As the last of the garden ripens, it’s time to take advantage of nature’s bounty and start putting away food for the winter! I admit, I love the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and growing up I used to spend a lot of time imagining what it was like to live in a log cabin out on the prairie. The inner pioneer in me just loves to see jars of preserves in the pantry, a freezer full of fruits, veggies, and sauces, and containers of dried fruits and vegetables waiting to be put to use. I may not have my log cabin on the prairie or a little house in the big woods, but I do have a pioneer pantry!
Last week we discussed how to preserve food by fermentation and home canning. This week, let’s talk about preserving the harvest through freezing and dehydrating.
Freezing food is probably the quickest and easiest way to preserve it. Fruits and vegetables are washed, trimmed, and prepared before freezing. Fruit needs little preparation, but vegetables should be blanched before freezing. The enzymes in vegetables that cause them to ripen will make the vegetable lose nutrients and change the texture and taste when it’s frozen, blanching interrupts these enzymes. You can also store prepared meals in the freezer, and while this article concentrates mainly on freezing produce you can find information online about preparing freezer meals for your family (see the “links” section below). Once your produce is ready, seal the food in airtight containers…heavy duty zip lock freezer bags, mason jars, freezer grade plastic containers, and vacuum sealed packets are all good ways to freeze food.
You’ll want to remove as much air as possible from the containers. This will help keep the food fresh and help prevent ice crystals from forming on the food. It’s best to keep your frozen foods at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, and if you’re planning to freeze a lot of food, you may want to consider purchasing a deep freeze just for food storage. Hint: A great way to save space when freezing things like shredded summer squash or pureed fruit is to flatten it in a freezer bag, then score the contents into fourths by pressing down with your finger. This forms four sections in your bag, and then the bag can be frozen flat. If you put 8 cups of shredded squash into a bag, you’ll know you have 4 squares of squash that measure about 2 cups each. Then, you can break off a square and toss it in soups, marinara sauce, etc.
Pros of Freezing:
- It’s very simple. You can freeze fruits and veggies whole, or cut them into pieces to use in soups or stews…there is very little preparation other than that!
- It’s a healthy way to preserve. You don’t need to add salt, or preservatives of any kind. Although you may need to blanch the food first, you won’t lose as many nutrients as you would if you boiled the food (as you do in home canning).
- Frozen food keeps for a very long time. Fruit lasts up to 12 months in the freezer, and vegetables will last up to 18 months.
- You can freeze pre-made sauces, meals, and combinations (for example, a fruit-and-greens mix for smoothies or a homemade stir-fry mix)
- Most frozen produce can be flattened and stored in freezer bags, which can be stacked. Quite a bit of food can fit into a small freezer!
Cons of Freezing:
- Some foods just don’t freeze well. Foods with high water content, or foods that depend on texture won’t freeze well. Celery, watermelon, most citrus (unless you’re freezing juice or zest), and dairy products are all examples of items that don’t freeze well.
- Freezing does change the texture of food. If you’re going to cook it anyway, this change of texture doesn’t matter a bit! But for some items, the texture change can be disappointing.
- If you don’t wrap the food properly, or if it’s been in the fridge to long, you can end up with “freezer burn.”
- It’s important to properly label food that’s going in the freezer…anyone who’s ever cleaned their freezer and found dried out, frosted, “mystery meat” knows exactly what I’m talking about. Make sure to label containers (it’s amazing how hard it can be to tell what something is once it’s frozen) before you put them in the freezer.
- I hate to even bring it up, but sometimes a whole freezer-full of carefully prepared food can be lost due to a power outage or a freezer malfunction. Check your freezer’s temperature periodically, and take steps to prevent food from thawing if you lose power for any length of time…nothing’s worse than the heartbreak (and smell!) of a freezer full of rotten food.
- Tips on freezing food (BBC Goodfood)
- Foods that don’t freeze well, and why (web article)
- How to freeze just about anything (National Center for Home Food Preservation)
- 60+ Healthy Freezer Meals (from the Thriving Home blog)
- How to Freeze Fresh Food at Home (book)
- Seal-a-Meal (vacuum sealer, ideal for freezing food)
Another way to preserve food is to dehydrate it. Dehydrating food removes the moisture, which stops the food from molding. Food can be dehydrated in a commercial drier, or in your oven. There are pros and cons to both methods, if you plan to dehydrate a lot of food a high-quality dehydrator is a worthwhile investment because it uses less electricity than your oven and allows you to use your kitchen normally while you dehydrate your produce. For infrequent use, your oven will work fine and does not require an initial investment or take up storage space.
Very little prep work or supplies are needed to dehydrate produce. If you’re concerned about the food turning brown, you may want to soak it first in lemon juice. Some vegetables do better if you blanch them before dehydrating them (for the same reason that you blanch them before freezing). Other than that, it’s up to you how fancy you get with slicing and dicing before you dry. You can also make fruit leather by pureeing the fruit before you dry it, which is a fun and nutritious treat! Dehydrated produce lasts for up to a year if stored properly…to keep it fresh longer, store it in airtight containers (freezer grade zip bags or vacuum sealed plastic bags work well for this). Keep it in a cool, dry place away from sunlight, and if you won’t be using it for a while (especially in humid climates or if the food is cut thick) keeping it in the freezer is not a bad idea.
Pros of Dehydrating Food:
- Store bought dehydrated fruit is often full of sugar, preservatives, and artificial colors. Homemade dried fruit contains…fruit (see this article for a comparison of traditional fruit roll-ups vs. homemade).
- Dehydrated food lasts a long time, and takes up very little storage space.
- It’s very easy to dehydrate food! Little or no special prep work is required, and storing it is simple.
- Dehydrated food is lightweight, making it ideal for travel…camping, hiking, car trips etc.
- You can dehydrate sauces, soups, etc. and store them for quick use later!
- Dehydrating is a wonderful way to preserve herbs!
Cons of Dehydrating:
- Dehydrating produce changes the look, texture and the taste of food. Rehydrating it by soaking it can help (but you’ll lose minerals in the process, unless you consume the liquid you rehydrated the food in).
- To retain nutrients, you’ll need to carefully control the dehydration process….lower heat over a longer time helps keep vitamins and minerals intact.
- Dehydrating food in the oven takes a lot of energy…your oven will be on for hours. If you are going to dehydrate a lot of food, it’s best to invest in a good food dehydrator (which will use less energy than your oven, and free up space in case you’d like to eat dinner while your food’s dehydrating!)
- Dehydrated fruit is not a diet food. While eating a few pieces of dehydrated fruit instead of a candy bar is a great choice, remember that although the pieces of fruit may be small, they are high in calories. For example, according to this article 100 grams of fresh apricots contains 51 calories, while 100 grams of dried apricots contain 260 calories. You’re still getting better nutritional value with the dried fruit, but it’s easy to overdo it.
- Tips for dehydrating foods, with links to specific types of food (web article)
- More pros and cons on drying food
- Dry to Preserve: A Quick Guide to Dehydration (article)
- Preserve it Naturally: A Complete Guide to Food Dehydration (book)
- Articles and Recipes on Thank Your Body
I hope this helps you get started preserving the harvest! It’s really very easy to preserve fresh, organic produce at the peak of its flavor…and it’s such a great way to save money and ensure that you know exactly what’s going into the food you eat year round. Enjoy!