Food Preservation Tips + Tricks
Freezing | Drying | Fermenting | Canning
By Leigh Huck, Communications & Outreach Coordinator
This time of year in Minnesota, we're fortunate to have an abundance of local produce. There is nothing like a crunchy cucumber or juicy tomato at the peak of the season. These are the flavors that we dream about in the middle of winter and through the end of March when the summer season is just out of reach. Food preservation is a fantastic way to save our perfect produce and enjoy it through the colder months. Although it may seem daunting, the work put in now to put up delicious produce is worth the joy it brings to the darker days later on.
In this article, I offer my tips and experiences with four methods of food preservation: freezing, drying, fermenting and canning. When you're ready to start preserving your food, I recommend consulting the professionals. Scroll to the bottom of this article to learn about my favorite preservation resources. With all preservation methods, be sure to use to the best quality, cleanest produce.
I like freezing because it often takes the least amount of time and does the best job at preserving the nutrients and flavors in their peak. Some produce items freeze better than others. Freezing sometimes limits what you can use the produce for later on, so it's good to have a plan for your goods before you put them up.
My Favorite Produce to Freeze
berries, sweet peppers, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, peaches, sweet corn (removed from cob), rhubarb
• If you have the space, freeze berries whole on a baking sheet, spaced evenly so that they're not touching. When frozen completely, put them in a freezer bag. As long as they stay frozen, you'll be able to remove as many or as few berries as you'd like without have to thaw the whole bag. Thawing and refreezing berries is not ideal, unless you plan to make jam.
• Sweet peppers, eggplant, broccoli and cauliflower should be diced before frozen. This way they are easy to throw into a soup, stir fry or an omelet without needing to thaw completely. Diced vegetables will retain better texture when they thaw.
• Brussels sprouts can be frozen similar to berries and dropped into soups without thawing first.
• Plastic freezer bags are best. One benefit of freezing in plastic bags is space efficiency. When loading a freezer bag, squeeze the air out and disperse the produce evenly so that the bag lies flat. Flat freezer bags are much easier to stack and organize in your freezer. Tupperware and glass containers can also be used if you have the space.
• Denser vegetables like carrots and potatoes freeze well when shredded and are great for hashbrowns or vegetable fritattas. Before using, thaw vegetable shreds and squeeze with paper towel to absorb excess moisture.
This method takes a little longer, but is great if you don't have a large pantry or a chest freezer.
My Favorite Produce to Dry
zucchini, kale, herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano), cherry tomatoes, hot peppers
• A dehydrater is almost essential when you're planning to dry food. It is possible to dry food in the oven, but there is a greater risk of your food not being dried completely which can lead to mold. A dehydrater is also more energy efficient than an oven. In an oven, you often need to bake the produce at low heat (200 degrees or lower) for 6 hours or more.
• Cut cherry tomatoes in halves for drying. These are delicious on salads or in pasta dishes.
• Zucchini works best if sliced thinly (in circles) before drying. These are my favorite additions to soups with their chewy texture and savory flavor. You can also dry them until they're cruchy to make tasty veggie chips.
• Herbs and small hot peppers can be easily dried by hanging them, evenly spaced so they're not touching, from a string in your kitchen. This way, you can use them throughout the drying process if you so desire.
This is my personal preservation favorite. This method combines fresh produce, salt and time to create a salty, fizzy, savory product. I also really appreciate fermented foods for their benefit to gut health and immune support. If you can handle the intense, acidic taste of fermented foods, this is the way to go.
Fermentation uses active bacteria cultures in the environment to slowly break down the food. Fermentation cultivates beneficial lactobacillus bacteria and the salt used in fermented foods keeps away the bad bacteria. Basically, this process allows the natural bacteria to do the preservation work for you and results in a delicious product. Popular fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi and Bubbie's pickles.
My Favorite Produce to Ferment
cabbage, radishes, carrots, cauliflower, beets, kale
• Vegetables require different amounts of salt or brine for best outcomes. I recommend consulting the professionals when you're first starting to ferment. One of my favorites, Sandor Ellix Katz, has two very useful books listed below.
• The magic of fermenting is that you can throw almost anything in your vegetable drawer into a ferment. Cooking greens, brocolli, sweet corn, celery, bok choy and swiss chard are all delicious in a fermented vegetable mix.
• You can ferment foods in mason jars, ceramic crocks or plastic buckets. Once you've found your container, you'll need to find a weight to keep your produce submerged in the brine. Produce that floats above the brine is likely to develop mold. A weight can be as simple as a small plate (or lid) that fits inside of your container with a mason jar full of water sitting on top of it. Once your weight is in place, cover the whole thing with a tea towel and leave it in a your counter (the darker the area, the better). Let it sit for a few days or weeks until you like the flavor.
• I find it's easiest and fastest to shred the cabbage when using it for fermenting. Because cabbage is especially watery, it doesn't need a brine. Once the cabbage is shredded, mix it in a large bowl with lots of salt, let it sit for 20 minutes or so and then pack it down in to a jar or crock. The salt will draw the liquid out of the cabbage and make a brine for you.
• Traditional crock pickles are made by a process of fermentation. This is a great method to use if you have an abundance of small pickling cucumbers (or if you still have cukes on the vine when it gets cold). To keep them crisp, throw oak or grape leaves into your container. Fermented cucumbers can be fickle, so I especially recommend sticking to a good recipe for this one.
• Spice up your creation! Use red pepper flakes or fresh hot peppers for more of a kimchi, caraway seeds for a traditional sauerkraut or add cumin and lime for a curtido style mix. Fresh herbs add unique flavors. I put several garlic cloves in almost all of my fermented creations. They add flavor and nutrition and are delicious eaten on their own.
What I like about canning is that the initial work that you put into the process pays off in the end. I like to can things that are partially prepared so I can easily take them out on a winter weeknight. Canned goods also make great gifts.
My Favorite Produce to Can
tomatoes, fruit, vinegar pickles
• Because canning turns fresh produce into a shelf stable item, it has the greatest health risks of all the methods listed above. However, if done safely, it results in a convenient and delicious product. A good canning book is a must. There are hundreds of canning books and guides that ensure for safe and effective canning. Some of my favorites are listed below.
• Safe canning depends on a good seal, if your jars aren't completely sealed when you've finished processing them, put them in the fridge and eat them within the week. Don't try to reseal them.
• I use the boiling water method because I can use my big stock pot to can 6 to 8 quart jars at once. Other essential tools include a canning tongs, mason jars, NEW two part lids and extra mason jar rings. Handy tools include a canning funnel, several kitchen towels and a magnetic lid lifter.
• Canning always takes me longer than expected. Preparing the food, sterilizing the jars, loading the jars and then processing them in a hot water bath almost always takes an entire day. Plan ahead and don't overload yourself by trying to process too many different items at once. Friends will speed up the process and make for good company as you're waiting for the water to boil.
• I like to preserve tomatoes whole in water. This way I'm not committing to using them in a pasta by making sauce. I find whole tomatoes useful in a variety of dishes. In order to maintain a safe acidity level, add two tablespoons of bottled lemon juice or citric acid per quart. You won't taste the sour flavor in the tomatoes, but the acidity will ward off bad bacteria from growing in your jar.
• Get adventurous with your vinegar pickles! Experiment with bread and butter, Indian spiced or a relish. Pickle zucchini or green beans instead of cucumbers. These make great gifts and the perfect appetizer when entertaining guests.
• You can never have too much canned salsa. Make sure to use a recipe that you love and has the appropriate acidity for canning.
Put 'em Up! by Sherry Brooks Vinten
The Beginner's Guide to Preserving Food at Home by Janet Chadwick
Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich
Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz
Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon