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This time of year many of us have gardens. Even if you don't have a full garden, you might still have a potted veggie plant or some herbs. Even the smallest area can yield a wonderful harvest if you make the most of it.
One thing I have heard people say deters them from having a big garden is, "I just can't eat all the produce before it goes bad." I get it, you don't want to waste the food. No one does! As expensive as food is becoming in the wake of the COVID pandemic, every little bit counts.
There is good news, though. You don't have to eat all those delicious vegetables fresh. There are so many different ways to preserve your harvest and continue enjoying the literal fruits of your labor all throughout the year, even in the dead of winter.
There are many different ways you can preserve fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Some things do best using certain methods, so I'll share a little about each of the most common ways to preserve the harvest.
One of the easiest ways to preserve your harvest is by drying it. This method is as simple as it sounds. You simply dry the produce. I like to dry herbs and leafy greens such as kale. Most often I use a dehydrator. I like this one * from Nesco. It's got a good amount of room and the temperature is easy to accurately control. You can use your oven on the lowest setting for some things, but so many foods require a lower setting and most ovens don't go lower than 170 degrees. So, if you'll be dehydrating often, a dehydrator is a worthy investment.
The first step in the dehydrating process is making sure the produce is clean. You don't want to dehydrate any dirt or bugs with your veggies. Simply rinse the produce and allow it to dry well. Once it's dry, place the material onto the dehydrator trays. For leafy greens or herbs, simply set them on the tray as is. For veggies, you'll want to slice them thin and place them on the trays following the user guide's recommendations for the best results. Make sure you place the pieces close together but not touching. This allows for adequate airflow all around the material. The drying time will vary depending on the food you're dehydrating.
Another, even easier, method of dehydrating is simply hanging plants in bunches. I only use this method with herbs. I like to bundle several branches together with a rubber band then hang them with twine in my pantry to dry. You can hang them anywhere really, but I have cats and they think all drying herbs should belong to them, especially when I dry catnip! Inside the pantry is the only safe place to dry them in our home. Whatever location you choose should be dry and clean, and it's best if it's around room temperature.
Once the plant material is fully dehydrated, you can store it in an airtight container out of direct sunlight. I store all our dehydrated foods in jars. I like to use mason jars, but I also wash and reuse jars that used to contain olives, pasta sauce, beans, et cetera. I don't ever toss glass jars, because I can always use them for something! You can see in the picture above that there are all kinds of dehydrated goodies stored in our pantry.
Another great way to preserve your harvest is to freeze it. Some things can be frozen directly off the plant, but others should be blanched first. Blanching isn't difficult, but it does take a little time.
Some commonly grown garden crops that should be blanched prior to freezing include squashes of all sorts, bell peppers, leafy greens such as kale or cabbage, beans, okra, and broccoli. These and other vegetables should be blanched prior to freezing to maintain their quality and taste, but most fruits should not be blanched.
To blanch produce, cut it into smaller pieces (half-inch thick pieces for squashes, or equivalent size with other produce). Prepare the work area by filling one side of your sink with ice water. You will need a lot of ice if you're preparing multiple batches, so you might want to buy some bagged ice instead of depleting your freezer. Bring a pot of water to a boil and then carefully add the produce one batch at a time. Bring the water rapidly back to a boil and allow the produce to cook for the recommended time for that food. This is a wonderful resource for blanching information and times.
Once the food has cooked for the recommended amount of time, drain it in a colander and immediately dunk the colander into the ice water to stop the cooking process. Remove the colander from the water and allow the food to drain thoroughly. You can then place the food into the storage container of your choice and freeze it. A vacuum-sealed * option is best, but freezer zipper bags will work as well. Make sure to add more ice as needed throughout the entire process.
For foods that do not need blanching, such as blackberries, simply place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat (I love these cookie sheets *) and place the tray in the freezer for several hours until the fruit is frozen solid. Place the food into a zipper freezer bag. I use mine throughout the entire year and have had no issues with taste or quality. From frozen you can make tea, jams or jellies, or baked goods. If you add berries to baked goods, make sure you add them frozen to the batter so they don't mess up the liquid ratio or color of the final product. Note- blackberries tend to turn more red than black once frozen. This is totally normal!
A common option to preserve your harvest is canning. Canning foods can be a little more work than the methods mentioned so far, but it also allows for the long-term storage of many foods. I have many, many pints of jams and jellies that I have canned from our previous years' harvests. I have canned apples, tomatoes, carrots, green beans, bell peppers, and more.
You'll need a high-quality pressure canner. I wouldn't make it through without mine. This * is the updated model, but the one I have is no longer sold. I highly recommend this brand. This model even comes with an awesome set of canning essentials. The user guide will have many recipes in it to get you started, including some delicious meal ideas.
I can provide some basic tips about canning, so if you have any questions please let me know in the comments. But it is important to always follow the recommended guidelines in the user guide for the specific food you're canning to ensure safety and quality. Canning isn't difficult at all, and once you try it, you'll likely be hooked!
I have canned many fresh fruits and vegetables, but I really love making jams and jellies. I also make and can homemade stock. I make turkey stock, beef stock, chicken stock, and vegetable stock. I have also made venison stock in the past. I have a great post about making homemade stock and its benefits. Check it out here.
The last method of preserving your harvest I'll discuss is pickling. Most people hear the word pickle and think of cucumbers. But there are so many other things you can preserve by pickling. I use one simple recipe, but there are many available on the internet if you want to try something different. I wrote this great post on pickling last year. Check it out for the simple steps and recipe in detail.
For basic pickling you'll need a few items:
Mason jars- either quart or pint jars with lids and bands
Vinegar- I prefer organic apple cider vinegar, but distilled will work too
Dill seed (not dried dill weed)
Garlic cloves, peeled and slit per the recipe from the post above
Fresh dill weed (optional)
To pickle your foods, simply follow these steps:
Place the dill seeds in the bottom of clean, dry mason jars. I like to use two teaspoons in a pint jar and four teaspoons in a quart jar, but you can adjust this to your preference. Also, add garlic cloves that have had slits cut in them to the jar. Again, adjust to your preference, but I use two cloves per pint jar and four cloves per quart jar. If you're using fresh dill weed, add it at this point as well.
Next, add your fresh produce. If you're pickling cucumbers, slice them about a quarter-inch thick for chips, or you can slice them into spears if you'd prefer. Pack them tightly into the jar. If you're pickling okra or cherry tomatoes, you can add them to the jar whole. If you're pickling peppers, you'll need to slice and de-seed them. If you're using larger green tomatoes, it's best to quarter them. Green beans can be trimmed to the best length to fit the jar.
In a saucepan, boil a mixture of 50 percent water and 50 percent vinegar. For every two cups of liquid, I add one tablespoon of canning salt to the mixture while it's boiling. You can make as much or as little of this mixture as you need, just maintain that 50/50 ratio of vinegar to water and adjust the salt as needed.
Once the mixture is boiling, carefully pour it immediately over the prepared produce in the jars. Carefully remove air bubbles by sliding a butter knife or small spatula between the food.
Place the lids and rings on the jars and seal tightly. Label the jars with the contents and date and place them in the refrigerator. The temperature change should seal the jars. Many sources will say you need to eat the food within two months. I feel that the food is sealed air-tight and preserved with vinegar and salt. I have eaten food beyond a year after pickling and it is absolutely fine. Use your own judgment here and do what you are comfortable with.
You can pickle so many different vegetables. Our favorites are cucumbers, jalapeno peppers, green tomatoes, okra, and green beans. As you can see, I use the same recipe for all of them. It's simple and I can make multiple jars containing different things at the same time.
With so many different ways to preserve the garden harvest, you no longer need to worry about harvesting more produce than you can eat before it spoils. These are just small steps you can take towards providing food security for yourself and your family. In an uncertain world with soaring food costs, isn't that a precaution worth taking?
What is your favorite way to preserve the harvest from your garden? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!