By Hyacynth Worth
Whether your garden is exploding with the ripe fruits of your labor or you couldn’t resist saving quite a bit of cash at the local farmer’s market by buying a bushel of apples instead of a peck, it’s time to preserve the harvest so it can be enjoyed all winter long. Because, honestly, you know you cannot possibly eat all of those apples during the next few weeks; plus you’re going to want some for that Thanksgiving Day pie.
Here are some of our family’s best preservation methods to ensure a slower, more paced consumption of the seasonal deliciousness available across the Chicagoland area at harvest time.
Maybe you’ve written off this method of food storage because of the horror stories you’ve heard or maybe you’ve just never given it a shot. With the advent of high quality and safe pressure cookers, this tried and true method of preservation has become so much easier and safer than it was when grandma was in the kitchen cautioning against going too close to the cooker for fear it might explode. Today’s pressure cookers feature gauges and weights that ensure the canning process is an efficient one that produces more predictable, uniform results (and pretty much guarantees both you and the kitchen will survive the process).
Of course, you don’t need a pressure cooker to can food; you could always opt for hot water canning for fruits, but it should be noted that most everything else requires a higher pressure to ensure that food safety isn’t compromised.
Pros: Efficient, easily stored foods that require no refrigeration, allows for large batches of preservation
Cons: Pressure cookers can be expensive, canning can be time consuming – for it to be worthwhile, large batches are preferred
Works great for preserving: Tomatoes, apples, peaches, green beans, jellies, applesauce
If canning your harvest seems too tedious, freezing is a wonderful option that is a little less time consuming. Plus, freezing not only extends the life of your food, but it also preserves the flavor pretty well. Of course, freezer space is required for freezing foods, and perhaps you don’t have much of it. That’s ok! You can still freeze moderate amounts of food even with little freezer space. Here’s the secret – freeze your items in plastic gallon bags and then place them flat on cookie trays so that each bag freezes flat against the tray, making it possible to freeze and store double or triple what you could in jars or other containers.
While some items, like berries, can be frozen without washing or prepping, other items are best blanched (broccoli, green beans) or cooked and pureed (pumpkin, squash) before freezing.
Pros: Inexpensive, allows for large batches of preservation in minimal time, flavor stays true
Cons: Freezer space is necessary, shelf-life is shorter than canning
Works great for preserving: Tomatoes, peaches, berries, most vegetables, squash and pumpkin purees
One of the best purchases we made our first year of gardening was that of a high quality dehydrator. When I say that we dehydrate almost everything in the garden, I truly mean it – from peppers to tomatoes to apples, zucchini and eggplant, we’ve turned each into a chip.
Not-so-secret fact: we can get our picky eater to eat almost any vegetable if we dry it, thus transforming said veggie into a chip. Not-so-secret-shameless-parenting fact number two: we do this often, and we don’t feel badly about it.
We also make our own fruit leather rolls, too, using apples we’ve made into applesauce along with any other combination of blended berries or even greens mixed in with the berries. The possibilities are endless seeming for flavor combinations.
Pros: Dehydrated items retain their nutrients during dehydration, no refrigeration/freezer space necessary, easily transportable snacks, almost anything can be dehydrated and taste good
Cons: Dehydrators can be costly, limited shelf life of about 2-3 months because there are no preservatives, using an oven to dehydrate is time consuming
Works great for: Apples, fruit/veggie leather, tomatoes, zucchini (with seasoning salt), sweet potatoes, fruits and veggies that have blemishes and need to be used creatively. (Fruit leather is perfect for this!)
This food tradition that has seemingly been lost amid the shelves and shelves of processed foods is slowly resurging, especially among those who have been influenced by the work of Weston A. Price and the traditional foods movement. Though our great grandparents and ancestors didn’t know the ins and outs of why cultured foods were so beneficial to the body, they knew that by allowing their foods to ferment they could extend the harvest throughout the barren winter months. Thus, sauerkraut, kimchee, picked foods and kvass were integral parts of traditional cuisine worldwide until refrigeration was introduced.
Simply by placing these well-rinsed veggies into a brine and letting them sit for a few days or weeks in a closed container at room temperature, the beneficial bacteria and yeast multiply, natural enzymes begin feasting on sugars and predigesting the minerals making for a nutrient-dense, crisp and tangy dish that keeps for quite some time in the refrigerator or even on a shelf. To read more about culturing vegetables and fruits or even making milk kefir, visit Cultures for Health.
Pros: Nutrient dense, natural probiotics dozens of times more potent than even the strongest store –bought capsules, enzyme rich, unique flavors, immune system boosting, inexpensive, easy once mastered
Cons: learning curve, lots of large ½ gallon or gallon jars necessary or a fermenting crock needed, refrigeration needed for extra-long shelf life to slow fermentation
Works great for: cabbage, most veggies, apples, beets, cucumbers, milk (kefir)
Our favorite places to buy our veggies include:
Grayslake Farmers Market
Prairie Crossing Farmers Market (Grayslake)
Woodstock Farmers Market (Woodstock)
Elawa Farm (Lake Forrest)
Windy City Harvest (Chicago – click link for specific farmers markets list)
Our favorite places for buying starter cultures or preservation tools: