The Harvest To Prepare Your Food For Preservation

Introduction

Before you can think about preserving food, you’ll first need food to preserve. Sure, it is an obvious statement, but it is the first step in the process. And there are certain steps to take during harvest to prepare your food for preservation. We will discuss the common processes in more detail in Chapters 4–9. Here, we will limit our discussion to the food itself and its preparation prior to preserving

Many who preserve food are doing so with food from their own harvest. Whether it is fruits, vegetables, herbs, or meat, individuals and families usually have enough to use both now and later on. So, let’s start with the home garden harvest.

Cleaning Your Harvest

Colorful variety of squashes in a wheelbarrow outdoors

When you have harvested whatever was ready in your garden that day, the foods should first be cleaned. The way foods are cleaned depends on the food itself; foods that have had pesticides sprayed on them will need a more thorough cleaning than an organic food. Some foods will need a much gentler cleaning than others. For example, hard root vegetables will usually need a good scrubbing after harvesting simply due to the soil that will be clinging to them. You can take a little scrubber brush and clean under running water; however, to conserve water and prevent it from going down the sink drain, it is advisable to scrub the root vegetables first in a basin of water, and then quickly rinse in the sink of clean water.

With onions you may just be able to be gently wiped off of with a rag, as you need, at this point anyways, to be careful that you do not remove the paper skin; although, if one layer with all of the dirt comes off easily, that will clean the bulb up for you nicely. Garlic is the same way: just a light cleaning, so as to preserve the paper skin. Tomatillos may have the skin or husk totally removed, as you would not normally preserve the husk anyway.

Foods with either thin skin or no skin at all, like tomatoes, berries, apples, and plums, should be lightly washed and either gently dried or left to air dry. There is, however, one food that should not be washed, just gently wiped off, and that is mushrooms. If dropped into water or held under with running water, mushrooms will absorb the water like a sponge. So instead of washing a mushroom, just take a clean towel or napkin and gently wipe to remove any dirt. If the bottom of the stem is a little dirty after picking, it may be trimmed off.

At this point, you will have your foods washed and cleaned. Next you will need to get whatever equipment you’ll need out and ready to use. (Again, this will be covered in more depth in Chapters 4–9.) From here, the food is prepared as per the recipe being used and the method of preservation being employed. For example, tomatoes would need to be peeled and seeded no matter what method is used. Vegetables or meats intended for dehydration need to be sliced according to the specifications of the dehydrator or the recipe. Fruits may need to be sliced, chunked, and so on. Again, at this stage your preparation depends on what you are doing.

After all the preparations are done, whatever you are pickling, drying, saucing, jamming, etc., those processes can be completed at this time. Finally, the method of storage will be chosen, the food packed away, and you will have finished your preserving.

Using Purchased Foods

But what if you don’t have your own garden? Do you need to use fresh foods harvested “then and there?” The answer is no. That being said however, you will still need to be sure that the food you are preserving is as fresh as possible.

If you are purchasing from roadside stands, farm markets, or farmers markets, freshness is not usually a concern. If you’re not sure how to tell if something is ripe enough for use, you can normally just ask somebody at the stand. In most cases, they will be more than happy to teach you how to tell if a fruit or vegetable is ripe enough for your needs. However, if purchasing from a grocery store, freshness may be a bit more of an issue. With the fact that many stores are now displaying most of their fruits and vegetables loose, it makes it that much easier to know what you are purchasing.

But for those that are still packaged, a bit more scrutiny is necessary. You need to watch for bad spots in your foods. Something like a potato can just have a bad spot cut from it before canning or freezing, but that same bad spot could have also affected others in the bag. If tomatoes are too old, even if it doesn’t look too bad on the outside, it could end up fermenting in the jar, breaking the seal and spoiling the entire batch. (I myself have had this happen with my homegrown tomatoes when I held onto one batch a little too long before canning.) Once you are ready to can your store bought foods, your preparation and preservation process would be the same as it for your home harvest.

At this time, it would be worth mentioning that some foods can go bad rather quickly, such as tomatoes. If you are looking to can tomatoes, and you are aware that they could spoil quickly but just do not have the time to spend on canning, you can buy yourself some time by peeling, seeding, bagging, and then freezing the vegetables. Then, when you do have the time to can, you can begin the canning process. Note that this method will not work for everything (don’t even try cucumbers) and if you want to use your tomatoes for a chunky salsa later, then freezing will not work either as the tomatoes will not be firm enough after thawing for making chunky salsa. But this will help you in salvaging at least some foods if you do not have time to can something right away before the harvest spoils. Learn more about advanced techniques for lacto-fermentation.

What’s Best for Preservation?

Baskets filled with fresh vegetables and gourds on deck

Not all foods preserve well with all methods, and in rare cases, some foods may only have one method that works well for their preservation. Although there are many recipes out there for the various preservation methods, sometimes you might just want to try something different and see if it works. And if so, go for it! Just remember that your experiment may not work out, and you’ll have to throw away your efforts. That having been said, you might also create a wonderful preserve that you’ll want to make again next year. And just in case that happens, you should really make notes of your procedure so that if it does become your foodie masterpiece you can make it again.

There is almost nothing that cannot be preserved in at least some way. Some foods may be limited in the methods that can be used to successfully preserve them, but you can usually find at least one way that will work. So now, let’s take a more in-depth look at methods of preserving, the basic steps in using those methods and examples of what foods can be preserved with each technique. Discover more about high-pressure processing technique in food preservation.

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