It’s August and there may be a few people who are thinking of the long cold months a head of us. I am not and I will sincerely apologize for using the “W” word. I do want to get a few ideas rolling around in peoples heads about preserving that garden that you have been so diligently working on all summer.
I have been helping out with a garden at a community garden plot by Oak Grove Park and school and am simply amazed at how quickly the garden went from seedlings and a prayer to a full fledged feast. The days of plenty have yet to arrive completely but the squash and beans have been producing heavily, so before things get out of control I would like to go over some basics of preserving all this hard work for some great winter time use.
There are a few ways that one can save the summers bounty for winter meals. Water bath canning, pressure cooker canning, freezing, and drying also the use of a root cellar are the most common practices in the upper Midwest. You could also ferment different vegetables and meats but I will leave that for another article.
There are some advantages and disadvantages for each method; also each method may not work as well or at all for some vegetables. Certain produce must just be used fresh. The net and the library are great resources for specific recipes for canning. At the end of this article are a list of resources and websites to get you going on your canning adventures.
The water bath canning method is the one method that most people are familiar with in this region. I am almost positive that most people in the FM area has at least had a coworker bring in a jar of pickles that his or her grandma made. That would be the water bath method of canning. This is not a difficult procedure, but it is best suited for high acid vegetables and sauces or fruits that are naturally higher in acid. When looking at equipment needed for water bath canning there are plenty of starter kits on the market but honestly head to your local thrift store and look around. You are going to need a large pot big enough to put half dozen or more jars in at a time and cover them with at least 2 inches of water. You can get special tongs for lifting jars out of the water when there hot and I highly suggest it. Use the correct jars lids and screw fasteners for all canning and please follow the instructions on the packaging. I always use new lids every season and replace my jars at any hint of cracks or chips. The screw bands are also very inexpensive so I keep backups on hand. The jars and initial equipment do cost a little at first but just as long as your friends and family return the jars you can reuse them for years to come.
My preferred method of canning is with a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers work faster and I feel that they are a bit safer as fare as insuring that my items are canned properly. The old canners and the stories of them exploding are long gone during the mid 70s canners went through a redesign for safety and are now set with multiple fail safes for home usage. Pressure canning is best for low acid canning for things such as salsa or even meat products. Pressure canning does have its negatives; the design of a pressure canner is such that the internal temperature gets much higher then that of a water bath canner so fragile vegetables may get overcooked during the canning process. This is where a little experimentation and experience come into play. My poor Asian pickles as tasty as they may have been they sure were soggy, not what I had envisioned for my experimental batch of pickles last year. The pressure canner itself is a more expensive then the starter kit for water bath canning but it is an investment that will quickly pay for itself. I do not suggest buying a used pressure canner and again follow the instructions carefully because you are working with dangerous equipment and you do want to preserve the food not make yourself sick or worse.
Freezing is by the easiest but it’s a bit limiting in the amount of space that is needed and what vegetables can be froze with success. Freezing vegetables if one has a deep freeze in the garage or basement can work out really well especially if you would like to have garden fresh green vegetables like broccoli on hand. I unfortunately do not have the space to freeze I have a small fridge and freezer making not worth my time. I have also found that certain vegetables will just not freeze well. Lettuces for instance just become a mess of green goo after froze and then thawed. Many vegetables have the greatest results after a quick blanching (being submerged in boiling water for a brief amount of time then instantly placed in ice water to stop the cooking process) then being placed in thin layers to freeze before bagging. Since this topic is so large I would suggest a Google search for freezing methods on individual vegetables.
Enjoy your summer harvest all winter long and have fun with the canning. It is a lot of work so get a few people together and have a canning party. I suggest finding someone with a turkey fryer so that you can do a good portion of the hot work outside enjoy a beer and a little BBQ while you stock up for the winter months. Also if a garden didn’t produce what you were expecting this summer or you need some more ingredients for the award winning jar of salsa the farmers markets are a great place to pick up supplies. The prices will be cheaper and who knows maybe you can get some tips from the vendors.
For a great reference guide to canning take a look at the info block with this article. The USDA posts the safest methods for canning and different safety precautions to be aware of.
Info block :
USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, 2009 revision
Eat well; your body will appreciate it.