Preserving the harvest has returned as an acceptable thing for one to do with one's time. It used to be that the only folks 'putting food by,' as it was called when I was a young pup, were survivalists and fringe lunatics that expected the world to end sooner rather than later. It had fallen out of style so badly that in 2005, Los Angeles Cooperative Extension disbanded their program and sold off the parts – I was there to buy their old Excalibur drier for $5 and various assorted canning jars for very little more. I drove away with a $45 investment and a Ford Explorer full of food preserving materials.
Now, however, classes are springing up all over, like weevils in beans, teaching various ways of preserving what one gathers from the garden. Many of the ways that are traditional ways of preserving food come to us in some of our most revered and traditional foods: cheeses, wines, beers, ciders, pickles, sauerkrauts, sausage, smoked meats and fish, jams and jellies and dried fruits like figs, raisins, apricots and many other delicious items that we buy in the store.
But that's the key: “we buy them in the store,” when only several years ago, our ancestors made them at home; and they made them without the benefit of preservatives that keep edibles looking fresh for months or even years.
“In our modern society, we don't have time to do any of this – we have to buy from the store,” is the wail of more than a few of the folks I have heard comment on this topic. I don't dispute this straightaway. I don't think that any of us have the time, the skill and the energy to do everything in this list or will be able the time investment to eat off their city lot every day. However, here and there, a batch of this, a little of that, and any one can evolve a more profound relationship with the food they grow.
I certainly do buy some jelly, jam and pickled vegetables at the store or the farmers' market when I see something that catches my eye, but on the other hand, I have been blessed with some outstanding blueberry, plum, persimmon, and mango jams I have made over the years. I have dried corn and beans for food and for seed and I've loved the chance to enhance my winter meals with a taste of my summer garden. The same is true for the vegetables I have pickled; beans, beets and peppers. The pickled beet recipe is one of the few of my mother's that I have, and she had gotten it from her mother who probably got it from her mother. The beans are a recent addition – Trader Joe's carried a pickled bean for year and I had gotten used to them on sandwiches and salads so I found a recipe for them and after a little refinement, it's one of my very best recipes. The peppers were done for the first time this year. I haven't even had the chance to try them yet.
Many things can be dried and solar drying has the advantage of super cost efficiency; once you buy your drier, it can run as long as the sunshines for free. Solar drying can be almost as fast and efficient as an electric drier when the days are sunny, and you can usually find a sunny day or two in Southern California.
Drying, either done with solar or electric power, is impressively efficient because, once you have the food preserved, there is no more power used to keep it preserved.
Food to be dried, must be dried quickly and kept from animals, insects and fungi that will devour it before you can seal it away. There are sad stories to tell of being a little too easy going on this step. The food you are drying must be DRY before you seal it away and during this stage is vulnerable to attack. I have learned through hard experience that one cannot simply put it out of sight and mind to dry over a period of weeks. It seems best to me to use a dedicated dehydrator and get it dry as quickly as possible and thence to secure storage with haste.
Beans and corn are sufficiently dry when your nail cannot dent them. This is the same test for most grains. Use your thumbnail and press hard enough to bend the nail somewhat. If you see an indentation in your food, continue drying. Corn must be tested in the white area towards the point of the kernel.
Once the item has reached the dry stage, place the sealed container of dry food in the freezer for at least two days (48 hours). This will kill any insect larvae or eggs that might hatch out in the sealed container. You don't want to store them with your grains or legumes because they will eat their way through your food and when you open your container, you will find only the remnants of what you had hoped was to be many dinners.
If you do use the freezer technique, remove the jar from the freezer, open it for about four hours to get rid of any moisture the freezer might have condensed. Cover the jar or bag with a screen for the few hours you let off this moisture.
A bit higher on the complicated scale, is freezing. Most of your vegetables or fruit can be frozen with very little effort. The main problem with freezing is that it requires constant energy to keep it frozen and a power outage can really ruin someone's plans in a few hours. The procedure for freezing is simple enough and if this appeals to you, find some good instructions on freezing for the plant you hope to freeze.
Canning and Pickling and Preserves
Pickling and preserves are easier subsets of canning.
Pickling stops spoilage through the acidity of vinegar. Preserves combat it through sugar. Both, because of the presence of vinegar or sugar do not need nearly the amount of heat to kill harmful organisms that regular canning does.
Regular canning requires a pressure canner and needs careful attention to detail to insure you don't kill yourself, family or friends off with botulism. Pickling and preserves, while not a totally care free process, is not as difficult and is often quite rewarding. Cost of equipment is minimal and I have had homemade preserves that are better than anything on the shelf of the most pricey of food retailers. From just last year, the persimmon preserves are remembered as the best thing to pass the tongues of many folks.
In addition to these common ways of preserving food, there is a list of traditional food preservation techniques to consider using salt, oil, sugar, alcohol, vinegar cold storage and lactic fermentation. A short bibliography follows.