Most of us probably know that one person who brings bags bursting with enormous zucchinis or piles of lemons anywhere people are gathering—the break room at work, social gatherings, rehearsals—in the hopes of off-loading sharing their garden’s bounty.
This is a time-honored tradition of backyard gardeners, and one well-loved by people who don’t have the room, time, or talent to grow their own produce. Having been the beneficiary of many a fresh Meyer lemon over the years (thank you, Jayne!) I know how satisfying such an exchange can be.
But it isn’t the only way to handle plants that yield more ripe produce that your family can consume before it spoils. Humans have been preserving food for literally thousands of years, and although many of our great-great-grandparents probably did the same, the advent of refrigeration and the tin can resulted in less of that knowledge being passed down to us. Yet, if you’re going to grow your own food, learning preservation techniques will serve you well—fresh tomato sauce or berries in the dead of winter can be the gift you give your future self.
Luckily for us, we also have more options to handle our preservation needs, and better tools with which to do it!
Freezing is the quickest and easiest method, which requires the least special equipment—although if you plan to freeze a lot of your produce, you’ll absolutely want to get a second freezer. Almost anything can be frozen, including prepared foods like breads, cookie dough, jams, sauces, and broths. The biggest dangers in freezing are freezer burn, and forgetting what you put in there in the first place.
Best Practices for Freezing:
- Label everything. No, really. You will not remember what’s in that jar, I promise you. Even better, be specific with your labeling. Don’t just write “tomatoes.” Write “pureed tomatoes” or “tomato sauce.” Be sure to add the date of freezing as well, so you know how long foods have been in your freezer.
- Freeze flat, if possible. It may be easier to use your handy mason jars or resealable plastic containers to freeze, but it’s faster and more space-efficient to use resealable plastic bags instead. Even soups and sauces can be frozen flat, and the bags can then be stacked—or collected in small bins—to save space. Bonus: they defrost faster, as well!
- Use foods within the optimum time frame. Although freezing theoretically can keep foods edible forever, flavor and texture can degrade over time. Reference a site like this one to see how best to preserve the specific vegetables or fruits from your garden.
How to Freeze Vegetables and Fruits:
- Choose what to freeze. Not all vegetables are suited to freezing. Any produce with high water content isn’t a great candidate—water expands as it freezes, so water trapped in the plant’s cells can burst the cell walls, resulting in limp, soggy produce when defrosted (science!). So avoid freezing lettuces, radishes, apples, and potatoes, as well as cucumbers and melons, unless you plan to use them in smoothies. Tomatoes should also be frozen only if you plan to cook with them once thawed.
- Prepare your produce. Wash and dry fruits and vegetables, and prepare them as you would before cooking with them: stem, shell, peel, chop, seed, etc. Most vegetables should also be blanched before freezing, which helps preserve the color, flavor, texture, and even nutritional content of the vegetables. Blanching is simple: add prepared vegetables to simmering water and cook just until the color of the vegetable brightens or, if you are blanching hearty greens, until they wilt. Remove immediately to a bowl of ice water to chill thoroughly, then dry. There is no need to blanch tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, winter squashes, or fruits.
- Freeze! Your best bet is to spread produce out on a sheet pan—remember, single layers freeze faster. And the faster your food freezes, the better the texture—as faster freezing means smaller crystals formed in the trapped water, bursting fewer of those cell walls. If a regular sheet pan won’t fit in your freezer, consider getting a couple of cheap “quarter” and “eighth” sheet pans from a restaurant supply store. They’re smaller and will come in handy all over your kitchen if you cook regularly. Certain vegetables, like blanched greens, can go directly into a container instead of frozen on a sheet pan.
- Store and label. Once foods have frozen completely, transfer them to resealable bags or other containers. Label them with their contents and the date, and then place in your freezer.
Tip: Most herbs don’t freeze well, similarly to salad greens. If you’d like to freeze herbs, the best way is to use an ice cube tray. Chop or puree the herbs and pack them into the ice cube tray, then cover with water—or, even better, olive oil—before freezing.
Perhaps some of you may have “accidentally” dried woody herbs like thyme and rosemary by, er, forgetting to return your herbs to the fridge after cooking dinner. Actually, air-drying is a perfectly valid technique, and you can loosely bundle herbs and hang them upside-down in your kitchen to dry them. However, most fruits and vegetables contain far too much water to air-dry without spoiling. Enter one of those niche small appliances your hippie aunt might still have in the back of her cabinet: the food dehydrator. (If you’re handy, you can also build your own.) Vegetables and fruits can also be dried in your oven once properly prepared, but may not be the best option for those of us trying not to heat up our kitchens in the dog days of summer.
How to Dehydrate Fruits and Vegetables:
- Choose what to dehydrate. Fat does not dehydrate properly and food poisoning is a risk with certain perishable foods. Avoid dehydrating dairy, eggs, fatty meats, avocados, and olives. Almost anything else is fair game—including legumes and grains!
- Prepare your produce. Make sure your produce is in small, uniform pieces. For beans and peas, that means shelling. Slice corn kernels off the cob. Depending on how you plan to use them, you can either cut into small dice or slice—most often it will be best to slice your produce thinly. Use a sharp knife or mandoline to make ⅛” slices for the fastest dehydration. Tougher/firmer vegetables will benefit from blanching before dehydration—think carrots, winter squashes, asparagus, potatoes, and broccoli.
- Dehydrate! If you’re using a commercial dehydrator, you’ll just follow the instructions that came with it. If you’re using your oven, set it to the lowest temperature possible and check on your produce every few hours. Most should take about 6 to 8 hours to fully dehydrate. Note that for most vegetables you are looking for a crisp texture, and for most fruits the texture will be more on the chewy end.
- Store and label.
This is the method nearly everyone pictures when thinking about preserving fruits and veggies from their backyard gardens. It is also the method that requires the most accuracy, as improper canning can lead to food poisoning and botulism toxicity—but no need to be intimidated! There are tons of resources out there to help you can safely, no matter what you’re trying to preserve. Canning needs little special equipment, depending on what you plan to can. High-acid fruits and pickles can be canned using the hot-water method, but if you plan to can any vegetables you’ll need a pressure canner. Note: Do not use a pressure cooker to can under pressure. They will not tell you the temperature your jars reach, which is necessary for food safety purposes.
Best Practices for Canning:
- Always, always use recipes from official, research-based sources like the USDA or a university extension site. There is little danger in home canning when done correctly, but botulism can grow in improperly canned foods and it can be fatal, so always be cautious to use recipes and methods from trusted sources.
- Clean, clean, clean. Wash your produce thoroughly to remove all traces of dirt. Sanitize your jars and jar lids, and wash your canning equipment in hot, soapy water.
- Once your jars are filled, be sure that your canning liquid—water, broth, juice, or syrup—covers the fruit or vegetables completely. This prevents the food at the top of the jar from discoloring or developing off flavors.
- Check your lids. Once the canning process is complete and the jars have cooled, their lids should seal, often with a little “pop” noise. If a jar has not sealed completely, it can be refrigerated or frozen instead and eaten before it spoils.
- Label each jar with its contents and the date it was processed.
- Store jars in a cool, dry place. Heat and moisture may cause contents to spoil.
- Use canned goods within a year of processing, and be sure to check each jar before consumption. If the jar has lost its pressure seal, leaked, or developed strange odors or mold, dispose of the contents and disinfect the jars if you plan to use them again. Jars can be disinfected by placing in a large pot, covering with water, and boiling for 30 minutes. If you are concerned that you may be disinfecting jars that have been in contact with botulism, be sure to wear gloves.
Tip: This is a great resource for everything canning!
Pickling, Baking, and Jamming
Technically, all of these methods will still require further processing for preservation using one of the above methods. But they still bear mentioning, as doing a little extra work when prepping your fruits and vegetables for the freezer, canner, or dehydrator can yield so much value for your future self!
Jamming: Think beyond the classic—and delicious—strawberry jam to preserving watermelon, tomatoes, and onions in a sweet, sharp, and oh so spreadable way. And, while not technically a jam, we think everyone should become familiar with the Italian condiment mostarda, which definitely belongs on your next cheese plate.
Baking: Change up the ubiquitous zucchini bread with a dose of chocolate. Prepare your own pumpkin or butternut squash puree for pie baking or easy pasta sauces. Preserve the flavors of summer with this tasty bread. Prep and freeze mini pies that can be baked off whenever you feel the need of a little something sweet. Breads, purees, cookies, pie and cookie doughs, and some types of cake all freeze really well. And, of course, there’s always ice cream!