Harvesting: Preserving It Right
There’s gardening, and then there’s harvesting. The two pastimes go hand in hand for most successful green thumbs. Will you be canning, freezing or drying your yields this season?
Now that summer has officially come to an end, one question stands out above all the rest: “What are we to do with all of our excess harvest?” Having spent the majority of our year carefully planting and caring for our crops, allowing produce to go to waste simply doesn’t seem like an option. Fortunately, there are three easy ways to preserve your crops so you can enjoy your yields well into the winter months.
The Benefits of Preserving Harvests
Preserving your harvest means you’ll be able to savor the taste of your hard-earned harvest year-round. In addition to this, you’ll also be satisfied knowing how and where your produce was grown, stored and handled. While much of the produce found in supermarkets has been treated in one way or another, you’ll be able to eat happily knowing your crops have been grown exactly to your specifications and contain nothing other than the additives and ingredients you approved.
Another great benefit of preserving harvests is that much of the packaging you’ll use is reusable, making the process good for the environment. Provided you care for and thoroughly wash out the packaging you use, there’s no reason you can’t use it time and again as opposed to throwing out the plastic packaging you’d get from a supermarket. Now let’s get into the three most common methods of preserving your harvests.
Canning Your Fruits & Veggies
Canning is a time-tested and extremely reliable method of food preservation. It’s a great way to ensure your produce lasts a long time because there is no air reaching the food. In addition, provided your jars and cans remain unopened, no refrigeration is required. There are countless ways to can a harvest. You can turn your produce into culinary delights such as pickles, salsas and jams for use throughout the year. Each canning process and recipe is different, but most of them will contain some, if not all, of these steps:
- selecting the produce
- washing, slicing and peeling the crop
- adding acids such as vinegar or lemon juice
- processing in boiling water
- adding flavorings
- sealing it all in an air-tight can or jar
Before you begin the canning process, always research the various methods available to you. Be sure to follow the steps with care because although canning is an extremely reliable method of food preservation, safety precautions must followed. For example, foods for canning are classified as either high-acid foods or low-acid foods.
Each type needs to be prepared differently to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Before you start canning, you need to determine the acid level of the food. High-acid foods like fruit, jams, pickles, sauerkraut and tomatoes require a boiling water canner, while low-acid foods such as most vegetables, meats and soups require a pressure canner. Provided all the safety instructions are followed, the only real downside to canning is it can be somewhat labor intensive, although the rewards are worth the effort involved.
Freezing Your Garden Harvests the Right Way
More often than not, freezing is the quickest way to preserve harvests and, depending on the crop, this method of preservation will keep your produce fresh for most of the winter, if not most of the year. When freezing your crops, always use the freshest, ripest, most blemish-free harvest available to you as these will keep much better and will have more taste when it comes to defrosting and eating.
To start, wash harvests thoroughly and then core, peel and slice as desired. Next, blanch your prepared crop either by boiling, steaming or microwaving it. The length of time you do this for will depend entirely on the crop and the size of the slices you’ve created. So, before carrying out this stage, always be sure to research how long a particular crop should be blanched for. Under- or over-blanching could easily spoil harvests.
If you intend to add a little extra flavor to your produce by coating them in spices, sugars or juices, you should do this immediately after you’ve finished blanching. Simply sprinkle your extra ingredients over the top and then gently rub until it’s fully coated. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to start packaging harvests.
While there are many packaging options available when freezing a harvest, perhaps the best packages are durable, odorless freezer bags. They’re a safe, hygienic option that won’t take up much room in your freezer and will suit nearly any form of harvest. Place the desired quantities of harvests into the packaging and, if you’re using freezer bags, consider vacuuming them shut. While vacuuming isn’t a required step, doing so will help harvests stay fresher for longer and you’ll avoid the dreaded freezer burn. Don’t fret if you don’t have an electric vacuum sealer.
While they are incredibly useful, you can also use the older method of simply partially sealing your bag, inserting a drinking straw and sucking the excess air out. Finally, label and date the packages before tucking them away in your freezer. When the time comes for you to use your produce, simply place the frozen package in the fridge overnight and for best results, consume or cook the next day.
Drying or Dehydrating Harvests
Drying or dehydrating is the world’s oldest method of food preservation. The method works by removing the majority of moisture from harvests, thus rendering it nearly useless for micro-organisms to feed on. Contrary to popular belief, drying harvests only zaps a small amount of the nutrients and vitamins from your produce, meaning dried food is still incredibly nutritious.
You can dry crops in a number of ways, such as using home dehydration cabinets (an enclosed cabinet with a controlled heat source that gradually removes moisture), or even by using dehydration racks and allowing your produce to dry out in the sun. While it’s not necessary, many people like to blanch their harvest before drying it as this helps to better preserve vitamins A and B throughout the process.
Basically any variety of fruit and any vegetable that can be blanched and frozen is a good candidate for drying. Once the drying process is complete, simply package items (preferably in air-tight bags) then label and date the bags before stowing away for later use. For beginners, home food drying can be tricky at first, so keep an eye on stored goods for a few days after drying and toss anything that show signs of spoilage.
To get the most of harvesting, be gentle with your crops at every stage of the preservation process. Bruised or blemished crops don’t tend to freeze, can or dry well, so take extra care when picking and storing harvests to ensure you get the best fruits, herbs and vegetables possible.
Also, when choosing which crops to preserve, look out for crops that are ripe but not overly mature, as these will stand the test of time far better. Once you’ve harvested your crops, preserve them as soon as you can. The moment crops are picked they begin to lose many of their vitamins and nutritional value.
Finally, remember each crop species has its own ideal harvesting times, preservation methods and blanching requirements, and will also keep fresh for different periods. Before you begin the preservation process, do plenty of research on your chosen crops and how best to preserve them to ensure top results.
If you find yourself with an abundant stash of excess fruits, vegetables and herbs, there’s no reason to fret. It doesn’t mean you have to watch your hard-earned harvest go to waste. Simply use the preservation method or methods that best suit you and you’ll be able to reap the rewards of your garden all of the time.