Not too long ago, gardening and producing one's own food was considered tedious and old fashioned work, something that belonged to the domain of Grandmothers and country bumpkins. Why should you bother with all that hard work if all you need to do is go down to the grocery store and buy what you need?
But slowly, covertly almost, the trend has changed. With food prices soaring thanks to climate change, GM technology and an ever growing range of agrochemicals that have crept into our food supplies, increasing numbers of people feel an urge to produce at least some, if not all their food in their own gardens to achieve some degree of independent food security. But, unless one lives in a tropical climate where foods grow all year round, one is faced with the problem of 'feast or famine' - plentiful harvests during the growing season, followed by nothing much during the winter months. Anyone who grows some or all of their own food knows the problem - how to preserve this abundance for later, so when winter comes and nothing grows one can still enjoy the fruits of the previous season's labor. What delight it will be then to have tasty reminders of the summer's plenty.
And, what's more, gathering together with family and friends to get into a 'canning action' or 'jam session' is a wonderful way to share stories and experiences, teach the young and have some fun.
These days freezing is usually considered the easiest and quickest method of preserving anything. And it certainly is convenient - if you have a very large freezer. However, it is not a particularly energy efficient method and nor is it particularly reliable. Power cuts occur with worrying frequency and they can be absolutely disastrous for anything that is stored in the freezer unless you have an independent back-up power supply.
But the problem of preserving food is as age-old as the history of agriculture - approximately 10 000 years, or more. How did people manage to store things for the winter before electricity came along, about 100 years ago? We have almost forgotten the many ingenious ways to preserve foods which our ancestors developed over the course of countless generations.
There are many, many ways to preserve foods, though not all are equally suitable for all types of foods and vegetables. To begin with it is helpful to consider each type of food or vegetable according to its mode of growing. The natural life cycle starts with germination. For some time a plant develops and grows until it reaches its peak, a process referred to as maturation. This is usually the stage at which we harvest. From there on the plant begins to decay.
No process of conservation can halt this natural cycle of growth and decay, it can only slow it down or in some ways, progress it. To find the most appropriate method for each type of vegetable or fruit it is helpful to consider its mode of growth. The aim of course is to preserve as much of the mineral and vitamin content of a given fruit or vegetable as possible.
In the old days, root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and parsnips were stored in the cellar, often in boxes filled with earth, which were periodically sprinkled to keep them moist. Cellars themselves were in fact originally conceptualized as food storage spaces. They usually only had a dirt floor, which created a moist, cool atmosphere within an enclosed space that was able to 'breath'. Modern houses with their concrete foundations, insulated basements and concrete floors are entirely unsuitable for storing vegetables. One has to improvise by constructing special boxes, or use stoneware vats or barrels. But even without any kind of basement it is still possible to store things in a 'clamp' - a mound of root vegetables, which is laid out on a thick layer of straw and covered with soil, or in a pit, which is dug into the earth, laid out with wooden planks and straw and covered with sand and soil. (For specific instructions check with a good book on self-sufficiency). It is important to create channels for ventilation - e.g. by allowing the bottom layer of straw to peek through beneath the covering layer of dirt. Unfortunately, such methods are only feasible in places where winter temperatures don't fall too low.
Carrots can be stored in containers filled with sand (or in clamps as described above). They should not be washed and must not be damaged, or else they will rot. The green parts should be removed for storage. Sunchokes, parsnips, leeks and celery can remain in the ground. Even mild frosts don't pose a serious danger to them. The vegetables can be protected with a layer of soil and straw or peat mulch. Cauliflowers can be 'planted' (with roots) in boxes filled with sandy soil. They should be sprinkled with water once in a while.
Cucumbers, melons and pumpkins can be stored in suspended nets for a limited period of time. They are very watery though, which makes them liable to rot, especially if they have been bruised.
Onions and garlic should be spread out in the sun until their outer layers dry and turn papery. Thereafter they can be bundled or plaited and hung.
Apples can be stored in a cool, humid, but aerated basement, if handled carefully. Bruised apples will rot. Late varieties are much more suitable for storage. Early varieties are better used for immediate consumption. Ideally, apples should be picked as late in the season as possible, when they come off the tree with ease. They should be spread out to dry for a day or so and then stored singly (wrapped in paper if possible) and placed on a shelf or in small cardboard storage boxes. Pears can be stored the same way, but prefer it slightly cooler.
Chestnuts keep best in clamps. Check for tiny holes in their shells, which belie the presence of worms. Pulses and grains can be stored in hessian bags. The bags can be treated with neem spray to deter bugs. Occasional shaking or stirring of the bag's contents inhibits the development of insect larvae.
One of the best methods of preserving fresh fruits and vegetables is to simply dry them. In this process their natural 'goodness' is largely preserved since only the water is extracted. In the old days vegetables and fruits were dried in the sun, or sometimes on special racks that were placed near the oven. However, unless you live in a hot and dry environment, drying fruit and veggies the old fashioned way has become a little difficult. Apartments are small and most are only fitted with an electric kitchen oven. However, it is possible to dry fruit and vegetables in a regular kitchen stove. For this purpose it is best to arrange the prepared fruit on racks that are lined with baking paper, rather than on cookie sheets. Thin slices dry faster than thicker ones and juicy fruits take longer than dryer types. The greatest difficulty lies in getting the temperature right, since the lowest setting on the dial is usually 50C degrees (100F). However, at that temperature some of the more fragile vitamins are destroyed. Ideally it is better to dry things at a lower temperature for a longer period of time. The most important thing is to 'air' the fruit periodically, to let the steam escape.
In recent years purpose-built electrical dehydrators have become more affordable and these nifty kitchen machines offer a feasible alternative, even though they also rely on electricity. The lower the wattage, the lower the electricity use will be. The best models are expandable (add extra racks), have a timer and an accurate temperature regulator.
Fruits that turn brown when exposed to air can be dipped in lemon water (50:50) before drying to preserve their natural color. After drying and airing out/cooling, store fruits, vegetables, herbs or mushrooms in air-tight containers (storage jars). Dried fruit and vegetables can keep for ages so long as they are stored properly. If they absorb moisture from the atmosphere they will go moldy.
For very juicy fruit it can be useful to drain excess juices before placing the chunks or slices into the oven or dehydrator. Cut fruit into desired size chunks and drain in a kitchen strainer for about 1 hour. Collect the juice for immediate use.
Drying fruit 'in the open' has advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that it saves on electricity and usually takes place at a lower temperature, thus preserving more vitamins. The disadvantage is that drying fruit attracts fruit flies and also, the slow drying process encourages mold.
Drying is a technique that requires a bit of practice. Dehydrators make the process a great deal easier and less messy. Dried fruit make an excellent snack.
Pureed fruit, blended with honey and ground almonds or hazelnuts can be spread on baking paper and dried to create 'fruit leather', a very popular snack that also makes and excellent instant energy hiking food.
Dried vegetables can be rehydrated by soaking them for a few hours in enough water to cover them; slowly cook them with the remaining water. It took time to remove the water, and it takes time to reabsorb it. If prepared too quickly the veggies will be chewy. The smaller and thinner the slices, the quicker they will reabsorb the water.
Everybody knows Sauerkraut. Some people love it, some hate it. But not all Sauerkrauts are created equal. Most commercially available types are produced using salt and vinegar and are subjected to a pasteurizing process, which unfortunately kills off the probiotic substances that make fermented foods like Sauerkraut so beneficial.
Cabbage is by no means the only vegetable that can be fermented. A more interesting variation on the theme (to my taste, at least) is Korean Kimchi, a combination of different vegetables and spices. There are dozens of different recipes - and there is plenty of scope for experimentation.
The method of lacto-fermentation is simple, providing one has the right equipment. It does not take much, except a special fermentation crock-pot with a grooved rim. This rim should be half-filled with water, thus creating an airlock to prevent air, bacteria or fungal spores from entering the pot. Further, one needs a stone or weight to weigh down the vegetables. For smaller quantities, one can also ferment vegetables in airtight jars (pickling jars).
Cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, onion, garlic, horseradish, celery, bell peppers and pepperonis are particularly suitable for lacto-fermentation, but tastes vary and experimentation is the fun part of such a project.
Suitable pickling spices are mustard seeds, peppercorns, allspice, juniper, cloves, fenugreek, ajowan, coriander, cumin, chillies, dill, fennel, estragon, and bay laurel.
Finely cut or shred the vegetables and pack tightly into the crockpot; place spices between layers of veggies. As the final layer, put a large cabbage or horseradish leaf to cover the veggies. Horseradish leaves help prevent mold formation. Prepare enough brine (1oz salt per liter of water) to pour over the vegetables until they are well covered, but don't fill the jar all the way to the top. (You can add a little whey to aid the fermentation process).
If you use a purpose specific crock-pot, half fill the rim with water (air-lock), place the stone on top of the vegetables and cover with the lid. Keep an eye on the water level in the airlock and replenish with water if it starts to evaporate. Put the jar or crockpot in a warm place for about 10 days, and then in a cool place for another 6 weeks. Remove any mold that may form on the surface and avoid unnecessary lifting of the lid.
Canning is a great, old fashioned way to preserve foods. Almost anything can be canned and stored for later - theoretically indefinitely, though in practice it is recommended to use canned foods within a year or two.
There are basically two different canning methods, one that is suitable for high acid foods such as fruits, juices and pickles, and one that is suitable for low acid foods such as most vegetables or meats.
There are many good canning recipes and it is well worth choosing a tried and tested one to avoid disappointment - especially while you are still getting the hang of it.
High acid foods are a little easier to process as they do not require extreme heat for preservation. Ordinary boiling is sufficient, because the acid content will inhibit growth of harmful bacteria. While not absolutely necessary, certain kinds of equipment make the process a great deal easier.
To preserve high acid food you need a large pot and rack (for holding the jars in place off the bottom of the pan), canning jars with two-part lids (lid with a rubber rim and band), a canning funnel, a jar lifter and lid magnet. A 'head space' measuring tool and bubble remover can also be useful.
The most important thing about canning is to work with clean equipment and immaculately fresh produce. Don't be tempted to preserve items that are on the verge of going off or you will ruin your whole batch.
Foods are prepared according to your recipe, filled into jars, lidded, placed into a large pot (in a rack), covered with water and boiled for a set amount of time in order to sterilize the jars.
For a detailed description of the process see this presentation:
Canning High Acid Foods
Low acid foods need a more careful canning procedure. Since they lack naturally occurring acids that help to destroy any pathogens, they need to be heated to a temperature well above boiling in order to kill any nasties that otherwise might threaten to spoil your food. To achieve such high temperatures you will need a pressure cooker, preferably a purpose made one with a pressure gauge and thermometer.
As with the high acid foods, it is recommended to use a tried and tested recipe, fill your food into clean jars, cover with lids and place the jars into the rack of the pressure cooker. Sterilize according to the instructions of your recipe.
For a very useful and detailed description of the process, see this presentation:
Canning Low Acid Foods
Instead of fermenting foods, many vegetables can be pickled in vinegar. This method is not as wholesome as lacto-fermentation as it does not create probiotic bacteria in the process. Acid inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria, which is why it serves well as a preserving menstrum.
The most important thing about pickling things in vinegar is to use non-metal (except stainless steel) and non-plastic containers, since acids can react with such materials. Best are glass or stoneware pots.
Fruit can be pickled in a vinegar /sugar syrup, which makes delicious condiments.
Vegetables are often salted for a period of time (overnight, or at least overnight) in order to draw out some of their water and soften the skin. Before covering them in vinegar they are washed and simmered for a few minutes in vinegar and pickling spices but short enough for the veggies stay crunchy. They are then filled into jars, which should be closed once the contents have cooled down.
Some recipes call for a vinegar /sugar others for a vinegar /brine blend. Some recommend the vinegar to first be heated (and simmered with various spices) and then cooled before pouring it over the vegetables, other recipes call for hot vinegar. If you like pickles experiment with different types of vegetables for best results.
Oil in itself does not ward off bacteria, but it creates an effective insulation against direct contact with air. In this method vegetables are often cooked for a short period of time in either brine or vinegar, or sometimes in a mixture of both, but not for too long. The idea is to preserve the crunch. Then the veggies are placed into a jar and covered with oil. It is a good idea to start with a layer of oil before adding the veggies, as this will prevent the formation of air bubbles. Make sure contents stay covered in oil also after you start using the preserve. Use good cooking oil - olive oil is ideal as it has a good balance of fatty acids that resist oxidation. However, preserving vegetables in oil tends to be quite expensive as good quality olive oil does not come cheap.
Sugar, as everybody knows, is not terribly healthy. It depletes vitamin B1 and calcium and destroys the teeth. However, for certain things sugar is an ideal preserving agent - just as with any other harmful substance, its negative impact is directly related to the quantities consumed. Sugar preserves include jams, jellies, marmalade, syrup and candied fruit. Usually fruit or juice is cooked with very little water and simmered with an equal amount of sugar until the sugar is completely dissolved. For jams and jellies it is usually necessary to add pectin (or use preserving sugar) in order to achieve the proper consistency.
If you use lemon or orange peel in your recipes make sure to only use untreated organic citrus fruit.
Preserving nature's bounty is an art and no novice will immediately master all methods. But there are a lot of wonderful, tasty delicacies that are a great alternative to just freezing any surplus vegetables or fruits. Discovering new flavors and consistencies requires a certain degree of enthusiasm for experimentation and 'adventurous' taste buds. It is also a lot of work - but it is all SO worthwhile when in the midst of winter you can still feast on jars and cans filled with the sunshine and goodness of last year's harvest.
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