Take a Note From Granny’s PlayBook…
…by making those jams and jellies she used to make.
…by pickling your cucumbers, peppers and green beans.
…by canning fruits and vegetables in sturdy glass jars.
…but make sure you update the recipes! Whether your grandmother or grandfather was responsible for storing the summer’s harvest, you may want to consult the USDA guidelines to make sure cooking temperatures and times are sufficient to keep your food supplies safe.
Some folks do not have the fond memories of growing up eating Grandma Becker’s dill beans (green beans pickled with dill), meting out Mom’s homemade raspberry jam so it would last all winter or simply knowing that home-canned peaches and pears were firmer and tastier than their store-bought counterparts.
No matter where you are starting from, converting your food supplies from store-bought produce to home-preserved foods can be overwhelming. Some recipes are time-intensive, or supplies have a high start-up cost, or taste is compromised by simple errors.
Begin your journey to home preservation with an honest conversation about your time and financial resources – how much of your evening and weekend can you devote to these projects? Do you like to take a summer vacation during prime tomato harvest? Do you have the patience and discipline to create safe foods?
For some home kitchens, starting with a few fruits and vegetables is a great place to begin. It allows you to learn skills incrementally and slowly build your preservation knowledge and supplies.
Food Safety in Your Kitchen
Whether you are working toward becoming a locavore, or simply want to make the best use of your garden’s harvest, the following information will help you reach your goal.
The articles in mainstream media and on this and other food-specific websites is zeroing in on the tension surrounding food safety. Is it the government’s burden to create and enforce regulations? Should the producer, middleman or retailer be responsible for contamination-related injuries? Or, does the burden fall to the consumer, who has little or no ability to evaluate a commercially-sold-food’s contamination risk?
The home food preservation techniques featured here keep the majority of food safety in the hands of the same person – you! If you are a home gardener, your food’s safety is entirely in your hands.
The keys to creating safe products in your home are thorough preparation, careful food selection and precise attention to detail.
Thorough Preparation means Education, Sterilization and “Planification” (preparation of supplies, utensils and ingredients)
Whether you opt to can or dry your summer tomatoes, make a tomatillo salsa, create pickles, relishes, and chutneys from your overstock of onions, cucumbers, and herbs, or use your berry harvest to make delicious jams and jellies, there are four common enemies to home food preservation and storage.
4 Common Enemies to Home Food Preservation*
1. Enzymes: enzymes naturally occur in foods and are responsible for breaking down the food’s biological and chemical structure. Extreme temperatures are the common response to enzymes; extreme heat permanently stops enzymes and extreme cold temporarily stops enzymes. For home preservation, it is usually best to pick fruits, vegetables and herbs that are young and tender, pick them promptly, and prepare them shortly thereafter.
2. Bacteria: without inundating you with the familiar and unfamiliar list of deadly bacteria that are involved, we all know that bacteria and food are a bad combination. Food poisoning is often the result of bacteria living in the food we eat and can lead to mild gastrointestinal discomfort, a visit to the ER, or lasting injury and death. That being said, if you follow the USDA recommended temperatures and times for home food preservation, and the sterilization and processing techniques, your homemade foods should be bacteria-free!
3. Yeasts: these living creatures that lead to yummy bread can be pesky in home food preservations. Yeasts most frequently interfere with jams and jellies and lead to fermentation. These microscopic would-be-bread-friends make home made preservations taste bad and icky, but are rarely dangerous.
4. Fungi: specifically, the enemy here is the fungi spore. Fungi spores travel by air and may find their way into your home food preservation, resulting in some unanticipated (and inedible) funky growths. Freezing will stop spores from developing. By following food preservation recipes and using good preparation and processing techniques, you can prevent spores from reaching food in the first place.
*Adapted primarily from: Warren, Piers. How to Store your Garden Produce: The Key to Self-Sufficiency, Wildeye, Green Books © 2002.
Now that you have these challenges in mind, the next aspect of education to address is food selection. For some, this conversation takes place in the winter months, as you plan out your planting and gardening for the upcoming spring season. For a beginning home food preserver, you might review what is coming up in your garden, what the offerings will be at your farmer’s market – or simply what you can get from your local grocer.
TIP: Peruse the aisles of specialty food stores for ideas; look at chutneys, jams and sauces. Review the ingredients; take these combinations as a starting point. See how many ways you can creatively preserve the fruits and vegetables available to you.
Check out a book from your library, purchase one at a local bookstore, or download the USDA guidelines and start making a plan. Plan out the quantities you need of each ingredient, the utensils and equipment you will need to prepare and process the food, (including the amount of storage containers you will need) and how much time you should set aside to complete the project. Worry less about where you will store the food; if you manage to fill your pantry, you can find other nooks and crannies in your house, or start giving these tasty treats as gifts!
Sterilization is an important part of home food preservation and the sterilization techniques accompanying storage containers should be followed to the letter. Most guidebooks and recipe books will include sterilization techniques and tips, as well. If you have any doubt about whether to sterilize a container or piece of equipment, err on the side of caution. The time will be worth it; ten extra minutes beats throwing out an entire batch of contaminated jam mid-winter.
Careful food selection
Aside from the above-mentioned tip to choose young and tender fruits, vegetables and herbs, there are other factors to making a good food choice. Well-seasoned chefs, gardeners and foodies know which foods respond best to freezing, canning, pickling and drying (or clamping, making a sauce, paste, jelly or jam).
Whether the expert is your friend or the author of your guidebook, whether the knowledge arose from a scientific aspect or from food folklore, put your trust in those who have been there. Matching food to a preparation method is one area in which the time-tested recipes reign supreme.
After achieving some success with food preservation, the creative types out there may come up with new techniques and recipes. There is a reason that cucumbers are stored by pickling and apples are stored as sauce. The explanation is a mixture of science and taste. The way the fruit, vegetable, or herb breaks down over time and the attributes that make the food tasty and attractive to eat contribute to these decisions.
Precise Attention to Detail
Temperatures and times. Times and temperatures. What do I mean by this? When it comes to taking a living thing, whose natural path is to wilt, soften and rot, and preserve it safely, you must follow instructions related to temperatures and times.
Regardless of the method you choose to preserve the harvest, the recipes include instructions geared to destroy microorganisms (read: bacteria) that are the greatest food safety threat in home food preservation. Specifically, recipes often give specific temperatures that must be reached and times of duration that those temperatures have to be sustained. In order to ensure your safety (and that of your family, guests and recipients of your preserves as gifts), follow these instructions and ask for clarification from the author or another expert when you are unsure.
Additionally, many of the methods of food preservation require creating a vacuum between the storage container and the food itself where bacteria cannot grow or enter. Following the temperatures and times in the directions will ensure you create the necessary conditions to prevent contamination.
Another aspect of precise attention to detail is making sure your storage containers are durable enough to withstand the extreme temperatures involved and are in sufficient condition to maintain any necessary conditions. A chipped jar mouth will fail to create a vacuum and should be discarded or used for other purposes.
Continuing a Grand Tradition
With modern technology, the global trade routes and shipping technologies, we have the capability to enjoy fruits and vegetables out of season. That ability offers insufficient reason to abandon the tasty foods that arose out of necessity. Generations ago (and in many parts of the world, today), surviving the winter or off-seasons depended on successfully preserving and storing foods as they were harvested.
Whatever your reason for embarking on a home food preservation journey (if you pursue the journey), by doing so, you will walk in step with your ancestors from generations past. Take a moment to hear the stories behind your favorite recipe, and consider writing your own stories as you adapt and modify recipes to your resources. Share your experiences with your neighbors, grocers, and local farmers, and realize the extraordinary depths of your local food community.
USDA web resources:
National Center for Home Food Preservations
Bell, Mary T., Food Drying with an Attitude: A Fun and Fabulous Guide to Creating Snacks, Meals and Crafts, Skyhorse Publishing © 2008.
Chadwick, Janet, The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food: Easy Step-by-step Instructions for Freezing, Drying and Canning, Janet Bachand Chadwick © 1995.
Costenbader, Carol W., The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest, Storey Communications Inc. © 1997.
Emery, Carla & Forkner, Lorene Edwards, An Encyclopedia of Country Living Guide: Canning & Preserving Your Own Harvest, Sasquatch Books © 2009.
Hobson, Phyllis, Making & Using Dried Foods, Storey Communications, Inc. © 1994.
Kingsolver, Barbara, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Harper Collins Publishers © 2007.
Ward, Karen, Canning & Preserving for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Inc. © 2003.
Warren, Piers. How to Store your Garden Produce: The Key to Self-Sufficiency, Wildeye, Green Books © 2002.