Preserve the harvest for winter meals and holiday gifts

by Melinda Myers

fermentation kitThe cucumbers have filled the vegetable drawer, you’ve run out of cabbage recipes and your family is refusing to eat one more BLT. Or maybe you just couldn’t resist that ­special deal on a bushel of tomatoes, potatoes or apples at the farmer’s ­market. So what is a gardener or ­shopper to do with all that produce?

Since properly stored vegetables will hold their flavor and nutritional value longer than those left in a plastic bag or set on the sunny kitchen counter, consider preserving some for the long winter ahead using one of several methods.

Storage orchard racks and slatted crates placed in a cool dark location have long been used to store squash, onions and potatoes. The stackable nature or drawers provide ample ­storage space, so fruits and vegetables do not touch. Keeping stored fruit separated prevents rot from spreading from one fruit to the next. Plus, the slatted sides allow airflow to extend storage longevity.

Those in colder climates can store their carrots and parsnips right in the garden. Once the soil gets a bit crunchy, cover them with straw or evergreen boughs for easier digging in winter. Then dig as needed or harvest during the first winter thaw. If this isn’t possible or not your style, try out a root vegetable storage bin. The root crops are layered in sand or sawdust and placed in a cool dark location. Just remove and use as needed. No snow shoveling needed.

Drying is one of the oldest food preservation techniques. Most of us have grabbed a few bundles of herbs to hang and dry. Expand your ­drying endeavors to include fruits and ­vegetables. The goal is to quickly remove moisture without cooking the food. You can make your own ­dehydrator or purchase one. Research has shown that blanching vegetables and fruit before drying helps destroy harmful bacteria. Blanching involves a steam or boiling water bath ­followed by a cold water bath. Timing varies with the fruit or ­vegetable you are preparing.

Another ancient food preservation technique, ­fermentation, is experiencing a comeback. Cultures around the world have fermented fruits and vegetables for thousands of years. Unique flavors, storage options and health benefits have many gardeners revisiting this ­tradition. Fermenting cucumbers into pickles, cabbage into ­sauerkraut, and berries into preserves are just a few options. The ingredients can be as simple as water, salt and spices. All you need is a vessel, vegetables and fermenting culture. You can jump-start your efforts with a fermentation crock kit ­(gardeners.com) which includes the crock, cover and weights to make sure your veggies stay safely submerged in water.

Or quickly lock in the flavor and nutrition of your fruits and vegetables with freezing. You’ll need airtight ­containers or bags that are durable, don’t leak and won’t become brittle in cold temperatures. Some produce does not freeze well and others may need to be blanched before they are packed in the freezer bag or container. But ­frozen items can easily be retrieved from the freezer and included in your winter meals.

Canning is a bit more involved, but can be lots of fun. This process ­preserves the food and keeps it safe by preventing the growth of undesirable bacteria, yeast and mold. The sealed jars keep the flavor in and bad micro­organisms out. So gather your ­produce, jars, pressure cooker, canner and friends to create tomato sauce, salsa, jams and jellies to enjoy or give as gifts.

Whatever method you choose, do a bit of research before you start. You’ll have greater success and a lot more fun. The National Center for Home Food Preservation website, http://nchfp.uga.edu, provides all the basic information for storage and food preservation.

Melinda with shovel High ResGardening expert, TV/radio host, author & columnist Melinda Myers has more than 30 years of horticulture ­experience and has written over 20 gardening books, including Can’t Miss Small Space Gardening and the Midwest Gardener’s Handbook. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment segments. Myers is also a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms ­magazine. Myers’ web site, www.melindamyers.com, offers gardening videos and tips.

Think safety first!

The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) is a great source for current research-based ­recommendations for most methods of home food preservation. The Center was established to address food safety concerns for those who practice and teach home food preservation and processing methods. The following are a few suggestions from the NCHFP. For more information go to: http://nchfp.uga.edu/

Drying

Store dried foods in clean, dry home ­canning jars, plastic freezer ­containers with tight-fitting lids or in plastic freezer bags. Vacuum packaging is also a good option. Pack foods in amounts that can be used all at once. Each time a package is re-opened, the food is exposed to air and moisture that can lower the quality of the food and result in spoilage. Dried foods should be stored in cool, dry, dark areas.

Freezing

For the best quality, freeze and store food at 0°F or lower. Freeze foods as soon as they are packed and sealed and do not overload the freezer with unfrozen food. Leave space among new, warm packages so the cold air can circulate freely around them. When the food is frozen, stack and store the packages close together if desired.

A good policy to remember and follow is “first in, first out.” Rotate foods so that you use the older items first and enjoy your food at its best quality.

Canning

Pressure canning is the only recommended method for ­canning meat, poultry, ­seafood and ­vegetables. Growth of the ­bacterium Clostridium ­botulinum in canned food may cause ­botulism—a deadly form of food poisoning. These ­bacteria exist either as spores or as ­vegetative cells. The spores, which are ­comparable to plant seeds, can ­survive harmlessly in soil and water for many years. When ideal ­conditions exist for growth, the spores produce vegetative cells which multiply rapidly and may produce a deadly toxin within three to four days of growth in an environ­ment consisting of a moist, low-acid food, a temperature between 40° and 120°F and less than two percent oxygen.

Botulinum spores are on most fresh food surfaces. Because they grow only in the absence of air, they are harmless on fresh foods.

Most bacteria, yeast and molds are difficult to remove from food surfaces. Washing fresh food reduces their numbers only slightly. Peeling root crops, underground stem crops, and tomatoes reduces their numbers greatly. Blanching also helps, but the vital controls are the method of canning and making sure the recommended research-based process times found in the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning are used.

Fermentation

The level of acidity in a ­pickled product is as important to its safety as it is to taste and texture. 1) Do not alter vinegar, food or water propor­tions in a recipe or use a ­vinegar with unknown ­acidity. 2) Use only recipes with tested ­proportions of ingredients. 3) There must be a minimum, uniform level of acid throughout the mixed ­product to prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria.

Pickle products are subject to spoilage from micro­organisms, ­particularly yeasts and molds, as well as enzymes that may affect flavor, color and texture. Processing the pickles in a boiling-water ­canner will prevent both of these problems. Standard ­canning jars and self-sealing lids are ­recommended. Processing times and procedures will vary according to food acidity and the size of food pieces.

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