Here’s the thing about fresh, tasty, nutritious food: You’re going to want it to stay that way. Aside from keeping it tasty, you want to prevent it from spoiling and making you sick. Not to bore you with details, but the truth is that, for the most part, fresh foods start to lose their texture, nutrients, and flavor once they are harvested. Light, heat, moisture, and even their own enzymes start to break the food down. This means that you’re going to have to pay a little extra attention to storage, because a fresh berry, unlike a box of Pop-Tarts, won’t last until the next ice age. And speaking of ice, I am a big fan of easy storage methods like freezing, so don’t think you have to spend your autumn nights stooped over the stove putting up dilly beans. Make your mother-in-law do this.
There are lots of methods for preserving foods — curing, smoking, pickling — but for the average person these methods are too time consuming and involved, so I’m not including them here. (I’m also not including irradiation as a food preservation method, for obvious reasons.) You are also not going to find canning tips here, for the same reasons, plus the fact that canning spooks this home-ec flunker because of its potential for fatally poisoning your loved ones.
Before I move on to the basics of food storage, here are some sources of information, comfort, and inspiration when it comes to squirreling away fresh food.
Good books. My favorites are "Preserving Summer’s Bounty: A Quick and Easy Guide to Freezing, Canning, Preserving, and Drying What You Grow," published by Rodale Books, and "The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food: Easy Step-by-Step Instructions for Freezing, Drying and Canning" by Janet Chadwick.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation. Created by the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service and the USDA, this organization has an easy-to use site that addresses most food preservation methods. You can watch slide shows and videos, sign up for a self-study course, order print publications, get seasonal tips, or just bone up on or troubleshoot your favorite preservation method.
Find an expert. Call your local cooperative extension office. They may be able to connect you with a master preserver, who, like a master gardener, volunteers in return for extensive education. Some extension offices staff seasonal food-preservation hotlines.
Enlist a friend. Many hands make fast work. Do you have a friend, an aunt, or a neighbor who makes a mean apricot jam? Ask him or her to show you how in return for dinner. You could also make it a potluck party and invite others. Be sure to thank your food-preserving friend by sending him or her home with some of the fruits of your collective labor. My personal advice: Find, and marry, a partner who enjoys food storage. My husband has the energy and inclinations of a caffeinated homesteader. Lucky me! But if your partner would rather watch the World Series, don’t fret. Thanks to modern conveniences such as blenders and freezers, food preservation has never been easier.
Share the harvest — and the gear. Don’t feel as if you need to run out and buy a bunch of appliances. My husband and I do the bulk of our storage with a food processor, a bag sealer, and a big freezer. Rather than buy a food dehydrator, I borrow one from a friend who in turn occasionally borrows stuff from me. Don’t have a food processor? Use your blender. Don’t know anyone with a food dehydrator? Use your oven or the good old-fashioned sun. Appliances are nifty and they save time; but they’re not worth the credit-card debt; they use a bunch of electricity; and, let’s face it, they’re one more thing to clean.
FREEZING: WHY I ADORE THE COLD
Friends call me Snow Miser! Okay, not really, but I love freezing stuff. In fact, I am so into freezing that I finally splurged for a big Energy Star–rated chest freezer. (Energy Star appliances meet the energy efficiency guidelines set by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy.) This big white box allows me to feed my family easy-to-prepare meals without all the creepy additives of store-bought frozen foods. Here are some freezing tips I’ve learned along the way.
Keep your freezer about two-thirds full. Air needs to circulate around frozen foods. An under- or over-packed freezer doesn’t work as well. A nice trick: We keep plastic 2-gallon jugs of frozen water in our chest freezer. This not only helps keep our freezer fuller when supplies are running low, but, should the power go out in a thunderstorm, the jugs will help maintain the freezer’s temperature, which should be 0°F.
Freeze fresh foods quickly. Pick or choose fruits and vegetables at their peak ripeness. If you’re not going to eat them in a day or two, preserve them in some way to make the most of their wonderful texture, flavors, and vitamins. To maximize flavor and all those nutrients, don’t let those fresh-picked berries molder on your counter. Get them into the freezer as soon as you can because the natural enzymes in produce will cause them to spoil.
To freeze veggies: Wash and chop them. Then blanch them (cook them al dente in a large pot of lightly salted boiling water, tasting them for doneness — they should be firm. Then drain and dunk them in a quick ice bath to stop them from cooking further. If you cook them too long they will be mushy!) After blanching, put your veggies into freezer bags or freezer-safe plastic containers. Leave room for expansion (about a half-inch of “head space” or “head room”). Blanched veggies will keep in the freezer for up to nine months. According to "Preserving Summer’s Bounty," veggies that you usually eat raw, such as lettuce, are least suited for the freezer. Don’t believe it? Go ahead and try freezing some salad.
To freeze fruit: Some fruits, such as apples, will discolor when sliced. To prevent this, soak chopped fruit in acidulated water (1⁄4 teaspoon of ascorbic acid per quart of water). Sugar, or even honey, is often added to fruit that will be frozen to help retain its pretty color and to improve its taste. You can sprinkle sugar on the fruit or, alternatively, freeze it in a simple syrup (mix equal parts sugar and water and bring to a boil until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear).
Tip: We spread our berries out onto cookie sheets and put them in the freezer. After they’re frozen, we put them in vacuum sealer bags and then use them for smoothies, baked goods, and sauces. Fruit will keep in the freezer for up to a year. We find this method works especially well for blueberries and raspberries but not so well for strawberries, which tend to get mushy, so we prefer to purée them or cook them into compotes.
Frequently asked questions: “Can I freeze eggs?” (Not in their shells.) “How long will a steak keep in the freezer?” (Six to twelve months.) “How about frozen cookie dough?” (Two months — if you have the discipline to keep it that long!) For a list of what foods to refrigerate and freeze and how long they will keep, refer to the USDA’s Cold Storage chart.
Keep track of what you freeze. My darling husband keeps an inventory of our frozen foods on a clipboard in our pantry. We also write the date and the contents on the front of each bag. This helps us adhere to the ole freezer rule of “First in, first out”: Use the oldest stuff first if you can. Over time, frozen items may lose nutrients and texture. When items get too old to use, toss ’em. And remember, the safest way to defrost foods is in the refrigerator or the microwave, not on the counter. Even if you keep a log or chart, dig through your freezer’s contents periodically to experience the proof of Lou’s Law of Frozen Foods: Because of fuzzy math skills, you will never have enough frozen pork chops for company, and you will always have too many boxes of the frozen toaster waffles that you bought in moments of weakness.
Use a vacuum bag sealer, which works with either fresh or cooked foods. You cut the plastic vacuum bags (which come in rolls) to size, depending on how much food you have to store. Then you seal the bag with a machine that also sucks out the excess air (while making a sound like an angry crocodile). You can store these polyethylene bags in the freezer.
Get strategic. If you want high-quality weeknight meals made with your sustainable ingredients, try a strategy employed by busy moms everywhere: Double or even triple your recipes and freeze a portion that can be thawed quickly after work. Also think about recipes that can do double duty. My husband’s salsa is a good example (see recipe here).
A final thought about preparing produce for freezing: If you’re going to go through all of the trouble to chop and blanch vegetables, or peel and chop fruit and coat it in syrup, why not just make your produce into your favorite dishes that can be thawed for dinner? Roast your favorite vegetables with olive oil and rosemary and freeze them. Make huge batches of pesto in your food processor and freeze it for weekday pasta nights. Make a quick sauce of your favorite seasonal fruit that can be used on ice cream or drizzled onto chocolate cake.
Besides freezing, the other preservation method I really like is drying (aka dehydration). It’s easy to do, and dried food is easy to store (and carry, if you’re camping). Plus, fewer nutrients are lost in drying than in canning.
You can dry food outside, but this requires — big shock — sunny, dry weather. If you live in New England, as I do, you’re pretty much out of luck. But even here in the moist Northeast I dry herbs by hanging them in little upsidedown bouquets clothespinned to twine strung up near a window in a south-facing storage room. When the herbs look crumbly, in about two weeks, I put them into tiny mason jars. When I lived in New Mexico, where arid is the rule of thumb, I bought ristras — strings of chiles — and let them air-dry anywhere: on my front porch or in my living room. Go ahead and experiment! (Euell Gibbons dried blueberries in his hot attic.)
You can also dry food in a conventional or convection oven if the oven temp can be turned down to 140°F (remember, you want to dry the food, not cook it). The bottom line: You can dry food in many ways. The section on drying in the aforementioned book "Preserving Summer’s Bounty" is excellent.
Be sure to store your dehydrated foods in labeled airtight containers. Most dried fruit or produce will keep for a couple of months at room temperature, but if you keep it cooler, say, in your unheated basement (typically about 52°F), it will keep much longer. According to "Preserving Summer’s Bounty," dried cherries and dates stored at 52°F can be kept for 36 to 48 months!
The good news about dehydrators is that they don’t take up much space and they can do the job more quickly than the sun or a conventional oven. Also, many dehydrators have trays that allow you to make fruit leather, which is great for camping trips and lunchbox snacks. Rehydrate dried fruit by just barely covering it with boiling water. Soak until water is absorbed, tasting for desired texture.
ROOT-CELLARING WHEN THERE IS NO ROOT CELLAR
Thank God I don’t have a root cellar. Not only do I detest my dank cellar and the way it smells, but also I’m a bit lazy. I don’t relish the thought of wrapping my apples in paper or burying my carrots in sand or doing the other root-cellar-y things that industrious pioneer types do. So, if you’re lazy, averse to dampness, or lacking in the cellar department, consider the following slacker methods.
If you’re growing root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, turnips, parsnips) in the garden, you have the ultimate lazy person’s storage option. Such veggies can be left in the ground when the weather cools —just dig or pull them before the first freeze. (Keep the ground from freezing a bit longer by covering this area of the garden with straw.) Once root veggies have been harvested, brush them off (don’t wash them), cut off the stems if they have stems, and find a cool, dry, dark place if you can.
I like the refrigerator for small quantities of root vegetables. Some folks claim that potatoes become sweet in the fridge, but I don’t notice it when it comes to short-term storage. The downside of using the refrigerator is that you are likely to run out of room. Luckily, root vegetables are hardy. Try your unheated garage or tool shed, but keep an eye on the temperature and don’t let them freeze. Conversely, if potatoes start to sprout, temperatures are too warm. Other winter veggies that store well in the crisper compartment of your fridge? Celeriac and cabbage will keep for a month or two, maybe even longer.
A rule of thumb for spuds: Keep them in the dark (a big paper bag will do, but avoid plastic, which will encourage moisture and mold), and don’t let them sprout. Toss any green ones, which could make you sick.
Hard squash and apples can be stored at room temperature on your counter for several weeks.
Garlic, onions, and shallots are fine at room temp but keep best when hung in mesh bags or open-weave baskets. If you don’t have the room and do have a surplus, peel them, chop them, and freeze them. (And by all means, use your food processor!) Do you love garlic but find you’re short on space? Hang a garlic braid in your kitchen: It will ward off evil spirits and free up a little premium space on your countertop, which should be saved for precious, vine-ripened, in-season tomatoes. If I were Queen of the World, putting tomatoes in the fridge (which blunts their peak flavor and makes their texture go all wonky) would be punishable by . . . having to eat them.
"Eat Where You Live"
From "Eat Where You Live", Copyright © 2008 by Lou Bendrick. Used by arrangement with The Mountaineers Books.