The Basics of Getting Started With Food Preservation

How many times have you opened your refrigerator, only to find that more food has gone bad? Or, consider how much food gets thrown away because you’ve overcooked or chosen not to eat leftovers. Americans give very little thought to the amount of food that is wasted, mostly because we believe that there will always be more. Yet food is a precious resource, and it’s important that we value its purpose. You’ll find it unsettling that between 160 and 295 billion pounds of food are wasted each year, which means we are filling a football stadium with wasted food each day.

When hearing these startling numbers, many people feel that they need to do a better job helping hunger organizations or putting their own food to good use. But conserving food takes more than this, and that’s where food preservation techniques come into the picture. Homesteaders do an exceptional job at preserving foods because they take the time and money to grow their own items. Yet there’s more to home preservation than just money savings, as you will soon read on.

Why is it important to preserve your own foods?

By preserving your own foods, you’re taking steps to reduce waste. There’s far less food and storage containers going into our landfills, and you’re making the most of what you have right in front of you. Every time we step foot in the store, we overbuy on what we need, pushing other foods out of the fridge or pantry and into the garbage can. By preserving food, you’re using every item, stretching your dollar further and utilizing the resources that are available to you.

Food preservation also allows you to eat healthy year round. We’re not all blessed with warm weather during all four seasons, so many of us are left with a few short months to grow fruits and vegetables. All types of fresh foods can be preserved, such as potatoes, beans, parsnips, sweet potatoes, apples, figs and cranberries. Many can be saved for several years while others have a slightly shorter time frame. When you’re able to preserve these foods, you can reach for fresh items straight from the garden any time of the year.

Finally, food preservation keeps our foods healthier. It may take a bit of extra work, but the rewards are well worth it. Did you know that conventional foods contain chemical food additives and toxins like BPA, aspartame and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils? These chemicals are bad for our health and have been linked to certain cancers and health conditions. Conventional products are often loaded with unnecessary sugars as well, which in turn puts us at risk for diabetes and obesity.

By preserving your own foods, you know exactly what’s going into each jar. You know that you’re feeding your family foods that are not filled with toxins, chemicals or synthetic ingredients. You can continue expanding your palate, eating healthy year round and consuming healthy strains of fruits and vegetables that you wouldn’t be able to get from the supermarket.

Types of Storage

Let’s discuss the various types of storage methods that are available for preserving food.

Cool Storage

We’re so accustomed to thinking that food must be frozen to be kept fresh, but this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, cool storage offers many benefits that traditional freezing does not. Cool storage refers to preserving food in cool, dry storage areas like unheated pantries or root cellars. It’s the oldest method of food preservation and perhaps the simplest. However, only certain types of produce can be stored this way, and there are shorter time limits than what a freezer can provide.

The goal is to keep the produce dry and cool, between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The best types of produce to keep in a root cellar include root vegetables like potatoes, yams, beats and turnips. There are other types of produce that can be preserved in cool storage, such as apples, melons and broccoli, but these items are more delicate.

Always choose vegetables that are firm and round; remove excess dirt but do not wash the item. Place the produce in boxes, bins or wire baskets. The bins can be stacked, and they should have good air circulation going through them. There are some types of produce that cannot be stacked, including apples and melons. Produce like beans, okra, cucumbers and peas can be spread out on shelves or benches where they will remain good for up to one month.

Drying

Drying is another type of food preservation, and it offers additional preservation time compared to cool storage techniques. There are many products that can be dried, including root vegetables, herbs, peas, and fruits with high sugar and low moisture.

To start, the food needs to be properly prepared by mashing it into a pulp or cutting it into small pieces. The food is spread out on screening or cheesecloth and placed in the sun to dry. The dried produce needs to then be stored in an airtight container and kept dry. If the produce is not kept dry, it will deteriorate rapidly. For added flavor, you may sprinkle a layer of sugar onto the fruits before sealing them; vegetables can be stored as is. Drying can preserve foods for up to 6 years.

Canning

Canning takes things a step further, as it’s a more involved process that requires a certain number of steps. There are certain tools that you will need for canning. A paring knife is used to cut up produce while a large pot is used for boiling and cooking fruits and vegetables. Foods will be processed in a flat-bottomed pot, and a pressure cooker will be helpful for foods that require longer processing times. Also, a food mill can be used for foods that are soft and have been cooked through.

Both metal and glass storage containers are available. Metal tins do not break when dropped, but glass containers allow us to see what food is in the jar. Both types of containers are reusable as well. All steps of canning are important since the foods need to be properly cooked, and the processing is where the bacteria are killed. You will also need a lot of space to work in the kitchen, or you may use a fire built under the grill. Once you get used to canning fruits and vegetables, the process will come more naturally, and you’ll be able to have access to fresh foods for years to come.

Freezing

Freezing brings us back to the basics again, as this form of food preservation is relatively simple. Just about all vegetables need to be blanched before they are frozen, meaning that they need to be scalded in boiling water or steamed for a short time. This stops enzyme actions that result in a loss of color, flavor and texture. You can steam vegetables in boiling water, or by using steam or the microwave. The vegetables should be immediately cooled to stop the cooking process, so they will need to be plunged in cold water for a short time. The vegetables can then be thawed and placed in the freezer.

Fruits are a bit different, and each variety has its own guidelines. For instance, all fruits need to be rinsed, cleaned and patted dry, but only some require coring, peeling and slicing. Apples and pears will need to be cored and peeled while berries can be stored whole. Melons should be cut into cubes or slices while cherries are best when pitted right away. Fruit should be laid on parchment paper, placed in the freezer and then transferred to heavy-duty bags when frozen.

Lacto-Fermentation

Lacto-fermentation requires no special equipment or canning methods, so you’ll find this method to be practical, especially for beginners. Lacto-fermentation destroys the bad bacteria in food so that the good bacteria can strengthen. When you eat foods with lactobacillus, you have a healthier digestive system. This bacterium also has anti-inflammatory properties and prevents certain types of cancer.

Lacto-fermentation is a bit different than conventional food preservation methods because not all foods can use this technique. Instead, it involves turning foods into traditional dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimichi. Keep in mind that you can use these foods to make many wonderful side dishes such as kraut and apple slaw, green bean soup and grain salads.

Salt and Sugar

Preserving foods in salt and sugar is one of the oldest methods of preservation, but it’s still used today for its simplicity and efficacy. The combination of salt and sugar increases osmotic pressure, destroys bacteria and slows decay. The use of salt and sugar works well with foods that will absorb the taste naturally, but not all foods taste good with this combination, which is why it has limited uses.

If you do decide to preserve foods with a bit of salt and sugar, be sure to follow through with good preservation techniques, such as by keeping the produce in a cool, dry place to prevent spoilage and bacteria growth.

Vinegar Pickling

A final option for preserving foods is pickling them, which involves placing food in a pickling agent like vinegar, alcohol, vegetable oil or brine. The most common foods that can benefit from this method are cucumbers, peppers, corned beef, herring and eggs. Always choose stoneware or glass containers since vinegar can break down other materials, and practice good storage techniques to prevent early spoilage.