In midwinter, there's nothing like a little taste of summer. Preserve some of this year's harvest of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. It requires a little effort, but you'll be glad you did when you dig into that homemade marinara sauce some snowy day. Preservation is simple and inexpensive; plus you get even more bragging rights when someone compliments your cooking.
Canning, Freezing and Drying Garden Produce
The preservation of food is not a new idea. In fact, cold storage in a root cellar was one of the first methods of preserving and overwintering produce. All that was needed was a cool, dark area with some humidity and air circulation to prevent the harvest from shriveling, spoiling, or sprouting.
Some more modern preservation methods are:
Canning follows pretty straightforward guidelines. It requires more effort and equipment, but the results are almost foolproof if you follow the instructions carefully. Tomatoes and beans are two summer crops that be canned very successfully. Jellies, jams, and preserves are perfect for using extra fruit, but don't think jellies are only good for PB&J sandwiches. Jellied herbs and garlic make excellent condiments and spreads.
Freezing is a simple means of preservation. Some vegetables will need blanching before freezing. Not all goods freeze with acceptable results — avoid lettuce, green onions, uncooked tomatoes, and radishes. Herbs, however, can be frozen successfully.
Drying is easy, but not necessarily simple. If you dry food too fast, enough moisture will remain to allow bacteria to grow. If you dry too long, you may end up with dust. The idea is to find the proper heat needed to remove moisture but not cook the product. Drying times vary based on the type of food and the drying method used.
The traditional method for drying fruits is air drying outdoors. Food is spread on racks, screens, or tables; the sun and wind do the rest. An obvious drawback to the outdoor method is the exposure to insects and the uncertainty of weather. Fruit dried outdoors also needs to be treated with sulfur or ascorbic acid to prevent spoilage and darkening. To avoid the complications of the outdoor approach, drying can be done in conventional and microwave ovens. Food dehydrators are the most reliable drying tool since they are designed specifically for that purpose.
Follow these general guidelines when drying foods:
- Use quality produce. Preserving will not improve its taste, texture, or looks.
- Always practice cleanliness.
- Food dries better when cut into uniform pieces.
- Store in a cool, dark place in airtight containers.
- Dried foods can also be frozen. When preparing recipes with dried foods, remember they have a more intense flavor.
Freezing and Drying Herbs
Herbs are great candidates for preserving. When you are ready to harvest herbs, remember that most herbs' oil content is highest when flower buds are just beginning to form - don't wait until they open. Take cuttings in the morning when the oil levels are highest in the leaves. Cut the stems with pruners or scissors. Late in the season, most herbs can be cut by one half to two thirds. Rinse the herbs thoroughly before preserving.
To air dry herbs:
1. Tie the stems in bundles and hang the bundle upside down.
2. Store them in a dark room with some air circulation.
3. Fasten a paper bag over the bundle to provide darkness and prevent dust from accumulating.
4. Depending on the size of the leaves, the herbs should be dry in one to two weeks.
To dry herbs in a conventional oven, microwave or dehydrator:
1. Strip the leaves from the stem and place them on the trays.
2. Experiment with the oven method to achieve the right drying time. 3. Be careful — drying herbs too fast removes too much of the oil, and therefore the flavor. You'll know they're dry when they become slightly crisp.
4. Store the final product in jars in a dry, dark, place or use it to make oils, vinegars or herb butter.
When freezing herbs: Use quality produce. Wash, dry and strip the leaves. Then freeze. Or freeze the entire stem leaves and all. Store in a freezer bag and break off what you need for cooking. Use ice cube trays to freeze recipe-sized portions in water to drop right in the stockpot.
If you didn't grow any of your own produce or have enough of your own left to store, then stock up at the local produce stand or farmer's market while supplies last.
Always follow specific instructions for the preservation method that you are using. When using preserved food, remember "If in doubt, throw it out." Your local county extension service can offer advice for foods from your area.