From canning to dehydration, here's how to make your local produce last all winter.
The idea of eating local appeals on several levels. The food is fresher and often more nutrient dense than stuff that’s been in transit for days. Less travel time also lightens our carbon footprint. And buying local supports our neighbor farmers and local economy. But it can get a tad dicey in some regions during winter months, when there aren’t fresh crops of colorful produce, and when farm stands are either overrun by root vegetables or they disappear altogether. To keep the local love going through to spring, make a plan now to preserve surplus from fall harvests. By matching this season’s foods with the best preservation methods, you’ll enjoy more color, texture, flavor, and even nutrients all winter long. Here are four methods to try, plus four recipes for enjoying your stored bounty.
This method turns fruits and veggies into tempting, crispy snack foods without sacrificing nutrition, according to Drew Ramsey, MD, a farmer and assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who specializes in brain nutrition. Removing water doesn’t damage the disease-fighting antioxidants you find in the pigments of plants, he explains. You can dehydrate any food that can be thinly sliced—which speeds drying time—and it’s a great alternative for foods like zucchini and other summer squash whose texture falls apart when canned. You’ll need a good dryer; we like the Nesco Snackmaster Encore ($77, nesco.com). First, preserve flavor, color, and nutrition by blanching veggies: Boil for 1 minute and then plunge them into a bowl of ice water. You may also blanch fruits such as apples, peaches, pears, and apricots. Thinly slice high-moisture produce like tomatoes for faster drying; a Benriner Japanese Mandoline works well ($40, casa.com.) To add extra flavor to vegetables, toss them with a wet marinade consisting of 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp chopped rosemary or thyme, and 1/4 tsp salt. Then, to dry the marinated veggies, line the bottom of your dehydrator with unbleached parchment paper to catch drips. Follow instructions on your dryer for drying times and temperatures. Store dehydrated produce in glass jars in the pantry, then add to soups, salads, and stir-fries, or enjoy solo as a snack (think tomato chips and Brussels sprout crisps).
Root cellars—relics from the era of our great-grandparents—are making a comeback as an easy way to save earthy root veggies such as carrots, parsnips, shallots, horseradishes, and even Jerusalem artichokes. Fruits that sweeten slowly in a cool space are good candidates, too; try apples, pears, and quince. If you have a cellar, keep the temperature at 45°F or cooler, but not cold enough to freeze; a cool crawlspace or mini-refrigerator works as well. Layer the bottom of wooden vegetable crates or waxed, corrugated vegetable boxes (sometimes available from your grocer) with newspaper or brown paper bags to help regulate humidity, which can cause spoilage. Pack in the produce, storing fruits away from veggies, since fruits emit fumes that cause vegetables to quickly overripen. Root vegetables like potatoes, rutabagas, and turnips store up to six months, and fruits like pears and apples up to three months. Produce that’s wrinkled, shriveled, or has dark spots has been stored too long. Ramsey suggests wrapping end-of-season green tomatoes and other fruits individually in sheets of newspaper; they will ripen slowly and be ready to serve at holiday meals.
The fastest and easiest of all the preserving techniques, freezing keeps nutrients intact—both water-soluble vitamins such as Cs and Bs, and delicate minerals. It works well for fall-time leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and herbs, including Swiss chard, kale, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, collards, rosemary, lavender, bay leaves, and thyme. Blanch veggies before freezing, says Ramsey. For long-term freezing of six months or longer, use an inexpensive vacuum-seal system instead of standard zipper-lock bags to compact for efficient storage and protect against freezer burn, in which air penetrates the package and damages food. We like FoodSaver sealers (from $90, foodsaver.com). Freezer-safe glass containers also protect against burn and are an eco-friendly option. For short-term freezing (two to four weeks), try making smoothie packs: Measure individual portions of berries and greens into waxed paper bags. Tuck your stack of waxed bags into one large, airtight zipper-lock bag to keep them organized for fast morning meals.
This old-time favorite is the perfect method for moistly storing fruits, and some veggies, to retain succulence, says Ramsey. Choose deeply hued purple plums, luscious Concord grapes, and fragrant figs, along with tart heirloom apples ranging from pink to pale green, and slightly ripened pears. When it comes to veggies, try firmer ones that won’t fall apart, like green beans, cucumbers, and okra, although softer produce can taste great after canning, too. Wait to cut veggies and fruits until you’ve prepped your canning area—this preserves vitamin C, which can be lost to prolonged exposure to air or water, says Ramsey. Select wide-mouth, pint-sized jars approved for canning that are easy to fill and the ideal height for fruit slices, such as Ball brand Mason-style jars with sealed lids and rings ($12 for a set of 12, freshpreserving.com). Avoid jars with “clamp style” lids, since they can easily be compromised by bacteria and are not safe for canning. Sanitize jars and other cooking items by submerging them in boiling water for one minute. Once you’re done filling and closing up jars, test your seals. If the center of your lid springs back when pressed, your seal is broken and the jar’s contents should be refrigerated and used promptly. If the lid center remains firm when pressed, your seal is good and the contents can be kept in a cool, dry place for up to a year. For more tips and troubleshooting, check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation website (nchfp.uga.edu).