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 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 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 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.
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.
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 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 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.