En español | Oklahoma City gardener Bryan Wright typically hauls in 2,000 pounds of vegetables — a ton — every season from his urban garden. That's not even counting his apples, berries, plums and other fruits.
How to make that bounty last? He cans, freezes, ferments and dehydrates it.
Wright runs the Black Urban Gardening Society, a nonprofit that teaches gardening and food preservation, and he uses his haul to feed his family of six as well as those in the community.
“We grow this food … and we can't eat it all right now, so we have to preserve it,” he says.
Easy, safe techniques
Most gardeners don't go as big as Wright, but still find themselves inundated with more cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchinis and berries than they might be able to eat during the growing season.
Luckily there are easy food preservation techniques that are safe and tasty. Renewed interest in preservation is being driven by the local food movement and, after unpredictable pandemic shortages, people want more control over food sources, experts say.
Preservation also helps people without regular access to reasonably priced fresh food get the most out of what they have. In California, for example, the San Luis Obispo County branch of the University of California Cooperative Extension teaches low-income families how to use the oven to dehydrate fruit and other foods.
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"That was the original basis of food preservation, right? To extend the resources that families knew they weren't going to have access to later in the year,” says Katherine Soule, assistant vice provost for UC extension and the head of the San Luis Obispo office.
Whether you want to put aside enough to last the winter or just process a few jars of jam, you need to understand the basics. For example, be wary of heirloom recipes or outdated advice, experts say.
"People think they know how to preserve but a lot has changed in the last 10, 20 years,” says Noreen Goff, a master food preserver with UC extension in Amador and Calaveras counties. Master food preservers are extension volunteers trained as educators.
Two dependable preservation sources are county extension services, which are backed by university research centers, and the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP), supported by the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nonprofit organizations like the Black Urban Gardening Society or Tilth Alliance in Seattle, Washington, also offer food preservation classes.
Most importantly, only preserve what you like and will actually eat. Otherwise, it's just a waste of time and resources, experts say.
Wright uses a fermentation process with a natural starter to make natural fruit sodas for his kids, among other foods. In St. Clair County, Alabama, Philip Meade, 51, who shares a 1/8-acre garden with his housemate, makes pickled corn, a sauerkraut-style dish that he learned from his mother. He puts sweet corn in a 5-gallon bucket in a vinegar and salt brine, covers it loosely and waits. It takes about a month, he says, to get “a real good pickle.”
If you want to begin preserving food, here are some basic techniques. Consider what's most appropriate for the specific food and your own time, storage, tastes and dietary restrictions.
This is the most nutritious method because you can capture food at the peak of its vitamin value and you don't add sugar or salt, says Roxana Ehsani, a registered dietician and consultant in Las Vegas. Some foods, like beans, require a quick bath in boiling water to stop enzymes from causing decay; others, like berries, can be frozen without blanching. Most foods will last at least three to six months. The only downsides are space and the cost of running the freezer.
This easy process preserves fruits or vegetables in a brine of salt, vinegar, seasoning and sometimes sugar. It's possible to can pickles for longer storage but many basic recipes keep well for weeks in the refrigerator. Some ingredients, such as beets, need to be precooked; others, like green beans and zucchini can be used raw, according to the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Make sure you follow exact, up-to-date directions for particular ingredients and use a vinegar that's at least 5 percent acetic acid.
3. Pressure canning
All canning requires special glass jars, lids and lid rings and processing, the stage where filled jars are heated to kill microorganisms such as the bacteria that cause botulism, a serious nerve disease. Low-acid foods like beans or carrots that have a pH level of 4.6 or higher must be processed in a pressure canner that heats above the boiling point. Pressure canners cost $100 to $200 and hold about seven quart jars. Canned foods last up to 18 months, says Ann Supa, 58, of Johnson City, New York, who works in the nutrition department at Cornell Cooperative Extension and is a master food preserver. “Pressure canners are super easy to use,” she says. “I don't know why people are so afraid of them.”
4. Hot water-bath canning
Acidic foods with a pH under 4.6, such as tomatoes, pickles and fruit jams can be canned and processed in a large pot of boiling water or an atmospheric steam canner. These resemble a tight-fitting cake cover on top of a skillet. Steam canners cost under $100.
Drying makes food easy to store but can lower some nutrients, like vitamin C, although vitamins A and B remain, Ehsani says. Wright dehydrates sliced okra because his kids love it. Goff dries tomatoes and then grinds them into powder to add flavor to soups. You can use the oven or even the sun and countertop dehydrators start at under $100. Goff recommends the kind with a temperature gauge and fan.
This ancient technique uses a fruit or vegetable's own bacteria to break down the natural sugars, making food easier to digest and forming lactic acid that controls harmful bacteria. It also encourages probiotics that are good for gut health, says Ehsani. Wright calls fermentation easy and foolproof. When fermenting, be sure to use a loose cover on your containers so natural gases escape or you'll risk an explosion.