Food Preservation Methods

Introduction

There are a number of methods you can use to preserve the harvest. Some will take only a few minutes, while others are more involved, project-cooking endeavors. Choose the one that works for you.

After you’ve prepped your recipe, you need to find a way to preserve it. Say the words “home food preservation,” however, and you can almost see someone’s shoulders wilt under the weight of such a daunting prospect. That’s too bad, because the process is really quite easy. If you’ve ever popped some leftovers into the fridge or wrapped up some bread for the freezer, you have preserved food. I find it loads of fun and peculiarly satisfying — like I’ve tapped into some inner hunter/gatherer who has successfully put away stores for the winter.

Each method described in this chapter — whether it uses the refrigerator, freezer, alcohol or vinegar, drying, or the boiling-water method — will extend the shelf life of seasonal produce for a specific length of time. Some will preserve the flavors of the harvest for a few days, others for up to one year. Generally, refrigerated preparations are the most short-lived, followed by dried and frozen items, those preserved in alcohol and vinegar and, at the far end of the spectrum, the boiling-water method, which will make items shelf-stable.

Food preservation does not have to be time-consuming or difficult. Some techniques will take only a few minutes, while others, such as mastering the boiling-water method, are a bit more time-intensive but simpler than you might think. All of the preserving techniques are fairly straightforward and doable — there is nothing in this book that requires culinary training or even significant kitchen experience.

In the peak of the season, I often have multiple processes going on at any given time. Once you get the hang of preserving, you may find your kitchen looks part science lab, with crocks of fermenting foods bubbling away and strings of produce desiccating on the line. It’s the perfect time to host a dinner party — very impressive in a Victorian mad scientist kind of way. So get in there and put ’em up! Read up on safety in home fermentation: the facts.

Refrigeration

Kitchen counter with jars of pasta, vegetables, nuts, knife, and cutting board

Using the fridge to delay spoilage is an excellent way to squeeze some extra life out of the harvest. Refrigerator jams and pickles can extend the shelf life of delicate items such as berries and quick-to-shrivel cukes for up to three weeks without additional processing.

Freezing

Close-up of a crammed refrigerator filled with colorful fruits, vegetables, and condiments

With all due respect to Ms. Monroe, I don’t think it’s diamonds that are a girl’s best friend — it’s an extra energy-efficient freezer, one dedicated to putting up frozen foods. I never thought I could get so bothered over an appliance, but a freezer is my treasure chest in the barren months of the year. I pack mine full of local flavor — quarts of frozen berries that I’ll use in recipes or make into jam when I have some extra time in the fall, fresh peas that will brighten a winter stew, corn cut from the cob to turn into a comforting chowder. And I make sure I have some prepared items, such as Caramelized Onion Confit, Easy-Bake Tomato Paste, and Mushroom Confit, that add depth of flavor to winter dishes. They’re great as a base for soups, in risotto, and as a topping for pizza. Whether you’re storing whole or prepared foods, freezing is almost like a time machine — a quick, easy way to stop the clock on a bountiful harvest.

Drying

Drying is one of the most accessible methods of home food preservation. It’s economical and low-tech, and it results in foods that are easy to store, light to ship as gifts, and delicious to eat. No wonder cooks have relied on dehydration to preserve the harvest for so long. Since the beginning of farming, growers have dried a part of their harvest to carry them over to the next season. Even before the dawn of agriculture, ancient hunters and gatherers would dry meat between expeditions. We use the method today on both small and large scales. I was surprised to hear from a modern grape grower that his family still makes raisins by laying the harvested fruit on sheets between the rows. They let the sun do all of the work, turning the juicy grapes into succulent raisins.

Drying works to preserve food in a number of ways. It removes all of the moisture from food, making the environment inhospitable for bacterial growth. Drying also slows down the natural enzymes in food that lead to its decomposition. That’s not to say that dried food lasts forever. It will deteriorate over time — because of their low sugar content, vegetables expire more quickly than fruits — and must be protected from infestation by hungry pests and airborne contaminants. It also needs to be kept in a sealed container so it won’t absorb moisture from the air, which will shorten its shelf life. That said, if you’re new to home food preservation or short on time, drying is an easy, quick way to put up some food.

For this book, I use two methods of food drying: air-drying and oven-drying. If you live in a hot, arid climate, you can dehydrate foods outdoors, under the sun. But for those of us who live in the sometimes damp and often humid Northeast or the frequently muggy South, the less weather-dependent indoor air-drying and oven-drying methods are more approachable.

Boiling-Water Method

When people say they “can,” they usually mean they use the boiling-water method or a pressure canner to preserve food. Confusing, indeed, as food is packed into jars, not cans, in both cases. In this book, we’ll be using the boiling-water method to make delicious foods that are shelf-stable for up to one year, and yes, sometimes we’ll refer to it as canning.

The boiling-water method is the standard technique for safely preserving acidic foods such as salsas, chutneys, relishes, jams, jellies, pickles, tomatoes, and many fruits. It’s not at all dangerous or complicated if you follow a few basic rules and stick to the recipe. The process involves packing prepared foods into specially designed jars with two-part lids. When the jars are heated in boiling water, vapor vents through the special lid. Once removed from the water, the cooling food contracts and the resulting negative pressure sucks down the lid onto the jar, creating an airproof (and contamination-proof) seal. Find out more about where to purchase canning supplies.

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