Preserving Food: Where to Start
By Jennifer Knoch
Food preservation, for me, hits a lot of personal values: shopping local and in-season, supporting sustainable agriculture, avoiding packaging and increasing self-sufficiency. Plus at this time of year, “putting up” some local produce is incredibly cost effective. So tie on your apron and grab your wooden spoon, because it’s time for food preservation 101! I’ve arranged these options from easiest to most involved, and there’s something for everyone.
Drying, the lazy person’s preservation, is an excellent way to preserve herbs such as rosemary, sage, tarragon, parsley, thyme, savoury, mint, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lavender, bay, and basil. I don’t wash my garden-grown herbs first, just pick off any dirty leaves, brush with a towel, and hang in a bunch to dry somewhere there’s good airflow ( washing induces browning and makes it more likely to mould.). When the herb is nice and crispy, remove leaves from stems and put in a jar. If I’m saving herbs for tea, I may save the stem too. Generally leaves store better if they’re not crumbled, so keep them intact until you use them.
In harvesting herbs from my own garden, I can keep myself in herbal tea for the whole year. My favourite home-grown herbal blend is a mix of tulsi basil, mint, lavender blossom, rose petals, and lemon balm.
You can also dry fruits and vegetables—even ones you’d never suspect. Drying kale on the dashboard of your car! Hand spiralizing a zucchini for drying! Drying green beans (or, as Dolly Parton would call them, “leather britches”)! Dried sauerkraut and kimchi! As Linda Black Elk, food sovereignty skills coordinator at United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota, says, “You can dry ANYTHING!”
My freezer is almost always full, especially at the end of the summer. I always freeze pesto in ice cube trays (another great way to preserve herbs, especially basil and garlic scapes) and a lot of summer berries.
Most veg benefits from being blanched (boiled a minute or so, then doused in cold water) before its long winter’s storage. Blanching helps the food retain its colour, nutrients, and textures and eliminate enzymes that cause spoilage. Try blanching and freezing peas, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, carrots, and Brussels sprouts. Squash and tomatoes can go straight in the deep freeze without hitting the hot tub first (though slow roasting some tomatoes in olive oil and then freezing is well worth the trouble). Label your food well, including the date. (You think you’ll remember. You’re wrong.)
Freeze anything you don’t want to clump spread out on a cookie sheet, then once frozen put them in a reused freezer bag or container. I do this with berries, but it also works well for things like chickpeas or other beans if you cook them from dry. (I usually cook double the amount I want to eat in my InstantPot, then freeze the second serving, so it’s as easy as opening a can of beans.)
There are two main types of pickling: quick pickling (or fridge pickling) and water-bath pickling. Fridge pickles have to be kept in the fridge (hence the name), but they are fast, easy, and require no special equipment. It’s just a matter of making a brine (usually a combo of vinegar, salt, and sometimes sugar), and pouring it on the veg in question. My go-to fridge pickle recipe is this one from Queer Eye’s proto-Antoni, Ted Allen, and it makes your veggies crisp and delicious and takes no time at all. These pickles are hot commodities among my friends and family, so most disappear quickly, but they can last in the fridge for around three months.
Fermenting uses the tiny bacteria on food and in the air to help preserve it. If you’ve ever had sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, miso, wine, or sourdough bread, you’ve probably eaten something fermented and liked it. Though the health claims can often be overblown, eating fermented foods may be good for your digestion (and regardless, they taste delicious).
Fermenting cucumbers or cabbage doesn’t require any equipment and is pretty low maintenance. For baby steps, try fermenting some pickles or sauerkraut. The ultimate fermentation guru is Sandor Katz; check out his book Wild Fermentation if you want to go all-in.
For a lot of folks, canning brings to mind gruesome deaths of botulism or other microscopic nasties. But you can rest easy for two reasons: 1) botulism can’t thrive in an acidic environment, so anything that contains the recommended amount of vinegar, lemon juice, or another acid is very safe, 2) Botulism is super rare. In the U.S. in 2017, there were only 18 foodborne cases and none were connected to home canning. Follow basic protocols and you’re not going to poison your best beloveds. If you’re still worried, stick to pickles and high-acid produce. And, as with other foods, don’t eat something that’s turned colour or smells funny, and a bulging jar lid is always a sign to send the contents to the compost. (I’ve been canning for years — none of these has happened to me, by the way.)
There are lots of great guides to water-bath canning (which is different than pressure canning, a similar technique used to preserve meat and low-acid foods), but always get your recipes from a reputable source — keep to cookbooks or canning-focused blogs, and if you want the ultimate in safety, stick to recipes from a canning company like Bernadin. When I want things that are a little more exciting, I turn to Food in Jars (for small batches) or to Batch (for recipes that use the whole plant, even asparagus ends or beet skins). Right now, you can also take canning classes online, which is a great way to build confidence: Ashley English offers affordable online classes. Whatever the recipe, follow it to a T and don’t substitute any fresh ingredients — we’re doing chemistry and it’s vital to get the acid balance right.
Equipment-wise, you need:
- a very large pot (that can allow one inch of water over your highest jar)
- a rack to sit inside the pot (or you can make one by joining screw bands — anything that keeps the jars from sitting on the bottom)
- some canning jars (used are perfect, as long as they’re not chipped), unrusted screw bands, and brand-new lids (all sold together if you’re buying a case of new jars)
- a jar lifter
- a canning funnel
This is great stuff to borrow, since it’s something that most people don’t use all that often. You can also buy kits that come with all this jazz and more. (For labelling, treat yourself to one of my favourite inventions, a water-based paint marker.)
You’ll also need more time than you think, a solid heat tolerance (or a workspace with great A/C), a bunch of mixing bowls, and an inspiring selection of swears. Canning is a lot of work, but it’s also incredibly neat (science!), satisfying, and eye-opening — you’ll never take this food for granted. Yes, sometimes you could get a jar of applesauce cheaper at the store, but this is a way of affirming, to yourself and others, that the lowest prices shouldn’t be our highest value. It’s a way of taking back control from packaged food companies, savouring that local flavour all year round, and reusing the same packaging for years if not decades.