During the pandemic, many people started gardening as a way to fill their free time. For many, this hobby continues. With the harvest season being so short, it's often difficult to eat the abundance of produce picked in a few short weeks. Fortunately, you don't have to give away your excess harvest to neighbors or coworkers; you can preserve it to eat in the future. There are many ways to preserve food at home, depending on your storage facilities, cooking skills, and personal tastes. Here are the five most common options.
Here at the Business of Food, we work with local farmers during the harvest season to help them preserve some of their produce for sale through the winter and spring months. We provide this value-added service by blanching the vegetables, bagging, and flash freezing them. Initially, we started with corn and acquired a machine that can husk the corn and another that cuts the kernels off the cobb in seconds.
From corn, we moved on to broccoli, cauliflower, and peppers. These vegetables are cut by hand and blanched for two to five minutes before being packaged and flash frozen in a blast freezer that takes food from a temp of 160 F to 0 F in under four hours to prevent bacteria growth. A blast freezer is required to freeze the vegetables because of the high volume we freeze at a time. Vegetables frozen this way taste as good on the day you eat them as they did on the day they were picked. The nutritional value will be higher than if you bought raw vegetables at the grocery store due to the amount of time required for packaging, transporting, and warehousing.
Blanching and freezing vegetables can certainly be done at home as well. Blanching refers to scalding vegetables in boiling water for a short time and immediately immersing them in ice water to stop the process. It's an essential step because it stops enzyme actions that can cause vegetables to lose color, flavor, and texture. Once the vegetables are blanched and thoroughly drained, they can be packed and frozen. Your regular freezer at home is sufficient for freezing small quantities quickly.
For many generations of people who lacked refrigeration, canning was the only option for preserving fruit and vegetables. It's gaining in popularity again as more households have extensive gardens. The simple water bath canning process is suitable for jams, jellies, and fruits. Pressurized canning is safer for low acidity vegetables, like peas or corn, or if you live at a high altitude.
Canning is one of the more involved methods of preserving vegetables, but the process is straightforward if you take your time and follow directions carefully. Otherwise, some foods may develop harmful bacteria if they aren't processed correctly. It's also important to note that, unlike other preservation methods, the heat used in canning can decrease nutrient levels.
Pickling is an excellent option for cucumbers, beets, beans, cabbage, asparagus, and tomatoes. A brine consisting of vinegar, salt, pepper (or sugar for a sweet brine) is boiled and poured over the vegetables. Garlic and herbs can be added to the brine for additional flavor. Once the brine cools, the jars must be securely sealed. Note: Some pickled vegetables will last in the refrigerator for up to a month, but others must be canned if you don't plan to use them fairly soon.
People have used fermentation to preserve and store foods for thousands of years. Recently, fermentation and has gained popularity again due to its benefits to gut health. Fermenting involves a process known as Lacto-fermentation, which converts a food's sugars into lactic acid. This natural preservative inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria and increases the vitamin and enzyme levels of the fermented food.
A saltwater brine is all you need for Lacto-fermentation. Using a crock or glass jar, submerge the vegetables completely in the brine. For the best fermentation results, use brine made with filtered water free of chlorine, chloramines, and fluoride that can kill the microbes. Leave the vegetables to ferment at room temperature until they reach the desired taste, then move them to the fridge, where they will keep for months.
Some vegetables like potatoes, onions, and squash can be stored over the winter in a cool, dry place like a root cellar, that you might know from movies. Some vegetables like beets can be stored in moist sand to prevent them from drying out. Mushrooms and tomatoes are good examples of items that can be dried before storing and reconstituted with water or stock for cooking. Another simple way to preserve food is to pack it in oil. For example, that great pesto will keep in the refrigerator for months under a layer of olive oil covering. Take out what you need and ensure the remainder is still covered in oil until the next time you want it.
By preserving the vegetables from your garden, you ensure healthy meals in the cold months. Every bite will remind you of the warm summer days and hopefully make you smile.