Planning a veggie garden in the spring is so exciting that often gardeners get carried away. With proper care and lots of sun, vegetable plants can produce more quickly and bountifully than you imagine. I learned this lesson the hard way when I found out my new boyfriend loves banana peppers and planted quadruple the amount I could ever need. They flourished and soon I had more banana peppers than I could eat. But by implementing these tips for preserving my bumper crop, I enjoyed those peppers for months to come. So can you.
Freezing is a simple preservation technique that allows you to easily retain the most taste and flavor from your crop. Chopped or whole, both fruits and vegetables are easily frozen. All you'll need is a package of freezer bags. You can freeze bags of the same thing, or mix and match your garden-fresh produce in interesting flavor combinations for easy side dishes.
When preparing to freeze first consider if you want to chop up the produce or not. Keep in mind that chopped produce takes up less freezer space than whole. Choose produce that is ripe, firm, and very clean.
If you will be freezing vegetables, blanche them first. Blanching is the process of boiling or steaming vegetables and then plunging them into ice water. Boil or steam either whole or chopped veggies for two to five minutes. Then, submerge them in a bowl of ice water until cool. By blanching your vegetables before freezing, you'll be able to stop enzyme activity which cause vegetables to lose flavor and texture.
Although you may be tempted to just throw your produce in a freezer bag and stick it in the freezer, it's always a good idea to first freeze the produce on a cookie sheet and then, once fully frozen, transfer to a bag. This way, the produce won't all freeze together and you'll be able to reach in and get exactly what you want. Pat your produce down with a paper towel to absorb any extra moisture. Spread them out in a single layer on cookie sheets and lay those in the freezer. Let sit overnight. Then, scoop up the vegetables and place them in a freezer bag. Squeeze out any excess air, seal, and tuck away in the freezer. Use anytime.
Though the process of canning may initially seem confusing, once you get the basics down you'll be amazed how handy a skill it is. One of the things that confused me at first was the difference between canning and jarring. Well, there isn't one, they are the exact same thing. Canners these days don't actually use metal cans, we use a specific type of glass jars called a "canning jar."
There are two different types of canning: boiling water bath canning and pressure canning. They are very different and it is important to learn the differences because using the wrong technique may end up poisoning your food. For boiling water bath canning, you'll need only the canning jars and your bumper crop. Pressure canning, however, takes a special piece of equipment called a pressure canner. You can find them in home appliance stores or online running anywhere from $60 to $200.
Which canning technique you use will depend on the type of foods you want to can. Boiling water bath canning is for acidic foods. Foods such as fruit, preserves, marmalade, fruit butter, pickled vegetables, and tomatoes can be processed using the boiling water bath method. Non-acidic foods like fresh vegetables, vegetable soup, seafood, and meats cannot be safely processed in a boiling water bath. For these non-acidic foods you must use a pressure canner. The spore that causes botulism can only be killed off by hotter than boiling temperatures or by high acidity. So, non-acidic foods need the extra bump of temperature that only the pressure canner can provide. Otherwise, you may end up growing a little botulism along with your produce. Keep in mind that you can use the pressure canner for both types of foods. You just cannot use the boiling water bath for non-acidic foods.
There are tons of recipes out there for canned goods you can make. Find some that appeal to you and use those instructions to construct your filling. Remember to use canning salt instead of table salt.
Boiling Water Bath
First, gather sterilized canning jars, jarring tongs, filling, large pot, and a cooking thermometer.
Find a recipe online for your fruit, jam, jelly, marmalade, fruit butter, or pickled vegetable. Follow the recipe until you have your finished product.
Before you fill your jars you'll need to sterilize them for ten minutes in boiling water. Use jarring tongs to lower jars, lids, and rings into boiling water and let sit for ten minutes. Then, use the jarring tongs to fish them out and place them on a drying rack.
Once the jars have cooled down, fill them with your filling. Add the lids and tighten with the ring.
Next, fill your large pot halfway with water and put on medium heat. Affix your cooking thermometer to the pot and heat til the water reaches 140 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Place your jars sitting upright into the pot with your jarring tongs. When you've fit in all you can, slowly pour hot water into the pot until the water level is one inch above the jar lids. Turn up the heat to high and bring to a rolling boil.
The recipe you use will dictate how much time the jars need spend in the boiling water. Turn the heat back down to medium and set your timer. When they're done, use your jarring tongs to carefully remove the jars to a drying rack. They will be very hot. The lids should be sealed and concave. After 24 hours check and make sure the lids are still sealed.
Your canned food is best eaten in 12 months.
Gather a pressure canner, canning jars, jarring tongs, and filling.
The first step is to read the manual for your pressure canner. Every canner is different and it's important to know how to operate yours.
Find a recipe for your vegetables, soup, stock, seafood, poultry, or red meat. Follow the recipe until you have your finished product. Fill the canning jars with your filling. It is not necessary to sterilize the jars when using this method because the high temperature will wipe out any bacteria.
Follow the manual's directions for how many cups of water to add to the canner. The water does not need to cover the jars. Place the jar rack into the canner and use your jarring tongs to lower the jars down into it. Fasten the canner's lid and vent according to your manual.
Heat the canner until the water reaches a boil and steam pours out. Adjust the vent or petcock according to your manual (you will probably hear a hissing noise). Turn the heat to high until steam starts pouring from the vent or petcock for 10 full minutes (or according to manual).
Now, pressurize your canner. Close the vent or petcock and watch the gauge. Once it reaches your desired pressure, start your timer as directed in manual and recipe. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain the correct pressure.
Once the timer is up, turn off the heat and allow the pressure to normalize before removing the lid. Use jarring tongs to carefully remove the jars from the canner. They will be very hot. Place them on a drying rack.
Your pressure canned food is best eaten in 24 months.
Pickling is one of the oldest methods of preservation in the world. Pickling, or brining, involves soaking your fruit or vegetables in a salt and/or vinegar solution to inhibit bacterial growth. It is actually a technique for preparing a preserved fruit or vegetable and is used in conjunction with either the boiling water bath or the pressure cooker methods for canning. Commonly pickled foods include cucumbers, cabbage, beets, capers, carrots, beans, herring, kimchi, and relish.
Depending on the recipe you find, you will soak your produce in a salt-vinegar marinade for hours or days. (Use canning or pickling salt instead of table salt.) Then, you'll use either the boiling water bath or pressure canning method outlined above to can your pickled food.
Pickled food is best eaten within 12 months.
Dehydrating is the process of removing all the water from a food. This way, because it has no moisture, bacteria and fungus cannot live on it. Commonly dehydrated foods include meat, fruit, herbs, and seeds. So, if you don't want to let the winter take your herb garden, harvest and dry it while it still looks fresh and plump in the late Autumn. Or, make a healthy snack from your overproducing peach or apple tree.
There are two ways to dehydrate produce: you can use a commercial dehydrator or a conventional oven.
A dehydrator is a kitchen appliance that is designed to suck the water out of food. You can find them at a home appliance store or online costing anywhere from $40 to $250. The dehydrator consists of levels of stacking trays where you place the produce. The machine allows air to circulate in just the right way and temperature to evenly dehydrate the food but not cook it. Use according to manufacturer's instructions.
If you are doing it in the oven instead, you will need a conventional oven (that can maintain a temperature below 200 degrees), something to prop the oven door open (folded pot holder), cookie sheets, an oven fan for air circulation, an accurate oven thermometer, a large pot, fruit, vegetables, herbs, or seeds, and ascorbic acid powder (available in most supermarkets).
First, clean and prepare the food by cutting off any bruises and chopping to desired size. Remove pits, seeds, and cores.
Follow the directions outlined above for blanching. As with freezing, you should blanche your produce before you dehydrate it. Next, make up a mixture of water and ascorbic acid. The ratio of water to acid powder will depend on the produce you're dehydrating so find a recipe online or read the back label on the powder. Dip your produce into the mixture. This will prevent them from discoloring during the dehydrating process.
Arrange produce in a single layer on cookie sheets. Preheat oven to lowest temperature below 200 degrees, 140 degrees is ideal. Then, use a folded towel or pot holder to prop the oven door open about two to three inches. When the oven reaches 140 degrees, place the baking sheets inside and bake according to recipe. Turn food with tongs twice during baking.
Store your dehydrated food in an airtight container in a dark cool place. Check the jar periodically in the two weeks after dehydrating for any signs of moisture. If the inside of the jar or the produce seems moist, it needs to be baked again.
When you're planting adorable seedlings in your veggie garden, it's easy to get excited and grow too much. But, don't think for a second that you have to waste any of it. Your neighbors may be disappointed about not getting any more fresh "eat this before it goes bad" produce, but with these preserving techniques you'll certainly be enjoying your garden for months to come.