If you decide to grow extra food for off-season use, or purchase in season produce in bulk from local farmers, be prepared to allocate some time to cure, prepare and store your bounty.
My late August and September weekends are usually spent processing, cooking, curing and drying the garden harvest.
In order to get the most out of your garden harvest, it is important to have some basic kitchen tools. Here is an ideal list for a large harvest, but you can often get away with a couple of these items.
-Food processor and/or blender with puree ability
-Set of good knives
-Large cutting boards
-Large cook pots (one for boil-water canning, one for sauce simmering)
-Sterile mason jars and lids
-Heavy duty freezer bags
With these supplies you can literally prepare and store any veggie or fruit you want. Here are a few ways to preserve your crops for later use. For beginners, drying herbs, curing root veggies, and freezing the rest are more easily accessible, requiring less equipment. For dehydrating, and especially canning - you might need to put in an extra upfront cost (and learning curve with canning) in order to get started.
Herbs, flowers, hot peppers and beans can all be dried for future use. For freshly dried herbs all winter, I harvest extra herbs and hang them in bunches to dry, or leave them pressed between two screen drying racks that I made using old picture frames and window screens. Once they are dry, I crumble them up and put them in labeled mason jars. For winter tea, I harvest the peppermint leaves, chamomile flowers and wintergreen and dry them using the same screen drying racks and store in mason jars. I string hot peppers (habaneros, fish, Thai chilies, Cayenne, etc.) using a needle and thick thread, being careful to string them through the stem and not pierce the pepper itself. For beans, I let them dry on a rack in their pods and then transfer them to a pillow case and hit it against the floor until the pods have broken off. Then I throw away pods and save beans in dry mason jars.
Potatoes, squash, onions and garlic can keep for a long time but fare best if they are cured for a few weeks before storing. Cure them by spacing them out (not touching) on newspaper in a cool dark place for several weeks. After they are cured, you can put them in bins in your root cellar, basement or another cool dark area of your house until you want to use them.
Dehydrating fruits and vegetables is a wonderful way to preserve your harvest. You can snack on them in the winter when you crave something sweet or use them in a multitude of recipes. Apricots, strawberries, tomatoes, peaches, apples, pears, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, grapes, dates and plums are all excellent fruits to dehydrate and use later. Beets, carrots, squash, mushrooms, onions and peas make great snacks or additions to soups. You can use your oven to dehydrate but machines meant for dehydrating yield the best final results and store longer than oven-drying.
I freeze a ton of produce every year, so much, that I needed to invest in an extra freezer for our basement to store everything. If I’m in a time crunch in late summer and can’t devote enough time to making canned jams, and sauces, I will just freeze the raw ingredients and make my canning recipes in the late fall and winter when I have more time. I also like freezing sauces, salsas and cut fruit instead of canning because I don’t consider standing over a hot stove for hours in the summer a particularly fun time. Before you freeze tomatoes and most veggies you will want to blanch them first. Blanching dropping in boiling water a short time to preserve the flavor, color and texture. Blanching also helps clean your produce and reduces vitamin loss. Different veggies have different blanching times but you generally submerge in boing water for 1-3 minutes and then immediately plunge into an ice bath before bagging and putting in the freezer. I freeze beans, broccoli, pesto, peppers, berries, asparagus, kale, chard, leeks, spinach, tomatoes, etc. When freezing produce, you want to prep it for its future use as best you can (chopping, pureeing, juicing) because when you do pull it out to use, you will want to avoid thawing it first (it can get mushy) and just start cooking with it frozen. I store nearly everything in plastic freezer bags as it helps conserve space. I also make sure to label the bags with dates and contents using a sharpie pen so I don’t keep stuff too long or have a hard time identifying it later.
Drying and freezing food is a very forgiving process, while canning requires strict recipes and guidelines to ensure the food is safe to eat later on. You don’t want botulism in your food (even though you might inject it into your face). To prevent the risk of food-borne illness from canned foods, the safest method is to use a pressure canner. Simply canning and submerging in boiling water (i.e. boil water canning) is not 100% safe with low-acidity foods. I water bath can a lot of tomato sauce, apple sauce, jams, dilly beans and pickles every year and always use canning specific recipes to ensure my canned goods are safe.