Beyond Canning

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Whether drying, freezing, salt-curing, or fermenting, food preservation means different things to different cultures.
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Chinese cooks add dried daylily blooms to soups, stir fries, and other dishes.
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Drying is an ideal preservation method since most fruits and vegetables dry well and the process requires little or no equipment — simply a low level of heat and moving air. Shown are dried bamboo shoots, radishes, and carrots.
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Pickling is simply adding an acid to food in order to prevent spoilage and to keep harmful bacteria from forming on the food. Shown are pickled garlic scapes.
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Pack chopped herbs in an ice cube tray, top with water, broth, butter or olive oil, and then freeze. The cubes make an excellent start for sautes.

On a late summer afternoon several years ago, I was given the task of running out to the pier over my parents’ pond to bring in the fish before it started storming. These fish, wrapped loosely in paper towels, had been sun drying for days now. After drying fully, they would be preserved in salted oil. I had never had this salted fish before, but they said it was the thing. A simple, homely dish — a little bit of salted fish with each bite of a plain, white, steamed bun. We all looked forward to it. It was delicious.

What my parents didn’t know is that despite the salted fish with steamed bun being flavorful, simple, and satisfying, each bite also brought me closer to the life and part of China that I would never know. A life that is told to me in fits and starts, and of bittersweet emotion. Eating the foods they ate as children in the village of Shantung, China, and saving foods with methods they used brings me closer to them and their world in a way that words cannot bridge.

I imagine it is the same for the child who grew up alongside his mother at the stove, steam pouring from the top of a gigantic canning pot, awaiting the apple butter, or jam, or tomato sauce to emerge from the wire rack. I know it was the same for my friend Don, who a year after his mother died, opened the remaining jar of pickled beets with his siblings and with one taste of her preserved vegetables, sweet memories flooded back.


Beyond Canning

Beyond the sentimental factors
are the practical reasons for preserving
food. My father is from a rural, but educated,
well-off family. No one would know
this, though, because with the onset of
Communism, all material wealth was
stripped, and villagers in Shantung, China,
starved for decades. My father tended a
farm and a smaller garden plot solely for
survival. Napa cabbages, radishes, turnips
and a few other crops did well in their
climate, but there were no pantry items,
no means for jarring tomato sauce, no
freezer in which to store berries. Before
the ground froze, my father and other villagers
would dig giant pits in their nearby
family garden plots. In the pit would go
all the cold-weather harvests for winter
storage. Each week, he would remove the
snow and dirt cover and dig out a few cabbages
to feed his brother and mother.

Today, like many other blessed and
seasoned gardeners, he has an abundance
of fruits and vegetables and spends many
days of his retired life making deliveries
to friends. But all the excess doesn’t have
to be given away. Preserving food allows gardeners to live more self-sufficiently and more assuredly that the literal fruits of their
labors can be enjoyed even when the seasons
change. Even with my small backyard
potager, I am routinely able to make many
jars of strawberry jam, hot-pepper jelly,
pickled vegetables, several bottles of dried
herbs, bags of frozen lingonberries, dried
red-pepper flakes, and sun-dried tomatoes.
The pride that comes with preserving food
and presenting it later matches, or maybe
even exceeds, the pride of producing that
vegetable in the first place. I also routinely
give holiday gift baskets containing some
items I’ve preserved. This year, my gift will
contain a jar of maple bourbon blackberries,
a bottle of pure maple syrup, and my
favorite pancake mix.

Pick a method

Numerous methods for food preservation
exist. To figure out which method you will
use, consider the food, the anticipated use,
and how the method of preservation will
affect the taste. My friend Grace freezes
most of her berries — and freezes just about
everything else she can! Grace also has a
large fridge and basement freezers. For
me, freezing berries is not practical because I have little room in my freezer, and
also, a defrosted berry is a little too soft for
my liking — a side effect of freezing foods
with a high water content. Below, I’ve
listed several of the most popular methods
for preserving your harvest. Consider the
best method for all your harvesting this
season so you’ll enjoy enough fresh food
now, and even more for later!

Drying

Drying meats, fruits, and vegetables is
one of the oldest methods of preserving
food, and separate cultures around the
world were likely drying foods simultaneously.
Historical methods of sun and
wind drying are still used today. Drying
is an ideal method since most fruits and
vegetables dry well, and the process
requires little or no equipment — simply
a low level of heat and moving air. The
concept is also simple: When water is
removed, there is no means for bacteria
and mold to grow, preserving the fruit
or vegetable. Fruits may only need to be
rinsed and thoroughly patted dry, but
most vegetables will need to be blanched
in hot water or blanched in a steamer first. The idea is not to cook the food, but
to quickly stop the enzyme actions. This
process cleanses the vegetable, retards
the loss of vitamins, and also brings out
the best color in dried foods.

My father’s circular driveway is famous
for being spotted with large woven baskets
and I always look to see what is being
dried. Sun-drying is most effective in a climate
that is hot and dry. It is easy to forget
your vegetables quietly drying in the sun
though, so take care to bring them indoors
if the weather turns! In areas that are not
quite warm enough, or are humid, sun drying
may not be the best option as the food
may rot before it ever dries out.

People in humid climates, or those who
simply want to dry indoors, can invest in
a food dehydrator — a small appliance that
provides a low level of heat in which to dry
foods quickly. The foods to be dried are
placed on trays that stack inside the unit.
Most dehydrators also come with special
screens that are great for making fruit
leather out of pureed fruit. I have found
that with food dehydrators, you get what
you pay for. The more expensive versions
with small fans built in tend to dry foods
more quickly and evenly, while cheaper
units tend to take longer, require more manual rotating of trays and checking in.

With a small kitchen like mine, lack
of space requires that I keep my appliances
to a minimum; so I simply rely on
my oven to dry foods. I set the temperature
to the lowest setting, crack the door
slightly so moisture can escape, and dry
my vegetables or fruits on a wire rack. A
rack of vegetables needs to be rotated to
dry evenly, and will usually take about four to eight
hours to dry fully. I always set a timer to
go off in about 30-minute increments so I
don’t forget to check on them. Completely
dried foods feel fully dry but are still
somewhat pliable and should be stored in
air-tight containers in a cool place. To use
dehydrated vegetables, simply place in a
bowl and just cover with warm water. Allow
about an hour or two for vegetables
to rehydrate.

One of the joys of gardening is the
herb garden. I love to cut fresh herbs year round,
but do try to cut some for drying
too. The time to cut herbs is when they’re
at their best — early in the morning and at
the stage just before flowering. Loosely
tie a small bunch of stems and hang in a
warm, dry place. Once completely dried,
remove leaves, crumble and store in an
air-tight container. Herbs can also be dried in the oven. It is easier to remove leaves
from stem first before placing on a cookie
sheet. It takes about an hour for leaves
to dry completely. Dried herbs lose their
flavor after about 12 months, so be liberal
with use throughout the year!

Salt curing

Salt curing is similar to drying in that the
ultimate goal is to desiccate the food so
that it can be saved for later. In the medieval
ages, people relied on salt-cured
meats at times when fresh meat was not
available. Typically, nicer and fattier cuts
of meat were preserved. Because salt was
not cheap, leaner, stringier cuts of meat
such as mutton were not processed. It
was literally “not worth its salt.” Salt curing
is mostly a process for meat, but in
my culture, we salt cure eggs, fish, and a
tree leaf called heung tsun. To use, the
salt is lightly rinsed off and then cut and
cooked with other foods. Salt-cured foods
are generally used in small quantities since
a small amount packs a flavorful kick.

Freezing

Ancient man learned quickly that food
from a big kill would need to be saved for
continued sustenance. From ice, to cold streams, to caves, cellars and my father’s
frozen cache of cold crops, freezing is an
easy method to store and prolong the
freshness of food.

On occasions that I freeze fruits, I
typically freeze them in small zip-top bags.
Each bag may contain just enough to top
pancakes or to make a smoothie. Fruits
thrown in a bag will tend to freeze in a
solid block. As an alternative to freezing
in individually portioned bags, fruits and
vegetables or pieces of vegetables can
be spaced out on a tray and placed in
the freezer. Once frozen, the pieces are
poured into a container and back into the
freezer. These fruits or vegetables will be
individually frozen and will allow you to
take out as few or as many fruits as you
need. When freezing vegetables, blanching,
particularly steam blanching, before
freezing will help preserve the color and
texture of the vegetable.

Herbs are great frozen. A neat trick is
to pack chopped herbs in an ice cube tray
and then top with water, broth, butter
or olive oil and then freeze. Once frozen,
the little cubes of herbs can be stored in
a bag. These herb cubes are an excellent
starting point for any recipe. Regardless of
what you’re freezing, store frozen foods
in air-tight containers to help prevent
freezer burn and the resulting off flavors.
Freezer bags are a good choice as they’re
thick and also prevent freezer burn. They
also don’t take up more space than you
need for the food you’re freezing, like a
bulky container might. Be sure to squeeze
out air before closing the bag all the way.
Clearly label each bag to avoid standing in
front of the freezer, scratching your head
wondering what the bag you’re holding
contains. You’re sure you’ll remember, but
if you’re like me, you won’t! To use frozen
foods, thaw in the refrigerator overnight.

Fermenting

Both fermenting and pickling can be
considered happy accidents because they
were likely discovered rather than invented.
Beer is one of the most celebrated
products of fermentation and evidence
shows that it has been around since as
far back as the 5th millennium B.C. Other
popular fermented products are wine,
kombucha, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut,
and many cheeses. In the fermentation
process, microorganisms beat out harmful
bacteria and use up the carbohydrates.
The resulting product is one that can be
stored for a prolonged period, and also
one that has a new unique flavor often very different from the original food.
These foods also tend to be more nutritious
due to the process of fermentation.

Though other methods of food
preservation are more straightforward,
fermenting is a great method if you enjoy
a specific kind of food and want to
make it yourself. Fermenting can also be
a fascinating method for those gardeners
who are science experimenters at heart.
Anyone who has made his or her own
kombucha tea knows what I mean!

Pickling

Pickling has a long history on just about
every continent. Anthropologists believe
that the ancient Mesopotamians pickled
vegetables. Julius Caesar was known
to give his army pickles in an effort to
build strength and stamina. Christopher
Columbus brought pickles to the United
States by way of Haiti, where he grew
cucumbers expressly for pickling. By the
1920s, the USDA published standards for making pickles at home. Essentially, pickling is adding
an acid to food in order to prevent spoilage and to keep
harmful bacteria from forming on the food. There are
two main types of pickles. The quickest type of pickle
to make is a simple process of peeling, cutting and
packing the vegetable, then covering with vinegar and
desired spices. This type of pickle is sometimes called
a refrigerator pickle or quick pickle. The acid in the
vinegar makes it possible to store the pickle in the refrigerator
for months.

Salt-cured or brined pickles are another type. To salt-cure
or brine pickles, vegetables are peeled and soaked
in a salty brine. The salt preserves, but the brine also
ferments the food and as a result, creates the acidity
to prevent spoilage. This method is more fussy as it requires
daily skimming of foam off the top as it forms.
After about three weeks, the brined pickles can be canned
using the boiling-water canning method. When pickling
vegetables, the type of vinegar used is an important
consideration. Typically, white distilled vinegar or cider
vinegar is used. Cider vinegar has a milder taste, but
can also darken lighter vegetables. Some other types
of vinegar can be used, but the vinegar must contain
at least 5 percent acidity. There are many pickle recipes
but all can be adapted by adjusting the amount of
sugar used and varying spices and herbs. Keep in mind
though, how these extra ingredients may affect the
pickle. For example, the flavor of dried herbs and spices
(such as clove) will intensify if packed in a jar and stored.
Clove for example, may also darken certain foods.
Often, fresh herbs are more flavorful than dried, and
won’t intensify in an unpredictable way once canned.

Canning

Canning was invented as a process for preserving food
around 1800 when chef and all-around foodie of his
time, Nicolas Appert of France, discovered that heating
containers would prolong the life of food. It took him
many trials to make this important discovery, though
he didn’t fully understand how the process worked. He
suspected that air was responsible for food spoilage
and that heating the food made the air innocuous. It
was not until 130 years later that state extension offices
began to teach people the boiling-water canning
method to preserve food. Through the next few
decades, canning became deemed general knowledge
for homemakers — a subject taught in high school home
economics classes.

In the canning process, fresh fruits or vegetables
are picked at prime ripeness, cooked down in a recipe
(such as jam or ketchup), or simply packed in a glass
jar, topped off with a liquid, and then sealed with a lid.
The jars of food are lowered into a large canning pot
of boiling water and heated to a safe point — about 10 to 30 minutes. This process kills microorganisms
that can cause food to spoil and creates
a vacuum seal to prevent any remaining
bacteria from growing. Canned foods can
be stored on the shelf for about a year.

To determine the best foods for canning,
it’s important to consider the acidity of
the food. Most fruits are acidic enough to
can using a boiling-water canning method,
while less acidic foods such as most vegetables,
will need to be canned with a pressure
canner, which has the ability to heat foods
to temperatures high enough to ensure
that bacteria is killed and the food is safe
for storage. Canning does require a bit of
equipment to begin — a large canning pot, a
good rack for lowering and raising jars from
the water (and for keeping glass jars from
making direct contact with the pot), canning
tongs, and the jars, lids, and screw rings.
Jars and the screw rings can be reused, but
a new lid must be used each time to provide
a proper seal. A lot of other equipment can
be purchased to make the canning process
easier if you wish to invest. Borrowing from
a friend might help you decide what you
need and what you don’t need.

One of the most helpful things for me
was to have an experienced canner share
some tips and walk me through her process.
I learned many short cuts such as sterilizing
and heating my clean jars in the oven. From
gathering equipment, to reading the instructions
over and over, to cleaning up some
big messes, canning can be an intimidating
process. If you’ve never canned before, get
a good book about the basics of canning
because there are far too many details to
review here. Read about the process thoroughly,
find a recipe you love and then go
for it. Your first try may take half a day, but
after a few batches, you’ll feel like an expert
too. And the best part of each canning session?
A loud pop at the end of the process
tells you how well you did!

Although these days there tends to be
less of a need to preserve food for sheer
survival, many gardeners do aim to live as
self-sufficiently as possible. Because there
have always been seasonal shifts with a
period of abundance and a period of shortage,
food preservation has been integral
since the beginning of time. With a little
preparation, this time of year’s abundance
is just a precursor for the great food that
gardeners can enjoy throughout the
months until next spring.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.