The bountiful harvest time of the year in the garden brings questions of what to do with vegetables your family cannot eat. Vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant and crookneck squash produce prolific amounts of food and tomato harvests can be difficult to keep up with when many plants ripen at the same time. Freezing, drying, canning and pickling are all traditional ways of preserving nature’s bounty for the winter months.
Food preservation in the past made it possible for people to live in stable communities rather than follow herds to hunt food or depend on forest foraging. Societies have always preserved food with the methods easily available. Northern hemisphere cultures freeze their bounty in the snow and southern hemisphere people dry their vegetables and fruits in the sun. Evidence has been found of preserved dried food in 12,000 B.C.
Slicing vegetables and laying them flat to dry is the earliest and easiest method of preservation. In the Middle Ages special “still houses” were created in areas that did not have enough constant sunlight to dry food. Successful drying depends on heat, air dryness and air circulation, according to Colorado State University Extension. Commercial or home-made drying trays make it possible to preserve large quantities of vegetables and fruit at one time.
Blanching vegetables is essential before freezing them. Blanching for one to two minutes in boiling water stops the enzyme action that causes loss of flavor, color and texture. The National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends using rigid plastic containers to freeze vegetables. Glass jars break when frozen. Vegetables and fruit can be safely frozen for eight to 12 months.
Preserving vegetables from the garden harvest with the canning method is a farm tradition. Care must be taken to prevent deadly botulism from taking hold in preserves that are not properly heated or sealed. Sterilized canned food will be free of spoilage if lids seal and jars are stored below 95°F. Storing jars at 50° to 70°F enhances quality retention. Consult the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning for safe methods.
Vegetables such as cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, cauliflower, beets and onions can be preserved by pickling. Sliced vegetables are soaked in brine for several hours or overnight, drained and the jars re-filled with vinegar and seasonings. It is the level of acidity in the pickle recipe that prevents the growth of unsafe bacteria, so it is important to follow recipe amounts closely. Dill pickles are cured in three weeks; refrigerator pickles are ready in one week.