the work continues.
Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt.
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