Learning the best ways to preserve foods means you can enjoy local food all year long. Maryland is a place with cold and hot seasons, and foods can’t grow all year long without supplemental heat and light.
That means that any fresh foods in the winter either take extra energy to grow, extra energy to transport, or are the kind of food that can be stored for a while fresh.
People have been storing food for thousands of years through the winter. There are many ways to preserve your food, some ancient and others quite new.
By creating the right conditions for your food you can easily preserve them for later. The best ways to preserve your food depend on your diet, your interest level and time, and what you like best depending on the foods you like to eat.
Even if you don’t want to preserve food yourself, knowing how it can be done means you can choose the best foods for you and your family. It can also help you understand why certain foods are available at certain times.
At a minimum, learning the basics can help you to make your fresh food last as long as possible in your kitchen. If you are a gardener, it’s a great idea to learn the best ways to preserve your foods so you don’t waste them.
Food preservation can be as simple as freezing some berries for later or as complicated as making century eggs. Here we will stick to more conventional options.
Whatever preservation technique you choose to try, make sure you do it safely. Though preserving isn’t hard, things can go bad and be dangerous. Don’t eat things that have signs of problems.
Drying foods is one of the oldest ways to preserve foods. Dried meats and produce can be eaten as is or rehydrated later for meals.
Dehydrating can be done in the oven or in a dehydrator. In drier climates you can dry outside, protected by cloth or screens to keep bugs away. In Maryland, a dehydrator is probably your best choice due to the humidity.
Using the oven or an electric dehydrator requires electricity to dry your food. You can also build solar food dehydrators that use the sun and ventilation to dry your foods without electricity.
When done properly, dried fruits should last a year on the shelf, dried vegetables, six months. Dried meats only last a few weeks unless refrigerated. Dried herbs lose potency over time but will last a long time.
Dehydrating your produce can be a good choice for making shelf stable foods that will allow you to enjoy local foods all winter. The dried foods will take up less space and not need additional energy to keep them in good condition.
Energy costs can be low, but drying foods take time. If you plan to dry a lot of foods, building a solar dehydrator may be your best choice.
Root Cellar or In Garden
Using natural refrigeration is another ancient technique, and works very well for the right kinds of foods. Larger animals were butchered only when it was cold enough to naturally freeze the meat.
Though it isn’t as cold in Maryland as in other places, we can also take advantage of cold temperatures when preserving our foods. We can’t keep things frozen outdoors all winter but we can keep foods that like colder temperatures fresh.
The warmer winter temperatures in Maryland means often we can store root cellar crops directly in the garden all winter, well mulched under a blanket of straw.
A root cellar doesn’t require electricity, and you may be able to find cold spots in your house that you can use to take advantage of natural refrigeration.
A shed or garage, a garden bed, a barrel in the ground, or a cold basement could all work well for you. Building a root cellar outside or in your basement is an option as well, but takes more effort.
Foods stored in a root cellar stay close to fresh all winter. Your apples and squashes and root crops will remain fresh if stored in the right conditions.
Not all foods can be stored in a root cellar, but it’s worth looking around your house and finding cooler spots to store the foods that can benefit from them.
A root cellar is passive technology, and won’t require any electricity or much special preparation to store many foods all winter.
Stick with your root crops, along with a few fruits, winter squashes, cabbages, and you can have your own supply of fresh local foods in your house all winter long.
Though freezing foods is simple to do, it was only done in cold climates until modern refrigeration. Freezing foods require little equipment, and work better for some foods than others.
Most fruits can be frozen and used in desserts or other foods easily. They won’t be like fresh, but frozen berries and stone fruits like peaches and cherries can be frozen and used later with ease.
Vegetables may require blanching before freezing, depending on the variety. Some vegetables like cucumbers and lettuce don’t freeze well at all.
Meats are great frozen. They will lose quality over time if not done properly, but frozen meats can stay good for months.
The best way to keep your foods frozen and in good condition for the longest time involves plastic and vacuum sealing. If you want to avoid single use plastic, you can certainly freeze things in jars or recycled plastic bags (like cereal bags or reuse freezer bags a few times).
If you don’t vacuum seal your foods, they won’t stay as good as long. Even so, freezing in jars or other bags will keep your foods good for a long time. Just make sure you keep track of what you have so you can enjoy it while it is still of good quality!
Fermentation is another ancient technique we can use. Wine, cheese, kimchi, all are fermented foods and have a much longer shelf life.
Fermenting has a learning curve, but fermented foods are often healthier than unfermented ones. They use beneficial bacterias and yeasts to change the nutrition of the food. Our digestive systems need beneficial bacteria, and fermented foods can help.
People have been fermenting foods for a long time without special equipment. You don’t need special airlocks or crocks but they may help you to enjoy a more consistent product.
Fermentation can be sourdough bread, making alcohol or vinegar, fermented produce, or preserving milk by making cheese or yogurt. Depending on what you make, your food should last longer. How long it lasts depends on what you make and what technique is used.
Once you learn the techniques, fermentation can be a lot of fun, and will enhance your meals. Fermented foods are not like fresh, and the texture, taste and nutrition will change.
It is easy to make small batches of fermented fruits and vegetables to enjoy. Learning these techniques are good for your health even if you don’t intend to store them longer term in a cold environment.
If you enjoy local dairy, learning to make cheese and yogurt can extend how long that milk will last.
Pickling is similar to fermentation but uses acids like vinegar, while fermentation creates its own acids with bacteria. You can pickle fruits, veggies, eggs, and meats.
Though pickling things will extend their shelf life, pickled foods in the fridge will only last a few months. Water bath canning will allow you to can lots of pickled foods because they have enough acidity to stop bacterial growth.
Making quick pickles means pickling fruits or vegetables in the fridge, and enjoying them within a month or two. They will change the texture and taste of whatever you are pickling.
To use pickling as a technique to store foods all winter, you’ll want to water bath can them or keep them cool in a root cellar.
Water Bath Canning
Before the mason jar was invented, people stored foods in jars with corks and wax. This was not an easy way to store foods, nor a long term solution.
Water bath canning takes time, electricity, and equipment, but creates a shelf stable product that can last for years. With jars, lids, boiling water, and a recipe, you too can preserve your foods for quite some time.
Not everything can be water bath canned. You can’t reach the temperatures needed to kill everything, so you must can foods that are acidic or sweetened properly.
Jams, tomatoes, and pickled vegetables are all great candidates for water bath canning. Except for tomatoes, your foods will be sweetened or acidified, so they will not be like fresh or frozen foods.
When starting your canning journey, you might want to make smaller batches of foods to test. Try making a single jar and just putting it in the fridge to try out before making quarts of it.
Fortunately, if you can too many of something, they will stay good for a while. However, if you don’t like what you made, they’ll linger until you either get rid of them or find a recipe to use them in.
It is best to use up your canned goods within a year. However, properly stored in a cool, dark location, your foods should stay good for longer. They may not be as tasty or suffer from discoloration, but they will be safe.
Pressure canning is used to can things that aren’t acidic enough to kill bacteria and spores. That means things like canned corn, green beans, and meats. Canning under pressure means foods can reach higher temperatures than boiling, killing all the things that could affect your foods.
When pressure canning, it is important to both follow the recipe and make sure your pressure gage is accurate. Poorly pressure canned foods can grow invisible botulinum toxin that can kill you.
Some foods don’t go well with pressure canning because the high temperatures make the food unpalatable. For many foods, pressure canning is a great solution for long term storage.
As with water bath canning, you’ll need time, electricity, and equipment to pressure can. A pressure canner costs more than a pot for water bath canning, and pressure canning takes more time.
What is the Best Way to Preserve Foods?
You don’t have to pick a favorite technique unless you want to! It’s good to learn all the ways to preserve your foods so you can decide what works best for you. You will find out what is the best way to preserve your favorite foods.
When starting with preserving, start with options that are easy. Try freezing some foods and looking for a place to store some squash or apples in your house.
From there, you can try playing around with drying foods in the oven, or buy some canning jars and make some freezer jam or quick pickles. There are great recipes out there and as long as your canned foods are refrigerated you can enjoy them for a while.
If you find you like drying foods or canning, invest in a dehydrator or a water bath or pressure canner. Find recipes to make and use your foods.
Consider what foods you really want to have all winter as well. Do you make a lot of tomato recipes? Then learn to can them or dry them. Are jams something you will use, or should you limit how many you make?
Freezing fruit is great if you want to avoid extra sugar. Canning fruit usually requires sugar, but they stay good much longer.
Canning can heat up the house, so freezing your fresh foods in anticipation for fall canning might make more sense to you. Or you might want to set up an outdoor kitchen area to keep the heat outside.
Meat is easiest to save in the freezer, and can be bought via CSA or local farm all winter. You could also buy a second freezer and save money by buying your meat in bulk. Canning meat might make more sense to you for quick meal options.
Ask yourself what is most important to you. Do you want to cut electricity? Do you want to have your food last as long as possible? What about nutrition content, or added sugars? How do you most enjoy your foods?
Preserving your food can be a fun hobby that saves you money and lets you eat great food all winter long. It’s worth learning more about so you can ensure you eat healthy foods all year.
Buying foods in season can be cheaper and more nutritious. They may have less environmental impact when bought locally. They are certainly picked ripe and are more delicious. Save them so you can enjoy all year!