Whether your garden is overflowing with produce or you just want to put something local in the pantry, learning to preserve food lets you preserve the bounty of the fall.
By Cinda Chavich | Photo by Stocksy
More of us may be focused on stocking the larder this year, but the idea of keeping enough food on hand for leaner months is universal. People have been preserving since the beginning of time — it was a matter of survival.
Today we may look to the freezer or even a high-tech dehydrator to save our fresh fruits and vegetables from spoilage. But even before there were canning jars and pressure cookers, there was a tradition of salting, fermenting and drying food for extended storage.
It was only in the 20th century that home canning — putting up everything from fruity jams and jellies to canned tomatoes, pickles and fish in sealed jars — became popular. And though it may have skipped a few generations, there’s renewed interest in these simple preservation skills.
So take a page from the past, and gather your family and friends for a home preserving bee. Hit the farmer’s markets and green grocers for Okanagan cherries and peaches, help a neighbour pick the apples and plums from a backyard tree, or take a drive out to a Saanich farm for a peck of peppers, a bushel of berries or a case of tomatoes.
Island Farm Fresh (islandfarmfresh.com) offers details about farm markets, and the interactive Vancouver Island Farms & Food Map (bcfarmsandfood.com/farm-map) lists hundreds of farm stands, CSAs and U-picks.
Preserving your own food saves money, and it’s a great way to support the local food system, reduce waste and have a well-stocked pantry, filled with Island flavour.
The safest foods for home canning are those that are high in sugar or acidity. Jars of preserved fruits, jams, pickles, relishes, chutneys, salsas and canned tomatoes are a good place to start. Acidity must be 4.6 or less for safe canning at home, so start with high-acid foods or acidify with vinegar to ensure food is properly conserved. The Bernardin website (bernardin.ca) is a reliable source of tested recipes and detailed canning instructions.
You’ll need a deep canning pot and sterilized canning jars with two-part sealing lids. A candy thermometer, jar lifter, and wide-mouthed funnel are useful tools too.
Simmer your jam, salsa or relish in a wide pan to quickly reach the right consistency or gelling stage, then fill jars and process. Some things — like dill pickles or canned peaches — can be “cold packed” (raw) in jars, then covered with a hot salt and vinegar brine or sugar syrup before processing.
To safely preserve canned foods, submerge jars in boiling water in the canning pot, and process for the time specified in the recipe. After cooling, check jars to make sure the lids pop (downwards) and seal properly before storing. Refrigerate any that don’t seal.
It’s both the pH and the processing (heat) that destroys harmful micro-organisms to preserve the food in the jars, so use a modern recipe and follow it exactly (i.e., don’t cut the sugar or acid in a recipe or reduce processing times).
Water bath canning is not safe for low acid foods — you will need to invest in a pressure canner if you want to can jars of fish, meat or low-acid vegetables.
A dedicated freezer is a good investment for quick and easy food storage.
Most vegetables must be blanched before freezing. Just boil for a minute or two, then chill in ice water and drain well before packaging. Tomatoes can be frozen whole without blanching — convenient to use in stews and sauces. Grate zucchini and freeze in one-cup portions for future baking projects.
You can also make jams and freeze (without processing), or freeze a big batch of roasted bell peppers that have been charred on the barbecue, peeled and bagged. I like to make big batches of tomato sauce, caponata or creamed corn to freeze when fresh local vegetables are in season too.
To ensure food lasts longer in the freezer, remove as much air as possible from packages. A home vacuum sealing system is the best way to package meats and vegetables and vastly extends the shelf life of frozen food.
Sun drying is the oldest method of ways to preserve food, and today you can easily dry a bumper crop of apples, apricots, berries or tomatoes in a home dehydrator. I like to dry the tart heirloom apples from local backyard trees for healthy snacks — just peel, slice and dip in water with a splash of lemon juice (to prevent browning) before setting out on the trays to dry. You can also make “sundried” tomatoes this way, or puree mixed berries to dry for fruit leather snacks. Slice garlic to dry, then make garlic powder by grinding in a coffee grinder.
When properly dried, food lasts indefinitely in an airtight container on a cool, dry, dark shelf.
Fermenting and Pickling
Another ancient method of how to preserve food is fermentation. For homemade sauerkraut or kimchi, chop or shred cabbage (with carrots, garlic and/or ginger, and chilies), then combine with salt and pack tightly into a Mason jar. Press down until enough liquid is released to cover the vegetables. Cover the jars loosely, and set aside at room temperature for several days to allow the wild bacteria to ferment and acidify (sour) the mixture. Cap and refrigerate your fermented vegetables for longer storage.
You can also make pickled cucumbers, carrot sticks, green beans or beets with a hot vinegar and salt brine, sometimes with sugar or spices. This kind of pickle (including relish, chutney and salsa) should be preserved using the boiling water bath processing method.
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