But canning, freezing, and drying foods, some of the most widely used methods to home preserve foods, are actually much easier than you think. Even less widely used methods such as fermentation, salting, smoking, or preserving in alcohol or oil are also fairly simple. You just need the right tools and resources.
Here are some general steps to follow if you're interested in putting up foods but don't know where to start:
- Think about what you have available to put up. The obvious answers would be things that are economical and abundant right now, like produce from your garden or fruit you can buy in bulk from a local farm.
- Figure out what product you would use. While putting up food is easy, it can be time consuming, and you don't want to spend the time and resources putting up something you won't eat. Sometimes this takes a little guess work- I had no idea whether or not we would eat dried zucchini chips, as I had never tried them before, but they were a hit!
- Based on 1 and 2, decide which preservation methods would serve you best and begin to research and gather materials. It's a good idea to start with one recipe, particularly if you're canning, so you can get a feel for the method. If you're doing something simpler like drying you can do a few items at once.
- Drying: BEST FOR fruits, veggies, herbs, and meat (jerky). For this super simple method you need a food dehydrator. You can do it in the oven, but the results are less consistent and it ties up your oven for up to a few days. I have done herbs on a pan in the sun before (covered with a dish towel and masking tape...) but I wouldn't do anything else, as herbs dry fast. You may also need ascorbic acid (aka lemon juice or fruit fresh, available in the spice or canning aisle of your grocery store) or a steamer to pre treat some foods. For more on drying foods check out this post from Kitchen Stewardship on drying fruit and this post on drying vegetables.
- Canning: BEST FOR tomatoes, fruit, and dried beans. Many other veggies can be canned, but there is significant nutrient loss. Canning requires more specialized equipment than other methods. You absolutely need canning jars, a large pot (deep enough to fit the largest jars you plan to process, plus a few inches of water above the tops of the jars), canning lids and rings (new lids each time, unless you buy Tattler reusable canning lids, which besides being reusable are also BPA free, which conventional canning lids are not), a canning funnel (probably not absolutely necessary, but I wouldn't want to fill jars with hot jam or salsa without one), and a jar lifter. Other things that are just nice to have- a magnetic wand (available in a "canning starter kit" with a jar lifter and canning funnel) for lifting lids out of the hot water you prepare them in, a ruler to measure headspace, and a jar rack. The rest you should already have in your kitchen- a timer, a permanent marker for labeling jars, bowls, measuring devices, a kitchen scale, etc. If you want to make jam you also may need pectin- find a good recipe to follow, or buy a box of pectin (I like Pomona old fashioned Pectin, which allows you to use far less sugar than the normal pectin you can find at the grocery store). And for canning anything that doesn't have high enough levels of acid and/or sugar (like dried beans) you need a pressure canner. To learn more about the canning process, which while important is not that hard (I promise!), check out the following resources: USDA publications on home canning, Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, Put Em Up (see link to left), Canning for a New Generation: Bold, Fresh Flavors for the Modern Pantry.
- Packing in oil, salt curing, smoking, and preserving in alcohol. I am only just dabbling with these preservation methods, as in my recipe for drunken cherries. I truely believe in the value of these methods, but they are not, how you say, for the faint of heart. Check them out on your own, if you're interested, because honestly (besides said recipe) I don't know much about them. I did preserve some peppers in oil last summer, but I'm ashamed to admit that I have been too scared to try them :( Also, since the USDA doesn't endorse these methods of preservation for long term food storage, it is a lot harder to find good, reliable recipes for these methods. I have one book that has a few recipes for cured sausage and bacon, but neither is meant for long term storage.
- Fermentation: BEST FOR pretty much everything... except for zucchini. At least I haven't found a fermented zucchini recipe yet. This is another method that is only for the brave, but those who can do it are much rewarded. And I have much more experience with fermentation, as I shared in this post, which gives recipes for the most basic and most popular vegetable ferments- sauerkraut and sour pickles. For vegetable fermentation all you need is a fermentation vessel (a large glass jar, a crock, a fermentation jar... anything non-reactive, usually glass or pottery with non-reactive glaze is best), said vegetable, and salt. That's it. Check my post for the rest of the instructions. And, of course, you can also ferment fruits, dairy, grain, beans, meat... pretty much anything. For more check out Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, The Nourished Kitchen's Get Cultured! Ecourse, or GNOWFLINS entire line of courses on lacto-fermentation, sourdough, and fermented dairy.