Preserving the fruits (and vegetables) of your labor
By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD - Extension Educator/Food Safety
Featured Article - posted Wed., Sep. 5, 2012
Those of us who work hard to coax our backyard gardens to produce that perfectly red and flavorful tomato (sometimes even when facing a summer that includes blight and floods) are often rewarded with more than we can ever eat before the inevitable signs of spoilage set in. Or, you may inspect your plot daily to avoid growing the baseball bat-sized zucchini, while ending up with more tasty and small-seeded summer squash than you could possibly eat in whole month of September!
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the practice of home-canning had been waning. Changes in lifestyle (even I do not grow the amount of food that I used to - largely because preserving it took so much time), changes in diets (who really eats all those sugary jams and jellies any more?) and even the lack of role models (I used to watch my mother can tomatoes, peaches and strawberry jam, lining our basement storage shelves with colorful glass jars) had made canning something anyone under the age of 30 reads about in novels set early in the last century.
But there appears to be a resurgence of interest. The recession may have added numbers to the home vegetable garden ranks and, consequently, these new gardeners need to figure out what to do with all that excess produce.
Prolific gardeners have several choices: give the food away to neighbors; share your bounty with a local food pantry; feed your compost pile (clearly not the best choice); or learn to can, freeze, dehydrate or cold-store your excess for use during the long, gardenless Connecticut winter. If you want to go down the food preservation road and you are wondering where to start, read on.
While some consider canning to be very scary (the number-one cause of botulism poisoning in the U.S. is home-canned foods!), it is really quite easy and can be accomplished simply by following some good, well-researched directions. If it is your first attempt at home canning, it makes sense to start with something relatively simple and less risky. Higher acid foods such as applesauce, canned fruits such as peaches, jams and pickles require only basic canning knowledge, some glass canning jars and a large canning pot or other large pot tall enough to accommodate the jars, a rack to place the jars on so that they do not rest on the bottom of the pot, and water that is deep enough to cover the jars by 1 or 2 inches.
Once you get the process down, you may want to tackle the somewhat more complicated use of a pressure canner. Do not be scared by pressure canners. These days they are constructed with a variety of safety features which just about eliminate the risk of an explosion while canning green beans. Pressure canners must be used to process all low-acid foods such as vegetables (other than tomatoes - though use of a pressure canner significantly reduces the time and energy used when canning tomatoes), meats and fish.
Freezing is easier, but can be expensive
If canning seems to be just too much for you to handle, freezing is a good, though more costly, alternative. The cost of running a freezer, use of non-reuseable freezer bags, and the sometimes difficult task of managing a freezer full of food without losing bags of peppers or corn at the bottom or back of the freezer can make this a more costly choice. But, it is easy to do and not very risky. If you do something wrong when canning, you could make someone sick. If you do something wrong when freezing, your product may suffer from browning, freezer burn, or poor taste and texture. Keep in mind, also, that some produce simply will not freeze well - cabbage, celery, cress, cucumbers, endive, lettuce and other greens, and radishes are best eaten fresh.
Dehydration: intriguing, but not all that practical
Sun-dried tomatoes. Sounds so easy. Why can’t I do it at home? Well, one word can explain it all: humidity. In Connecticut, there is just too much humidity and too little heat (believe it or not) to dry tomatoes or anything else quickly enough for safety and quality using only the sun. If you are determined, it is possible to dry tomatoes and other moisture-high fruits and vegetables with the aid of an electric or solar dehydrator or oven. It is much easier and very possible to dry herbs - the drier heat of an attic is often enough to do the job without much fuss or attention.
While canning tomatoes for 45 minutes on your stove or dehydrating peaches for hours in an electric dehydrator may stress the energy bill, there is one method of home food preservation that will have very little impact on your electric meter. That is the use of a root cellar. Or, alternatively, your basement, outdoor storage cellars, garages or even outdoor pits. If you store food you harvested from your garden in the fall, you will be able to forego some of those more expensive fruits and veggies that are imported to your grocery store during the winter. Cabbage, apples, potatoes, onions and winter squashes are all candidates for this low-tech food preservation method.
No matter what method you choose, follow these three rules for success: Use reliable and up-to-date directions for your chosen method. The best source for home food preservation information is the USDA-funded National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia. The site is prepared and managed by food scientists and contains tested and approved recipes for just about every fruit and vegetable. In addition, if you have questions, you can send them along via e-mail and the staff is sure to respond in a timely fashion. The site includes information on canning, freezing, dehydration and storage of all types of foods, not just fruits and vegetables. The website can be found at: http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/.
Can, freeze or store produce that is in tip-top shape. Overripe fruits and vegetables or those with rot or mold are never going to improve after home food processing or cold storage. And they may cause food safety problems to boot. Use high-quality, just-picked, peak-of-ripeness produce whenever possible.
Be scrupulous about cleaning your utensils, equipment, work surfaces and your hands when doing this work. Look at a picture of a food processing plant sometime. There is no need for the hair nets, gloves or white coats at home, but attention to cleanliness and hygiene is essential!
For more information on home gardening topics and home food preservation, contact the University of Connecticut Home and Garden Education Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-486-6271.