Preserving the harvest – canning, drying, freezing

The end of the summer growing season and the beginning of fall is a great time to talk about saving produce for the winter.

Sure, there was probably more variety and even quantity in the garden and at the market earlier in the season, but late-season gardens also have great productivity — especially if you planned ahead and planted fresh crops for fall.

Cooler weather also means some crops slow down, meaning you may have more to harvest at one time than when weather was hot and production was high.

At the end of the season, you can also get some produce fatigue that could end up with crop loss or waste. Instead of “I can’t bring myself to eat one more of those peppers,” perhaps you should say, “I’ll preserve those peppers now so I can enjoy them in the winter.”

Those who know me know I’m an old hat when it comes to preserving food, especially canning. I learned from the best — I spent most of my summers helping either my grandmother or mother can something.

It wasn’t unusual to have most of the family and half the neighbors come together for some canning sessions — especially when we stirred large copper kettles of apple butter over the fire.

Canning is a great way to preserve almost any food — vegetables, fruits and even meats. The Extension Service provides one of the most comprehensive go-to sources of information for home canning and food preservation.

I was thrilled last month when I got to share love and knowledge of canning with Gazette-Mail reporter Bill Lynch. Lynch tackled home canning for his One Month at a Time series, and he kicked things off with a private lesson from yours truly.


Read: Learning to Preserve an Excessive Harvest by Bill Lynch at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, featuring a short video of our canning lesson and my recipe for tasty Bread and Butter Pickles

Lo and behold if in the same week Judy Grigoraci, who writes the From the Kitchen column in the middle of the week, didn’t talk about my canning Hot Pepper Jelly in the same week. Apparently it was a big week for my home preserving skills in the paper that week.

This month, you can also check me and my colleague Kerri Wade, our Families and Health Extension Agent in Kanawha County, talking about canning on the cable access WV Library Network television channel.

Watch:  Home Canning Techniques from the WV Library Network (opens in Windows Media Player)

But what if you don’t have time to can? Or if you don’t have enough to can since it usually takes larger batches?

That was my task this week with some Roma tomatoes I harvested from their ailing vines. I didn’t have enough to can, but too many to use (I only cook with tomatoes. I’m one of those weird people who will eat raw tomatoes.)

So I hauled out the food dehydrator my parents bought me for Christmas last year and went to town. In about a day, the rings of plump tomato halves turned into shriveled “sun-dried” tomatoes.

Packed away neatly in a plastic bag, they’ll provide some delicious flavors in dishes this winter. Using a dehydrator as opposed to actually sun-drying is pretty much a necessity in our part of the world — high humidity and unpredictable weather means you could ruin a whole batch or inadvertently create a moldy batch, resulting in illness.

Drying is a great way to preserve the harvest, though I’ll admit, not everything lends itself to drying. And it certainly changes the character of the food. Aside from the tomatoes, this year I’m planning on using the dehydrator for herbs, hot peppers and kale (to make kale chips).

 Last year I just dried my cayenne peppers using the old hanging-on-a-thread-in-the-window trick (and learned not to forget where the needle has been and hold it between your lips). The quality was good for making my own hot pepper flakes, but I think the quality in the dehydrator will be better.

Read: Putting Food By: Storing the Harvest from September 2015

Aside from drying, there are some other non-canning methods that will result in high-quality produce similar to fresh or canned product. Freezing is a common preserving method still used today. In fact, it is great for those preserving small batches of food.

My family, along with most food preservers I know, have a preference for what to can and what to freeze. In my family, you can green beans, but you freeze corn. Fruits are also more commonly frozen if they are whole, rather than canned. The only caveat is that you stand to lose your bounty if there is an extended power outage.

Freezing is rather simple and straightforward, you just have to remember a few steps for quality control. Most vegetables you freeze will have a higher quality if you blanch them in boiling water for a few minutes first. This stops enzymes in the produce from reducing the quality while it is in storage. Some fruits also need blanched, but many can be just frozen whole without it.

I prefer to set out the fruit in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze it before putting it in a storage bag — this way you can take out a small amount for use without having to thaw out the whole bag. This is especially great if you like to make smoothies.

One thing people don’t think about freezing is herbs, but you can actually get more of the fresh herb flavor from frozen herbs than dried ones. Freezing is especially good for herbs like basil and chives. However, there’s a great trick to keeping the quality high — freeze them in ice cubes rather than dry.

Fill an ice cube tray with the chopped herb and top with water. You can thaw them out or add the ice cube directly to the recipe.

I’ve even seen methods for freezing cubes of basil pesto — fill the ice cube tray nearly to the top with fresh pesto, leaving room to drizzle olive oil on the top to completely cover the surface.

The oil on top will help limit discoloration of the pesto. You can pop them out, store them in a bag, and add them to your favorite pesto dishes later.

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