Our garden journey has taken us through getting the soil right, finding just the right plants for your taste and palate. We have talked about watering and saving water, about introducing children to the wonders of nature and learning where our food really comes from. We have talked about the sense of community that can come from a garden.
Today is the first of September, which means fall is close at hand. It’s also the time when the garden is producing nearly nonstop and you wonder what you’re going to do with all those tomatoes and broccoli, beans and herbs.
Keeping food for later
Fortunately, we have many options when it comes to keeping food for later. When I was a kid, the end of summer meant my grandmother and aunt shooed us out of the house while they spent the weekend in the kitchen putting up peaches, pickles and tomatoes. At that time, preserving food was synonymous with canning. It was hot and they were always grumpy.
Not so much anymore. Certainly, canning – whether hot bath method or pressure canning – is a great and effective way to save much of your harvest, we can now add freezing and drying to our repertoire. I received a wonderful refresher course, and learned a lot at a recent Meet Me In The Garden program at the F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm. Melinda Hill, an educator with the Ohio State Extension office in Wayne County, hauled her equipment, wit and knowledge north to share the latest research on food preservation.
Some things have changed. I didn’t know that tomatoes are no longer considered a high-acid food, which means they need to be canned either using a pressure canner or requiring you to add citric acid or ascorbic acid to each jar to increase the acidity so that they can be processed in boiling water. Melinda provided many detailed fact sheets for canning fruits and vegetables safely. You can get them online This link will give you an entire list of fact sheets produced by Ohio State University Extension. Pick what you need. I think I will be adding a pressure canner to my list of tools to invest in.
This year, however, I have been using my freezer more than I have been canning. I think it was the heat that cooled me to the idea of canning, although I did put up some pickled beets the other day after I decommissioned one of my vegetable gardens. Still, I don't want to rely on grocery store tomatoes for my chilis and soups later on. When winter comes I want to know the tomatoes I eat will have some flavor and more texture than cardboard. So far beans, broccoli and tomatoes have all taken up residence in my freezer. I intend to make several pots of cabbage soup to add to the mixture.
A friend gave me her marinara sauce recipe a couple of years ago. With the crop of herbs and tomatoes I’m producing, that is likely to be another item in cold storage. I invested in a vacuum sealer this year because I’m doing so much freezing. Air is the enemy of frozen food. It spoils the look and taste and, try as I might, I’ve never been able to get freezer bags airtight. With my new gadget I know there is no air left to leach flavor from my hard won fruits and vegetables.
Last year I bought a dehydrator so that I could preserve my herbs. I was surprised at how quickly they dried, almost too quickly, making them brittle and tasteless. Add vigilance to any dehydrator recipe. Hanging works fine for me for herbs. All that’s really needed is a place out of the way enough so you’re not always hitting your head while the herbs dry. Don’t be like me and find a spot so isolated that you forget about them until they are little more than dust. If you do hang herbs to dry, be sure to cover them so that they don’t pick up every piece of stray dust or dog hair floating by. One of the best shields is a paper lunch bag with a hole in the bottom. Poke the stems through the hole and tie the string around the stems outside the bag. The herbs can dry well in that environment and the bag catches the dust. I wouldn’t try hanging herbs in a plastic bag. Plastic holds moisture and the plant material might spoil before it dries. When the herbs are sufficiently dry, they need to be stored in an airtight container until you use them. My vacuum sealer has a jar attachment. I'm going to try it.
Dehydrators are ideal for drying fruit, vegetables and beans (after they are shelled), although ovens work just as well if a little more slowly. The Ohioline Fact Sheet on drying even gives recipes for making fruit leathers, ideal to put in your kids’ lunches. One tidbit I learned from the fact sheet: Drying outside is not recommended in Ohio. Insects can lay eggs on the food while it’s basking in the sun, not an addition I would suggest for anyone’s list of homegrown ingredients. If you do insist on authentic sun-dried tomatoes, the fact sheet suggests that you either bag and freeze them for a couple days or heat the dried items in an oven at 150 degrees for 30 minutes to pasteurize them.
One of the books Melinda Hill recommended to her audience is So Easy To Preserve, (Fifth Ed.)(2006) It is produced by the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Service, which she described as food preservation central in this country. A quick glance at the web site shows that the book is out of stock because of unprecedented demand, although a new printing is being fast-tracked.
As Melinda made clear last week, food preservation is a complex topic, but armed with the right information you can make it fun and tasty. It needs to be done right to ensure that the food you feed your family is safe. I have found that learning how to preserve food, whether canning, freezing or drying, adds immeasurably to the quality of life. And, as food costs continue to rise, it is one sure way to fight inflation.