Monday, December 13, 2010

Canning, freezing, and drying food

Living sustainably is all about making the most of what you have at the time without waste.  Learning to preserve food supplies is one way your family can eat well and save money. 

There are two main concepts to preserving food:  1) Buy, prepare, and preserve fresh food when in season.  2) Eat it when it sounds like a good idea.  Everytime I think about canning, I remember the commercial for Blue Bell ice cream - "Eat all we can and sell the rest".  I think they
forgot to say they refrigerate some for later too. 

For many years I have grown, harvested, and dried my own cooking herbs.  Some herbs grow year round, like rosemary, so I harvest when I need it for cooking.  I only dry rosemary when I prune the plant and have way more than I can use.  Other herb plants, like basil, only grow in summer, so if I want basil in my spaghetti sauce in January I either have to harvest my plants and dry it in the oven or I buy a jar of dried basil from the grocery store.

Several years ago, I started taking time off during the summer to chop, saute, and freeze vegetables like onions, garlic, and peppers.  Once frozen into small packages, they could be quicly integrated with ground beef or sliced chicken for a quick weekday supper.  This made it easier to have a "home cooked meal" without spending the time it takes to develop all the flavors we love.

This summer, we experimented with a different kind of preserving - canning.  The term "canning" refers to preserving food in a closed container, usually a glass jar, so that the food is kept without refrigeration for one or more seasons.  While this may seem antiquated to busy modernists, the simplicity in it astounds me.  Why am I paying for electricity to keep food that could be kept just as well without energy?  Why I am paying for out of season vegetables frozen and packaged in plastic bags when I could can my own vegetables in glass jars that can be used again and again?  I didnt have an answer for these questions, so I tried it out.
Over the summer, we invested in the basic tools: a pressure cooker, jars and lids, funnels, and a book.  (see below for more information.)

We purchased fresh, locally grown, organic fruit and vegetables that grow well in the summer and that we might like to eat once the weather turns cool, like tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, blueberries, cucumbers, and green beans. We chopped, boiled, filled jars, made brines, pressure cooked, and pickled. Not only was it great family fun, we also felt such a sense of pride as we labeled and stacked the jars in the pantry. 

Today, we opened a jar of green beans that we canned in August.  The beans were delicious and had a much better texture than a can of green beans from the store.  We have also opened a jar of salsa and had wonderful sweet tomatoes and sharp spicy pepper flavors with our tacos last night. Compared to the tomatoes in the store this week, shipped from the southern hemisphere and loaded up with chemical fertilizers and color enhancers, I have much preferred the salsa that we canned from good, really good, produce.  And it was much better than the national brand "from New York City!".

From my calculations, the jars of tomatoes cost less than the cans from the store.  The beans cost about the same.  If I had grown those vegetables myself, I would have to factor in the cost of water and seeds, but I am guessing the overall cost would be much less than grocery store prices.  Overall, the better flavor and texture were definitely worth the work. 

I will be doing more preserving in the future and that's for sure!

Here's a list of what we preserved this summer.
Green beans and onions
Tomato sauce
Tomatoes diced
Salsa with tomatoes and a variety of peppers
Salsa verde made with tomatillos
Onions confit
Peppers of every shape, size, and color
Pickled cucumber
Pickle relish
Sour radishes
Pickled cabbage
Pickled carrots
Strawberry jam

Canning Investment:
This book is fantastic.  We followed many of the recipes with great success. 

I'll also note here that I prefer the newer wide mouth jars because it is easier to funnel items into the jar.  The only exception is pickles.  The trick is to use regular mouth jars so that the inverted lip will hold the cucumbers below the water level.  I also liked the 4 ounce wide mouth jars because they are the perfect size for jams, relishes, and onion confit.

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