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Seven easy ways to preserve food without pressure canning, including dehydration, freezing, winemaking, and fermentation. Use these ideas to preserve fresh produce from the garden or bulk buys from the supermarket or farmers’ market. There’s a video introducing these methods below and even more preserving methods are featured at the end.
If you grow your own food, you’ll have times when fruit and vegetables begin piling up in the kitchen. Gluts of zucchini, green beans, peas, tomatoes, and apples, ripening all at once and filling your garden with bounty! It’s an amazing experience to pick all of this homegrown produce, but once it’s set out in baskets and tubs, you might feel a little overwhelmed. There’s no chance that you’ll be able to eat it all before it begins spoiling, and you might begin to stress about what to do with it. If you find yourself in this situation and don’t want to give it all away, don’t worry. There are many ways to preserve food so that you can enjoy it months down the road.
This piece focuses on ways to preserve food without pressure canning. Food with an emphasis on fresh produce such as herbs, fruit, berries, and vegetables. If you’re unsure what pressure canning means, it’s using a pressure canner to sterilize food in jars at high temperatures. It’s an involved method of food preservation that’s common in some parts of the world and requires special equipment and precise recipes and processing times. There are many other methods that you can use, though. Easy and simple ways that are a hundred percent safe and don’t require a lot of training.
When Preserving, Fresh is Best
We are about to go through seven food preservation methods, but first, a word on produce. When you preserve, you should choose herbs, fruit, and vegetables that are at their best. That means no soft spots on plums or potatoes and no holes from carrot root flies on your carrots. If leaves look a little nibbled from slugs, that’s fine, as long as they’re perky, but if the leaves are wilting or from a plant that’s bolting or beginning to yellow, then don’t preserve them. It won’t improve the flavor or magically recall nutrients lost to degradation.
In short, fresh is best. The quicker that you can preserve it, the more nutrients you’ll be able to salvage too! So, for the healthiest and best-tasting food, pick your harvests and try to get it preserved within a day. Any longer than that, and the produce might suffer for the wait. They could become soft, the flavor might change, or the nutrition value degrade.
There are exceptions to this rule, though. Some fruit, such as medlars and persimmons, need to be bletted before they’re palatable. If you’re making jam and jelly, using overripe fruit and berries is fine, though you should aim to use fresh when possible. I still remember my first job as a strawberry picker at age twelve. The ripest and least attractive berries still got picked but were sent to a jam-making factory.
If you do have produce that’s probably not worth salvaging, you can compost it. It’s not ideal but will recycle those nutrients into compost that will feed the next generation of food plants. That way, it’s not a total loss! There are several ways to compost, including bokashi, worm bins, hot composting, and the easiest way to compost.
Preserving Keeps Food on the Table
People have had to preserve food without canning or refrigeration for thousands of years. This involved inventing ways to keep food on the table all year round, depending on resources and available crops. Each culture and era would have had its preferred preserving methods and storage facilities that were molded by environmental factors, available food, and possible food storage.
For example, in places with pottery or basket-weaving, grain and seeds could be dried and safely stored for use in cooking and beer making. Some cultures, especially in the north, didn’t have much agriculture or even pottery, but they did have fish, seals, caribou, deer, and whales. Air drying, pickling, smoking, or fermenting that protein source helped keep it edible and nutritious for months or even years. Some of this food was even stored in the ground without the usual types of containers we have today. Necessity is the mother of invention.
In your kitchen, you’ll have a lot more choice in how to preserve fresh produce and modern ways to do it. What you should do is think about the kinds of food that you and your family like to eat and drink and then base your preserving strategy around that. There’s no point making thirty jars of green tomato relish if you only eat six jars a year.
Ways to Preserve Food Without Pressure Canning
The seven ways to preserve food that we are going through include drying (dehydrating), fermenting, pickling, jams and jelly, freezing, winemaking, and natural state, or dry storage. There are even more preserving methods than these, and I’ll take you through those at the very end. They are more involved or suited to other types of food other than fresh produce, though.
Also, keep in mind that you can use more than one preserving style per fruit or vegetable. For example, onions can be stored in their natural state, dried, used in pickles or ferments, or can be frozen. There are probably other ways too. Using more than one preservation method per crop keeps your meals interesting!
Preserving Food by Freezing
Freezing is one of the easiest ways to preserve food and can keep it tasty for many months. It’s also a great long-term storage solution because it works for most types of food, including fruit and vegetables. My freezer is currently filled with broad beans, snap peas, cubes of oiled basil, and berries galore!
Although some you can pop a lot of food in the freezer without any preparation, you will need to blanch or steam some vegetables first. The way I tend to freeze fresh produce is to first freeze it on a baking-paper-lined tray and then, once frozen, store the berries, fruit, or veg in freezer bags. Doing this helps stop food from freezing in a block. Keeping frozen produce in a sealed bag also helps stop freezer burn.
Megan from The Creative Vegetable Gardener has some great advice on freezer storage too. She says that if you’re going to be doing a lot of freezing, you should invest 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 her 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.
Ways to Freeze Vegetables
Berries and chopped fruit can generally be frozen whole or freshly cut. That includes tomatoes! If you have too many of them to eat or preserve in another way, you can pop them whole into the freezer. They defrost a little soft but are great for chopping up and putting into pasta sauces or casseroles. Also, unless they are dusty, dirty, or not from your garden, there’s no need to wash fruit and berries before freezing. If you know that they’re not sprayed with anything and that pets haven’t messed in their area then there’s no need.
Some high-water vegetables, such as zucchini, eggplant, and cucumbers, can be frozen too. To prepare them for the freezer, you should try to reduce the water content first. What I do with zucchini is grate them up, add a little salt and let them sit for half an hour. A lot of moisture comes out during that time, but a good squeeze at the end removes even more. I then pack as much as I can into a one-cup measuring cup and up-end it onto a tray. Each ‘puck’ freezes nicely into an expected measurement that I then use in burgers, pasta sauces, cakes, or soup.
Most vegetables will need to be blanched first, though, before you can freeze them. Blanching involves briefly boiling and then quickly cooling a vegetable, and it’s important in helping retain color and texture and stopping enzymes from degrading the nutritional content. Vegetables that need blanching before freezing include asparagus, beans, peas, corn, broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts, carrots, corn, eggplant, and okra.
Fermentating Vegetables for Food Storage
Fermented food is SO GOOD…not only from how it tastes but also how it helps your digestive tract. The natural probiotics in fermented food helps replenish good bacteria in your gut which can help with better immunity, weight loss, improved digestion, and IBS. Did I mention that it’s delicious too? There are tons of fermented foods that you can make or buy, including types made with dairy (such as yogurt), grain, and even sugary-tea (Kombucha). Vegetables and fruit can be fermented too, and once they reach the right flavor for your taste, you can store them in the fridge for six months.
Fermented food includes kimchi and sauerkraut, which I’ve been making for years. In the twelve months I’ve been experimenting even more fermented vegetables including fermented radishes, turnips, cucumbers, wild garlic, and more. There are plenty of recipes to follow, and some great books, but you can ferment practically any fruit or vegetable. The end flavor will be tangy and slightly salty and indescribably yummy. They’re great on salads, cheese boards, Asian inspired dishes, and meat.
Another thing that’s great about fermenting is that it’s extremely safe. Ferments are also incredibly easy to make! The basic steps of fermenting include preparing the produce; sometimes slicing finely and sometimes leaving whole. Then you submerge the vegetables in a sea salt brine (typically 2% salt) for one to six weeks. There’s obviously a lot more to it, so here are some great books to check on on fermenting vegetables:
- Fermented Vegetables: Creative Recipes for Fermenting Vegetables & Herbs
- The Art of Fermentation (NYTimes Bestseller)
- The Farmhouse Culture Guide to Fermenting
Dehydrating Vegetables and Fruit
Dehydrating, or fully drying food, is probably the oldest food preservation method around. Removing all of the water from food stops the growth of microorganisms and any food spoilage. Dried food can last years, too! The easiest things to dry and use are herbs for cooking and tea. I go through several ways to dry herbs, such as mint in another piece. You can also dry fruit and vegetables as dried pieces, like apple chips, or pureed and made into fruit leather. The idea behind dehydrating food is that you use an appliance or warm weather to dry food out until no moisture is left. You then store the dried food in air-tight containers such as mason jars, ziplock bags, or vacuum-sealed bags.
To dehydrate herbs and food, it’s best to begin with naturally thin food (like leaves) or slice the produce thinly. Then spread the pieces out thinly on a drying rack, screen, or suspended cloth and allow to dry until bone-dry. While dehydrating, it’s important to keep foods in a dim or dark place, since sunlight can zap the color and nutrients from food. That’s why a lot of people hang herbs in brown paper bags when drying them outdoors. It should only take one to three days for food to be dry enough to store.
If you live in a place with damp weather in the summer, as I do, then you’ll probably need to either build a solar dehydrator or invest in an electric food dehydrator that you can use inside. You can also dehydrate larger pieces of fruit and vegetables in a food dehydrator or if the weather is hot and dry enough. Trying to dry larger pieces of food in a mild climate can result in the food beginning to rot before it dries.
If you enjoy a relaxing glass of wine, then you can transform fruit, berries, edible flowers, and even vegetables into homemade wine. The first country wine I ever made was blackcurrant wine, said to be the best of the fruit wines and closest to a grape-based wine. It’s lovely, but there are so many other types of wine to make! My favorites are rhubarb wine (very popular), elderflower champagne (sweet and summery), and parsnip wine. YES! The sweetness in parsnips makes them an excellent base for making homemade wine.
Fermenting traditional wine begins with grape juice with natural sugar, yeast, tannin, acid, and all the necessary ingredients. When you begin with homegrown produce, it’s called making country wine. Although fruit and vegetables can have some of the necessary ingredients for wine, you will likely also need to add white sugar and other ingredients, such as commercial wine yeast, to make a good batch. To get you started, here’s an A-Z list of some of the produce that you can use in winemaking.
Preserving Fruit in Sugar
Probably the best-known way to preserve fruit and berries is as sweet preserves. There are at least three types as I know them, and include jelly, which has no seeds, jam, which is smooth but has seeds, and preserves, which includes chunks of berries or fruit. Some of the most popular types of this preserve include strawberry jam, raspberry jam, and mint jelly. To make them, you cook together sugar and fruit until they hit setting point, then you pour the mixture into jars, water bath them, and store them in the pantry for up to a year. If you make jam, jelly, preserves, or syrup without water bath canning them, you run the risk of mold forming inside your jars even if they are properly sealed.
It works because sugar and fruit combined with citric acid (found in most fruit) can successfully and safely preserve food without the need to pressure can the jars afterward. High-acid foods, such as fruit and berries, are much safer to preserve at home in sugar. Not all fruit is high-acid, though, and if you were to make preserves with bananas or peaches, you would need to add extra citric acid or citrus juice to make the preserve safe.
Pectin, either naturally occurring or added, will cause the bubbling fruit sauce to firm up into a spreadable gel. Without pectin, your preserves will become syrup, such as elderberry syrup. Another way to preserve fruit is to it pack it into jars with simple sugar syrup. Depending on the fruit, you can raw pack, as with pears, or may need to blanch the fruit first, as with peaches. You might also cook the fruit in the syrup, as you do when making canned cherries. Seal the jars and water bath can for the required time, and you have shelf-safe canned fruit that will last at least a year.
Another classic way to preserve garden vegetables is to pickle them. This may instantly bring to mind pickled onions or homemade dill pickles, but there are loads of other types of pickles you can make too. All a pickle recipe involves is preserving vegetables and sometimes fruit in vinegar. Vinegar creates such a high-acid environment that dangerous microbes, such as botulism, cannot begin growing. Pickling creates savory food to use in appetizers, cheese boards, and condiments.
Probably the most popular recipe on this site is a pickled food recipe called green tomato chutney. It’s a deep and rich preserve that you can spoon out and use with meats, cheese, or as a marinade. You can also puree it to use as a savory sauce. Other types of pickled food recipes include tomato ketchup, relish, and piccalilli.
Traditional vegetable pickling begins with packing raw vegetables in glass jars and pouring over a vinegary brine. For pickled sauces or chutney, you first cook the vegetables with that same brine before pouring the mixture into jars and containers. When you bottle pickles or vinegar-based foods, make sure that the lid you use doesn’t have exposed metal on the inside. Vinegar can corrode metal, so it’s best to use plastic-lined lids or plastic canning lids.
Natural State Preserving
Some fruit and vegetables make preserving easy for you! Apples, pumpkins, garlic, onions, and potatoes store very well if kept in a cool but frost-free place over winter. Generally, all you need to do is harvest this produce is ensure that it doesn’t have any disease or damage, dry it off, and store it as-is. Apples are best stored on racks, potatoes in paper or hessian sacks, and onions and garlic in crates or braided and hung.
Root vegetables can also be stored in frost-free places, but they need some amount of moisture to avoid desiccating. Traditionally, carrots, parsnips, and beets were harvested and neatly stacked in damp sand layers in crates. Kept in a cool place, they have a shelf life of up to a year.
Using your fridge is another way to store vegetables without processing. If you like carrots and beets, you can harvest them from the garden, remove the tops, keep the soil on the roots, and load them into plastic bags. You can then store them in the bottom of the fridge and eat your own carrots and beets all winter long. If this seems like too much work for you, and you have mild winters, you can even store root vegetables in the ground.
More Ways to Preserve Food
The seven methods of food preservation covered above are relatively easy and will help you stock your homegrown pantry. If you’d like to see an even better introduction of them, I also go through them in this video.
There are even more ways to preserve food, including pressure canning. This method makes shelf-stable soups, stews, salsa, canned vegetables, dairy, and meat. Pressure canning is an involved and precise home food preservation method that makes low-acid foods food shelf-safe. It does this by creating a much hotter temperature inside than you’d ever be able to get by boiling. Here are more ways to preserve fresh produce and farm-fresh food:
- Pressure canning — best for low-acid produce and canned meat
- Freeze drying — for most any type of food. High investment in equipment, though.
- Cheesemaking — for dairy milk
- Smoking and Curing — mainly for meat and fish
- Salting — vegetables, meat, and fish