What better way to deal with a glut, eat healthy food, and be more self-sufficient than by preserving your seasonal harvests? Here we take a look at five different ways to make the most of your fruit and vegetable plants by preserving the surplus for future use.
From freezing to pickling, and drying to bottling, we give you the basics of each method. We’ve also asked some of our favourite bloggers to share their handy hints – preserving is easy, fun and guaranteed to make winter meals way more tasty.
Basic equipment for preserving homegrown produce
The good news is that preserving fruit and veg doesn’t require any specialist equipment. In fact, most of the things you’ll need are things you probably already own. Here are some items that make the job a bit easier:
- Saucepans – a nice big saucepan is essential for making jam. If you’re intending to make large quantities, a jam pan is a good investment because it’s designed to stop the sugar from burning and to make it easier to pour the hot liquid. A jam thermometer is the most accurate way to gauge the setting point of your jam.
- Ladles and slotted spoons – whatever you have to hand will probably do the job. Do make sure to sterilise your utensils before use when canning or pickling.
- A funnel – makes light work of filling bottles and jars.
- A dehydrator is a great investment for anyone intending to dry a lot of food, otherwise your oven works perfectly well.
- Plenty of zip lock bags for the freezer, as well as sterilised jars for jams, chutneys and pickles.
- Mason jars and a pot lifter for removing them from your water bath.
Freezing is probably the most straightforward way to process surplus food. Most people own a freezer, and it’s easy to stock it with bagged fruit and veg, plus homemade ‘ready-meals’ you can cook now and put away to eat later.
You can freeze pretty much anything, but do bear in mind that water expands as it freezes, breaking down cell walls. The higher the water content of what you’re freezing, the soggier it will be when you defrost it. Raspberries and blackberries won’t keep their shape once they’ve thawed out, but that’s no reason not to freeze them – just use them in your morning smoothie or a fruit crumble.
Try freezing cooked spinach in ice cube trays ready to add to soups and stews; puree your tomatoes ready to add to sauces; and bag up surplus peas, green beans, cauliflower and carrots to enjoy later in the year. You can freeze most veg without much processing other than cutting it into suitably sized slices, or chunks. But anything you freeze must be washed thoroughly under running water first.
Consider blanching – immersing the veg in boiling water for between one and five minutes – before freezing because it helps to preserve flavour, colour and texture, and is thought to reduce the loss of vitamin content. Drain and/or dry produce thoroughly before sealing in ziplock bags ready for the freezer.
Frozen veg lasts for between 8 and 12 months depending on your freezer, but it does deteriorate over time. Discard anything with a lot of ice crystals caked to it, anything that has shrivelled or which is discoloured – and trust your nose – if it smells off, bin it.
2. Canning or bottling
The name suggests you need tin cans to can food, but in fact, canning (or bottling) refers to the process of heat-treating and bottling pickles in a mixture of vinegar, salt and spices. This process requires some preparation to run smoothly. You’ll need:
- Mason jars
- A big saucepan
- Tea towels
- Oven gloves
- Ladle / slotted spoon
Before you begin, make sure that all your jars and utensils are clean and sterile. We suggest putting everything through the dishwasher or giving it a thorough wash in hot soapy water, before sterilising. To sterilise your mason jars, bring your big pan of water to the boil, and immerse your jars for several minutes. Failing that, put your jars in the oven on gas mark 2 or 140 – 150C for ten minutes before use. Sterilise your equipment just before you need it and place your clean jars on tea towels to catch any spills.
Whether you’re canning a rich tomato sauce or fresh picked veg, follow whichever recipe you’re using to the letter and be exact. When ready, fill your jars, leaving a half inch of space at the top of the jar to allow for a vacuum to form. Taking a paper towel dipped in pickling vinegar, wipe any excess off the thread and neck of the jar – the jars must be completely clean to allow a good seal to form. Now screw the lids on until you feel them bite, but no tighter – you need to allow for gasses to escape so that a vacuum forms in the jar during cooling.
Place your jars in the large pan of boiling water so that they’re completely covered by at least an inch. Leave a couple of inches between each jar so the heat can penetrate the contents. Boil for the period suggested by the canning recipe you’re using – if in doubt, err on the side of caution and boil them a bit longer. Remove jars using a pot lifter or tongs and place onto tea towels or a cooling rack, and leave undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours.
When they’re cool, you should be able to remove the metal ring from the mason jar and lift by the lid alone – this is a way to check you have a good seal. Now label and place in the cupboard. Unopened canned food lasts for 12-18 months. When you do open it, put it in the fridge right away and consume within a few days.
There are two main techniques involved here, and it’s important to know which is which. So-called ‘quick pickling’ refers to pickles you make for the fridge. They’re intended to be made fresh and used within weeks.
The second technique uses a process called lacto-fermentation. This is how you transform fresh veggies into the gut-friendly jars of sauerkraut and kimchi lauded for their ability to transform your health. When stored correctly in the fridge, they last for up to six months. Full of healthy bacteria, they taste delicious too which, as far as we’re concerned, is by far the best reason for making them. The best part – it’s an easy job that anyone can have a go at.
You’ll need sterilised mason jars, and pickling vinegar, plus any pickling spices you’d like to use to flavour your produce. To make a nice crunchy pickle, fill your jars with chunky chopped veg, leaving space at the top so that when you pour in your vinegar, it completely covers your pickles. Now simply screw the lids on tight and pop the jars into the fridge. Your pickles are ready to eat straight away, but the taste will mature over time. Pickles you make this way should be consumed within 3 days to a month – always follow the recipe, and discard at the slightest sign of deterioration.
This method involves curing your produce in brine; it encourages good bacteria to thrive while deterring any bad bacteria from growing. Again, when you’re making sauerkraut or kimchi, it’s very important to follow the recipe to the letter.
First, wash and chop your vegetables before placing them in a fermentation bin or crock pot. Taking a separate bowl, make a brine using pickling salt and water, then pour it over the veg until it’s completely covered. Now take a cock weight (a weighted lid that sits inside the container) and squash the contents down to make sure they remain submerged during fermentation. Now put the main lid on and place in a cool, dark place – the garage, for example.
Once fermentation begins, check it every three days. You may find that mould grows on the surface of the fluid – that’s usually fine, just scoop it off. Fermentation continues for 2-6 weeks and is complete when the bubbling stops. The longer the fermentation, the more sour the flavour, so do taste it and consume when it gets to a level you’re happy with. Once fermentation is complete, transfer the pickle to smaller sterilised jars which will keep for several months in the fridge.
4. Drying and dehydrating
Drying preserves food by removing much of the moisture content which deters the growth of bacteria and fungi. Herbs are particularly suitable for drying since they don’t freeze well – simply hang them in a warm dry spot until the leaves become crisp, then strip them from the stems and pop them into a sterilised jar.
Use your oven to dry apples, plums, pears and other fruit – it makes a lovely trail mix or topping for your morning muesli. Wash and dry your fruit, cut it into slices and place in a single layer on a baking tray. Bake on a low temperature until the fruit dries to a leathery texture. When you cut it with a knife, check for beads of moisture on the blade, and if there are any, dry for a bit longer before storing in a clean, airtight container. Vegetables should be brittle, like crisps, and easy to snap.
If you want to take it a step further, take your dried produce and blitz it in a food processor to create a powder. Over at Veg Plotting, Michelle makes a flavoursome garlic powder for speedy meal-prep. Dried vegetables lend themselves well to this treatment, adding a powerful and nutritious punch to home cooked meals.
If running your oven all day seems wasteful, you could invest in a dehydrator which uses a heater element and air flow to remove moisture from produce prior to storing. The manufacturer’s instructions should tell you how long it takes to dry different fruit and vegetables.
5. Syrups and cordials
Syrups are quick and easy to make, imparting a shot of flavour to drinks, salad dressings, ice cream sundaes or simply stirred through Greek yogurt. At its most basic, syrup is made by bringing a large saucepan of water to the boil with sugar and chopped fruit (or other ingredients). Simmer the mixture for about 10 minutes or until it has reduced and thickened. Then pass through a strainer or blitz in a processor. Your syrup can be served warm over pancakes or chilled and stored in the fridge for up to a week. You can also freeze portions, preserving the goodness for several months.
Preserving your produce for future consumption is a great way to enjoy tasty homegrown fruit and veg all year round. It’s also fun, rewarding and is an excellent way to save money on your food shopping.