DIY: Preserving food for winter

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Mason jars canning foodIn days gone past, summer was a time of abundance when people worked frantically to save for the cold and lean winter days ahead.

Chickens laid eggs, gardens grew, hay grew, cows freshened (had calves and began giving milk), pigs got bigger.The household was busy picking wild berries, making cheese and jelly and various pickles; drying, salting and canning vegetables; salting, smoking and preserving meats in various ways for the winter days ahead. The summer kitchen was very busy.

Today we can still take advantage of summer’s abundance. Even if you don’t garden, fresh produce can be had for much less than its out-of-season price you’ll pay in the dead of winter. Local farmer’s markets, gardening (and gardening friends), harvested fields, the grocery store, and even your own back yard can be sources of fresh foods in an overabundance that just cry to be ‘taken care of’.

How to take care of it can present a challenge though, and it literally pays to store food properly. Different methods and combinations of methods work best for different types of food and in different climates.

There are four basic categories they all fall into:

  • Cold storage generally means root vegetables we tend to eat very often, some fruits and hard rind vegetables.
  • Dehydrating includes grains, leathers, jerkies, teas and more.
  • Canning covers jellies and jams, various pickles, sauces and relishes, etc as well as vegetables and meats.
  • Freezing can mean vegetables, desserts, meats, and prepared or partially prepared recipes and meals.

Cold storage or root cellaring

This may be the oldest method of food preservation with the exception of fermentation. The idea is simple; put the food in a place where it stays cool, dark, moist and convenient. Most root foods and some fruits stay fresh and keep their quality over a very long time if stored in this way.

And if you don’t have a cellar? No problem. A garbage can root cellar will do nicely. A galvanized garbage can, a shovel, a few plastic bags, and you’re all set.

A styrofoam chest or cardboard box will approximate root cellar conditions if kept in a cool room.

Some common foods that will keep in cold storage:

potatoes
carrots
cabbage
apples
winter squash
onions
beets
garlic
parsnips
rutabagas
celery
pumpkins

 

 

If you want save all those cheap vegetables of summer in the least amount of time, yet want to preserve the quality of your food, then drying (dehydrating) and freezing are your best bets.

Drying

DehydratorYou can buy food dehydrators in a wide range of prices and sizes, or you can use your oven or microwave, or a solar dryer, but you really only need a tray and a dry place to put it.

It doesn’t matter a bit where the warm, dry air comes from, so being frugal allows you to look around and experiment. The rooftop of your house, inside a car, hung from the branches of a tree or from the rafters of a hot attic are all sensible solutions to dry vegetables.

Spread food on a tray made of some kind of mesh, but avoid metal and any material that might give an off flavor. To make a drying tray with cheesecloth or woven nylon, you can use a large picture frame, or make a frame yourself from any suitable wood you have on hand. Simply nail or screw it together in the shape of a square or rectangle. Use tacks or staples to fasten the material along the edges.

(If you know someone who works on dryers, see if they will save you the lint filters they replace. These are just right for drying small amounts of anything.)

Most vegetables can be dehydrated with a little preparation; some don’t even need that, but find out what to expect if you haven’t dried foods before.

Freezing

Freezing is sometimes the easiest way to keep vegetables, herbs and meats from spoiling, especially if you have a separate freezer. Most foods will benefit from a quick dip in boiling water first, then a quick cool down.

Basically though, anything that is food safe and air tight will do. Don’t use bread bags if you intend to keep the food very long, as they are porous and will allow your food to ‘freezer burn’.

Invest in some good freezer tape if you intend to wrap your food. You don’t have to buy container for freezing if you have tape – you can use potato chip bags, or foil inner packaging from crackers and other foods. Get as much air out as you can and tape well.

Storage

If you have a pantry or other suitable storage, canning may be the best way to stock it with the abundance of summer time produce. Since canned foods need to be kept in a cool, dry, dark place, think about your storage before you begin. Under the bed or in a closet or pantry are good options.

You should be able to save about half to a third of the cost of buying vegetables already canned, but only can what your family can use. Remember that overdoing it won’t save you a bit, in fact, you will lose money in terms of energy costs and equipment, as well as the price of produce itself.

Almost anything can be “put up” in cans or jars, but you must use specific directions for pressures and timing. (See our canning article here.) Everything except pickled vegetables and high acid foods must be canned in a pressure cooker.

Once you’ve canned, cooled and checked a load, store it in a dark place, where it’s cool and dry. Don’t stack jars as this might break the seal. More pointers:

  • Store all of one kind in the same place so you can find what you need.
  • Store canned food in the same boxes the jars came in.
  • Before storing, remove the rings, unless they will be on pickles or jars that won’t be emptied upon opening. They can be used on the next batch.
  • Wash the empty jars, then replace the lids to protect from bugs and dust.
  • Watch for garage sale canning jars, but be sure to check the rims for smoothness before you buy.
  • Don’t be suckered into buying a box of old mayonnaise jars for canning jars. Even though they can be used with success (I’m walking in deep water, I know), they’re not worth your money. If you want to use them, save your own.

The whole idea is to save by preserving the foods you can come by cheaply or for free right now. It’s pointless to spend just a little less because it costs you to can. Unless you are canning your own produce, or have a windfall from a neighbor or friend, or forage for wild foods, or can buy produce at a very good price, you won’t save much, if any at all.

Another thing to think about though, is that it’s not very frugal to be caught in an emergency without food supplies. In case of power failure, all of your frozen foods are at risk, and in the event of a natural disaster, water supplies may be limited or nonexistent, leaving most of your dried foods useless.