It's mid-summer! God's good earth is bursting with fresh, wholesome fruits, grains and vegetables. Whether you grow a garden of your own or not, you can take advantage of all the fresh, seasonal produce available right now. Be prepared to preserve!
Now is the time to get your kitchen organized and equipped to handle all the abundant bounty that will be ready in just a couple of months. You don't want to be scrambling for supplies with fruits and vegetables dead ripe on the vine outside. If you have never preserved food, this will be a very general overview of the equipment needed to "put by" fruits and vegetables. For complete instructions on how to preserve all kinds of food, I would highly recommend Stocking Up III by Carol Hupping, et al, or Putting Food By by Janet C. Greene et al. Both are classics in the area of food preservation and I learned most of what I know from books like these.
The three most common forms of preserving foods are canning, freezing and drying. Some foods, like spinach, should only be frozen, since the canning process would all but destroy it. Foods that can be dried include most fruits, herbs and some veggies like zucchini and onion. Canning is obviously the choice for putting up jams and jellies, plus I like it best for tomato sauce and apple pie filling. It has taken me 20 years to figure a lot of this out, so please don't be overwhelmed. Start by trying a couple of simple items you know your family will eat and build from there.
There is some basic equipment involved in each of these processes. For canning, you will need a water bath canner. I frequently see these at my local grocery and hardware stores. They are not hard to find and are fairly inexpensive. This is just a large pot, usually enamel over steel, with a lid and a rack inside for keeping the jars up off the bottom of the kettle while heating. There are other accessories like a funnel for getting the food in the jar without spilling and tongs for taking the hot jars out of the canner, which I prefer over trying to lift up the rack. Most of these items will be sold alongside the canning kettle.
If you plan on trying your hand at canning vegetables, you will need a pressure canner. Water bath canning works fine for high acid food like fruit, but won't destroy all the harmful bacteria in low acid foods like vegetables and meats. I would not take any chances here - a pressure canner is essential to preserve vegetables and meats.
These are not cheap. A high quality 15 quart pressure canner will cost around $200.00 new. Sometimes, if you keep an eye on the local classifieds you might find one for sale. Just be careful to examine anything used very carefully, making sure it is in very good condition. Also, I wouldn't use a pressure canner that is very old, as the technology has come a long way since our grandmothers' days. The pressure can fluctuate and be hard to gauge with the old models.
Pressure canners also require some extra attention and care before being put to use each season. Some have rubber gaskets around the rim; others have overpressure plugs which must be inspected each year. Simply following the instructions that come with your pressure canner will insure that your equipment stays in top condition. This is a good reason to go ahead and buy new - good instructions and probably some customer support to go with it. It is a one-time investment that will pay off for decades if you maintain it well.
Of course, for canning you need canning jars. The sizes most frequently used are half-pint, pint and quart jars. The jars also come with either a regular or wide-mouth. Regular works well for sauces and jams and wide-mouth is best for chunky things like whole tomatoes or peaches. Jars are fine to buy used, as long as you run a finger around the rim of each one to check for tiny nicks, which will prevent a good seal. I recommend you use jars specifically made for canning, since they are stronger and the lids and rims are made to fit perfectly on them.
Speaking of lids and rims, it is a good idea to stock up on these as well. The lids are the round disc with a sealant around the edge that will cover the top of the jar. The rim is the part that screws down the lids. Rims can be used over and over, but lids can only be used once, so have plenty on hand - in both regular and wide-mouth size.
Another favorite method of preserving is freezing. Freezing is nice because it is less labor intensive and time consuming than canning. Many types of berries can be picked and thrown right into a Ziploc freezer bag for future use. Most vegetables, when prepared correctly, will last 8 to 10 months in the freezer, fruits a full year. It is always such a blessing to pull out a bag of frozen blackberries in the dead of winter and whip up some delicious jam. That wonderful aroma makes the whole house smell like summer.
If you have a stand alone freezer unit, you will be able to make good use of it throughout the growing season. I like to freeze spinach, strawberries, blackberries, grated zucchini, peas, carrots and green beans, among other things. Most vegetables will need to be blanched (steamed or boiled for a certain amount of time and then plunged into cold water) before freezing. Again, refer to the books I have recommended for full instructions.
Even if you only have the freezer unit on top of your refrigerator, you can still select a few items for freezing, preferably foods that will freeze flat rather than chunky, like tomato sauce or pureed pumpkin. That way, they won't take up too much room.
Finally, there is drying or dehydrating. While it is really nice to have a dehydrator, it is not absolutely necessary. Most produce that is suitable for drying can be dried in the oven. However, this means that your oven will be unavailable for other uses throughout the drying period. For some items, like fruit, this can be quite a while.
One of the things I have done is to use my oven for drying herbs, like basil. First, make sure the herb is clean; it may need a quick rinse. Then, spread the herbs out on a cookie sheet. Have the oven warming on a very low temperature, around 200∞ or so. Turn the oven off and then put in the herbs. I usually do this right before bedtime and let them stay in the oven overnight. By morning, they ought to be fairly dried out.
If you live in an area with very hot, dry summers, drying outside would be perfect for you. My grandmother used to tell me how her family would head out to the nearby u-pick farms in June to pick cherries. When they brought all those cherries home, her mother would set up screens outdoors held up by sawhorses. She would wash and pit the cherries and then lay them out on a screen. She would then place another screen on top to keep the bugs off. Since they lived in Missouri, the hot weather would dry out those cherries in a matter of days.
A dehydrator is a nice thing to have, though. You can put your food in and let it go all day and night if need be. I have the American Harvest dehydrator, which works by blowing hot air through the unit. Other units work by using a heating element. These are actually quite common to see at garage sales or in classifieds, and there isn't too much worry in buying a used one as long as it is in good working condition. A new one will cost anywhere from $50.00 - 200.00, depending on how fancy you want to get.
Try preserving at least one thing a week throughout the summer months - whether it is a little bunch of herbs or 20 pints of peaches. You will have the satisfaction of knowing you are providing the very freshest food to your family with no added preservatives or chemicals. You will save money over store bought goods and you will be blessed as you revel in the work of your own hands.
Lisa Vitello is the editor/publisher of New Harvest Homestead, a bi-monthly newsletter devoted to sharing inspiration and instruction for Christian women who desire a simpler, home-centered life. Kitchen gardening, canning and preserving food, homekeeping, cooking & baking from scratch, crafting and more is shared, along with lots of Titus 2 encouragement!
Visit her website at www.newharvesthomestead.com to request a free introductory issue. She has been married 25 years to her great love, Guy, has six children and lives on two acres in the beautiful Pacific Northwest where she keeps a large garden, tends her 20 chickens and enjoys all the blessings of God's creation.
The July/August 2007 issue of New Harvest Homestead,is now available, and it is full of great information on preserving! Learn about readers' favorite dehydrators, how to use them and their favorite recipes for drying. Lisa shares the hows and whys of pressure canning along with lots of readers' recipes for everything from home canned salsa to pickles to peach pie filling. You will also learn to process and freeze corn straight from a Kansas corn grower! All of this, along with inspiration to help you keep a quiet soul, tips for saving money at the grocery store, crafting with nature, favorite sandwiches & salads, homestead dogs and so much more!