At the beginning of each month, I tell my readers what fruits and vegetables are in season. The reason I give out this information is because produce is cheaper while it’s in season.
When it’s time to harvest a particular fruit or vegetable, farmers get a lot of volume in a short amount of time. That produce only has a limited shelf life. Therefore, you can get much more for your money if you stock up then. In November, it’s common to see a pint of strawberries selling for up to $3.99, but right now, you can find strawberries as low as $1.67 in the stores or you can buy in bulk directly from the farmer.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation’s Web site at www.nchfp.uga.edu has great information for beginners wanting to safely preserve both store-bought and farm-grown produce. This Web site is run through the University of Georgia’s Agriculture Department and is a cooperative with the USDA so it contains updated information using today’s technology and safety concerns.
The first method you can use to preserve your produce is to freeze it. The type of freezer you own determines how long you can safely store your food. A deep freezer will keep food at lower temperatures than a side-by-side freezer unit, so food will last longer in a deep freezer. To prepare foods for freezing, vegetables should first be blanched. This process will kill any bacteria and organisms and stop certain enzyme actions which can affect flavor and texture. The process involves putting your produce into a basket that is lowered into a pot of boiling water. Time begins when the water returns to a boil. Blanching times are different depending on each food. For delicate produce, you can also blanch with a steam method. Once you blanch your produce, drain it very well. Once the item is dry, then you can freeze it safely.
The second method of preserving your produce is canning. There are two basic types of home canning: water bath canning and pressure cooker canning. Water bath canning is reserved for acidic fruits and vegetables. Common things to make this way are jellies, jams, pickles, canned tomatoes and salsa. I recommend beginning with these foods to get familiar with the canning process. The water bath method only requires a deep pot that can cover your jars with at least 2 to 3 inches of water. If you are concerned about using white sugar, there are many Web sites that have recipes using coconut sugar, raw sugar, honey, sugar cane and stevia as alternatives.
Just do an online search for jam and jelly recipes with the sweetener of your choice.
Once you get comfortable with water bath canning, then you will be ready to move up to pressure canning. This takes a specialized piece of equipment called a pressure cooker. There are new, safe versions of pressure cookers available at Walmart or available online at Amazon starting at $79. It’s important to get one with a dial so you know how to regulate the pressure. Different foods require different canning pressures. A 12-quart canner is usually recommended.
Another method of preserving your bounty is dehydrating. Those little machines aren’t just good for making banana chips: You can make dehydrated carrots, potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes, onions, fruit chips, fruit leather and even jerky. The dried items take up less space in your pantry. Dried veggie mixes make great soups and stews for busy nights – just add water and dinner is on its way! If you seal the food in an airtight package such as glass jars or in vaccuum packaging, the produce will last up to a year. Dehydrators range from $30 to $60 for home systems. When choosing a dehydrator, think about what you will be using it primarily for and remember that the higher the motor, the faster the drying time and the more options you will have.
An advantage to preserving your produce yourself is that you can control preservatives and sodium and even tweak seasonings to your own tastes. With the right equipment, the time spent doing this is a minimum and your family will enjoy your efforts for months to come.