May 4, 2010

Food Preservation Basics

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This is a repost from last year.  Many people have asked questions about the methods of food preservation, and I hope this will be helpful.  You can also look under my “food preservation” label to find more recipes and thoughts on food preservation.

There are 5 main methods of food preservation; each one having its own set of pros and cons. 

1. Freezing foods.  Go here for more information about the how-to of freezing foods.  Along with soups, leftovers, and such, freezer jam also falls into this category.

Pros

  • This is probably the easiest of all food preservation and requires little more equipment than containers and a freezer. 
  • You can freeze a little at a time.  There is often little or no work involved.
  • You can prepare meals in advance and have them on hand when needed.

Cons--

  • If you have limited freezer space, it can become frustrating to weed through containers whenever you want to pull something out.
  • If containers are not labeled, you can forget what they have in them.
  • If you have too large of a freezer, foods can easily be forgotten. 
  • If the power goes out for an extended period of time, you can lose your investment.

2. Dehydrating foods.  The only prep work required of dehydrating foods is that they be clean. If you cut or slice the foods, it will make the process go much quicker.  Go here to read a 1975 article from Mother Earth News about dehydrating foods.  You can dehydrate everything from beef jerky to watermelon.

Pros--

  • This is a relatively simple form of food preservation.  The equipment needed can vary.  You can use the power of the sun to dehydrate foods with drying racks.  You can set your oven to a very low temperature and dry foods in there.  Or, the easiest is to purchase a food dehydrator.  They cost about $20+, depending on the make and what bells and whistles you want. 
  • The food lasts for a long time, and it requires little maintenance.  It is shelf stable.
  • Dehydrated fruit will quickly become your family’s favorite snack.

Cons--

  • In the event of an emergency, water is helpful in rehydrating the foods.  If you choose to dehydrate cooked beans, for instance, you will need water to make them taste like what you are used to. 
  • If you do not dehydrate the foods completely they can become moldy.  The simple fix on this is to dehydrate the foods until crispy or chewy, and then to check them the next few days.  If your foods are not stored in air tight containers, they can plump.  Store them in mason jars to make it easy to check them periodically. 

3. Water Bath Canning.  This form of canning is done with high acid foods such as fruits, tomatoes, and pickles preserved in vinegar.  Go here to download an instructional pdf on water bath canning.

Pros--

  • Fresh jams, jellies, salsas, and pickles are far superior to store bought.
  • These items make excellent gifts.
  • While this method requires more effort than dehydration or freezing, it does not take as long as you might think.
  • The food lasts for a long time, and it requires virtually no maintenance.  It is shelf stable. 
  • It is ready to eat once the jar is opened, making it a good food for emergency preparedness.

Cons--

  • More equipment is needed.  Read my post here about making strawberry jam to find out more about what tools are must haves.
  • It is helpful to watch someone else can before you try to do it yourself.
  • If foods are not preserved properly, there is a chance you could get sick from eating the foods.

4. Pressure Canning.  This form of canning is done with low acid foods such as vegetables.  Go here to download an instructional pdf on pressure canning.

Pros--

  • The food lasts for a long time, and it requires virtually no maintenance.  It is shelf stable. 
  • It is ready to eat once the jar is opened, making it a good food for emergency preparedness.
  • These save room in your freezer for other foods.
  • I think that they make a beautiful display of foods. 

Cons--

  • A pressure canner is a must have to do this kind of food preservation.  These can be expensive.  I highly recommend you buy one new for safety reasons.  Though, if you have a hand me down, you can contact your county’s agricultural extension agency to find out about having the gauges and seals checked. 
  • It is helpful to have a tutorial from someone who has done this form of food preservation before.
  • If you have a glass stove top, it is not recommended that you use a large pressure canner due to risk of breaking the glass top.
  • If foods are not preserved properly, there is a chance you could get sick from eating the foods.

5. Fermentation.  I recommend the book Wild Fermentation to help get you started.  Go here to read more about lacto-fermentation.  Want an example of a fermented food?  Think sauerkraut.

Pros--

  • The foods are often more easily digested and contain high amounts of probiotics.
  • Little equipment is needed.  The equipment needed varies based on what you are making.
  • This can be a way to get in touch with your roots.  Almost every culture has a form of fermentation that they have handed down from generations. 

Cons--

  • If you have never fermented foods, I recommend that you take a class, attend a Weston A. Price Foundation meeting or Slow Foods meeting to learn more.  With my first try at sauerkraut, I failed to keep the cabbage submerged, and it went bad.  It helps to have someone show you what to do and what to look out for.
  • As with any food preservation, there is a risk of becoming sick if the food is not prepared correctly.
  • This has become a lost art, and it might be difficult to find someone to teach you how to do these.

Resources--

Better Homes and Gardens America’s All Time Favorite Canning & Preserving Recipes, 1996

Ball Blue Book Guide to Home Canning, Freezing, and Dehydration, 1995

Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, Edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine, 2006

Small-Batch Preserving, Ellie Topp & Margaret Howard, 2001

I hope this general overview will be helpful to you.  Food preservation can be not only a very rewarding and frugal endeavor but it is also a lot of fun!  Our daughter has been helping with our family’s food preservation for her lifetime—initially in a sling watching as I worked and now standing on a chair and helping me prep the foods.  I hope that she will pass the skills down to her children one day and help keep these skills from becoming a lost art.  Have fun with it!

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