Food preservation techniques

I recieved a good question from a reader about how we balance our stated traditionalist goals with modern conveniences such as chest freezers. The quick answer is that we use whatever method best fits the balance between convenience, quality, and energy efficiency, as long as it meets our other values (I’m not going to add chemical preservatives to my food, for example). Here’s a quick look at the methods we use:
Meats, fruits, veggies, and meals
Freezing: This is the most time-efficient way to preserve most foods, and generally the safest. Many items, such as green beans and corn, are actually of higher nutritional and culinary quality when frozen rather than canned. There is no concern over spoilage (unless you have a long power outage). For most produce, you simply chop it up, quickly blanch it in boiling water, then freeze it in an appropriate container or bag. Most fruits take very well to freezing as well, whether packed into containers or frozen separately on trays and then stored in bags. One growing concern here is the potential hazard from using plastics for food storage, especially when packed for hot items, but freezing things in glass is problematic and so far we’re just being careful. Meat is certainly freezer-friendly; I don’t want to mess around with canning meat, though in the future I’d like to try drying it. Frozen meat is of high quality and easy to use.

The final benefit to a chest freezer is the ability to easily preserve meals. Extra soups and other leftovers can easily be frozen in containers or bags, then thawed out over the winter. I tend to put up a fair amount of prepared meals, including pasta sauce, during the summer and fall, making life that much easier over the winter and spring. It’s a good way to keep flavors that you’ll otherwise lose because the ingredients don’t store well.

With regards to energy use, we have a modern Energy-Star rated freezer that, when well-packed with ice blocks filling any empty spaces, uses negligible amounts of power. We track our energy use very carefully, and haven’t noticed any meaningful impact from having the freezer. Our highest electric bill ever was $80, back in March ’07 when we were running lots of grow lights for seedlings. We average around $50, slowly rising as we add more electric fence. Energy use and efficiency is another topic for another time, but the point here is that the chest freezer is a negligible energy drain for the benefit provided.

Canned tomatoes, pickles, and applesauce
Canning: The primary benefit to canning, in my opinion, is the subsequent unreliance on other energy. Once the food is sealed in the jar, it’s on the shelf and no power outage or other event short of earthquake can take your food away (ok, spoilage. We’ll get to that). Canning is also the primary way to handle things like pickles or sauerkraut, which need time to develop their quality and flavor. There are safety issues associated with canning, as bacteria can be introduced into the process, not only spoiling the food but presenting a health hazard when consumed (their presence cannot always be detected). For this reason, canning is a labor-intensive and delicate process. Also for this reason, high-acidity items are the best for canning, such as tomatoes or pickles. Fruit products, like applesauce and jam, are also good. You put more work in up-front, but the ease of simply cracking a jar of applesauce or tomatoes later on is worth it. If you can, make sure to use a modern, updated guide to canning. Earlier publications like the original Joy of Cooking do not reflect more current research on the safest and most effective canning methods.

Dried tomatoes, mustard greens, and apples

Drying: This is something we’re just starting to do this year, having invested in an electric food dryer. I think it’s paid itself off already considering the market value of the dried tomatoes, apples, and herbs we’ve run through it. Food dryers are our new best friend. They use electricity, though I haven’t noticed an impact on the bill, and once the food is dry it keeps forever. And there’s no safety or spoilage issues as for canning. Drying seems to concentrate the flavors in many items; even half-ripe, over-rained tomatoes that taste like crap raw end up with a sharp, strong tomato flavor when dried. Perfect for pizzas, soups, and more. Apples, too, taste darn good this way. Our favorite surprise so far is mustard greens, which when dried become a flaky, spicy, flavorful item that will be a really nice addition to soups and stews all winter. The dryer has also been key to saving our not-fully-dried corn and beans, which were threatening to mold in the overly wet summer.

Last but not least is an old European method called lacto-fermentation. Most familiar to Americans as sauerkraut, the method can be used on all sorts of vegetables. It’s easier than canning, less energy-reliant than freezing, and just plain interesting. We learned of it from a fascinating book titled Keeping Food Fresh, which collects ideas, recipes, and experiences from rural Europeans about their traditional family methods for preserving food that worked long before electricity, modern canning jars, and other conveniences. The book is an interesting read, and we’ve had pretty good success with the recipes we’ve tried. One warning: it’s more a collection of folklore and transcribed recipes than a real, tested cookbook. Beware misleading information, forgotten ingredients and steps, and other quirks related to the method of compilation. That said, we quite enjoy it as a complement to our other methods. Look for a blog post soon on making and storing sauerkraut this way.

3 thoughts on “Food preservation techniques

  1. I’d be curious to do a taste test comparison of dried tomatoes, one using your electric food dryer and the other using some sort of sun/oven dried combo (or even just oven dried). renée’s grandparents make the best “sun-dried” tomatoes I’ve ever had; her grandmother typically uses some actual sun but finishes them in the oven. She then packs them in oil along with some fresh basil. mmmmmmmmmQuite a few years ago my mom’s uncles put in a solar powered electric fence to keep their cows in line. It only required one (that I know of anyway) small box with a solar panel. It worked very well for them; it might be something to look at in the future to reduce the electric bill (I have no idea the going rate for such things these days).

  2. Eric, your posts just keep getting more and more interesting. Keep up the good work.I didn’t dry anything this year (baby steps, you know?) but did can some applesauce and pickled some beets. Next year, look out.

  3. Joshua,I’ll send you some of our tomatoes and you can let us know how they compare. I suspect not as good as true sun-dried, but the convenience factor weighs in here as well.Regarding solar electric fences, there are several reasons we use utility rather than solar for our fences. First, goats need far more fencing than cattle, both because they are more susceptible to predators such as coyotes, and because they are far more likely to try to escape than cows. So you need far more powered strands than cattle, which only need a couple. We use five strands, and many folks recommend seven or more. That’s a lot more power.Also, solar chargers seem to be more susceptible to weed load. Again with goats, you need some strands close to the ground to keep them (or coyotes) from crawling under, whereas with cattle you can keep the wires higher. This means that the grass is far more likely to grow up into the fence and drain power, so you need a higher and more consistent power source. In addition, we use portable net fences to rotate the goats frequently through smaller grazing paddocks. These net fences are particularly susceptible to weed load. We have a solar charger that is supposed to be a very powerful one from a reputable company, that we intended to use for powering these portable fences, and it just can’t keep up with the weed load (you can’t weedwhack a net fence the way you can a wire fence). Chargers are expensive, and I can’t keep buying multi-hundred-dollar units just to see if they’ll work. In fairness, this year the grass growth was outrageous due to the constant rain, and in most years I don’t think we’d have such a constant load on the fences. This is turning into a blog post of its own, so clearly I need to write about this properly. But that’s my quick response. Many people do use solar chargers and have success with them, and it’s something I’d like to keep considering and learning more about, but right now the utility power fits our needs better due to the specific needs of goats, our rotation patterns, and our weed load.