Linda Hamilton, Ruah Swennerfelt and Louis Cox, Contributors
Summer is the time when many of us stash away part of the abundant local harvest for eating later. We freeze or can fruits and vegetables, dehydrate and ferment them, set up a cool spot to extend the life of root crops and squash, make sweet or savory condiments, and lots and lots of tomato sauce.
If you think of these practices as quaint hobbies, now outdated because supermarkets stock processed food year-round, along with fresh products shipped in from somewhere far away from our Vermont winter, you might want to reconsider the value of “putting food by.”
It saves time and money. Yes, you invest time preparing and preserving things in the summer, but then you have them immediately at hand the rest of the year to facilitate meal preparation. This easy access reduces trips to the supermarket, since you are already stocked up on many of the things you like to eat. And starting with in-season produce in bulk from your own or other local gardens and farms is less expensive.
It makes you more able to take care of yourself during times when weather or other disruptions keep you housebound. It also allows you to eat local beyond the summer growing season.
And if you ask anyone who preserves food, they will tell you it is a deeply satisfying practice. The raspberry jam they make is the best, their pickles are classic, their pasta sauce is better than anything commercially made and those peaches taste like summer in a jar. They are proud of their work because it is done with intention and care.
It does take an understanding of the process you are using, and some special equipment may be needed. But equipment can often be borrowed or purchased used, and once you have a supply of canning jars for example, these can be reused many times.
If you are new to preserving food, or need a refresher, here are some basic guidelines:
- Start simple, with foods you like, and learn from other people. Ask experienced friends for tips or do a project together.
- Use reliable references.
- The “Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving” is a classic, or choose from several others in Charlotte Library; follow both their general guidelines for tasty results and specific instructions for food safety.
- Understand what you are working with. For example, high-acid foods like tomatoes and fruits are the easiest and safest to can; all that’s needed is a water-bath canner. But low-acid foods like corn and beets require canning at a higher temperature, in a pressure-cooker.
Popular methods of preserving food:
- Freezing is simple, convenient and holds the most flavor in fresh fruits and vegetables. Most things need blanching first but some can be frozen directly. Don’t forget to label packages. And include the date so you can be sure to use them within 12 months.
- Root cellaring or cold storage is a simple way to hold sturdy vegetables (and some fruit like apples) for weeks or months. It works well for things that like approximately 40 degrees and somewhat moist air.
- Root vegetables like carrots and beets hold up well in layers of lightly moistened wood shavings.
- Potatoes, onions and garlic can be spread out on trays. Bags of apples will keep well for many weeks if checked regularly for bruises.
- Consult guides like “Root Cellaring” by Mike and Nancy Bubel for ways to hold a variety of vegetables and fruits in cold storage.
- Dehydration is a very old method which concentrates flavor, with the advantage that the end product stores easily and takes up less space. (Think sun-dried tomatoes.) Drying requires a steady temperature above 90 degrees. Electric dehydrators are popular, but several hours in a low-temperature oven or racks by the wood stove work. Preparation includes thin slicing everything and sometimes blanching.
- Fermentation and pickling are familiar ways to put food by. Fermenting requires natural or cultivated yeast, and a little time for it to … well … ferment. A good resource is “Fermenting: A Beginner’s Guide to Fermentation.”
- Kimchi or sauerkraut are easy ones to start with. For pickling cucumbers, green beans or beets, for example, all you need is a recipe for a mix of vinegar and spices, which you heat and pour over the vegetables in the jars and then water-bath can them.
- Canning is very versatile and popular. It does, however require attention to details related to long-term food safety and caution around hot water. Canning jars with special lids are needed, as well as a hot water canning pot or in some cases a pressure cooker.
The “Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving” and other reliable references indicate how to judge acidity and choose appropriately either hot water bath or pressure cooker processing. They also guide you step by step through the process.
The key is to have fun, and enjoy eating and sharing the food you have preserved. Tell yourself, “Yes, I can.”
(The authors enjoy eating throughout the year from the stock of local fruits and vegetables they have put by in their pantries, freezers and root cellars. They are also members of Charlotte Grange and Sustainable Charlotte.)