Five easy and quick ways to preserve fresh produce without canning including dehydration, freezing, refrigeration, and fermentation.
By Megan Cain
For many of us gardeners, late summer and early fall signals the peak of the harvest season. Although filling up baskets and bowls full of vegetables from your garden can feel exhilarating, it can also be overwhelming and stressful. If you find yourself giving away or, even worse, composting extra produce, consider trying your hand at food preserving this season. Contrary to popular belief, food preserving doesn’t have to be difficult, take up a lot of time, or require lots of fancy equipment. In fact, I’m a big advocate of super-easy food preservation. Essentially, ways to preserve fresh produce without canning.
Simple and quick preserving
Instead of spending a full day in a sweltering kitchen, easy food preserving means using the simplest and quickest method for putting each vegetable, fruit, and herb away for use in delicious meals all season long. Let’s take a look at the options.
Whenever possible I like to store my vegetables in their natural state. This requires the least amount of work and preparation. It doesn’t get any easier than this. Each year I grow 300-500 onions and 220 garlic. After getting cured in my garage they all get packed in boxes and crates and stored in my basement. This year we were still eating the previous year’s onions until July.
Using your fridge is another way to store vegetables without processing. Each year I grow a big crop of fall carrots and beets. I harvest them straight from my garden into late fall, and just before we get a deep freeze I’ll harvest whatever is left. I remove the tops, keep the soil on the roots, and load them into plastic bags. The bags get stored in the bottom of my fridge and we eat our own carrots and beets all winter long.
There are many vegetables that can be easily frozen for long-term storage. Some need to be blanched or steamed first, and some can be frozen raw. If you’re going to be doing a lot of freezing I recommend investing in a chest freezer. Because it doesn’t have the natural defrost cycle of a kitchen freezer, the food quality remains high for about a year. Two of my favorite vegetables to freeze raw are kale and red peppers. Both can be chopped fresh from the garden and put directly into freezer bags or containers. When you’re ready to use them in a recipe you can just grab a handful and throw it directly into the pan.
More involved ways to preserve the harvest
The above three methods of food preserving all fall into the category of super-easy food preserving. You’ll find that it doesn’t get much easier than these techniques. They’re what I primarily use to stock my pantry each season. We rarely buy produce from the grocery store during our long Wisconsin winters. There are also a few other methods I use with less frequency. Sometimes they can be the best way to preserve a particular vegetable you want to have in your pantry.
I’ve dabbled in fermentation in the past, but this summer I decided to get more serious. Fermented foods can be stored in your fridge for up to a year. They also retain much more of the nutrients than canning (and adds beneficial bacteria that’s good for your gut).
So far I’ve used cabbage, carrots, and onions to make curtido (a spicy version of sauerkraut), and pickling cucumbers to make sour pickles. After checking this book out of the library and reading about the process, it took very little work to make both recipes.
Although I prefer quicker methods of food preservation, I have been known to dehydrate some foods. The easiest things to dry are herbs – you can simply hang them up in a dark place (I use a laundry room with no windows). I transfer them to jars when they’re brittle to the touch. I’ve also dehydrated cherry tomatoes, apples, and pears. While it’s possible to build your own solar dehydrator, they take a bit of monitoring if you live in a humid area. If you think you’ll be doing a lot of drying you may want to invest in an electric dehydrator.
Canning is also an option
Because I like to keep things simple, canning is my least favorite way to preserve food. It’s time-consuming, messy, and you need to follow an exact process to keep it safe. We eat a lot of salsa in our house, so we do have one canning session each season. We make as much salsa as humanly possible! Some people love canning, but in my opinion, there are much easier ways to preserve most vegetables.
Where Do You Start?
My advice (as with all things gardening-related) is to keep it simple. Take a look at the meals you eat and the groceries you buy on a weekly basis. Then come up with a list of five things you’d like to have as ingredients for cooking during your garden’s off-season. That’s where you should start. Eating your own garden produce on a cold winter night is such a satisfying and delicious experience. You’ll feel like you’ve cheated the season somehow, and you’ll definitely be getting the most from your garden.
Megan Cain is setting out to create a legion of gardening addicts that successfully and passionately grow their own food. Through her gardening education business, The Creative Vegetable Gardener, she helps people get more from their gardens by first mastering the essentials and then indulging in the colorful details that make gardening not just a favorite pastime, but a lifestyle. Get a free sample of her book, Super Easy Food Preserving, featuring the full directions on how to preserve some of the vegetables mentioned in this post here.