Preserving the Value of Food

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A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

On Facebook, Emily requested to know more about “Meals from the garden, and ways of buying up food when it’s in season and preserving it.”

I’m going to focus on the second half of her request with this post, but I’ll just first mention that there are a lot of recipes out there that utilize the produce from a garden if you just look a bit. A great place to start is a vegetarian cookbook, like Mark Bittman’s wonderful How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, which occupies a spot on our “frequently used” cookbook shelf right in our kitchen (with the requisite stains and spots that such heavily-used cookbooks acquire). I often write about dishes in my weekly food posts that use ingredients right from our garden. If you’re looking for recipes that are almost entirely from the garden, take a look at my favorite all-fresh-vegetable dish, ratatouille.

In the second half of her suggestion, Emily hits upon a very good frugal idea: “buying up food when it’s in season and preserving it.” This strategy can work very, very well if you’re willing to invest a little time into it or, even better, have some freezer space to devote to the task.

Finding Produce to Preserve
There really are only three ways in which I acquire enough produce in abundance to wish to preserve it. I either hit a fresh produce sale, I plant a particular vegetable in abundance in my garden, or I enter into some sort of barter with a friend or neighbor.

Produce sales that I hit hard enough to come up with enough produce to preserve are fairly rare – and I very rarely find them at the grocery store. Instead, I tend to find them privately, buying the produce from people who are selling them from the back of their truck along the side of the road. If I think the price on their sign is low, I’ll stop and lowball them even further with an offer for a lot of their produce at a very low unit price. Very rarely am I turned down, particularly on a hot day when the person would rather not be sitting out there in the heat. I’ve purchased 20 pounds of tomatoes for $4 and several dozen ears of sweet corn for $5 this way in the past year alone. You simply have to be selective and patient. Many roadside stands are run by professional operators who won’t bargain. What you’re looking for are people who have a garden that ended up turning out too many vegetables for them to deal with, where they’re almost happy to get rid of the excess.

Bartering is a great method among neighbors. Several of our neighbors garden and, often, they wind up with a big abundance of some crop or another. We’ll often enter into arrangements such as a “summer vacation swap,” where we allow each other to pick our gardens clean while we’re gone on vacation (as long as they leave the unripe stuff behind). We’ll also often indirectly swap our excess as we pick it, often in the form of just handing extra produce to the neighbor as we’re picking it if we happen to see them nearby.

Of course, a big key to that type of bartering is having your own vegetable garden. I wrote a low-cost food garden guide earlier this month which should start you off nicely. There’s nothing wrong with just planting one or two vegetables that you really love in the garden with the intent of saving the excess for the future.

Produce – For the Future!
You have an abundance of cheap produce. Now what? Now come options for preserving the produce.

The first thing many people think of when it comes to preserving food is canning. It can work very well, but it can also be very labor-intensive. Canning simply refers to the process of saving the produce you wish to save inside sealed glass jars until you’re ready to eat them. Canned produce can usually keep for a few years, though it’s usually best to eat it in the first nine months or so.

However, that’s only one option among many.

Dehydration can be an option. This works very well for things such as herbs, as dried herbs will last for up to a year, take up little space, and are very convenient for cooking use. The process is usually quite simple and is easily found for whatever herb you wish to dry. I’ve also had success drying tomatoes for future use, preserving them in oil for a few months.

My preferred method of produce preservation, however, is freezing. Not only do we freeze whole produce (if you soak a tomato in water and then freeze it, you can have pretty good fresh tomatoes in the middle of the winter), we also freeze nearly-prepared produce as well, such as corn already trimmed from the cob. We also freeze processed produce, such as tomato juice and salsa.

For whole produce, we typically trim the vegetables a bit, soak them in water for a while, then freeze them on cookie sheets in our freezer. Once frozen solid, we remove any obvious frost from the outside, put the items into labeled containers (such as Ziploc bags or reusable freezer containers), and pop them back in the freezer until use. For other items, we often just cool it down to just below freezing, put it in a freezer-safe container, and store it until we’re ready to use it.

In our freezer, you’ll find lots of frozen vegetables (even now, in summer, we have a few things left from last summer), frozen vegetable stock, and a few containers of frozen pasta sauce made from the products of last fall’s harvest. In each case, we simply prepared what we wanted, soaked the whole vegetables we wanted to save in water, froze any large non-liquid pieces first, then just put the items we wanted to freeze into freezer-safe labeled containers.

Whenever we want to use them, we just pull them out of the freezer and leave them in the refrigerator for 24 hours or use a microwave’s defrosting mode. It’s as easy as can be.

I can speak from personal experience having tremendous success freezing whole tomatoes, sweet corn cut from the cob, sweet corn still on the cob, asparagus, tomato sauce, vegetable stock, broccoli, and radishes, all within the last few years and all coming out of the freezer quite delicious.

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18 thoughts on “Preserving the Value of Food

  1. The easiest way to find recipes to cook your garden produce is to do an online search of ‘recipe x’ where the variable(s) is/are the particular item(s) you want to include in the dish. Or go to almost any large recipe website & they’ll allow you to search by ingredient(s).

    Hard copy cookbooks usually have an index by ingredient as well – you don’t have to stick to vegetarian sources. I also enjoy a good cookbook on cooking according to what’s in season.

  2. Purchase seconds from a farmer’s stand. No one cares how pretty the veggies were before they were processed. For instance, last week we bought a half bushel of blemished cucumbers for $4 and preserved them for future use as pickles. Local tomatoes are starting to come on strong now and prices are high, we’ll wait 3 weeks or so when the plants are overproducing for demand to get similar bargins. The nice thing about buying versus growing is you can plan when you have time for preserving produce, growing your own puts you on Mother Nature’s schedule.

  3. Of course you should blanch vegetables prior to freezing them. From the National Center for Home Food Preservation:

    “Blanching slows or stops the action of enzymes which cause loss of flavor, color and texture. Blanching cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms, brightens the color and helps retard loss of vitamins. Blanching also wilts or softens vegetables and makes them easier to pack.”

  4. I have had excellent success freezing beans. Whether in a container for later use or wrapped in a burrito for lunch, cooking a large amount of beans at once and preserving leftovers for later is a huge cost saver (and flavor bonus) in my kitchen.

  5. Can you just take a whole yellow squash and freeze it? Does leaving it intact keep it from degrading?

  6. One year I blanched and froze corn on the cob. So not worth it (although the taste was better then unblanched home frozen).

    Other thing I’ll never do again? Can tomatoes. They just reduce down too much for the effort.

  7. Old methods of preserving using vinegar, salt, and/or sugar are also worth looking into. They tend to be less nerve-wracking than canning yet don’t need to be frozen.

    Pickling is an easy option. You can pickle firm vegetables such as carrots, okra, onions, cauliflower, and peppers with vinegar. It’s a lot easier than regular canning. In the winter, we’ll make salads with the pickled veggies and a little mayo.

    Brine pickling is fun and delicious but needs more oversight and doesn’t preserve as long. Good brining vegetables are cabbage (sauerkraut and kim chi), cucumbers, and collard greens.

    Jellies are a good preservation option and you can make varieties from tomatoes and onions. You can also make your own ketchup.

    When I had gallons of tomatoes from my garden, I used to make a lot of chutney which came out like a cross between jelly and pickles. It preserved very well and was delicious on plain, cooked meat.

    There’s lots of info on this kind of preserving in books and online. It’s a fun thing to do with your kids.

  8. Please people, if you are canning, freezing, storing or preserving food for future use, please check current guidelines! PLEASE use a recent cookbook or check online with a reputable site! Otherwise, you can harbor deadly bacteria if you don’t preserve food correctly!
    #6 Kristine- NO! Rinse it, chop it into chunks, boil at a hard boil for 3 minutes, drain, cool, then pat dry and freeze in a freezer bag with all the air removed for no more than 3 months.

  9. Most vegetables do need to be blanched to stop disease organisms and slow deterioration. Canning’s great in case of an electric failure in warm weather, because everything in the freezer and refrigerator goes bad in a couple of days with no power, and all the food becomes compost. The beauty of canned (actually jarred) food is that you see what you’ve got through the clear glass, it’s easy to check for a perfect seal with the two piece lids, the jars can be reused over and over, ditto the rings, and when the electric stops, the food is still safe for use. There’s not much as satisfactory as a pantry full of jars of jelly, pickles, jams, canned tomatoes, canned applesauce, etc. You know you won’t go hungry. As for the person who said that tomatoes cook down too much (no quarrel with that statement!), make sauce with the tomatoes and then can the sauce. Or make tomaote juice and can it, shake well before opening. Canning jars, preowned ones, are cheap. Ask your friends, and especially older relatives and friends, run a wanted ad in Criagslist, post on bulletin boards. You’ll often get jars for almost nothing, and people will throw in metal jar rings and the occasional pack of lids too. Freezing is easy, but the risk of losing a whole freezer full of produce is a possibility during a power failure like a tornado, hurricane, other war weather event. Get the newest “Ball Blue Book” of canning and don’t try anything like “oven canning” and you’ll do fine: waterbath for high acid foods and pressure canner for low acid.

  10. We make jams and jellies out of the blackberries and elderberries that grow in the woods in these parts. Cost is really just the cost of the jelly sugar (contains pectin), since we just re-use old jars (only the ones with metal, pop-button lids). If tomatoes are on sale, I’ll typically make a ton of tomato sauce and freeze that. I’m still trying to convince the boyfriend to agree to trying saurkraut, though ;-)

    As for freezing: agree with blanching. Most frozen veggies are sold blanched. If you freeze anything, the most important part of preventing freezer burn is to exclude the air, so preferably you should use baggies. This is also why, when I do buy meat (nearly-date-expired), I always rewrap it into individual portions (my boyfriend is the one who eats it) before freezing it.

  11. I have a new house with fruit trees in the back yard — 2 apple trees and a plum tree. I am absolutely going to make plum jam and something with the apples (although that will depend on the kind of apples I get . . . time will tell).

    I have already scheduled my mother to come in a help me with the jam. This is a first for me and I’m really excited. Summer is way too busy for me to garden (wedding photographer here) but I get a lot of stuff from my mom’s gigantic garden and it really does come in handy all year long.

    But mostly I just can’t wait for some yummy plum jam.

  12. If you want to can vegetables, you might look into investing in a pressure canner. It brings and maintains the temperature of non-acidic vegetables up to the level needed to prevent botulism. Acidic vegetables and fruit can be canned using a regular water bath canner.

    I recently found a dehydrator at a garage sale for $3. It’s been wonderful. I’ve already dried all kinds of herbs from my garden as well as tomatoes, onions and garlic. Made several nice batches of beef jerky as well.

  13. Trent, I know the gov’t and Blue Book recommend blanching — not to kill microorganisms but to deactivate the enzymes that could degrade the veggie — but I have heard from others that it is possible to satisfactorily freeze veggies without blanching them first. Can you elaborate on how you prepare the veggies to be frozen. I know you said you soaked them in water, but do you mean plain tap water? salted water? cold? warm? for how long? Does the corn on the cob prepared this way taste anything like fresh corn, because I can tell you from experience that blanched corn on the cob absolutely does not.

  14. Last night I was really tired so pulled a jar of home-canned ground beef off the shelf to make a quick home version of Beef Stroganoff Hamburger Helper. Tonight it was a jar of home-canned chicken to make a sort of chicken tetrazzini with fresh broccoli, rehydradated shitake mushrooms and home-roasted red peppers. Last week I used a jar of home-canned pork shoulder for an enchilada casserole. (I do have raw meat in the freezer, but my schedule has been tight lately and meal planning went by the way-side.)

    These meats were all purchased on sale at about a quarter of the usual cost, canned in a batch of 14-16 jars, and given that they were already cooked, the dinner prep time was much less than usual.

    Canned fruits and vegetables can be purchased for about 50 cents a can on sale. Canned meats are typically either unavailable or much more expensive. If I’m going to spend 3-4 hours hanging around the kitchen canning, the higher value, if you eat meat, is to can meat rather than vegetables. Vegetable pickles and relishes or jams are also good values.

  15. Different strokes… If I were told to choose one fruit or vegetable for canning, it would be tomatoes. All winter long, they are the most reached for item in my home-canned pantry, going into so soups, stews, and chili, and more. I generally pack them as “stewed” tomatoes, so they don’t reduce as much. Anyone with an abundance of home grown tomatoes or a low cost source of tomatoes by the bushel, should try canning sauce made from oven-roasted tomatoes, garlic and peppers. (Be sure to use an approved canning recipe and method.)

    Remember to consider your family’s preferences when you preserve food. The jars and jars of pickles that I put up were delicious, but they didn’t make us eat a LOT more pickles than usual. On the other hand, delicious pickles and jams make great impromptu gifts.

  16. Question for anyone out there. I love peppers, bananna peppers, cayanne, all kinds and my mother grows it in the summertime. I love to fry it in olive oil. My question is, we always have more at the end of summer and i want to freeze it or preserve it for winter so i can use it. Whenever we freeze it the pepper becomes icy and mushy and it doesn’t taste the same. We try the same with tomatoes, cabbage and spinach. They are frozen and when thawed out and cooked, it’s super mushy and not as good as fresh. Any ideas?????

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