The beauty of summer fades too quickly every year; and just as we wish we could capture sunlight to carry with us into the dark winter days, we also wish to preserve the flavor of cherry tomatoes off the vine and the crunch of a fresh cucumber. Of course these are also a great way of making food last when harvest bears us more than we are prepared to eat. Here are nine ways to store summer in your pantry.
Before you get started with any of these nine methods, make sure you get the right supplies for storage. Mason jars are a staple for canning and for storing dried or preserved foods; but don't over pay for them. We recommend:
Wide mouth pint Ball jars can be used for canning and fermenting, or even storing dried goods in. (We also like to use them for drinking glasses: durable, decorative, inexpensive, and easy to find if you need to replace them. No more hunting for discontinued glassware or buying an entire set of glasses because one broke. No joke, I even use them for wine!)
Vaccum Sealer: You might also think about picking up a vacuum sealer so you can toss whole foods into the freezer to preserve them in their raw state with the most nutritional value. This Weston 11-inch Professional Advantage is the most highly recommended by America's Test Kitchen. You can purchase pre-cut bags, or buy a roll of bags to cut at whatever length you choose.
Mesh bags are also handy for cured food, and look beautiful in your pantry.
Pickling is the most common preservation process, but there are incredible flavors to be had by pickling, so don't sneeze at it. Tons of vegetables can be pickled: cucumbers, peppers, beets, carrots, beans, garlic and more. Wash the veggies, and cover with a brine using 2 tablespoons of salt per quart of water. Leave to brine for 2 days and then drain. Put sugar and white vinegar into a pot to boil and dissolve. Add veggies and can into sanitized jars. You can add pickling spices to the sugar vinegar mixture; or you can add herbs and pickle flavorful veggies together like garlic cucumber pickles, or jalapeno bush beans.
Fermenting vegetables and fruits requires a lot more care, but you get amazing foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and chutney. Using a salt, whey, or starter culture, create a brine with purified water. The salt is key in fermenting for flavor and quality. We use San Francisco Salt Co's Sherpa Pink salt. You can get a pound of salt for $7.50, which is a steal for ordinary salt, but this is amazing stuff. Really. If this is the one thing you take from this article I will be happy. It deserves it's own picture. Here it is:
Submerge chopped, shredded, or sliced veggies completely in the brine in a fermentation vessel and put it in a cool place to sit. Again, recipes for the brine are important, and it's also really important to know when things go wrong. Just like pickling, if not done properly, mold can result; and you'll need to know what to do. So pick up a book, like "Fermented Vegetables" by Kirsten Shockey, for outstanding recipes and tips, for less than $20.
If you get the chance, try Kanji, a popular Indian pickled carrot drink. Wash a few pounds of carrots and grate into a jar. Add clean water, salt, hot spices, and close lid but leave a tiny hole for gas to escape. Ferment for 7-10 days, strain out the carrots and drink the liquid!
#3 Canning Tomatoes
Wash and remove bad tomatoes. Roma and San Marzano tomatoes are great for this. To remove the skin, score them and blanch them in boiling water, and toss them in a bowl of ice water. Fill a jar with peeled tomatoes, add a little lemon juice or vinegar. Submerge jars in water, boiling for 30-50 minutes and then let cool.
#4 Dehydrating Fruits and Veggies
To make dried fruit and veggie chips, you can find or make yourself a tray. Something that works well is chicken wire attached inside a wood frame. Place the tray with vegetable or fruit chips somewhere warm and elevated to encourage airflow above and below the tray. Turn the chips every day until they are dry. You can dry beans, leaves for tea, fruits, and vegetables. You can also purchase a dehydrator to eliminate the process of turning the chips every day, and keep them safe from hungry insects. The one we use is the Excalibur 9-Tray Dehydrator which we love for not only the quantity of food you can dehydrate at once, but also because the air circulation is excellent, and clean up is super easy. We've used it for years with no problems. Our favorite dehydrated veggie is seaweed style shredded kale, but it does a bang up job on tomatoes too. Mmmm!
#5 Hang Dry Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and herbs can be hung to dry year round. For onions, garlic, herbs, peppers, and tomato clusters, hang to dry in an airy place protected from the sun and heat. You can braid together the stalks of onions and garlic, or create racks to hang them by their bulbs to dry. Peppers can be strung using a needle and thread through the stem and tied off in small intervals. These make beautiful kitchen decorations while they're drying, and keep well after they are dried.
#6 Sun Drying
This method is a great method to preserve nutrients. It takes only a few days. You can make your own solar dehydrator with a box or tray covered by a clear glass or plastic sheet to transmute sun rays and heat into a solar "oven". This will produce a much lower temperature than an oven, which will maintain nutrient structure inside the fruits or vegetables of choice. You can also use a drying net rack in the sun. This $22 Magarz 4 Layer Drying Rack Net allows the heat of the sun to do its job while keeping bugs out; plus its collapsible and washable.
#7 Make Powders and Flours
You can make powder or flour out of so many food items: pumpkin, banana, sweet potato, beans, peppers and other grains. Some foods require you to cook the food first. Otherwise, you can simply dry the food and then pound it into a powder. You can use a mortar and pestle like this cutie, which is good for tons of other things too; but to alleviate the time and headache of hand grinding all the dried food into a quantity of powder you can use for baking, you'd be better off getting a good food processor. The one we use when processing tons of dried foods is this Cuisinart 9-Cup. Aside from processing powdered peppers other spices like a champ, this is easily the most durable and multi-functional food processor we've ever owned. (We've gone through quite a few to get to this one with the amount of cooking our little kitchen sees.) The most important thing is to make sure whatever you're turning into flour is very dry. To make a fine flour with a mortar and pestle, you will want to sieve the powder out and continue pounding the rest. When you're finished, place in a jar in a dry storage area. You can use it by mixing it in with your regular flour or experiment with a new recipe.
#8 Fruit Leathers
This process is done by cooking the fruits and then letting it dry. This brings out the sugars for a leathery texture. You can make Pumpkin, squash, beets, or any other fruits and meaty vegetables. You will first wash, then cook, then puree, add honey and spices, and then spread on a tray to dry in your dehydrator.
You can cure and keep some vegetables in a dry storage for a good long while. To keep root vegetables such as potatoes and celeriac for a long keep in the cellar or food pantry, cure them in a warm shady place with air flow for a week before putting them in a food pantry. This will thicken their skin and allow them to stay better for longer. Onions and garlic can also be cured in a well-ventilated and shady space by layering them on a pallet or table so each bulb has maximum airflow around it. Garlic must be cured for about a month, or until the stalk is dry and brittle; whereas onions take only 3-4 days. When they're finished, cut the stalk off and remove the outer layer of skin if it is dirty. Most gourds and winter squashes like pumpkins, spaghetti squash and butternut squash can be be preserved throughout the winter in cold storage without curing; but they should be fully ripe when harvested.