Preserving Fruits and Vegetables for a Cold and Distant Day

For much of modern history humans have, out of necessity, learned to preserve food. Fish was smoked, salted, and dried and meat much the same. Barley and other grains were fermented into beer, providing much need carbohydrates for hard physical labor. Grapes, apples, and plums were also “preserved” by turning the fruits into wines, cider, and brandies.

Today, in our world, many foods are preserved for us and available at any time of year, yet the preserving of what’s grown can be a rewarding part of being a gardener.

Some simple ways to preserve what we grow are freezing and drying. Canning requires more care as the dangerous bacteria clostridium botulinum can thrive inside of closed jars if canning is not done very carefully. Ingesting the tiniest amount of the botulinum toxin released by the bacteria can damage nerves and without the proper antitoxin may be fatal. But science will keep you safe.

Drying fruits is quite simple. Begin with:

  • Fruit of your choice
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup water

The only special equipment you need is a cheesecloth.

Remove oven racks and preheat oven to 145ºF.

Prepare the fruit by washing thoroughly and slicing into uniform pieces. Remove any seeds, pits, or stems. It’s a good idea to cut small fruits like berries or grapes in half, and larger fruits like apples or peaches into quarter-inch rings or fancier slices.

Mix lemon and water together. Then dip fruit slices into this mixture. The acid in the lemons helps preserve the natural color of the fruit.

Cover the removed oven racks with cheesecloth. Lay fruit in a single layer onto the covered oven racks.

Place fruit racks into the oven and leave the oven door slightly ajar to let steam escape while drying the fruit. Important!

Bake fruit anywhere from 4 to 12 hours, and make sure to rotate racks while baking. Fruit will look dry and/or leathery when done. Granulated sugar can be added for a special holiday treat.

Transfer finished fruit to an airtight container or bag, and store in a cool, dry place.

Canning is more complicated and can be dangerous, so if you’re inclined to try this method, there are lots of books, people to talk to, and internet sites that can guide even a novice through the process. And important step is sterilizing the canning jars and tops, and cooking the food to more than 185 degrees F. for at least five minutes to destroy any toxin. You’ll want to enjoy thinking about the various seasonings and methods. Here is a good starter site.

Drying herbs is just about the easiest way to preserve fresh flavorings. It works best for herbs and spices, onion flowers such as chives, and tops of certain flowers like chamomile, echinacea, calendula, and bee balm. This is also a great way to save flower blooms for potpourri. With air-drying, the flavors and aromas stay clean and true. Do so in bundles, which will take longer, or spread out over racks. On a rack herbs leave less chance that they will rot or acquire mold. Here find three ways of drying herbs that will work for flowers, herbs with big leaves such as basil, also raspberry and blackberry leaves.

Freezing: Some vegetables and fruits are easy to freeze and need little preparation, while others require a quick blanching first. Some are best when the rind, skin, or seeds are removed. The best ones to freeze are those that don’t get soggy! Mushrooms, cucumbers, and lettuce contain too much water and don’t survive thawing intact. This article about freezing is thorough and easy to follow.

Finally, there is the root cellar. Many 18th and 19th century homes have one. The floor is typically dirt and the temperature stays above freezing but well below that of the heated floors. It keeps a wide range of produce fresh for many weeks or months: apples, potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, carrots, beets, onions, winter squash, and various nuts, as well as canned fruits and vegetables, wine, and cider.

Once you master the science of safe canning, your garden’s flavors can be yours year-round.