One of the creative challenges of eating locally and seasonally, especially in regions with short growing seasons, is how to preserve the harvest so that we can continue to enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the year. Thankfully we have generations of accumulated wisdom to call upon. Here’s a glimpse of some of these ancient and modern methods:
Most produce stays fresh longest when kept slightly moist in a bag in the fridge. This is particularly true for broccoli and cauliflower, cucumbers and summer squash, and cooking greens (chard, kale, collards, etc). Some vegetables, however, like green beans and salad greens, are prone to spoil more quickly if they are wet.
Root vegetables (like carrots, beets, and turnips) keep best if they are stored unwashed in the fridge, but they can also be rinsed before you place them in the fridge. “New potatoes” (young potatoes with delicate, uncured skins) should also be refrigerated. Otherwise, potatoes and sweet potatoes need to be stored in a cool place in complete darkness. Store them in a cardboard box, or in a cloth or paper bag rather than plastic, so they can breath. As long as the potato is firm, small sprouts are nothing to worry about and can just be broken off, but be sure to avoid any part of a potato that has a green tint to it!
Most fruits should be stored on the counter. In particular, stone fruit (peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots) and tomatoes should never be refrigerated or stored out in cold temperatures, as this will bring their ripening and rich flavor to an end. Peppers are more forgiving — though they won’t ripen further after being refrigerated, they stay crisp and flavorful. In fact, peppers can start to soften and shrivel if kept out in the open for too many days. In the case of thin-skinned peppers, this can be a step in the right direction – if given enough room to breathe, they may dry right on the counter! Berries, however, quickly turn to mush, so get them into the fridge right away, don’t wash them until right before you eat them, and consider freezing some if you won’t use them within a few days.
Fresh herbs can be stored in the fridge, in a vase of water, or dried. Garlic and storage onions are quite happy on your counter, or stored in a cool, dry, ventilated room. Fresh ginger root can be stored on the counter, in the fridge, or frozen! Frozen ginger keeps longer and is easy to grate. Simply slice into the ginger root into chunks and peel off the skin with the back of a spoon. Spread the pieces out on a baking sheet or in an ice cube tray to freeze overnight, or cover each in plastic wrap. Then put them in a bag in the freezer and pull out a piece or two as needed!
Most vegetables — like greens, peas, beans, corn, beets, and carrots — need to be blanched (boiled or steamed for a few minutes) before freezing.
Fruits and vegetables frozen raw and whole are best frozen in a single layer on a baking sheet for at least four hours or overnight. The next day, scoop them into freezer bags for storage. Otherwise, they may form a solid chunk of ice.
Cooked and pureed squash, sweet potatoes, fruit freeze well and are perfect for throwing into soups, baked treats, or canning projects later. Same thing goes for pepper slices and grated summer squash.
A handy discovery: you can freeze plain cooked pasta. Super convenient, just put it straight in a bag, then pull it out and throw it in a pot of boiling water for a minute and it’s ready to go!
The fuller the freezer, the more efficient. If you have a full freezer and lose power, the contents can remain frozen for several hours. However, be careful not to refreeze highly perishable foods, particularly meat, once it has thawed.
If you have a large pot and clean jars with fresh lids, you are ready to can. A “boiling water bath” is a simple way to preserve acidic foods like cooked fruit (e.g. jams, jellies, chutneys), and some pickled foods and tomato products. Other foods need to be brought to a higher temperature to kill off any pathogens, using a pressure canner, paying close attention to recipe instructions.
The basic “boiling water bath” canning process:
First, sterilize jars and lids, washing them in hot soupy water and then placing them in boiling water. (Pre-fill canner and bring water to boil, then turn off heat and gently drop the jars and lids in. You want water an inch or two above the top of the jars) Using tongs, pull jars out one at a time as you need them, drain off water, then fill them. Be sure to leave the space at the top of the jar called for in the recipe to ensure a good seal. Wipe off the rim and outside of the mouth of the jar with a clean cloth, then draw the lid and screw bands out of the water and close the jar, screwing the lid tight. Pulling the lid out of the water activates the glue. Place filled jar back in the water and repeat the process.
When all jars are ready, make sure none are touching, cover canner, and bring water back to a boil. Once the water reaches boiling, begin timing and maintain a constant gentle boil for the full processing time given by the recipe. Keep an ear and eye out — too raucous a boil can spill over or knock jars into each other, but it is important that it remain at a boil.
When the time is up, turn off the heat and pull the jars out, drain off any water puddled on the lid, and set it on a wooden rack or a thick cloth towel or potholder. Make sure it doesn’t touch the bare counter or anything cold, as this can cause the glass to shatter. Let the jars cool completely — this can take several hours. As they cool, each lid will snap down. If for some reason it doesn’t, process it in the boiling water bath for the full time again, or stick it in the fridge and use it right away. Once they are cool it’s best to take off the screw-band unless you will be transporting/shipping the jar. Store the jars in a dark, cool place.
Don’t forget to check out the canning and pickling recipes on this site!
Drying fruits (including peppers and tomatoes) is quite straightforward if you live in a sunny, dry climate or have a dehydrator. Halve or slice and place with a cut side down on a screen. The thinner/more surface area, the quicker it will dry. A great use for slightly damaged fruit — simply cut out the funky parts as you go. Pureeing the fruit to make “fruit leather” is another option, especially for soft or overripe fruit.
Vegetables have enzymes that can cause them to continue to deteriorate after drying, and often end up with an unpleasant leathery texture if dried raw. As with freezing, the trick is blanching or lightly cooking vegetables before drying them. So far, I have great success roasting beets and sweet potatoes until fork-tender but still firm, then slicing and drying them for a chewy (or crispy, depending on how long you leave them) snack.
The term “sun-drying” is a bit deceptive. It’s actually air flow that is most key for drying. Ideally, when drying food out in the open, avoiding direct sunlight and extreme heat beating down on the food will preserve more of the nutrition (and aesthetics) of the food. Avoiding high heat and sunlight is particularly important in drying most herbs, which is often done indoors, by hanging in bunches or on mesh screens. Another issue that can arise when drying food out in the open, especially outdoors, is that the insects may lay eggs that hatch into an unwelcome surprise in your stash. Some moths can sneak right through plastic bags. Other animals may also be interested in a nibble, or a strong gust of wind can sprinkle debris on the fruits of your labor. A well designed solar dehydrator is a great way to harvest the energy of the sun to dry food while avoiding many of these issues. Sticking “sun-dried” food in the freezer for a few days, and storing dried food in glass jars or thick plastic containers rather than plastic bags are also good precautions.
An electric dehydrator helps keep out dust and unwanted visitors, and allows for more precise control of temperature, year-round. (The appropriate temperature range to preserve nutrients and food safety varies depending on whether you are drying herbs, produce, meat, etc.) Another option for small amounts can be to slowly bake them on low heat on baking sheets in the oven, but this seems inefficient and not really viable for larger volumes.
There are so many possibilities and nuances to drying food, still a great deal to learn and explore! I am excited about the potential of dehydrating, especially in dry climates, to store up the season’s bounty for the winter, without requiring a lot of space, effort, or fossil fuels. I hope to experiment more with drying vegetables and other food soon, and share what I discover.
Fermenting and Culturing
I have become slightly obsessed with fermentation as of late. Another exciting way to not only extend the shelf-life of food without requiring a lot of energy, but also to enhance its flavor and nutritional value. I am only just beginning this journey,and there is such an long history and variety of traditions around fermenting just about everything that I hardly know where to begin. At its core, fermentation involves providing conditions that support the desired microorganisms in transforming the food, while minimizing competition from those that produce undesirable “spoilage.” This often takes the form of involves some combination of temperature control, salt, covering with liquid, inoculating with the desired culture, and giving the process the time it needs to ripen.
Intrigued? Be sure to check out the growing compilation of fermentation recipes on this site.
Stocking Up by Carol Hupping
The Joy of Pickling by Linda Zeidrich
The Solar Food Dryer by Eben V. Foder
Dry It, You’ll Like It by Gen Macmaniman and Paula B. Calderon
wild fermentation and The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz