Extend the lifespan of your homegrown produce by canning, pickling and more.
It happens almost every year. You plant your seeds, wait patiently to harvest your crop. Then, one day–wham! You have hundreds of tomatoes and enough cucumbers to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Pretty soon your neighbors stop making eye contact, afraid you might try to jam another zucchini through their mailslot.
Luckily there’s a solution to this seasonal overload: home food preservation. While fresh is usually best, homegrown food is still delicious when preserved at peak flavor. There are so many methods to try, each one has its own unique benefits. This guide will introduce you to everything you need to know to get started.
Why preserve food at home?
Besides staying on good terms with your neighbors, preserving the season’s bounty will help you extend the life of your homegrown food. It also has other benefits.
Store food without electricity
Electrical bills are a real concern as volatile fuel prices fluctuate, leaving many of us with bigger bills than we were expecting. As governments transition away from fossil fuels, these costs are expected to go down, but in the meantime, storing your food without electricity means savings.
Eat more local foods
Preserving your homegrown crop reduces the number of miles your food travels to reach your plate. That’s a bonus for air quality and our warming planet.
In addition to saving money on your electrical bill, you’ll also save on food costs. Recent political conflicts have driven up the price of fuels and fertilizers, resulting in citizens paying more for everything from cereals to fresh produce.
No more BPA or plastic waste
Some types of home food preservation circumvent the need for packaging entirely. That means no more worrying about BPA-lined cans or exposure to other potentially harmful chemicals.
Go for convenience
Having a pantry full of homegrown food means fewer trips to the grocery store and variety at your fingertips–right when you need it.
Share great gifts
Fall is the best time to make gifts based on your garden harvest. With the freshest ingredients available, you can brew, dry, pickle and ferment family favorites to share.
Learn new skills
Take satisfaction from the independence gained when trying something new. ‘Putting up’ food at home brings self-sufficiency and a reconnection with your food and nutrition.
A word about food borne illness
You’ve probably heard stories about someone eating home canned food, only to fall seriously ill. While this isn’t a common occurrence, it does happen and needs to be addressed.
Homegrown food can become dangerous when contamination enters a food source and the food itself isn’t preserved correctly. The most serious contaminant is Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which can cause the life-threatening condition known as botulism.
While this bacteria occurs naturally in our environment and rarely makes people sick, under specific conditions the spores of botulinum bacteria grow and produce a lethal toxin. These conditions–which include low salt, low acid, low sugar and low oxygen environments–can occur in home food preservation if recipes and procedures aren’t carefully followed.
To stay safe, it’s important not to preserve your home goods freestyle. Instead, source your recipes from tried and tested organizations, including:
7 methods for preserving your harvest at home
There are many methods for extending the lifespan of your food through home preservation. Some work better for certain crops than others. Choose the best one for your harvest.
Probably the simplest way to keep your food is to pop it in the freezer. If you have a cube freezer with ample storage space, you can likely keep your food fresh or near fresh for many months.
While food stored below freezing will not technically go bad, its quality will degenerate and it will lose flavor as the months go on. One way to extend its lifespan is to vacuum seal your food before freezing. Biodegradable bags are now available to help cut down on the plastic waste from this preservation method.
The process we call ‘canning’ most often involves placing food in jars, submerging those jars in water, and then heating them to temperatures best suited for killing bacteria. Home canning usually involves a water bath canner (best for fruits and some vegetables) or a pressure canner (best for meats, fish, and many vegetables).
Once the mainstay of preppers and survivalists, freeze dryers are becoming more mainstream as people learn the benefits of this fast and safe home preservation method. Freeze drying involves placing a frozen food item into a vacuum chamber. The vacuum removes the moisture, including the ice, without first turning it to water. Left behind is a solid item that will store in an airtight container for many months.
Dehydrating your food eliminates the conditions bacteria need to grow and thrive and helps it last longer. The key is to reduce the moisture content in food to between 5 and 20%. This is easy with an electric dehydrator, available now in many sizes.
Kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, tempeh, kefir and miso: these are just a few of the popular fermented foods many of us eat regularly. Fermentation sees carbohydrates like starch or sugar transform into acid or alcohol thanks to a bit of salt and an oxygen-free environment. Most home fermentation creates lactic acid, which prevents harmful bacteria from growing and extends the lifespan of your food.
This method involves pouring a brine over foods that are high in salt and acid, notably vinegar. At this low pH, bacteria doesn’t have a chance. Dilled cucumbers are the most well known of all the ‘pickles,’ but beans, carrots, beets and onions all work just as well.
Preserving with sugar
Jams and jellies are delicious as well as beautiful–and they also prolong the use (and taste) of fresh fruit. With a high sugar content, these tasty treats offer an environment harmful to bacteria but (relatively) benign to humans. Of course, too much sugar can harm humans as well.
Which method is best?
Every method of preserving has its pros and cons. The method you choose will depend on what you’re preserving, the size of your storage space, how much time you have and your budget.
Here are a few things to consider before you begin.
|Freezing||Fast and simple. Stores longer without freezer burn when vacuum sealing.||Uses more electricity than other methods.|
|Canning||Uses little electricity for long term storage. Many crops can be done inexpensively.||Can be more time intensive than some methods.
|Freeze drying||Fast and relatively simple. Preserves flavor and nutrients.||More expensive up front cost.|
|Fermenting||Low cost, safe and easy to do.||Flavor of foods not to everyone's tastes. Takes several days to complete.|
|Pickling||Tasty and easy to do for beginners. Uses little electricity.||Higher salt content than other methods.|
|Preserving with sugar||Delicious and simple. Preserves fruit flavor, color and texture.||Not suitable for those on reduced sugar diets.|
|Dehydrating||Fast and simple. Relatively low cost for a product that stores longer.||Some flavor lost. Foods can be tougher to chew.|
Harvest and preservation tips
While each method has its own procedures and recipes, here are some general rules of thumb to make your home preservation as simple and as delicious as possible.
- Always use the freshest fruits and vegetables that you can find. If you’re fermenting, pick in the morning for the highest water content. If dehydrating, harvest in the afternoon after the sun has had the chance to concentrate flavors.
- Use only clean tools and equipment. Canning instructions will remind you to sterilize jars and lids. Fermenting and other methods also need bacteria-free surfaces and tools. Wash hands frequently with soap and water and follow any sterilization instructions carefully.
- Follow recipes precisely. Recipes for home preservation are carefully calibrated for flavor and safety. Don’t substitute vinegars or other acidic ingredients, since the percent of acetic acid is important to the overall pH of the recipe. If you’re looking to reduce salt or sugar for health reasons, use a low-sodium or low-sugar recipe tested for that purpose.
- Mix ingredients thoroughly. When fermenting, make sure salt is evenly distributed. In canning and pickling, salt and vinegars must be evenly mixed for best results.
- Use timers and thermometers. Most home food preserving recipes will require you to time your foods while processing. Invest in a good quality timer that works without fail. If you’re dehydrating fresh food, make sure your dehydrator has a temperature gauge in the range of 85 to 150 degrees. A fan or blower will help your food dry more evenly. If using a pressure canner, periodically test your pressure gauge to make sure everything is working properly.
- Read more before you start from the resources below. Preserving your garden’s bounty at home is fun and exciting. Make it safe, too!