by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
We are now at the peak of the glorious produce season here in Vermont. I reflect on this bountiful time of year and all the wonderful produce we have available to us as we approach the long winter months. As we all know our growing season is short in Vermont so one of the best ways to extend it is to preserve our bounty of produce in the here and now. There are many benefits to food preservation, which include saving food dollars, supporting your local farmers, and appreciating local produce throughout the winter. Humans have always preserved foods in order to survive but nowadays we do it because we enjoy it, it saves money, and it enables us to store away the extra produce from the garden that we can’t consume in time.
The most common preservation methods include canning, freezing, and drying. I know in this day and age not everyone has time to preserve all their food, but even if you can preserve a few things using simple methods, it’s a great way to enjoy something special in the winter months. Canning takes a large amount of time and special equipment. Drying or dehydration can be done using a dehydrator but also by simply using the sun and a dry area in your house. Freezing can be done easily too, using a couple different methods.
All these procedures can be daunting for many so I am going to recommend a few easy options, which include mainly freezing and some canning. Freezing is one of the easiest ways to preserve food and is great for beginners.
Freezing vegetables and fruits retains flavor and nutrients more than any other method and can be accomplished relatively easily.
It is my main way of preserving produce from the summer since I enjoy the texture and fresh taste of frozen produce. One of the items I freeze in large quantities is berries. I take freshly picked berries and lay them on a cookie sheet in the freezer until frozen and then place them in a canning or plastic container. This way they don’t clump together and they are easy to get to in the freezer, whether it is a handful or a measured amount. Freezer jam is easy to make too, either by using a product called Pomona’s Pectin (sold at the Co-op) or a traditional Sure-Jell product found in most supermarkets. A deliciously fresh and lightly sweetened treat on whatever you might use jam or jelly since the berries are not cooked!
Several vegetables can be frozen as is but some need to be blanched first—a simple method but it does take a little time. Blanching stops enzymatic activity in vegetables and helps to prevent discoloring, nutrient destruction, and toughness. It involves boiling or steaming (steaming takes longer) for 1 to 8 minutes, depending on the vegetable, and then immediately chilling in ice cold water to stop the cooking for the same amount of time. The vegetables can then be dried off and stored in appropriate containers for freezing. Vegetables that don’t need to be blanched are: sweet or hot peppers, tomatoes, herbs, and cooked squash or pumpkin. Fresh herbs are a wonderful thing to store in the freezer. I chop them up and put them in ice cube containers and fill them with a little water, then freeze them and transfer them to a larger storage container. By using this method, small amounts are available easily for your cooking needs.
Canning is the most recent method of food preservation, starting in the late 1800s. It takes more energy than other methods but creates a product of good quality and taste. Safe food handling is of utmost importance since produce handled incorrectly can contain dangerous bacteria and microorganisms that may cause severe illness. Water-bath canning is used for high-acid foods and pressure canning—the more complicated method—is used for low-acid produce. I have preserved many quarts of tomatoes using the water-bath canning method. If you are a first-timer, a good website for more information is nchfp.uga.edu. There is lots of information available on the Internet but this site offers information on all different methods. Canning is more complicated than other methods since it involves an investment in equipment to do it safely, which includes a large pot with a tight fitting lid, canning jars—either quarts or pints—with new lids, and a jar lifter. In addition, a pressure canner is needed for preservation of low-acid produce such as green beans, carrots, asparagus, peas, and corn. All low-acid produce must be processed at an extremely high temperature, 240 degrees, to kill the botulism bacteria that thrive in low-acid conditions. Home-canned products should be used within a year for optimal quality.
Drying is another simple method of preserving produce from the summer months when there is often abundant sunshine. Bacteria can’t grow without any moisture and dried foods stay delicious for many months. A dehydrator is expensive but it is an ideal piece of equipment to have, and it can be used to preserve all kinds of produce. Herbs and hot peppers can be air-dried without a dehydrator as long as you have a dry and well ventilated area. Herbs can be hung by their stems and once dried—within one to two weeks—they can be crumpled up and stored in a glass jar in a cool area away from direct sunlight. Hot peppers can be placed on a screen or just left in a dry area for drying. Dried peppers can be stored in a container or ceramic dish. Wash hands well after handling them since touching your eyes after touching them can lead to irritated eyes!
No matter to what extent you preserve, the produce put away provides a great sense of fulfillment when you look at a stocked freezer or pantry in the fall months before winter sets in. The other main enjoyment is savoring tasty produce during the long winter months. Here are a couple easy recipes: one that enables you to stock up on pickles for the winter (providing you have some extra room in your refrigerator), and the other a delicious tomato soup that can be frozen or canned if there is limited space in your freezer.
PLEASE NOTE: A key thing to remember before you begin any preservation is to have clean surfaces and equipment (knives, cutting boards, etc.). Food poisoning can occur if cleanliness and sanitation are not kept in mind. Food poisoning can cause severe illness and death, it is by no means a matter to be taken lightly!! Remember to label foods put up for the winter with the date. Preserved foods do not last forever!
For the best information on canning, including invaluable personal tips, contact our in-house canning expert, Anna, our Demo Coordinator: