Gardens with shiny, red tomatoes, bright green cucumbers, and delicious sweet corn … our gardens, farmers’ markets, and local groceries are piled high with fresh produce. Why not save some of this bounty to enjoy all through the year? Why not make those special homemade gifts that mean so much to friends?
Preserving fresh foods of the summer to enjoy later in the year is a cooking technique as old as cooking itself. Our ancestors dried, canned, and preserved the bounty of their garden to sustain their needs in the cold of winter. The whole process is subtle blends of seasonings, pots of simmering concoctions, down to the hand-made labels on jars and bottles speak of the promise of imminent reward. When preserving food, first you need to decide what you are preserving, which will help you decide what method will be used to best suit your needs. Each process can help you store good-quality food for later use. So let’s talk about methods of food preservation.
Freezing is a safe method to preserve any food. Many foods can be frozen, which slows growth of enzymes but does not eliminate them. When foods are removed from the freezer microorganisms begin to grow once they reach a thawed state. Freezing fruits and vegetables while they are fresh and in-season is one of the easiest ways to preserve. If you have freezer space available such as an upright or chest freezer, freezing your extra produce is a great option. To ensure freshness and quality, the fruit or vegetable should be frozen within the first day of its harvest. The procedure is simple, but varies for different fruits and vegetables. Remember, if a food contains a lot of water, like lettuce, the frozen product may not have acceptable quality. Pick up freezer quality bags or freezer plastic containers to have available when produce is ready.
Canning follows straightforward guidelines. It requires more effort and equipment, but the results are almost foolproof if you follow the instructions carefully. An advantage to canning produce is the ability to store the jars without taking up freezer space. Choose a cool dry place to store them. Canning equipment requires an investment in jars, lids, rings, a jar lifter, and a water bath canner and/or a pressure canner depending on which produce you are planning on preserving.
Water Bath Canning
Water bath canning is used when putting your high acid foods, such as fruits and tomatoes, in a jar. One thing science has dictated is that we need to add acid to tomatoes when canning them. Jams and Jellies can be safely water bathed for safe preservation. Because of science, the length of time produce is in the water bath canner has also increased to ensure that the heat has reached the center of the jar to kill any bacteria or enzymes in the product.
Pressure canning is another preservation process that requires putting the product in a jar. However, these items are considered low acid and need to be processed using a pressure canner. Science has changed the length of time, and the amount of pressure used when canning in a pressure canner. Pressure canners with a dial gauge should be checked for accuracy on an annual basis.
Dehydrating is one of the first forms of food preservation. This method removes moisture from food. Removing moisture from the product reduces the ability of bacterial growth by taking away the element it needs to grow. Dehydrating can be done in a dehydrator or in an oven.
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 upon the type of food and the drying method used.
Pickling is a method of preservation that has a high concentration of acid. Heat treating these products is also important to kill any remaining bacteria in the jar.
Fermentation is a method of preservation. It is an old way of food preservation that adds flavor after the fermenting process is done. Fermenting is a process done in a warm environment using salts, sugars, or grains creating a brine, which covers the produce. Time is another important factor when fermenting.
Food safety is, and should be, a primary concern when preserving any type of food, from pickles to meat. Two basic rules to follow are to use good quality produce (preserving won’t improve the taste, texture, or looks), and always practice cleanliness. Extension sets itself apart in providing research-based information. While it’s easy to find delicious sounding recipes for home-canned products in cookbooks; magazines, or newspapers, check the source of each recipe and if it isn’t from a reliable source with lab-tested recipes, don’t get out the canning supplies.
The University of Wyoming Extension recommends using only science based methods to preserve foods. For more information on methods of food preservation refer to USDA national food preservation website: http://nchfp.uga.edu/, or the All New Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving or the website: www.freshpreserving.com or UW Extension website for food preservation: www.uwyo.edu/foods/educational-resources/food-preservation.html.