Whether you are growing your own fruits and vegetables, buying seasonally and locally or just reducing food waste, learning to preserve foods properly can ensure a full harvest of healthy produce, year-round. There are several ways to keep the nutrients and flavors of preserved foods intact for months to years. With minimal effort, you can wean your family off of store-bought, out-of-season veggies and help save the environment by reducing your carbon footprint. Here's how.
Things You'll Need
For live storage--cool, dry space that will not freeze in the winter
For canning-bell jars and lids, a large pot or pressure canner
For freezing--a large freezer space
For jellying--sugar, honey or other sweetener, lemon juice, meat thermometer
For drying--food dehydrator, screens and frame for sun-drying or oven
Set up a root cellar using a basement room, stairwell or window well. A root cellar can be a room in your basement or a separate shed, but it should be well-insulated and high in humidity. Install an air-vent to ensure proper ventilation. If using a basement room, make sure it has at least one outside wall and is as far as possible from your heater. Interior walls should be made of wood, and they should be insulated with fiberglass batting that has a vapor barrier. Put a layer of gravel on the floor, and occasionally spray it with water to keep moisture in the room. Use shelving or steps to layer stored vegetables, keeping the root crops on top and the warmth-preferring onions, squash and pumpkins at the bottom. Fruits like pears and apples can be kept on the middle shelves or layers. Place a pan of water in the room to keep it moist.
Wash the produce thoroughly, then cut into small pieces. Small berries and fruits may be left intact, but be sure to remove any pits. Steam or boil the produce in water, syrup or juice before putting into sterile mason jars. (You can also place the cut fruit or vegetables into the jar raw, and pour boiling water over the top for several minutes.) Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean cloth, and screw the top on, but not too tightly. Can vegetables and fruit by filling a large pot or canner halfway with hot water, placing filled mason cars inside with their lids on and adding boiling water to 2 inches above the jar lids. (Do not pour the boiling water directly on the jars.) Cover the pot, bring water back to a boil, and time the boil between 35 to 90 minutes, depending on what you are canning.
To freeze fruits, dip pale fruits into asorbic acid (Vitamin C), using 1 to 2.5 tsp. per each cup of water, less for peaches and apricots, more for apples. Add 1/2 cup of sugar per each cup of water. You can also freeze the fruits in a dry pack by sprinkling them with 1/2 cup of sugar per pound of fruit. Cover fruit with liquid or pack in plastic freezer bag or container, making sure to leave an inch or so at the top for air expansion. If storing in a mason jar, leave an inch at the top of the jar. Blanch or steam vegetables in boiling water to deactivate the enzymes that break down the starches. Immediately cool them under running water, and drain them on a paper towel. Pack and freeze just like fruit, but do not add sugar, water or syrup.
To dry fruits and vegetables outdoors, leave them in the garden beside the plants, and cover them with fine netting to protect them from garden critters.Or store them in hanging mesh or burlap bags. For long-term indoor storage, string beans, corn or peppers together, and hang them in the attic or a dry, airy space in your home. You may also place the produce on large screens, and keep them in a homemade frame indoors or outside. It is best to use mesh instead of metal screens, since the metals can contain harmful contaminants that may leach into the food. Place the screens in a warm, dry environment, such as a rooftop or driveway, and cover them in cheesecloth to shield them from insects. Bring them in at night to keep them from becoming moist with dew. Food dehydrators are readily and cheaply available at most small appliance centers or discount chains. Make sure the racks are remove able for cleaning. Check the energy efficiency as well as convenient features like timers, automatic shut-off and variable temperature settings. To keep things simple, dry your fruits and veggies right in your oven using a low heat setting over an extended period of time. Or, create your own heat dehydrator by adding a small heat source to a box with several layers of screened shelving. The heat source should be kept at least 6 inches below the first tray of food to prevent overheating.
For jelly, add about 5 quarts of berries to a pot, and crush them with a potato masher. Add 1.5 cups of water to the pot, and bring it to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cook for five minutes or until tender. Place mixture into a jelly bag or cheesecloth, and hang it over the pot, allowing the juices to drain overnight. Pour the juice into a kettle, and add 6 cups of sugar, heating over a high flame until it comes to a full boil. Insert a thermometer to note the temperature at which the mixture boils. Heat until 8 to 10 degrees above initial boiling point, then pour mix into warmed sterile jars, leaving 1 1/2 inches of room at the top. Place into a boil bath, or use paraffin to seal the top of the jar. Label when cooled, and store in a cool, dry place. To turn your fruit into jam, preserves or marmalade, first wash and peel thoroughly, then cut into bite-sized pieces. Boil water, and add fruit to the pot, smashing with a potato masher, adding more water if necessary. Add sugar and lemon juice, then return the mix to boiling stirring constantly. Using a meat thermometer, test the temperature of the liquid, and remove the mix from the stove top when it has reached 8 to 10 degrees F above the boiling point. Allow the mix to cool for a few minutes before storing.
Increase the boiling time if you live at an altitude of over 1000 feet above sea level.
Drying foods for long periods of time will destroy many of their nutrients and can cause oxidation. Screw lids tightly onto jars after removing them from the canner or boil pot. Always wipe debris from the outside of the rim to maintain food safety.