Summer is upon us! The grocery stores and farmers markets are overflowing with fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables. When produce is in season, it costs less and is many times more fresh than at other times of the year. Take advantage of the savings and health benefits by learning to preserve all that summer bounty!
There are three basic ways to preserve fruits and vegetables: freezing, canning and drying. Each method requires a certain amount of know-how and the right tools to be successful, but the rewards are well worth the effort. None of these techniques are difficult to master and the equipment necessary can be easily found and is usually quite inexpensive.
The easiest method of preserving is freezing. Most everyone has all they need in their homes right now to begin to freeze fruits and vegetables. Quart- and gallon-sized freezer resealable bags are essential, along with your freezer, of course! Most fruits freeze quite well and retain their color and flavor for about six months in the freezer. This "freezer life" can be greatly extended with the help of one of those vacuum sealers that have become so popular lately. Vacuum sealers are expensive, around $100 new, but mine has paid for itself many times over due to the fact that my food keeps so much longer (I don't end up throwing food out like I used to).
A simple fruit to start with is any berry. Right now, many berries are available in flats, or large three- and four-pound containers. You will almost always save money buying a flat rather than one of those little 6 oz. or 12 oz. plastic containers, so go for it! For example, buy three or four pounds of blueberries. When you bring them home, wash and then let them sit in a colander until drained. Pick through the berries to find any that are moldy or mushy. Now, spread them out on a large baking sheet that will fit inside your freezer. Place the baking sheet in your freezer and leave it there overnight. The next morning, just throw the frozen berries into a gallon-sized resealable bag and put it back in your freezer. Done! Now you can use those berries all through the fall and winter for muffins, pancakes, crisps, even blueberry syrup or jam. Taking the extra step of vacuum sealing the berries after they are frozen will mean that they will keep for two to three years, rather than six to nine months. Use this procedure for strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and cherries (be sure to pit the cherries first).
Vegetables require a little more work before they can be frozen. Most vegetables must first be blanched before they can be frozen. Blanching involves bringing a large kettle of water to boil. The vegetable is placed in the boiling water for a few minutes and then quickly taken out of the hot water and plunged into very cold water. The boiling water starts the enzyme process that takes place when vegetables are cooked, but then the cold water abruptly stops that process. This keeps the vegetable in a state of "suspended animation" of sorts so that it will keep in the freezer. If vegetables are not blanched, they will get mushy or tough, depending on the vegetable, when you try to take them out of the freezer and cook them. The book Stocking Up III: The All-New Edition of America's Classic Preserving Guide by Rodale Publishers has extensive instructions for blanching every kind of vegetable.
Another popular method for preserving food is canning. You will need a few basic pieces of equipment for canning, most of which are easily found at the local grocery or hardware store. A canning kettle and jars are the most essential and all that is required for canning fruits, pickles and relishes. Vegetables must be canned in a pressure canner. Since going through the entire procedure for canning is beyond the scope of this article, I will recommend a few resources. Try checking out the website homecanning.com for lots of good information. The book Putting Food By by Janet Greene, et al, is a classic for learning how to can.
Lots of folks believe that home canning is very complicated and unsafe, but that is just not true. Scientific research and the high quality jars and seals that are available now make canning just about foolproof, if the proper steps are followed. It's true that the first time you try canning you might find it to be an all-day adventure, since you will be learning step-by-step. But, once you have gone through the procedure, it will be much easier the second time around and every time thereafter.
The last method of preservation I will discuss is drying or dehydration. This is the most ancient of all these methods, going back thousands of years. Obviously, you don't need a lot of high tech equipment for drying. If you live in an area that has very hot summers, it will be easy to dry foods right outside in the sunshine. One favorite method is to set up a couple of clean screens (like window screens) between two sawhorses. Many fruits can be dried this way, including apricots, plums and cherries. Vegetables like zucchini slices, onion slices, carrot slices and even herbs dry very well. As long as you live in an area with many hot, cloudless days in a row, you ought to be able to dehydrate any number of fruits and vegetables.
Another easy way to dehydrate is in your oven. Set it on a very low temperature, like 200 degrees. You can spread the food out on a baking sheet or a roasting rack (the more air circulation, the better). After letting the oven warm up for 20 minutes or so, turn it off and place your food inside. This is best done at night before you go to bed as the food must stay in the oven for many hours. Depending on the density of your fruits or vegetables, some will be done by morning; others may require a second round of drying before they are done. You will know they are done when they are dry and leathery.
Of course, a dehydrator is a great thing to have, if you can afford one or maybe find one at a garage sale. It doesn't take up your oven and good ones will dry out your food very evenly and quickly.
The advantages to preserving our own food are so numerous. We can be assured that the food we are eating was preserved at the peak of its freshness. There are no added preservatives or chemicals in home preserved foods. We can know that we are saving lots of money over having to purchase out of season, frozen or canned foods at the market. Lastly, there is such a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment knowing we have stocked up our freezers and cupboards for our families with our own two hands. Make home food preservation part of your life!
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