Fresh, local fruit is one of the great joys of living where we do.
There is much to be done outdoors – plant garlic, collect seeds, tidy irrigation – but there is much to be done indoors, too. We are in the height of harvest season, and every available surface in our house is littered with canning jars, dehydrator trays and other preservation projects in various stages of completion. Our goal is to eat locally as much as possible, and in the dark months of winter and early spring, that means we eat from the pantry and freezer – but only if we’ve done the hard work in advance.
Homemade fruit leather makes a perfect healthy and portable snack.
Obviously, no one has to preserve and store the harvest any longer, and many would think the extra work we do this time of year is preposterous. Preservation is a dying art, because we live in a magical world where any food we might want, in season or not, is available with a single click. Also, most of us don’t grow our own food, so there’s even less incentive to preserve. Where our great-grandmothers might have been obligated to can their summer vegetables in order to have anything to eat in winter, we most definitely are not. And preserving can be tedious, time-consuming work. Why, then, go through all this extra effort?
Shredded zucchini, apples and carrots are portioned and frozen for easy muffins.
I preserve food for a lot of different reasons, but first and foremost I want to know what we’re eating. The modern food processing industry uses an arsenal of complicated, sketchy ingredients and technologies to store food in cans and jars, and I don’t want these unnecessary additives in our food. We also work really hard to grow food, and if we can’t eat it while it’s fresh, it seems a tragedy to just compost it – a huge waste of our time and effort, plus a lot of water. Preserving our own food also saves money – a single jar of high-end organic salsa could easily cost $7 – and though preserving takes time, it’s always worth it in darkest February when we’re able to eat something that tastes at least a little like summer. I also preserve because it allows me to make things that I’d never find in a store, and I can customize these foods to our own tastes. Fiery, garlicky fermented hot sauce? Pear-chocolate jam with crystallized ginger? Roasted red pepper and fennel confit? Applesauce made from just fresh, local apples and no added sugar? Making anything from scratch is about regaining some control over what we eat, rather than just blithely accepting whatever the big food companies choose to produce as cheaply as possible.
We dry, can and freeze our local peaches.
Preservation takes many forms, and to get the best results it’s important to understand the different methods and how they might affect the end product. Many people don’t think of freezing as preservation, but it’s certainly the most common nowadays. Like all preservation techniques, freezing alters the texture of food, so while it works well for some foods (most fruit freezes beautifully) it’s not great for others (lettuces and greens turn to mushy slime). We live in the heart of Colorado’s stone fruit region, so we freeze a lot of fresh peaches, cherries and apricots. If you find an amazing sale on fresh berries or another fruit you’d like to preserve, wash the fruit well and spread it in a single layer on a baking sheet. Once frozen solid, transfer the fruit into zip-top bags. This technique helps keep the fruit separated, rather than frozen together into one unusable chunk, and makes it easy to incorporate into smoothies, baked goods or jams. And while frozen vegetables get a bad rap, they’re frozen at the height of ripeness so are a much better choice than fresh most of the year. Plus, they’re priced really well! I’d rather eat frozen peas than starchy, out-of-season “fresh” peas any day.
Most of our peppers and tomatoes end up in salsa and hot sauce.
Water-bath canning is another common and easy preservation technique, and one that I use most frequently. Hot, sterilized glass jars are filled with salsa or jam or applesauce, or a million other foods, then the jars are vacuum-sealed in a pot of boiling water to create an airtight anaerobic environment where potentially harmful bacteria cannot survive. Canning works well for certain foods, but those foods need an acidic pH – not all foods are safe for water-bath canning – and in Colorado, at least, it’s imperative to adjust for altitude. Only use tested recipes for water-bath canning, and don’t create your own concoctions unless you have a reliable pH meter and a clear understanding of the science. Water-bath canning is definitely the most time-consuming method of food preservation, but if correctly processed the jars will last at least a year in a cool, dark, dry environment, and no electricity is required for storage.
In our climate, fresh herbs dry perfectly spread out on sheet pans.
We grow a lot of herbs, and those need to be preserved, too. Many people recommend using a microwave or dehydrator to dry herbs; while those methods might be necessary in more humid climates, in a high-plains desert the herbs simply need to be spread out and left alone. Plus, all the flavor in herbs comes from their delicate essential oils, and cooking the plants, even at a relatively low temperature, will remove most of that flavor. I collect my herbs in bunches and hang them to dry, or simply spread them out on a sheet pan. Once the herbs are dry enough to crumble, I remove the stems and crush the leaves into small labeled jars. As with all spices, dried herbs should be kept in a cool, dark and dry place, and used reasonably quickly.
Homegrown dried tomatoes add bright flavor to pasta and salads.
We also have a big nine-shelf dehydrator; it’s in service year-round for making yogurt, but during autumn it’s also regularly used for drying tomatoes, peaches and apples, plus making fruit leather. The dehydrator is far more efficient than an oven, and it’s easier to maintain the low temperatures required to dehydrate foods without rendering them too crunchy or dried out to eat. I’ve learned through trial and error that the dehydrator requires a lot of supervision – I’m constantly rotating the trays and removing pieces that are thoroughly dry – and I’ve had some loss due to mold, because I hadn’t removed enough moisture. If you’re doing a lot of preserving, however, a quality dehydrator is well worth the investment. Like canned goods, properly dehydrated foods don’t require electricity for long-term storage; since the water is removed, dehydrated foods are light and portable, making them perfect for camping, hiking and on-the-go snacks.
The before-and-after of our fiery fermented green hot sauce.
Finally, we also ferment foods. We love spicy foods and condiments, so much of our fermentation efforts go into hot sauces and kimchi. One lesson I’ve learned over the years is only to preserve the foods that our household will actually eat, so sauerkraut and pickles no longer earn a place in our pantry. While I do make “pickled” jalapenos for use in sandwiches and on pizza, fruits and vegetables that have been brined in a vinegar solution like those peppers aren’t truly pickled. Remember the mercantile store pickle barrels of yesteryear? Those are true lacto-fermented pickles, and they’re no longer considered food-safe for a variety of reasons. “Cheating” with vinegar isn’t actually pickling, but mostly accomplishes the same end result.
So pretty! But please don’t store your canned goods in the sun like this.
If you’re going to tackle any preservation projects, make sure you have the time, the space and the equipment required. Know the science and the rules and have a clear understanding of the end result you want to achieve, and the best method to get there. Also remember that preservation doesn’t make bad food good, so while you can definitely use cosmetically imperfect seconds, never use overripe or spoiled produce. Preserving the harvest might require a substantial investment of time and energy, but sourdough toast with bright, sunny peach jam, or piping-hot tomato soup with a swirl of pesto, on a cold winter’s day makes all that effort worthwhile.