There is nothing more rewarding than producing your own food for self-sufficiency and health. A large garden can produce so much, that when the bounty of summer is ready to be harvested, there may be more than one family to consume before it goes bad. Food preservation is an essential skill that will help you enjoy your harvest throughout the year.
People choose to keep produce from their garden for a variety of reasons. Some do not like to waste food and find that preserving the bounty of their garden prevents this waste. Others are concerned about additives in store-bought foods, such as artificial colors or preservatives, and choose to keep them at home for health reasons. Yet other household preservers are finding that they can save money by growing and storing food, even taking into account the cost of soil amendments and watering if necessary. Perhaps you wish to conserve for one or more of these reasons, or perhaps for the personal satisfaction of seeing a shelf full of jars lovingly prepared by you and your family. Regardless of the preservation method, family members of all ages can contribute. Research shows that a child is more likely to eat foods that they have helped prepare. Even the youngest can crack beans or crush berries!
Canning, freezing and drying are the three main methods of preserving food. There are two safe methods of canning, depending on the type of food being canned. Acidic foods, such as tomatoes and fruits, can be preserved using boiling water or the atmospheric steam canning method. Either of these types of preserves are not very expensive and are a good way to start preserving. Boiling water and steamer pots can also be used to preserve pickled and jellied products.
Vegetables have a low acid level and should be canned using the pressure canning method. This canning method creates temperatures in excess of 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, necessary to destroy Clostridium botulinum spores that only grow in low-acid foods. This is the bacteria that causes botulism, a foodborne illness. There are two types of pressure cookers, those with dials that are read when the internal temperature of the pot increases, and those that are regulated by a weight above the steam vent. Which type you choose to use depends in part on the elevation of your home and a bit on your personality!
Freezing is the only method of preserving food that requires continuous use of energy; However, it also causes minimal loss of nutrients. Although the freezer section of a fridge / freezer allows you to store food for a fairly short period of time, if you want to store large amounts of frozen food, you can buy an upright freezer or a chest freezer. These dedicated devices will allow you to keep food in excellent condition at 0 or even -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Freezing is a quick and easy way to store fruits and vegetables. Knowing a few tips will ensure that your frozen foods are safe and of high quality. Something as simple as blanching vegetables for an appropriate amount of time, or wrapping food only in freezer-grade materials, goes a long way in achieving delicious, high-quality foods that you have frozen yourself.
Drying, one of the oldest forms of food preservation, is also a good option for long-term storage. Microorganisms need water to live, and removing natural water from food is an easy way to conserve it. Unfortunately, the high humidity in New York State requires dehydration to take place in a dehydrator. Those who live in the southwest can air or sun dry fruits and vegetables. If New Yorkers try this for any food other than herbs, the food will go moldy before it dries up!
Fermentation, another ancient form of food preservation, can extend the shelf life of products by four to six months, long enough to get you through the long winter months. During fermentation, lactic acid is formed, which makes the food more acidic, so spoiling microorganisms cannot grow. Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented pickles, and kombucha, are known for their probiotic health benefits. If these foods are then canned, the benefits of probiotics no longer exist, but they are still healthy.
Food preservation instructions change over the years as safer and more efficient ways of preserving food are developed. Food storage instructions are researched and updated by the USDA, which then forwards the latest information to Cooperative Extension. Recent research has developed a safe way to fish in canning jars. This research was carried out for the USDA at the University of Alaska, where a need was identified for indigenous peoples, whose primary livelihood is fish. The University of Wisconsin recently developed safe canning instructions for using an atmospheric steamer. This is a great advantage in parts of the country suffering from drought, as it requires much less water than using a boiling water pot.
The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension is the direct link with the USDA through its National Center for Home Food Preservation, available to everyone online at homefoodpreservation.net.
There is a wealth of information on this site, ranging from basic “how-to” food storage basics like how to use a pot, to over 185 specific recipes that are guaranteed to be safe. There are tutorials, PowerPoint presentations, and more for the home canner. Since botulism food poisoning can occur in canned foods that are low in acid, it is essential that you use a safe and tested recipe to keep your family safe. Recipes from this website and other sites whose URL ends in .edu can be trusted resources for search-based canning directions. Beware of canning instructions found on social media, which can disseminate unsafe methods.
As you enjoy the abundance of delicious produce in your garden this season, think about how nice it would be to serve this food to your family in January. Learn how to improve your conservation skills by reading material on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website or by attending a class.
Judy Price and Diane Whitten are home food preservation experts at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County.