Putting up

By Tom Seymour | Aug 31, 2018
Photo by: Tom Seymour Preserving homegrown vegetables pays dividends in winter.

Most gardeners raise far more produce than they can use. Many give their surplus to family, friends, church groups and soup kitchens. But sometimes even that fails to use up everything we grow. That’s where putting up comes in to take up the slack.

Pressure-canning and freezing are the two most popular methods of home food preservation, with drying coming in a distant third. Of these three, freezing takes the least amount of time. Here are some thoughts on freezing produce for off-season use.

First, some products can simply be placed in freezer bags or containers and frozen, no pre-cooking required. Blueberries come immediately to mind. It is best to clean blueberries without washing them, because wet blueberries will stick together when frozen, making them difficult to measure out.

I like to spread my fresh-picked blueberries on the kitchen table and then roll them around, looking for bits of twig ends, leaves or whatever else might be in among them. After this, it’s easy to put the cleaned, dry berries in a freezer-proof container and freeze. When it comes time to use them, the berries will be individually frozen, making it easy to measure out any amount without having the berries all clumped together.

Dill, one of my favorite herbs, also lends itself to freezing. I grow dill primarily for the foliage, rather than the seeds. In fact, my dill seedheads get picked well before they form seeds.

To freeze dill weed (foliage), just strip from the stem, place in a freezer bag and then in the freezer. Frozen dill can be used in a wide variety of dishes, my favorite being sprinkled on Atlantic salmon fillets.

Here’s another veggie that freezes well without further preparation. Summer squash, the yellow variety, freezes well when sliced and placed in freezer bags or containers. I learned of this method last year and though somewhat skeptical, went ahead and froze some fresh, sliced summer squash. Then in midwinter, I decided to try my frozen squash. My favorite summer squash recipe calls for sautéing with garlic powder and a sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes, and that was how I prepared the frozen squash. It was delicious and bore a strong resemblance to fresh-picked squash.

Blanch first

Other produce requires blanching in boiling water for a short time to kill bacteria. After blanching, the produce must be immediately placed in ice-cold water to prevent further cooking. When cool, it goes into freezer bags and then the freezer.

Regarding blanching time, a general rule is that more dense material needs to stay in the boiling water longer than quick-cooking things. For instance, beets require longer blanching time than green beans. For more specific instructions on blanching, refer to the "Ball Blue Book," a venerable publication on home canning, freezing and drying that sees regular updates. It is an indispensible guide.

Lacking a vacuum sealer, I have a suggestion for keeping produce fresh for a lengthy stay in the freezer. Instead of placing the cooled product directly in a Ziploc-type bag, first put it in a fold-top sandwich bag and fold the top over, being careful to squeeze out as much moisture as possible. After that, it’s time to place in a freezer bag. For small portions, it is possible to put a number of servings, all in their own sandwich bags, in the freezer bag.

The reason for the sandwich bag is twofold. When squeezing out moisture from the product in a sandwich bag, the sides of the bag will adhere to the blanched produce, forcing out air and making it hard for freezer burn to occur. Also, since it is difficult to get all the air out of a freezer bag, the pre-bagged stuff in sandwich bags adds an extra layer of protection. It works well and is the only way I will freeze my homegrown produce.

Pressure-canning

The sound of a heavy, round knob jiggling atop a pressure canner brings me back to my childhood, when I watched my grandma go through the hot and steamy process of home canning. Indeed, my first pressure canner was a model similar to Grandma's. It requires lots of time and patience waiting for the seal to stop steam from escaping, and then when that happens and the timer/jiggler begins bouncing, the gas must be adjusted so that it only jiggles three or four times a minute. Timing minutes to process begins now, and the "Blue Book" gives times for all different kinds of produce.

When done in summer, which is when most everyone cans fresh produce, a steam–operated pressure cooker adds even more heat and humidity to an already hot and humid kitchen. But there is a better way.

Last year a good friend made me a Christmas present of an electric pressure cooker/canner. I was skeptical about its ability to can, but last week I began canning beans, and the ease with which the pressure canner operates is remarkable.

These devices are programmable, so for instance, when canning beans, you just depress the “canning” button and then hit the plus or minus sign to raise or lower the cooking time to 20 minutes. After that there is no waiting for the jiggler to begin dancing. Also, whereas gas-operated pressure canners often develop problems with the rubber seal, the silicon seal on electric canners never fails.

My electric canner only holds six canning jars, while larger units handle many more jars. But given the ease of canning in an electric device, I don’t mind the slight drawback of only canning six jars at once.

Also, with gas-powered canners, jars sometimes fail to seal. This we can attribute to a number of causes. If the jar rim has even the tiniest speck of dirt on it, the lid won’t adhere and won’t seal. This can happen with either a gas or electric canner, but carefully running a paper towel over the jar rim usually guarantees that debris won’t be a problem. Also, draughts and breezes make the gas flame waver, affecting the smooth, even motion of the jiggler. This is often just enough to cause pressures to vary, which leads to lids not sealing. But with the electric canner, this is not a problem. There is no flame for air currents to interrupt, no jiggler and the time remaining is observed by looking at a digital number display.

Why preserve?

Store shelves abound in canned and frozen produce. So why go to the expense and trouble of canning homegrown produce? Well, quality comes immediately to mind. Consider a fresh-picked, vine-ripened tomato. You just can’t buy that kind of quality.

The same goes for almost anything. My homegrown green beans are of a variety of my choosing, and such specialized produce is not available from most stores. Simply put, our homegrown produce is much better than anything we might buy. Of course, the local farmstand is the exception, but buying enough produce from a farmstand for home preservation usually isn’t cost-effective.

Here’s an example. Sweet corn comes in many different styles and varieties and any corn we grow will be sweeter and tenderer than commercially raised corn. For that matter, any commercial product will lack the finer points of homegrown produce, because it is of a kind bred for longevity rather than taste. So for the highest-quality fruits and vegetables, we must grow our own.

Dry storage

Some produce keeps all winter when stored in a dry, cool location. Garlic, for instance, keeps long enough that old cloves from last year remain viable up to planting time the following October. I put my garlic bulbs in a mesh-style onion bag and then store that in a bottom cupboard, where it stays cool.

Potatoes, too, keep well when stored in this manner. Other items, particularly root crops such as beets and carrots, can last for months in the crisper drawer of a refrigerator. In the old days, people had cold cellars for storing root crops. My first house had large, sand-filled bins in the dirt-floored cellar and these were remarkable in that they kept produce fresh all winter and into the following growing season. I don’t currently have a root cellar, but have toyed with the idea of having one dug into a nearby hillside.

I know people who have stored cabbage and beets in 50-gallon drums sunk in the ground and covered with foam insulation. A layer of straw atop the insulation further insulates the produce. So any time in winter when fresh produce is needed, just go outside, shovel off the snow, remove the cover and retrieve the produce. This takes a little effort but the result is more than worth the time.

Herbs, too

Most herbs lend themselves to drying. In my case, square-cut nails in a beam in my kitchen serve to suspend bunches of herbs for drying. I dry both culinary and medicinal herbs this way, and when fully dried and stored in a container, the herbs retain most of their properties for up to a year. Then, it’s time to gather more herbs and go through the process again.

Tom’s tips

Basil and other fragrant culinary herbs lend exquisite flavor notes to most dishes. And while it’s fine to run outside any time to pick fresh herbs for cooking, for the most punch, pick early in the morning, before the sun becomes too high and drives the essential oils back down.

So if you’ve wondered why your cooking herbs don’t seem as strong as they should be, try picking early in the day. You’ll see a big difference.

Comments (5)
Posted by: Susan Vanorse | Sep 07, 2018 15:05

Kevin:

I know the one you are referring to, it is the one I am advising people that it had not been deemed safe for pressure canning low acid foods by the USDA. Just because a jar seals, does not mean it is safe, certain temperatures have to have been reached for an extended period of time, to kill the botulism spores, in low acid foods. As far as I know these pressure canners have not been able to guarantee the high temperatures, Insta Pot has applied for but not been given approval yet, from the USDA.



Posted by: Kevin Riley | Sep 06, 2018 14:00

Susan,

Not just a canning feature. There is now an Insta Pot with  specific settings for pressure canning. It's not on the market yet. It's all in the article link. You can look further if you like.



Posted by: Susan Vanorse | Sep 05, 2018 16:24

Kevin:

Every body loves their Insta Pot, they do have a canning feature, but, the National Center For Home Food Preservation (also known as the USDA) does not recommend them for pressure canning low acid foods, as in green beans, meat. Time and temperature when processing are paramount in insuring food safety. It is not worth the risk. Insta Pot has not been given their approval, they themselves refer you to the governments web site for safety issues in pressure canning. The article you refer to from Cooking Light states jams and fruits in canning, they are high acid not low acid foods. I am by no far an expert but like I said, not worth the risk.



Posted by: Kevin Riley | Sep 03, 2018 18:23

Susan,

Insta Pot now offers a a cooker with a canning feature. It gets up to 15psi. We don't have one but I thought I'd post it here. We do have the reguar InstaPot and love it.

https://www.cookinglight.com/news/instant-pot-max-canning-feature-new-model



Posted by: Susan Vanorse | Sep 01, 2018 16:09

Tom:

The National Center for Home Food Preservation tells us NOT to use electric multi cooker pressure cookers for pressure canning low acid foods. Even if they state you can do this in their appliance. I was going to buy one and do it last year but after consulting with several bloggers whom are Master Food Preservers and the NCFP I found out how dangerous it could be, and was advised not to do it. It is the proper temperature of the food being processed, and no guarantee safe temperatures are  being reached in these units as they are with stove top pressure canners. It is not worth the risk.



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