It’s easier than you think to preserve vegetables at home.
When it comes to preserving food, many of us think of Granny canning tomatoes late into the night. But there are lots of other options! Whatever kind of experience, space, and tools you have, you can preserve your garden harvests, as well as fruits and vegetables you pick up at your local farmer’s market or grocery store.
Harvesting & Storing for Preservation
To make sure your preserved vegetables are safe, delicious, and packed with nutrients, it starts with how you harvest and store them.
Use the freshest produce possible. Vegetable texture and nutrition begin to degrade within just a few hours of harvest, so going directly from harvest into canning is best. Using the farmer’s market? Make a plan to preserve your haul the day you shop.
Use fruits and vegetables that do not have blemishes. Use those fresh in salads or cook them up that week.
Some vegetables like garlic, onions, winter squash, and sweet potatoes need to be cured before storage. But if you harvest and cure them correctly, many can store for months on end. These cold weather staples become hearty winter soup for a reason. If your goal is to grow food for yourself for the entire year, consider adding some of these to your crop plan.
Properly dehydrated food is the closest thing to raw in terms of nutrients.
Dehydrating preserves vegetable enzymes. Enzymes are most susceptible to damage when food is wet, and they can withstand drying temperatures up to 140ºF (60ºC). Once most of the moisture is removed, enzymes become stable and dormant until re-hydrated in your gut or in a recipe.
To dehydrate your veggies, you can use your oven, purchase a food dehydrator appliance, or build your own solar dehydrator (like Tom Bartels uses to preserve his abundance of kale!). There are lots of options based on your budget, space, and DIY skills, so a bit of research will help you find or create a food dehydrating system that fits your needs.
Tips to preserve vegetables at home by dehydrating:
• Air circulation is key! Moving air prohibits microbial growth. Spread your food in a single layer with a little room to “breathe,” and keep that breeze blowing throughout the dehydration process.
• Keep it even: Consistently slice your veggies so they dry at the same rate. Remember that edges always dry faster than the center, and note that the back of your dehydrator may become warmer faster. For an even batch, keep an eye on your veggies and rotate them.
• Get that moisture out! Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if something is completely dehydrated. When in doubt, put it in an airtight container overnight. If there is fog in the container or the food is softer the next day, either there was humidity in the container to begin with or the food was not totally dehydrated.
Almost everything that comes out of your garden can be frozen! Freezing is a quick and accessible way to preserve vegetables at home, even in small amounts.
There are only five vegetables that don’t like to be frozen: Radish, cucumber, lettuce, cabbage, and celery. They lose their flavor and texture. For every other vegetable, there’s a way to make sure that you retain everything that makes it delicious.
You can chop and directly freeze peppers, onions, and mushrooms.
Other vegetables require blanching before you freeze them. “Blanching” is just a fancy name for heating your veggies in boiling water for a certain amount of time, then quenching those vegetables in an ice bath for the same amount of time. Blanching times are different for different crops, so look it up before you get started.
Benefits of freezing your veggies:
• Freezing takes less time than drying, canning, and fermenting.
• You can preserve the texture of that vegetable, as well as the flavor and nutrient profile.
• Chopping and freezing a whole bunch of your harvest all at once can reduce prep for future meals.
• You control the size you cut your veggies and the size of the portion. Create little serving size packets in your freezer so that you just pull out what you need for each meal.
• Did you know you can freeze tomatoes, and they store for at least 3-4 months? Freezing is a fast method to preserve all those tomatoes.
• Freezing involves simple procedures that you can do with household items.
Why you may not want to freeze your harvest:
• You have to have freezer space and the power to keep the freezer cold. If you have a big family, you might not have enough freezer space to store all that garden harvest.
• If you freeze your vegetables incorrectly, you can actually speed up the loss of texture, flavor, and nutrients and make your food really unappetizing.
Lacto-fermentation happens when friendly bacteria, called lactobacili, convert the natural sugars in your vegetables and fruits into lactic acid. The proliferation of lactobacilli in your fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and the bioavailability of their nutrients.
Which vegetables can you lacto-ferment? Basically all of them. It’s just a matter of taste. The flavor of leafy greens, for example, can become very strong in the fermentation process. “Tougher” vegetables also hold up better through fermentation and storage. The more fibrous the cell wall, the longer they’re going to last.
You can get started with lacto-fermentation using items you most likely already have in your kitchen, like glass jars. There is special equipment you can purchase that can make your life a little easier, like fermentation crocks, seals for jars, and weights specifically designed for fermentation.
Benefits of lacto-fermentation:
• The biggest benefit of lacto-fermentation is for your health. Lacto-fermented foods are not only preserved–-they are nutrient dense, enzyme rich, and chock-full of probiotics.
• Store-bought fermented foods are expensive, so you’re going to save a lot of money fermenting your own.
• Lacto-fermentation is a simple and fast way to process lots of your harvest. A quick wash and chop will get your ferment started, and then it’s just a waiting game.
• Fermentation is a fun science experiment and learning experience for all ages!
Disadvantages of lacto-fermentation:
• Lacto-fermentation is vulnerable to contamination, so it definitely requires monitoring.
• Full fermentation can take up to eight weeks.
• Some people find a disadvantage in that lacto-fermentation requires salt.
Water Bath Canning:
Water bath canning is for highly acidic foods that have a pH of 4.6 or lower. Many unwanted bacteria, including botulism, cannot survive at such a low pH. That list of high-acid foods includes fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, jams, salsas, and hot sauces. Tomatoes are close enough, too, as long as you add a little extra acidity.
There are two types of water bath canning:
1. Raw packing. Take your raw fruits or vegetables, put them in the jars, and then pour some sort of brine or sugar fluid over the top. The advantage to raw packing is that it’s easy and saves time. The disadvantage is that not as much gets preserved per jar, so you can eat up shelf space quickly. There will be a lot of extra space in each jar, so you’ll need to use a lot of fluid.
2. Hot packing. With hot packing, you pre-cook a recipe and put that into the jars. This process reduces the air inside of the jar and it improves the quality of the product. It does take a little extra time to pre-cook the recipe, but hot packing maximizes jar space.
There are three ways to kill off unwanted bacteria in the canning process: heat, sugar, natural acids, or a combination of them. Following your canning recipe closely ensures the food you’re preserving is safe.
One disadvantage of water bath canning is that it is fairly time consuming to heat up a lot of water and do all the cleaning necessary for the process. If possible, make a day of it, and can a lot of things all at once.
For fruits and vegetables that have a pH greater than 4.6, pressure canning utilizes pressurized steam to heat water above its boiling point (212 °F). Low acid foods must be canned at 240 °F or higher and held there for the time specified in the recipe in order to destroy unwanted bacteria.
Pressurized steam creates superheated temperatures, hotter than boiling water. The rest is the same as water bath canning. As the jars cool down, a vacuum is formed, and it seals the food into the jars and prevents any new microorganisms from entering, which could spoil the food.
There are two types of pressure canners: weighted gauge and dial gauge. If you’re purchasing a new pressure canner, make sure to do your research and find one that fits your needs. Understanding how to use and maintain your pressure canner is crucial for safe canning.
Pressure canning safety:
• Wash, rinse, and dry canner to remove all the foreign matter after each use.
• Prevent odors from forming in the canner by thoroughly airing it.
• Store the can in a dry place to prevent rust.
• Do not use your pressure cooker to pressure can. A pressure canner is considered a pressure canner if it holds a minimum of four quart jars. Most pressure cookers cannot. The recipes that are in the USDA guidelines for canning are based on empirical data from things that have been tested. And what’s been tested are pressure canners that hold at least a minimum of four quart jars.
• Don’t add grains, bread, noodles, eggs, thickeners, package mixes, avocado, or coconut milk.
Some fruits and vegetables don’t can well. Eggplant, celery, brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes, and zucchini get really mushy, and you’re not going to enjoy the results of pressure canning those vegetables.
Let’s do this!
Want to learn more about how you can preserve vegetables at home in a way that fits your lifestyle? Check out our Preserve the Harvest course here!