Archive for ‘Preservation Tips and Tricks’

June 4, 2013

Preservation Tips and Tricks – Drying

In this final installment of Preservation Tips and Tricks, we’ll talk about one of the oldest and most traditional forms of preservation: hanging stuff up to dry!

It’s as easy as suspending the produce somewhere dark and dry (don’t use your basement!) and letting the air do the work for you. I find this method works really well with herbs – I dry mint, lavender, and rosemary to use throughout the winter.

Dried herbs are great for making your own herbal teas. Some also work well at repelling mosquitoes – just throw them in the campfire and the smoke helps to keep the bugs away. I’ve used dried lavender in scones a few times and thought it was fantastic.

I’ve tried drying apples instead of dehydrating them and found that fruit flies got to be too much of an issue. This year, I’m growing corn in my garden and I know that requires some drying time as well before you grind it up into cornmeal. We’ll see how that goes.

Thanks for following along! Are there any other preservation methods that you’ve tried or would like to hear more about?

June 3, 2013

Preservation Tips and Tricks – Freezing

In an ideal world, I own both a vacuum sealer and a chest freezer that doesn’t freezer burn everything that I put in it. However, since we do not live in an ideal world, I’ll share a few of my botched attempts at freezing as a preservation method!

The only success I’ve ever had with freezing was when I made a huge batch of soup from these carrots:

I froze the soup into individual-sized portions and enjoyed it for lunch. I think it worked out so well because the house we were staying at happened to have a really good fridge and freezer. Every other time I’ve tried freezing produce (including with our current fridge/freezer) it’s gotten freezer burnt and gross!

I think in theory freezing is a great idea. If done right, you maintain the freshness of the produce more than any other method. Most instructions for freezing produce suggest blanching it ever so slightly and then submerging it in cold water to seal in the flavor. Dry off the excess moisture, and then seal the product in freezer bags, getting as much of the air out of the bag as possible. You can see where a good freezer and a vacuum sealer would really come in handy for this method!

In the future, I would really like to get a chest freezer – not just for vegetables, but for purchasing local meat/fish in large quantities and being able to store them. I also really enjoy frozen fruit in my green smoothies, and how awesome would it be to be able to use mostly fruit that I’ve grown myself?

Being that I don’t have much practical experience to share with freezing, I wanted to share an AWESOME article I came across recently that gives tons of advice and information on using freezing as a preservation method. Makes me want a chest freezer even more 🙂 Check it out!

June 2, 2013

Preservation Tips and Tricks – Dehydrating

Congratulations! You made it through Canning 101! As I said, I personally find canning to be the most laborious of all preservation methods – the other ones that I’ve tried are much simpler, albeit somewhat limited in their usage.

Today, we’re going to talk about dehydrating.

Dehydrating is a good example of how a preserved product can be just as good or even tastier than the original product. I use a regular old dehydrator that I got as a Christmas gift from my parents – nothing fancy. I’ve done both fruits and vegetables on it and I’ve tossed around the idea of trying to do jerky but haven’t taken the plunge yet.

My experience with dehydrating is that it tends to caramelize the natural sugars and leaves you with a shrunken but very flavorful version of whatever you started with. Fruit that I’ve dehydrated at home tastes even better than candy. Dehydrated cherry/grape tomatoes are out of this world – they never last very long in our house!

Obviously, dried fruits and vegetables lose some of their nutritional value when you reduce their liquid, so dried produce shouldn’t be substituted for fresh produce. However, it is a really good way to make something new and different out of your excess. For example, around Christmas one of Jason’s co-workers always gives a a big fruit basket with lots of apples. We could never eat that many apples in a given week, so I sliced them up, sprinkled them with cinnamon, and set them out in the dehydrator overnight. They were a delicious AND healthy treat during all the crazy sugar overload of Christmas.

One word of caution when it comes to dehydrating: avoid trying to dehydrate things with lots of liquid and soft flesh. It takes a long, long time, and you’re left with very little substance once the water is gone. I tried drying oranges one year and it was a pretty miserable fail. Stick to firmer fruits and vegetables – apples, mangoes, strawberries, cukes, zucchini, and firm tomatoes are all great choices.

Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Wash and dry your produce and slice it into very thin slices (if you have a Mandoline, which I don’t, use it for this!)
  2. Lay out your sliced produce on the dehydrator sheets. They shouldn’t be touching, but they can be very close together.
  3. Turn the thing on! Mine only has one setting, so that’s all that I use.
  4. I usually set the dehydrator in an unused room overnight and by the next day, the produce is good. You’ll want your produce to be free of any excess moisture, and have a texture that is slightly chewy or even crunchy.
  5. Store in ziploc bags or mason jars. For added freshness, you can freeze your products.
  6. Be sure to clean the dehydrator sheets really well in between uses to avoid contamination.

I know there are other ways of dehydrating – harnessing solar power, leaving the oven door open and cooking them at a low setting, or even leaving stuff out to dry. For me, using my dehydrator presents the least amount of hassle. When I’m not using it, I store it in the basement with my canning equipment.

This year, I would like to try experimenting with sheets of waxed paper over the shelves so that I can make fruit rolls. I’ll let you know how that goes down!

June 1, 2013

Preservation Tips and Tricks – Canning 101

Canning is, in my opinion, one of the most work intensive forms of preservation. It takes a few years to get the hang of it. I finally feel like I’m more than comfortable working with a big pot of boiling water, lifting heavy jars up and down, and timing everything so that my recipe is ready to go by the time the jars are sterilized. I find it to be the most fun when I do it with a few other people around – have a canning party! Typically, Jason is my canning partner and we enjoy doing it together.

The benefit of canning is that, once you’ve made the initial investment of time and work, you have jars of shelf-stable food that won’t take up room in your fridge or freezer. Plus, they make great gifts – who doesn’t love to receive a mason jar of homemade jam or pickles?

So, without further ado, here’s the rundown on canning.

Pressure Canners Vs. Water Bath
All my life, I’ve canned with a water bath canner  – a large pot with a rack that holds mason jars so you can submerge them in boiling water to seal the lids. Like I mentioned before, my siblings and I gave my dad a pressure canner for Christmas but we have yet to give it a try.

My understanding of the the main different between a pressure canner and a water bath canner is temperature – pressure canners can achieve a higher temperatures at which they jars are sealed and therefore is able to kill off more bacteria. Water bath canners can only get so high in temperature and therefore whatever you’re canning needs some preservation aids – acidity (in the form of vinegar, citrus juice, or natural acidity in the product) or sugar. Typically, you’re limited to pickles, jams, and salsas when you can with a water bath. I use the term “limited” loosely because there is quite a bit you can do in those categories!

Pressure canners, on the other hand, have almost no limitations to what you can can because they don’t need any acidity or sugar to aid in the preservation process. While I’ve never worked with one myself, I’ve enjoyed a few of the products of pressure canning here and there.  I’ve also heard some of the tantalizing recipes people have preserved with pressure canners – beef stew, fingerling potatoes, and any type of vegetable you can imagine.  I’m a bit intimidated by something that can blow up if not used properly…but I’m sure that, like anything, once you learn how to do it you become comfortable and even efficient at it.

Boo gave me my water bath canner as a birthday gift two years ago.

It came with the rack for the jars and some nifty tools – a funnel, a jar grip, a magnetic wand for the lids, and a nice pair of tongs. My husband sure knows how to give me good gifts! I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a rototiller this year ;).

When you can with any type of canner, you will store your preserves in mason jars fitted with a two-part cover that consists of a metal band a flat metal lid with a rubber seal. You can’t reuse old jars you get from buying pasta sauce or pickles because you won’t be able to get a good seal with the lids. Some people buy their mason jars from thrift stores, but personally I’ve found that it’s just cheaper to buy them new in the summer – my Goodwill charges between .49 and .99 cents a jar, while I can get a 12-pack of new jars for $6. Once you buy the jars and bands, you can reuse them over and over provided they don’t get cracked or rusted. However, the seal on the flat lids is only good for one use. After that, you can reuse them to store things like beans or seeds, but not for preservation purposes.

Because it’s just Jason and I, I can almost everything in pint-size jars. I make a few quarts here and there to bring to parties or to give as gifts to larger families, but for the most part a pint jar is the perfect size for us to finish off.

Time and Effort
Canning requires heating up a large pot of water to boiling point, which means it requires water, time, and energy. Keep in mind that a lot of your canning will need to be done during harvest periods to get the freshest product – you will likely be sweating up a storm in a steamy kitchen while you do this. Depending on the complexity of the recipe I’m using, I find that canning a batch of something will take about an hour to two hours, so budget your time accordingly! Things like pickles and jams take less time than something that requires a lot of chopping, like salsa. Also, items with lots of sugar or acidity will spend less time in the boiling water – tomato based products are the lowest acidity item you can water bath can, and so they need a longer soak.

There are LOTS of recipes out there that are suitable for water-bath canning. I’d avoid anything that contains dairy or seems to lack in preservation aids (acidity or sugar). Feel free to make substitutes with acidity – swap out regular vinegar for apple cider vinegar, add lime or lemon juice to tomato recipes, or add a little bit of citrus zest to jams. Personally, I prefer my pickled goods with ACV instead of regular vinegar.

Here’s how it’s done:

Here is a basic routine for water-bath canning:

  1. Wash all of your equipment – jars, lids, bands, canner, and tools – in warm, soapy water. You could also run them through the dishwasher.
  2. Fill your canner up with water so that you have a good inch to two inches  above the tops of the jars.
  3. Get that water boiling! You can work on your recipe while this is going on to save yourself some time.
  4. When the water comes to a rolling boil, set your empty jars in the rack and toss in your lids and bands. Submerge the whole thing – your jars may tip over as they fill up with water, and that’s totally OK.
  5. Let the jars and lids boil for ten minutes. This is the sanitizing step that will (ideally) kill of any bacteria on the jars.
  6. After the ten minutes has elapsed, turn the burner off but leave everything in the hot water to keep it sterile.
  7. When your recipe is ready (and this varies by recipe) pull the jars, lids and bands out with your tongs and set them on a clean towel. If you’re pickling something, this is when you would add the veggies into your jars and then pour the vinegar mixture over them. If you’re doing salsa or jam, just add the mixture to the jars leaving the recommended amount of headspace (usually 1/2 to 1/4 inch).
  8. Using a clean rag or paper towel, wipe any excess mixture off the rim of the jars and put the covers on. Tighten the band until it can’t turn anymore.
  9. Pop those jars of goodness right back into your pot of hot water and submerge them. Turn on the heat, and start timing the water bath from when the water begins boiling again (again, timing varies by recipe). Note: you may need to add more water due to evaporation.
  10. When the recommended amount of time has elapsed, pull the jar out and set them on clean towels.
  11. Now comes the fun part – the heat will create an air tight seal on the lids that you (should) be able to hear – a nice little “pop” as they snap smooth against the tops of the jars. Sometimes, stuff “pops” while in the water, so it’s always a good idea to gently tap the tops to make sure there’s no give.
  12. I usually give my stuff a couple of hours to seal, and then leave it sit on the counter for a day undisturbed. If you notice one of your jars hasn’t sealed up after a few hours, stick it in the fridge and eat it up right away.

That’s it! You did it!

Here is the canner I use.
Here is an idea of what I use for canning tools
Here is the pressure canner we bough my dad
Pickled banana peppers
Rhubarb Ginger jam
My favorite pickle recipe

May 31, 2013

Preserving Tips and Tricks – Preservation Methods

After giving it some thought, I decided to do a couple of posts on the topic of preserving in general. When people find out that I’ve canned before, they either already know how to do it themselves or know nothing at all about it. So, if you’re a beginner and interested in learning how to preserve, here are the basic preservation methods:

  • Freezing
  • Water-bath canning
  • Pressure canning
  • Fermentation
  • Dehydrating
  • Drying
  • Smoking

I’ve had experience freezing, water bath canning, drying, and dehydrating. I’m hoping that this year will be the year that I get some more experience in the other methods (pressure canning and fermenting in particular), and so hopefully I’ll have more insight on those methods as the harvest progresses.

A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of preserving at home – what if something goes terribly wrong and you end up getting sick? Here is one things I’ve learned in the past few years of preserving: you know when something is off. I would be lying if I said that every single thing I’ve ever preserved lasted or stayed fresh. We’ve had a few jars of salsa get really discolored and could tell as soon as we popped the lid off that something was amiss. We’ve opened up jam jars and seen a skim of mold at the top. We’ve certainly had to toss some frozen goods because they got really freezer burnt. But I’ve grown up eating preserved foods, and never once have I gotten sick from eating something that I thought was safe and turned out not to be. When in doubt, give it a sniff. Take a tiny spoonful and taste it. Inspect the texture. It’s pretty easy to see if something is amiss, so don’t worry too much about accidentally ingesting spoiled food.

Preservation maintains only some of the taste and texture of the original product. A jar of tomato sauce will not taste or feel the exact same as a fresh tomato, so if you’re hoping to enjoy the taste of fresh tomatoes all winter, you’ll be wasting your time. However, sometimes the difference in taste and texture is equal or even an improvement of the original product. Dehydrating cherry tomatoes produces the sweetest little nuggets to add to pizzas and pastas (or eat straight out of the bag, hehe). Pickling fresh green beans gives you a tart, crunchy treat that’s wonderful to crack open in the middle of winter and eat as a snack.

Another piece of advice that I’ve learned over the years: preserve what you will eat. One year, Jason and I made several jars of plum salsa using plums we got from a tree in my parent’s yard.

Don’t get me wrong, it was good…but the flavor was sort of unique and only went well as a sauce for a handful of dishes. It was a lot of time and effort for something that was really more of a specialty item and therefore it didn’t get used up. Last year, I had a bumper crop of banana peppers and ended up canning quite a bit of them. Now, I love banana peppers on my sandwiches and in salads, but two people can only eat maybe one jar of banana peppers in any given week.

I gave some away to friends and that helped deplete the stash. Still, we have a few unused jars in our cupboard that we’ll need to be more conscientious about eating.

My final piece of basic advice about preservation is this: Don’t feel bad if you can’t preserve it all. Preservation requires time and effort, and your finished product should be worth what you put into it either in quality, personal satisfaction, or cost. Like I said, some things just don’t taste good preserved and should be enjoyed fresh for the season that they’re growing. If you’re composting, add your excess fruits and vegetables to your compost pile and use them to regenerate the soil they grew from. Give them away to neighbors. See if a local food pantry is accepting donations of fresh food. There are a lot of things you can do to avoid feeling like you’ve wasted all of your hard work that you put into growing your food, so don’t feel guilty if you’re not able to can every single tomato you grow!