Preserving Summer

August 18, 2006

As soon as a fruit or vegetable is picked, the process of its decomposition begins. Though some things decay more slowly than others, everything eventually spoils. As Harold McGee points out in his scientific kitchen bible, On Food and Cooking, “ripening itself is the beginning of inevitable decay.” Enzymes and microorganisms are the agents of plant decomposition; uncontrolled, the process can quickly produce inedible foods.

Throughout the ages humans have sought and found ways to decelerate this decay. In times past, and even in some parts of the modern world, food preservation has been a critical means of survival in times of scarcity and for long journeys. For the contemporary American, though, the preservation of our own foods is no longer essential. Our supermarkets brim with processed goods preserved very successfully with synthetic chemicals. Even when there may be local scarcity of a particular crop, we hardly notice; the gap can easily be filled with produce shipped from thousands of miles away.

Home food preservation for people in the industrialized world has much more to do with pleasure, nutrition, and tradition than need. Winter might be the last thing on your mind during this time of abundance, but come December you’ll wish you had considered preserving some of this season’s bounty. Besides getting to eat some of your favorite summer foods (tomatoes!, cucumbers!, berries!) throughout the year, it is a pleasure to spend time in the kitchen chatting with friends or family while performing the repetitious, meditative tasks that preservation requires. Preserving is also a great way to support regional farms and enjoy locally produced foods year-round. So pull out your grandmother’s recipe box, or use some of the resources below to save a little of the summer for later.

About different ways of preserving produce:

Though it may seem like a modern method of preservation, people in extreme climes have been slowing down the decay process by putting food into sub-zero environments for thousands of years. Today, freezing can be as simple as placing something in a plastic bag, opening the door to your icebox, and sticking it in. Vegetables are best blanched before frozen, and fruits best unwashed. After being frozen, most produce is better eaten cooked. The freezer can also be a perfect way to store your favorite tomato sauce or pesto (hold the cheese until after you’ve defrosted) for a few months.

Fermentation is one of the oldest forms of food preservation. To ferment a food, an environment must be created in which certain microorganisms and enzymes convert natural sugars to acids and/or alcohols. Fermentation often extends the shelf life of foods. Familiar fermented foods include sauerkraut, yogurt, soy sauce, beer, wine, and vinegar. Fermentation can increase both the nutritional value and digestibility of foods, and it creates unique and interesting flavors that have become important components of many cuisines and cultures. The process of preserving in salt brine or vinegar is also called pickling.

To can produce, it must be made into or suspended within a liquid. What is to be canned is heated to sterilize it, and it is then poured into glass receptacles (which have also been heated) and sealed airtight. This method of preservation allows for a lot of creativity; artisan June Taylor combines blackberry with lemon verbena, lavender with strawberry, and cherry with almond in some of her creations. Jams, jellies, conserves, marmalades, and syrups, are all made this way–the addition of sugar to these products increases their longevity by dehydrating microbes.

Decreasing the water content of fruits and vegetables makes them unfriendly environments for most microorganisms. Drying can be done in the sun, using a dehydrator, or even inside on screens. Many fruits and even some vegetables are well suited to dehydration and are great to eat dry as snacks, or rehydrated in all sorts of dishes.

Each of these preservation methods yields products with different flavors and textures than those of the fresh ingredients. After you’ve been preserving food for long enough, you’ll come to associate the taste of your favorite apricot jam with winter instead of summer. And when the apricot harvest begins in May or June, the fresh fruit will taste just as good as ever. Buying large amounts of produce for preservation at full cost can be prohibitively expensive for some foods, so ask farmers at the market about “seconds”—items that are blemished or otherwise unsuitable for sale at full price—or seek local U-picks like the one Mariquita Farm is holding next weekend! And remember, the tastiest produce will always make the best preserves.

Resources for learning more:
The University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation Tons of information about how to make everything from strawberry jam to pickled pig’s feet
Pennsylvania State University
Resources for safe food preservation
Wild fermentation by Sandor Katz
Preserving Summer’s Bounty, a Rodale Garden Book
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee