This past Saturday night I had a late night jam session. If I were Benzo that would mean playing guitar with a bunch of my buddies. But for me that actually means staying up late to make homemade jam.
I was going to post the whole jam-making and canning process in one post, but I feel like I need to do a couple of explanatory posts first before I get into the actual jam-making. So this first post is about “putting up” food in general.
One of the best and worst parts about gardening is “putting up” food for the rest of the year. To “put up” food means to preserve the extra fruits and vegetables from the garden via various methods so you have them as part of your food supply the rest of the year. It’s the best because there is nothing like having food from your garden in the dead of winter and it lowers your grocery bill. It is the worst because the preserving process can be time consuming and a lot of hard work!
There are three main methods of preserving that I use to “put up” food from my garden. They are freezing, canning and drying. I do a little bit of each depending on the produce and how I plan to use it over the winter.
Freezing is the easiest way to put up food. Most fruits can be frozen right from the garden, as I explained in this post about how I froze some strawberries last week. Peppers can also be frozen whole or in slices using the same method. Later they can be tossed straight from the freezer into a stir-fry. Tomatoes can also be frozen whole or in chunks, with or without the skin.
Other vegetables must be blanched before freezing. Blanching means to boil the vegetables for a short time followed by putting them in an ice bath to immediately stop the cooking. Blanching allows vegetables to last longer in the freezer. I blanch green beans, corn and zucchini.
PROS: Freezing is easy and there’s virtually no risk of bacteria in the food (see canning below). It’s less time consuming than canning and does not require any special equipment. Pretty much anything from the garden can be frozen.
CONS: Freezer space may be limited! When I had my first small garden in 2008, I filled up my regular freezer really fast. I ended up buying a chest freezer late in the season for about $300. So although you don’t need any special equipment to do the actual freezing, you may need additional freezer space. The other con to freezing is that you have to remember to thaw out the food you want to eat in advance, which requires planning ahead. Whereas with canning you can pop open a jar anytime and be ready to go.
I just started canning for the first time last season. There are two methods of canning: water bath canning and pressure canning. I only do water bath canning for now. Pressure canning scares me a little so I’m holding off on that.
Water bath canning, however, is very easy! I bought a simple water bath canner at Westlake for less than $20 last summer. Then all you need is jars and lids and a funnel and a jar lifter. I also bought a book on canning with lots of recipes. I plan to write up a separate post on basic water bath canning soon.
A lot of fruits and vegetables can be canned using the water bath method, but not all of them. Canning is also a little more precise than freezing. You must follow a “canning approved” recipe exactly and don’t have as much flexibility in making up your own recipes. This is because the acidity levels have to be just right to avoid the risk of bacteria growing in the jars.
Last year I canned salsa, pickled hot peppers, jalapeno jelly and bruschetta topping.
PROS: Food is ready to eat as soon as you pop off the lid. No special storage is needed like with freezing. Jars of food can be stored almost anywhere in the house. The jars actually look really neat and could even be used as decoration. You can can things that you wouldn’t want to freeze like salsa. Jars of food can last 2 years!
CONS: You need to buy a water bath canner and a few special tools. There is some risk of botulism, but as long as you follow directions and use common sense, it’s no big deal. The canning process can be time consuming and not everything from the garden can be canned using the water bath method.
I have a cheap dehydrator that the ILs found for me on sale for about $20. I’ve used it both years to dry tomatoes. Drying tomatoes is great because it basically makes them “sun-dried” tomatoes, just without the sun part. I use these tomatoes in pasta dishes, on homemade pizza and in wraps and salads. I also use the dehydrator to dry herbs, which is great because it dries them very fast. Then I just crumble them up into a jar or bag and store them in the pantry.
The drying process takes about 24 hours for tomatoes, but the only active time on my part is getting the tomatoes ready for the dehydrator. After that the machine just sits on the counter. I have to check on it periodically and remove tomatoes as they are done. I dry some tomatoes in addition to freezing some because the drying process gives them that sun-dried tomato “tang” that you just can’t get any other way.
I don’t have a lot of experience with drying, so my knowledge is a little limited.
PROS: Doesn’t require much active time on your part. Dehydrated food shrinks considerably, which reduces the amount of storage space required.
CONS: Special equipment is required. Dehydrators come in a wide variety of prices. Food may need to be rehydrated, depending on how you want to use it.
There is also another method called root cellaring, which I have not used yet. Root cellaring is storing certain vegetables in a cool space. I believe you can store potatoes, turnips, and apples this way (?). I don’t know a lot about root cellaring, but would like to learn.
If you use any of these methods and would like to add and pros or cons or other information please do so in the comments! I’m sure there is a lot I have left out.