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Simple Ways to Preserve Fruits and Vegetables

Canning, Freezing, Drying and Pickling Your Harvest
  -- By Jenny Sigler, SparkPeople Contributor
Summer is the season for fresh produce—from your garden, the local farmers market, or nearby farms. It can be so tempting to buy in bulk—after all, you've waited all year for the perfect strawberry or tomato—and when you grow your own, you usually end up with a surplus of fruits and vegetables! Luckily, there are several healthful ways to preserve your food so that you can savor the goodness of these fruits and vegetables long after the harvest is over.

Home preservation is a very economical choice, but it has fallen by the wayside in these modern times when foods of all kinds are available in supermarkets year round. However, you can potentially cut hundreds of dollars from your grocery bills by buying (or growing) fresh foods in bulk and then preserving them yourself!

Here's a rundown of the four most common ways to preserve foods: canning, freezing, drying and pickling. This article will provide you with the basic information you need to get started. When doing so, always start with fruits and vegetables picked from your own garden or purchased from nearby producers when the foods are at their peak of freshness—within six to 12 hours after harvest for most varieties.

Canning
There are two primary methods of canning: a hot water bath and pressure canning. Whichever method you use, be sure to use jars with lids made specifically for that technique. Glass canning jars, which are reusable, come in various sizes (most are single pints or quarts), so choose one that best suits your canning needs. Do not use jars larger than specified in the recipe you follow, as an unsafe product may result.

While most people think of canned foods as salty, all that sodium is optional when you do it yourself. Just make sure that you use "canning salt" not table salt if you plan to salt your foods because regular table salt can make your vegetables soggy. Another tip: Wipe down your rims before you apply the lids and rings as a tight fit is vital for a safe seal. For canning recipes, methods, and techniques broken down by fruit and vegetable type, check out "How to Can Anything" at www.PickYourOwn.org.

The hot water bath canning method is for foods that are acidic (pH below 4.6), such fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, jams, jellies, marmalades, and fruit butters. If you are making jams or jellies, it is important that you sterilize the jars, lids, and rings for 10 minutes in boiling hot water before using them. Most fruits and vegetables will last up to 12 months when canned using this method. <pagebreak>

Supplies you will need: How to do it:
  1. Begin by following the directions on your preferred recipe for jam, jelly, sauce, canned vegetables, etc. Prepare your fruits and/or vegetables according to the recipe and fill your sterilized jars with the final product, as indicated by the recipe. Add the sterilized lid and ring and tighten.
  2. Fill your large pot halfway with water and preheat it to 140-180 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Add your canned goods (complete with lids) to the pot. Some canning-specific pots come with a rack that you can load the jars into, which makes for easy removal of the hot jars. If you don’t have such a rack, simply place the jars one by one into the water (and later remove with a jar-lifting set of tongs).
  4. Add boiling water to the pot to bring the water level to 1 inch above the submerged jars; bring the whole pot to a vigorous boil.
  5. As soon as the water begins to boil, start the timer. Cover and reduce the heat to maintain a low boil and process for the recommended time (according to your recipe).
  6. When the time is up, carefully remove the jars to cool on a towel or cooling rack. Use extreme caution, as the contents will be very hot! If you have done it correctly, the lids should be sealed and concave. Check the seals after 12-24 hours.
The pressure canning method is necessary for any foods that are low acid (pH greater than 4.6) because these foods are not acidic enough to prohibit the growth of bacteria (such as Clostridium botulinum, which grows into botulism and causes extreme and potentially fatal food poisoning). Low-acidic foods include red meats, seafood, poultry, milk, and all fresh vegetables except most tomatoes. In addition, all foods that can be canned with the hot water bath method (above) can also be processed using this method.

The heat, up to 240 degrees Fahrenheit, and pressure generated by using the pressure canning method should be effective in killing all harmful bacteria. It isn't necessary to sterilize the jars, lids, and rings when using this method as the canning process itself will kill all harmful bacteria. <pagebreak>

Pressure canning prevents most foods from spoiling altogether, extending their shelf life longer than many other preserving techniques do. However, you will need to invest in a pressure canner. These can be expensive, but when well cared for, they will last for generations. Most are made of aluminum or stainless steel and come with a locking lid that is vented for steam, a jar rack, an automatic vent, a pressure gauge on top and a safety fuse. Make sure you have read the instructions that accompany your pressure canner so that you fully understand how to use it before attempting to do so!

Supplies you will need: How to do it: Follow the directions in your manual to determine how many cups of water to add to your pot before you start. Unlike the hot water bath method, pressure canning does not require jars to be fully submerged in water—usually just 2-3 cups.
  1. Place the jar rack down into the water and, using your jar lifters, place the filled jars down into it.
  2. Fasten the lid securely and vent it according to your manual.
  3. Heat the water to a boil until steam flows out, then leave the weight off the vent port (or petcock depending on your pressure canner). At this point, you will probably hear a hissing noise.
  4. Turn your burner up as high as it will go until steam starts coming out of the vent (or petcock) for 10 straight minutes (or as directed in your manual).
  5. Next, pressurize your canner. Close the petcock or put the weight on and watch the gauge begin to rise to your desired pressure. Once it reaches that pressure, start timing (duration varies by jar size, contents and altitude, but it is often between 5 and 15 minutes). Adjust your burner as needed to maintain the pressure.
  6. Once finished, turn off the burner and allow the pressure to normalize before removing lid. Use extreme caution when removing the jars; the steam can burn and the contents of the jars will be very hot! Place jars onto a towel or cooling rack.
Freezing
Freezing is a good option for fruits you like adding to smoothies or baked goods (bananas, berries, cherries, etc.) and those that aren't suitable for canning. Vegetables such as broccoli, beans, carrots, peas, and corn freeze well, too. Freezing is quick and requires little in the way of equipment or skill, but frozen foods don't last as long as canned foods. Plus, some integrity is lost (foods darken or develop a mushy texture) after freezing.

Supplies you will need: How to do it: Many vegetables will require a short blanching (a short boil) before freezing. Beyond that, the method of freezing and storing vegetables is the same as that of fruit (below).
  1. Wash, core, and skin (if needed) your fruit. Cut fruit into slices or chunks, if desired.
  2. If you are concerned about browning, you can soak the fruit in water with a bit of lemon juice; commercially made agents are available for this purpose, too.
  3. Lay prepared fruit on several baking sheets in a single layer. Make sure your fruit is patted dry or unnecessary ice crystals will form.
  4. Place baking sheets into the freezer, making sure no fruit is touching, for several hours.
  5. Once frozen, remove the fruit and place it into storage bags or containers that are clearly labeled with the contents and the date.
Dehydrating (Drying)
Dehydrating removes all the water from a food and because it lacks moisture, mold and bacteria can't grow on it. Dehydrated foods will last about four months to a year, but some nutrients will be lost in the process. Commonly dried foods include meats, fruits (either in their original form or pureed to make fruit leathers or bars), herbs and seeds. <pagebreak>

In hot, arid regions, sun drying is an option, but it demands at least 3-4 sunny days of 100-degree heat in a row. The easiest and most effective way of drying your foods is to use a commercially made dehydrator. These have several levels of stacking trays that allow air to circulate in and around the foods at just the right temperature—high enough to dehydrate the food but low enough not cook it. Generally, the foods are laid out on the trays and, according to the manufacturer's instructions, you'll set the time, temperature and position of the trays. Dehydrators can take several hours or days to dry foods completely. Once dried, keep all foods tightly sealed in a container in a cool, dark place to ensure its longevity.

Some food preservation books and "raw" food cookbooks also include detailed instructions for using a conventional oven, set at a low temperature with the door cracked, as a food dehydrator, which is a great option if you're not ready to invest in your own dehydrator.

Pickling
Pickling, which uses salt and/or vinegar to inhibit the growth of bacteria, is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. While most of us think of sweet pickled cucumbers, sauerkraut, relishes and fruits can also be pickled. Pickled foods will last anywhere from 3 months to a year. There are many recipes and methods for pickling, but most include brining (soaking a food in a salt solution, similar to marinating) for several hours or even days.

Trust the instructions given in pickling recipes, as altering the ratios can be harmful. Do not use table salt; use “canning salt” or “pickling salt” instead. White distilled and cider vinegars of 5 percent acidity (50 grain) are recommended. Another tip: If using cucumbers to make your own pickles, you must remove and discard a 1/16-inch slice from the blossom ends of each cuke. (Blossoms may contain an enzyme that causes excessive softening of pickles.)

Supplies you will need: For more information about food preservation supplies, techniques and recipes, refer to the following books:

BALL Complete Book of Home Preserving by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine
Canning and Preserving for Dummies by Karen Ward
Complete Guide to Home Canning and Preserving by the U.S. Department of Agriculture