All You Can’t Eat (At Least Not Right Now)

So you’re up to your eyeballs in fresh vegetables and fruits from the garden?  You have some options here.  You can belly up to the table and eat ‘til you pop; give away all you can’t eat; preserve your harvest for later, or do a bit of all three.  Food has been preserved by fermentation, pickling, and drying for millennia.  Here’s an overview of old and relatively new food preservation methods in use today.

Fresh fruits and vegetables have the best flavor and highest nutrient content, but good food preservation doesn’t result in a total sacrifice of either.  For most fruits and vegetables, nutrient loss starts as soon as they’re picked.  Some fruits will continue to ripen after being picked, and their nutrient value will continue to increase, but at lower rates than if they had been left to fully ripen first.  The longer fruits and vegetables sit around waiting to be eaten, the fewer nutrients they deliver.  Fresh foods lose nutrients due to bruising, ambient temperatures, and cooking.

There are cases where nutrients in fresh foods aren’t readily available to our bodies.  Fermentation offers an excellent way to preserve food while improving digestibility and nutrient availability.  Sauerkraut is a fermented food, while pickles are not.  Both fermenting and pickling preserve food by halting the growth of undesirable bacteria.  Pickling may or may not involve the use of canning.

Freezing is an expensive way to preserve food, but it’s very popular these days.  There is some nutrient loss, and the textures of most foods change due to freezing.  There are some things you probably just shouldn’t freeze.  However, canteloupe and watermelon frozen as small cubes are blender friendly.  No need for ordinary ice cubes in your summer spritzers.  Haven’t tried cucumber ice cubes yet.

Canning is a traditional, labor intensive, form of food storage, and there’s a bit more nutrient loss incurred in the canning process.  As with freezing, you need a lot of room to store all those jars of food, but the electric meter stops spinning on these guys once they hit the pantry shelf.  Canning is still great for homemade tomato sauce, soups, pickles, and fruits such as cherries, plums, and peaches.  Let’s not forget homemade jams and fruit butters!

Drying is still the most economical and practical way to preserve food.  The nutrient loss incurred with dried foods depends on the drying and rehydration processes utilized.  You can use solar power, an electric dehydrator, or the oven light to dry many fruits and vegetables.  Herbs can be dried in a microwave oven.  Small tomatoes are great candidates for drying, as are fruit.

Freeze-drying has lately experienced a major uptick in popularity, and there are articles offering guidance on various in-home methods.  Freeze-dried fruit are allegedly as tasty as fresh, but you couldn’t prove that by me.

No frozen or dried strawberry beats the flavor and texture of a fresh homegrown one, but you can extend the enjoyment of your labors in the garden by one or all of these food preservation techniques.

Here are some excellent sources for more information.  Mother Earth News has just about everything you’ll ever want to know about food preservation.