Food Preservation

"Harvest what you have"

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Harvest What You Have

"Harvest what you have" has been a motto I've used for a number of years.  While the definition of harvest refers to gathering crops, I tend to think of it in more general terms of bringing in food for our family to use in the coming year. Thus, in my mind, harvesting what we have means preserving what we have. We have preserved our"harvest" for many years primarily by canning, freezing, and drying, but the way in which we have obtained the meat and produce for this has varied widely.  We have harvested from our own gardens, big and small. We have made purchases at farmer's markets, orchards, and butcher shops. We have helped friends harvest their gardens or orchards and have been paid with a share of the produce. We have been gifted produce from the overabundance of a friend's garden. We have traded work, jam, and other various items with friends for produce. We have harvested wild game in years we had hunting tags. We have foraged for things like serviceberry, elderberry, and huckleberry.  We have even harvested dandelions and lilacs from our spray-free yard. What we have had available to harvest has looked different every year, but every year we strive to use and preserve what we have. I hope this page encourages you to seek creative ways to find and preserve produce (or meat) to fill your larder.

Dehydrating (or Drying) Foods for Long Term Storage

Long before canning came along, people used to dehydrate foods by drying them in the sun and/or air. The basic premise is to eliminate enough moisture that the food item will not mold and thus will keep for a long time. Some dehydrated items require reconstitution in water before using them in recipes.  Others can be eaten in their dried form, as in the case of dried fruits, and still others can be used directly such as teas and kitchen spices.  Read on to get an overview of different methods you can use to dry (or dehydrate) your foods...

Air Drying

This is perhaps the simplest method and it is best used for leafy plants and flowers. For drying flowers and most herbs, simply tie small bundles of the plant stalks together and hang upside down in a warm, dry place.  For items such as peppers, you can string them together with a needle and thread. Other items such as garlic and onions are often prepared by braiding the greens together before hanging to dry. 

Where can you hang items to dry? We use our attic. Others use their barn or pegs on a wall somewhere in their house. As long as the area is dry and warm, it should work well. Here is a list of items that air dry well:

Sun Drying

This method is how sun-dried tomatoes are made.  It requires you to lay the items to be dried out in the sun for a period of time. For this method, it is best to use a raised screen on which to lay your produce.  This allows good airflow underneath as well as on top, which helps your produce to dry and minimized the chance of it molding underneath. You can build your own screens  or you can find them at places like Lehman's.

While this method has been used for centuries (and makes the most amazing dried tomatoes), there are some potential issues to keep in mind.  Outside of potential molding, one of the biggest concerns is keeping your food safe from  critters and insects that may be drawn to your produce. Insects are perhaps the easiest issue to overcome. You can prevent them from landing and laying eggs by covering your items with cheesecloth. If you have critters such as squirrels, chipmunks, deer, etc. that will carry off your produce before it dries, you will want to be sure to keep it in an area that will be inaccessible to them. To protect it from the birds, simply cover your produce with cheesecloth as you would to protect it from insects. 

Electric Dehydrator

The options above are the best methods to use for frugal drying and off-grid scenarios. If you are on-grid, you have another option: the electric dehydrator. You can dry anything from herbs, to fruits and vegetables in one of these. While it cuts down on the time needed to dry, it does cost in electricity. The benefit is that it cuts down on drying time and can be used for nearly any small items you would want to dry from fruit leather, to jerky, to herbs.  My parents gave me a dehydrator years ago. It has seen a lot of use and is still going strong. I keep it busy over the spring and summer months. When drying multiple items, I like to label the trays with a dry erase marker so I don't forget what I have on each tray.

Oven Drying

Many people use their oven to dry items as well. This works for on-grid as well as off-grid ovens. Oven drying is best done at the lowest temperature your oven allows. The drawback to this method is that most ovens cannot be set at a low enough temperature to dehydrate foods.  Here is a chart I found online with a guideline to what temperature at which items should be dried. The link also includes basic steps for dehydrating in the oven as well as directions for drying fruit leather. While you can dehydrate many foods in the oven if your oven temperature is flexible enough, the oven often works best for:

Once your produce or meat is dried, it is best stored in an airtight container. Dehydrated foods will spoil if moisture is re-absorbed during storage. To extend the life of your dehydrated food, you can use a vacuum sealer, or even vacuum seal it with an oxygen absorber.  Be sure to check your food items periodically for signs of potential spoilage.

Canning Sauces - Why it is a good idea

When first canning on my own, I stuck to the basics I knew as a kid - peaches, pears, applesauce, and green beans. I still do these, but after a few years I began to seek out ways to expand my canning experience.  As a result, we usually try at least one new canning recipe each year. Over the years, I have added beef, chicken, pie fillings, beans, stew, spiced jams, pickled vegetables (including daylily buds), relish, and more. Recently, my focus has been on canning more sauces and condiments... (see below for more)

"Why sauces?" you might ask.  Our family loves sauces - ketchup, barbecue sauce, Hoisin sauce, Asian plum sauce, hot sauce, you name it, my crew probably likes it.  We put it on hamburgers, in rice dishes, in meat dishes, in noodle dishes, and, of course, pizza sauce on pizza!  We even include different sauces in our meatloaf recipe.  The big drawback for us is the list of ingredients you find in store-bought sauces these days - seed oils, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Finding condiments without these ingredients is possible, but more expensive. Furthermore, we have friends with allergies to some pretty common ingredients. Add that to the plastic packaging most food items come in these days, and I started to think we needed a better option. Thus, we have been looking for, and trying, different recipes for homemade sauces and condiments to make and to can. 

One thing I have realized when it comes to sauces is that you can think outside the box.  For example, you don't have to use tomatoes for barbecue sauce.  Why not use cherries, peaches, or plums? It may have a somewhat fruity flavor, but there are a lot of fabulous recipes out there that use alternative ingredients. Do you have an allergy to nightshades? Skip the peppers for seasoning, and look for a recipe that uses ginger or other spices. Do you have a wheat allergy? Use tamari instead of regular soy sauce for your Asian plum sauce. Alternatively, find a recipe that does not include soy sauce at all.  Do you want to add more variety to your applesauce? Try mixing in plums or pears. Or, add some spices like cinnamon and cloves. With the internet, we have access to so many recipes these days.  Make sure that the recipe you are using meets the proper safety requirements for canning if you plan to can your sauce. Here are a couple of resource links to help you determine if your recipe is safe: UNH article and MSU article.

Here is a short list of sauces that you can can yourself:

Spaghetti Sauce

Marinara Sauce

Pizza Sauce

Asian Plum Sauce

Hoisin Sauce

Barbecue Sauce

Ketchup

Hot Sauce

Taco Sauce/Salsa

Enchilada Sauce

Cranberry Sauce

Apple Sauce

Victoria Sauce

One final reason to can your own sauces and condiments...if you find yourself in a situation where you cannot get to the grocery store to buy your favorite sauce, it will be nice to have an option sitting on your shelf.  This holds true when you don't have time to make a trip to the store as well as when there is an emergency and the stores may be closed. Also, don't underestimate the comfort access to familiar ingredients can bring when in a difficult situation.

The humble, versatile zucchini

Three Ways to Preserve Your Zucchini Bounty

So, you planted a few zucchini plants and now you are drowning in zucchini.  What can you do with the harvest once you have eaten or given away all you can?  See below for three ways to preserve your bounty and enjoy zucchini throughout the year...

Shredded 

We have frozen shredded zucchini for many years and use it in many baked goods recipes.  I just shred, package in freezer bags, flatten, and pop in the freezer.  Later in the year, I take one out to thaw, drain the liquid, and use it to make zucchini bread or chocolate zucchini cake. It works best if you freeze the shredded zucchini in the quantity you need for your recipe so you do not have to measure once it is thawed.

Chunked 

I started freezing zucchini this way when I heard about a recipe for summer squash soup with basil. We love basil, but not everyone in the family loves zucchini.  This soup, however, was a hit with the whole family! Because the recipe calls for the soup to be pureed, it is easy to substitute frozen zucchini for fresh. This way, you can have summer squash soup year-round. To freeze, just cut your zucchini into chunks, measure the amount for your recipe into a freezer bag, and pop it in the freezer.  I like to drain the liquid off before using, but it isn't necessary. Click here for a link to the recipe. 

Zucchini Chips 

These are simple to make and are a healthy alternative to store-bought potato chips. To make these, just slice your zucchini thin, toss with a  tiny bit of olive oil (this part is optional - we have done it without the oil and it turned out fine), season with salt and pepper (or any other seasonings you like), and put into a dehydrator at the temperature recommended by the manufacturer for vegetables. Alternatively, if you do not have a dehydrator, you can dry them in the oven.  Just line a baking sheet with parchment paper and bake on low (around 235 degrees Fahrenheit) for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  You will need to monitor the chips closely and take them out as they become crispy to avoid burning them. These can be eaten right away or stored for several weeks in an airtight container. 

Zucchini Flour 

This was a new idea we tried this year.  It is very easy to make. Just dehydrate (in the dehydrator or in the over as per above, just don't add oil or seasonings) thinly sliced zucchini. If you are drying large zucchini, it is best to remove the seeds and peel first since they tend to be rather tough. When it is fully dry, blend in a blender until you have the consistency of flour.  Store in an airtight container and use within six months. You can add oxygen remover packets to increase the storage time if desired. 

This is good to mix with regular flour for added vitamins. Since it is gluten free, I plan to only substitute about 1/4 - 1/3 of the regular flour in the recipe with zucchini flour.  I also plan to try it as a thickener in soups and sauces, where a little extra vegetable flavor will complement the dish.

Relish

Zucchini can be substituted for cucumbers in many canning recipes.  The texture, however, is a bit different.  Since relish calls for diced vegetables, relish is one of the best ways to disguise zucchini in a canning recipe. Simply substitute zucchini for cucumbers in your favorite relish recipe and process per the recipe's instructions.

Bread and Butter Pickles

This is another recipe that we enjoy making with zucchini.  As stated above, the zucchini doesn't turn out as crisp as the cucumbers, but the flavor is still fabulous.  We only use zucchini in recipes that call for sliced cucumbers rather than whole or spears. Again, just substitute zucchini for the cucumbers in your favorite recipe and process per your recipe's instructions.