Summer gardens are being harvested and it is only natural that we are gearing up to preserve the fruits of our labor. Using food preservation techniques to save the food you have produced is does only increase your self-sufficiency, but finding a use for everything you have is the sincerest form of gratitude. Preserving food is also cost-effective and is an excellent way for families to work together in a meaningful way. Food preservation does all of this, but its main purpose is to extend the shelf life of food while maintaining its nutritional value. Unfortunately, that’s not the goal of most of the shelf-stable foods you find at the grocery store.
There are several ways to preserve the foods you have worked all season to produce. Some rely on the grid, such as canning and freezing, while others you will be able to do off-grid, such as root cellaring and smoking. Pick the methods that work best for you and your family to preserve the majority of your food, but experiment with other methods so you will have a working knowledge of the different food preservation techniques should you ever need them.
Drying or dehydrating foods is one of the oldest food preservation techniques; it was used as early as 12,000 BC. It is great for preserving herbs, fruits, vegetables, and meat. When you dry food, you are simply removing moisture, making it more difficult for unwanted bacteria to grow.
To successfully dry produce without electricity, temperatures need to be above 85 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity level needs to be below 60%. Much of the United States does not meet that requirement but there is a solution. Of course, you can use an electric dehydrator, but if you are trying to preserve foods using an off-grid method, try a solar dehydrator. Most solar dehydrators use the power of convection. Convection simply means hot air rises. Taking advantage of this air movement lowers the humidity level enough to properly dry food.
To dry fruits and vegetables, wash and slice the produce. Place in solar dehydrator and dry. Depending on weather and the type of produce, this can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
Drying herbs is a very simple process. You can either bundle herbs from their stems and hang them upside down in a dark, well-ventilated area, or strip herbs from their stems and dry in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator.
Drying meat can be done in two different ways. The first, for jerky, makes use of your solar dehydrator. Slice a muscle cut into thin strips. Rinse the strips under warm running water and place in a large mixing bowl. Combine a brine using vinegar and salt, as well as any additional spices you desire. Pour vinegar-salt brine over the meat strips and mix until every slice of meat is coated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and keep it in the refrigerator for 12 hours. Drain and pat dry. Place in solar dehydrator and dry for 10-12 hours.
The second way to dry meat is to air cure it. You can use a large muscle cut, such as the hind leg of a pig, deer, or lamb, or a smaller cut like a neck or loin. The important thing is that you choose a whole muscle group. Once you have your cut, weigh it. You will know it is fully cured once it has lost 30% of its water weight. Cover the entire cut of meat with a salt-spice rub and place it in the refrigerator to age for three days. Wrap the meat in a cheesecloth and hang it in a controlled environment with a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit and a 70% humidity level.
Once the meat has lost 30% of its weight, it is cured and you can eat it raw. You can also continue to age it or you can store it in the refrigerator. It is shelf-stable at this point, meaning you can safely keep it on the counter, but it will last longer if you store it in cooler conditions.
Salting is a sub-set of drying. This method uses salt to draw the moisture out of meat and fish to lower the bacteria content. If salting, understand that adding salt to animal protein results in a slightly leathery texture. This process is perfect for beef jerky or dry, salted fish.
Smoking is another sub-category of drying. The smoke provides a drying action that is enhanced by some of the chemicals present in wood smoke which are natural preservatives. Setting up a smoking operation can be as large or small as you want it to be. Regardless of size, the technique is the same. Hang meat or place the meat on a rack in a space specifically designed to contain smoke. Use hardwood for smoking meats. Softwood will produce a film on the finished product, as well as a bitter taste. Depending on the cut of meat you are smoking, the temperature should remain between 109 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. You can expect to smoke meat anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Once smoked, quickly chill your meat, then cut and wrap for storage.
The second method of food preservation, and one homesteaders are very familiar with, is canning. Sterilization is crucial for successfully canning any food, so take special care to sterilize your jars, lids, rings, and any canning utensils.
There are two methods of canning. The first, most well-known, is water-bath canning. Water-bath canning is used for acidic fruits, jams, jellies, syrups, and pickling. It essentially involves immersing canning jars filled with food in a large pot of boiling water for a specified amount of time.
The second canning method is pressure canning. A pressure canner allows the jars of food to reach higher temperatures and is essential in order to safely can less acidic foods such as vegetables, salsas, soups, and sauces; you can even can your own meat.
Cold storage or root cellaring is another preservation method that can be done off-grid. In order to take advantage of this technique, you need a cool, damp, dark area. It is most often used for root crops and winter squash. If you do not have a cellar, an unheated basement or garage will work just as well. There are some tricks that will help you be more successful with this preservation technique. First, leave the stem on your produce. Second, make sure there is good airflow around your produce. Finally, some root crops, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and garlic, need to be cured before placing in cool storage. To cure these crops, leave the crop out in the sun after harvesting to draw out excess moisture and harden the skin.
Pickling is another popular food-preservation technique because it does not change the texture of the vegetable very much and, due to the fermentation process, the vegetables get a vitamin boost. To pickle any vegetable, soak produce in a salt-water brine overnight. Transfer to a sterile canning jar and cover with vinegar. Process in a boiling water bath to get a vacuum seal.
Sugaring and alcohol submersion are two quick and easy off-grid options for preserving fruits or herbs. Ancient cultures used to store summer fruits in jars of honey, and this works just as well today. Not only can you use the fruits for a delicious topping or for baking, the flavored honey can also be used. Preserving fruits in alcohol can be used much the same way. If you cook boozy the fruits before eating they are fine for all ages, but if eating them raw, they become an adult treat. Turn your herb crops into extracts by covering the herbs with vodka or brandy. Let them steep for 6 weeks before straining out the herbs.
Finally, the easiest preservation method may be freezing but this has some drawbacks. First, you must have enough freezer space, a hefty power source, and a fairly good rotation system. It does no good to find a frozen block of spinach five years from when you first put it in there! Freezing also changes the texture of most fruits and some vegetables, but it works well for meat and fish. The most important thing to remember is that air is the enemy. Wrap everything really well to ensure it will taste good when you get around to eating it.
There are a few tips for freezing certain items. If you are freezing berries, lay them out in a single layer on baking sheets and place in the freezer. When they are frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag or container and place back in the freezer for long-term storage. This will prevent the berries from clumping. If you have an excess on bananas, peel and chop them. Freeze on a baking sheet and transfer to freezer bags. They are not good to eat as is after they have thawed (they turn mushy), but adding a handful to a smoothie will give it an ice-cream texture.
You can also freeze green leafy vegetables, with the exception of lettuce and cabbage, but they need to be blanched first in order to prevent color, flavor, and nutrient loss. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop batches of your greens in the pot and let boil for one minute. Remove greens with a slotted spoon and immediately immerse in a large container of ice water. Drain and squeeze out as much water as possible. Cool and place in freezer bags. Label and freeze.
Learning and practicing different methods of food preservation is just one aspect of running a successful homestead, but it is a very important one. This year, as you are looking at the abundance of produce you have grown, try a technique that is new to you. Every new skill we learn makes us stronger, more confident, and more self-sufficient.