The gardens are beginning to look lush and green with all the rain we have had this summer. And that means that the produce is beginning to come all at once. It's hard to keep up with everything and make sure we're picking to get the prime of ripeness. Ripeness is really important in order to get the best nutrients from your foods; and that's why growing your own is so much better than commercial; which are placed on a transport, half ripe, and ripened on their way to your grocery. The nutritional value is not as good even though the produce may look wonderful. So when it comes to putting up our food stocks for winter, it's just as important to pick it ripe and choose the right form of preserving.
There are a few choices: freezing, canning, pickling, fermenting, drying. They all have their pros and cons as to which one is better depending on your resources, time and amount and type of fresh produce you have. Canning definitely has more long-term ability to last 3 or 4 years if done properly; but it takes time, heat, processing and the right equipment. Stored in a cool, dry, dark location like basement or cupboard and then rotated from year to year as new canned goods are added; will give you a plentiful larder in the middle of winter, as you take advantage the things that grow better from one year to the next. On the downside, some vegetables are just not as tasty or nutritional when canned; as heat takes viability away and boiling to process tight seals makes a lot of vegetables' texture soft, taking out some flavor. Canning fruit, on the other hand, usually in some type of syrup (I prefer with as little sweetener as possible) for firmer fruit to eat on its own in a dish plain or with yogurt or ice cream.
Some of us do not have a lot of time to use the canning process. I prefer freezing my fresh vegetables. I can pick them, blanch them and fill my freezer bags within an hour of harvesting. One trick I have discovered is that if I have small batches of veggies at a time, I can keep a partially filled gallon bag in my kitchen freezer and add to it after being sure to drain all the water well before adding to the bag. Then I transfer the bag to the big freezer in my basement until I'm ready to use them. When I'm ready to open a bag, I can do the same in reverse, taking the amount I need out of the larger bag, resealing and putting back in the freezer. We still get great nutritional value and great flavor like fresh picked. I do the same with fruit which works well, but freezing does break down the firmness of fruit in a number of cases and it doesn't work as well to eat fresh but rather to use in pies, crisps, and jams. Some folks like to freeze herbs which works to maintain freshness and viability. It does however, leave the more fragile leaf material rather limp and is better for cooking purposes. Anything you want to use for teas, medicinals or flavorings in any number of applications will do better as dried material.
Drying is fairly straight forward. There are any number of ways to dry things. If you have a gas stove with a pilot light, the heat generated by the pilot is often enough to dry leaf material and some thinner sliced, more fleshy vegetables and fruit like raspberries. You can purchase for reasonable prices, small food dryers with a simple electric coil on the bottom that gives off good, consistent heat but is not adjustable. They usually come with multiple trays which will be warmer for the bottom tray than for the top. These I leave on my kitchen counter where I spend most of my time, and can keep my eye on them and rotate the trays for even drying. Still the best drying medium for fruits and vegetables in a dryer with a thermostat that controls the heat. In this way, I can make fruit leathers and quickly dry vegetables in a short time so that they have thoroughly dried all the way through. If not, they will mold eventually because of moisture content. They can be stored in cupboard in zip log bags or dry glass jars.
Fermentation is another ageless way of preserving fresh, viable food during winter months. The good bacteria in fresh vegetables in a salt brine, will create a fermenting process of a pickling nature, that will self-preserve for many months. Called lacto-fermention (from the lactic acid produced) it requires no refrigeration or costly heat and equipment. Our forefathers used this method to store in their root cellars and have a good food source over long winter months without other food sources. Lactobaccillus, a good bacteria, is present on most everything plant and we just need to control it and put it to use; similar to using yeast. This good bacteria produces good enzymes and digestive aids for our health as well that promotes heathy flora within the vegetables being fermented and us as humans when we eat them. Sauerkraut is a well known fermented vegetable, but most every country in the world has their own fermented specialties: cucumbers, beets, & turnips in America, green tomatoes, peppers and lettuces in Russia, and a combination of vegetables called kimchi in Korea. These are usually eaten as condiments in small amounts and add to our body's ability to digest well the foods that do not have their own enzymes due to perservation. There are many recipes too numerous to list, but google is our friend and you can find much information there as well as cookbooks, like Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon, listed in the Book Resource section below. Our own Patty Myers has done a few classes on making kimchi which we may see later this summer.
Then there is pickling which is done in a vinegar solution. Vinegar is another type of fermented brine by which we can make pickles, relishes, chutneys and many other brine based condiments and side dishes. There are numerous vinegars like apple cider, balsamic, plum; and these dishes usually have other flavors, herbs and combinations of fruits and vegetables in the mix depending on your family recipes and cultural background. These all have long shelf life and good bacteria support for a healthy immune system. These recipes too, are passed down in families and can be found on websites and standard cookbooks.
Jellies and jams are a commonly known source and many fairgoers find the sources from their local community members as vast and unique as their persons. It's really easy to make them, and again, you can find straight forward recipes and videos on youtube. Or get together with your friends and try a new recipe or trade them around. Much healthier than sugary cookies.
For storage containers, we suggest glass or zip lock bags. Plastic leaves particulates in your food and is detrimental to your health. Just be sure glass is clean and then completely dry or you will develop mold and your food will not be consumable. If you have lots of root vegetables you want to store fresh, another method is to get good quality sand and a plastic trash can or similar food grade plastic containers. Put down a layer of sand, then layer the roots so they are not touching each other and then cover with 2 to 3 inches of sand, then form another layer, and so on until your trash container is full. You may want to establish the container in it's permanent location first, as it will be hard to move once it's full. These containers can be stored in a basement or cold cellar to be opened later in the winter months.
The season is early and you will have time to research and find the recipes and methods that will work for you. So plan ahead and don't wait till the produce is coming fast and furious. Most of all, have fun, creating and reaping the benefits of God's blessings!
Over 40 years of Herbal and nutritional experience.