I love the summer edible garden, particularly July. Everything is overgrown, everything is colorful, and I have a constant supply of fresh produce. The general chaos of things makes it difficult to weed, and the heat of the day makes it difficult for more intense projects like digging or building. So in summer, the main homestead project consists of keeping up with the harvest. My counters are filled with freshly picked produce, and my meals are rich with fresh ingredients. But I can’t eat all of it fresh. To make sure that nothing goes to waste from my bounty, I utilize many different methods of food preservation.
Really, the idea of preserving food when you’re gardening in Sonoma County is ironic. We are lucky-there isn’t a single month of the year when you can’t have something fresh and delicious coming out of the garden. But our wonderful growing season comes with the price, we (or at least, me) are spoiled and its easy to get bored with eating the same thing. To ensure creativity, I like to preserve all kinds of things, in a variety of methods, to ensure I have great ingredients year round.
The Many Methods of Food Preservation
When you hear of food preservation, this is probably the first thing that comes to mind. The concept is simple: take hot food, put in hot jars, seal jars. Of course, there are many more details that need to be understood, but canning is a method of food preservation that dates back generations. The method of putting food in a sealed container started in the late 1790s, as result of the French government looking for a way to provide a stable food source for its military. The Ball canning jar, similar to what we use today, was first marketed in the mid 1800’s, allowing housewives and homesteaders to safety put away food.
On my homestead, I can a lot. You can read about what I put up in a past year here. I use a water bath canner, which is only safe for high acid foods, such as jams, fruits and tomatoes. I really hope to get a pressure canner soon which would make it safe to can vegetables like beans and soup. So far this year, I’ve put up peach BBQ sauce, squash pickles, and 2 different types of dill pickles.
Drying is a super easy food preservation method. I hang herbs to dry from my kitchen windowsills, or leave on clean cloths on the counter. Once dry, they get stored in glass jars, to add to sauce or soups throughout the year. I will also dry edible flowers and medicinal herbs for teas and salves. I use my dehydrator to dry figs, tomatoes, apples, chilis, summer squash, garlic (for garlic powder), apricots, plums, persimmons, beef jerky, fruit leathers, and green beans. Pretty much anything can be dried, and I’m really looking forward to growing grapes to make raisins.
This method of food preservation has been utilized for centuries by people who lived in olive producing regions. Food would be placed in a container, then covered in olive oil. The oil creates a barrier to bacteria, and therefore reducing the decomposition of the food item. I don’t do a lot of oil packing, due to the cost of buying quality olive oil, but I do store fresh cheese in oil in the fridge to prolong its life. This summer, I’ve made homemade chèvre and feta, and because it can spoil quickly, I put half of it in jars with herbs and oil. Its delicious to add to salads and pasta, and allows me to eat the cheese much longer than just a few days!
One word of caution for preserving in oil: in general, many people think this method is unsafe, and there is a risk of botulism. Therefore, I keep anything in oil in the fridge. I’ll just pull it out a bit before using so the oil returns to liquid. If you want to explore this method, do some research, and make sure the food is completely covered in the oil.
If you have a freezer, you can easily undertake this super basic method of food preservation. Freezing fruits and vegetables at their prime is a great way to preserve food with their maximum nutrients. Its also a good way to store fruits and veggies until you have more time to deal with them later. In addition to freezing stone fruits and berries for baked goods, I’ll also freeze tomatoes until I have enough to make sauce. I’ve been reading how lots of people will freeze fruit until winter, then make jam when its cold and they want to be near a hot stove (as compared to the 90+degrees canning days usually are here. I see the appeal.)
Making a prepared food and freezing it for later consumption is also a popular happening in my kitchen. So far this season, I’ve froze pesto and ice cream, like the Plum Ice Cream I posted a few weeks ago. When I make lasagna or this squash bake, I’ll make double and freeze to eat later in the year, or a night when I don’t have brain power to come up with something else.
Almost any food can be fermented, and almost every culture has a history of fermenting. The main form of food preservation prior to refrigeration, fermentation relays on beneficial bacterias to pre-digest the food, keeping it from spoiling. As long as the foods are kept under the liquid, and in a cool spot like the fridge or a root cellar (the one appeal I see about living where it freezes….), product will last for months and months, sometimes years.
This summer, I’ve had a constant supply of pickles fermenting from my prolific cucumbers. I also just fermented a tiny jar of roasted tomatillo salsa, from the handful of tomatillos I harvested. I’m really looking forward to making some fermented hot sauce later in the summer.
For most of human history, curing foods in salt was among the ways of keeping foods edible. Salt was one of the first international trade commodities and for millennia, salt represented wealth. Salt draws water out of food and dehydrates it. Bacteria can’t live in a dry environment, so by removing the water, you eliminate the growth of bacteria.
Usually, curing food in salt as a method of food preservation usually involving meat or fish. Any devout Little House reader will remember the numerous references to salt pork. Salt-preserved foods, often followed by smoking, were important to the Colonies, rural America and homesteader. Today, the preservation method idea of salting is often used as super salty brine, such as with corned beef. Most meats today are now cured with nitrates.
On my homestead, I haven’t experimented with salting any meats, but I do make preserved lemons, which are fresh lemons that are packed in salt.
What about you? What types of food preservation do you undertake in your kitchen to keep up with the harvest?