Homesteading fundamentals class March 19 2016

On March 19, we’ll be hosting a class at the farm called “Homesteading Fundamentals” through the Columbia Area Career Center; registration here. If you aspire to increase your level of self-sufficiency, this course is for you, whether you are an urban apartment dweller or someone who already has calluses from working the back 40. Structured as an extended farm tour that will range from fields to kitchen to orchard to woods to bookshelf, our goal is to provide inspiration and a multitude of ideas such that everyone will head home excited to try something new as spring begins.

We’ll draw on our decade of experience growing vegetables in Missouri, as well as knowledge we’ve gained through experience with composting, starting an orchard, woodlot management, forest farming, and permaculture. Raising animals for meat, milk, and eggs is another part of our homesteading repertoire. In the kitchen, we ferment, freeze, dry, and can a multitude of homegrown or locally produced ingredients so that our diet is rich in local foods year-round, including homemade cheese, sauerkraut, wine, pickles, sausage, canned tomatoes, an abundance of produce in season, and much more.

We intend to focus our time on the topics of most interest to participants. Here’s a laundry list of possibilities: Continue reading

Home maple production

In a rare moment of insanity this winter, we decided we weren’t doing as many different things as we could, so invested in some maple syruping equipment. For the past month or so, we’ve been learning maple management on the fly and generating multiple useful products that improve our on-farm food diversity. Here’s a quick look at how this useful homestead project went. Continue reading

Food preservation methods: Fermentation

Note (Dec. 2014): We wrote this years ago, when we were just beginning to dabble in fermentation but knew little about beneficial microbes and benefits of fermented foods. We were a bit nervous about giving bad advice, so advised cooking the kraut just in case…which in retrospect is a more microbe-phobic mindset than we currently subscribe to. For those interested in fermentation, we strongly recommend Sandor Katz’s excellent books, Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation.

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.
 

FERMENTATION OF VEGETABLES
Fermentation is a historic food preservation method that has increasingly fallen out of favor since the advent of freezing and canning, but one that remains useful for some vegetables in particular. Cabbage, for example, can be fermented into sauerkraut, a perfectly normal food that nonetheless is almost entirely purchased instead of homemade. Even our hard-core traditionalist German cookbook assumes the home cook buys, instead of makes, sauerkraut. Yet there are distinct benefits to fermenting vegetables yourself.


One useful book on the subject, Keeping Food Fresh (a fascinating collection of traditional Old World recipes and methods for food preservation; the new edition has been renamed Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning), includes this worthwhile point:

Inevitably, food is altered in the preservation process. However, unlike sterilization (canning) or freezing, many traditional methods do not necessarily mean a loss in flavor or nutritional value. Lactic fermentation, for example, enhances digestion and also increases the enzyme and sometimes the vitamin content, compared with the unfermented food. In other processes, the act of preserving often enhances the flavor of a food rather than its nutritional value.

From another angle, Harold McGee’s eminently scientific tome On Food and Cooking states that:

(the microbes involved in fermentation) leave most of the plant material intact, including its vitamin C (protected from oxidation by the carbon dioxide they generate); they often add significant amounts of B vitamins; and they generate new volatile substances that enrich the food’s aroma.

We’ve found that home-fermented sauerkraut is a tasty and stable way to preserve cabbage (which you can’t really freeze or can), that doesn’t degrade the product, and was well worth our trying over the last few years. We’ve also experimented with fermented pickles and kimchi.

JAR FERMENTATION
The simplest method, which I drew from Keeping Food Fresh, is to pack shredded cabbage into jars, layered with salt and spices, and let the natural fermentation take hold in a controlled setting. I am intentionally not giving a recipe here, as fermentation (like any other home kitchen experiment) can go wrong if not done right, and folks wanting to try this should rely on a more authoritative source for specifics. But here’s how it looks when I do it:

I shred multiple cabbages using a food processor. For this batch, I did about 20lb of cabbage, 5 ~4lb heads of our excellent fall Napa. I cut out the cores but use the rest, washing it well. For rough reference, this resulted in 4 half-gallon jars packed tightly.

Then I pack the shredded cabbage into quart or half-gallon jars (latter shown here), adding a dose of salt every few inches, along with a few juniper berries per jar. A wooden rolling pin makes an excellent tool for repeatedly mashing down the cabbage into a tightly packed mass, which also helps release some juices. When I’ve packed all I can to the base of the rim, I pour some boiling water into the top, and screw on a good-quality canning lid and ring, a good use for once-used canning lids. You don’t want these to seal entirely, so you don’t water-bath them. The not-quite-seal you get with hand-tightening allows just enough air exchange to allow for controlled fermentation without spoilage. These just sit on the counter or another storage area, and do their thing; weeks or months later, we crack a jar to a loud HISSSS and most of the time a nice, tangy, excellent kraut. We cook it before serving just in case, but usually it’s quite obvious when it’s gone bad (this has rarely happened).
 CROCK FERMENTATION
We’ve also tried fermenting cabbages in large open crocks, with less success. For this to work you need to keep all the vegetable submerged in a brine, weighted down, and this has been hard to do with the materials we have on hand. We’ve wasted a distressing amount of cabbage which has just gone moldy. So this fall we ordered a modern German Fermenting Crock (picture below from the linked site) on the strong recommendation of a trusted friend. This new version of the old-school crocks has a special water seal that helps keep the process under control, and seems quite well thought-out. Our trial run is underway, and we’ll report on the results when applicable. We prepared this batch in late November when cabbage was abundant and we were still overwhelmed with other produce. The recommended fermentation time is 4 to 8 weeks, meaning that we’ll have abundant kraut just about the time that our freshly harvested greens take their winter break.
OTHER FERMENTATION
There are many other items, and ways, to ferment. We’ve tried cucumber pickles before, with mixed results. One batch worked okay, but we didn’t prefer the flavor compared to “normal” vinegar pickles, though this may just be what our taste buds are used to. Both we and a good friend have experimented with fermenting kimchi, with very tasty results. The kimchi recipe that we used needed only three days of fermentation at room temperature, yielding very quick results (but arguably not achieving much in the way of food preservation since we ate it in within the time frame the the ingredients could have stored on their own). On the other hand, it was a good way to experiment with fermentation. The quick-fermenting kimchi recipe that we used is from Nourishing Traditions, a cookbook that we saw referenced frequently when we did some online reading on the topic of fermentation; Daniel Boone Regional Library has a copy or two.
Whey is an optional but recommended ingredient for many fermented recipes, because it helps jump start the microbial activity. We use whey from our cultured cheeses such as feta or cheddar (but only if we started by pasteurizing the milk), or we drain yogurt in cheesecloth and collect the whey from that. We don’t use whey from ricotta, because it’s not cultured, and we don’t use whey if it is from an unpasteurized batch of cheese that will be aged (just to be on the safe side).
Books on fermenting are full of interesting and oddball ideas for home cooks to explore as desired. But the core point is that fermentation is a very useful and unique method of food preservation, one that doesn’t require as much work or equipment or energy as many other methods, and which can even improve the food in question (something rarely said of freezing in particular). So it’s worth trying if you’re feeling adventurous or just like the idea of making real sauerkraut for once.

Food preservation methods: Root cellaring

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.

ROOT CELLARING & WINTER STORAGE
Many kinds of produce and foods are reasonably stable on their own, if given the proper conditions. Traditional farms and homes used various forms of a root cellar, generally a room dug into the ground (or a retrofitted basement) which used the ambient ground temperature and humidity to keep foods in proper conditions for long-time storage. As in other topics, there is a ton of information available in books and online, so we’re going to focus on the ways we handle this process.

Choosing storage varieties:
There are many different varieties of any given produce item, with different culinary and storage properties. For exampe, Arkansas Black apples are virtually indestructible, while others may last only a few weeks (see this publication from Iowa Extension for examples of apple storage qualities). Potatoes, garlic, onions, and many other storage crops are the same way. If you’re buying (or planting) items intended for storage, do some research and ask some questions first. If the grower has no idea, that may be a hint that they don’t store food themselves and maybe aren’t handling the food properly for storage either (see next).

Preparing storage items:
In some cases, like apples, the product is pretty much ready to store as-is, assuming you establish the proper conditions. Onions and garlic need to be cured first, a process of hanging the fresh crop until it dries enough to become shelf stable. Most of the time, you buy these two in this condition anyway, though it’s worth being aware of the season and asking the grower to ensure they’re actually properly cured and not fresh. Other things, like sweet potatoes, are often sold “fresh” at farmers markets but will benefit greatly from proper curing before sale, and will then store much longer and taste much better. In these cases, curing involves storing the items for a certain length of time at fairly warm temperatures to allow certain natural chemical changes that enhance stability and flavor.

Storage locations:
Selecting the proper storage location begins by researching what “ideal” storage conditions are for a given item (in terms of temperature & humidity), then finding the closest conditions that reality will permit. Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers, p. 432 & 433, is our reference source for storage conditions. For long-term storage, temperature stability is a plus; temperature swings will reduce the storage life of produce (this is why garages aren’t ideal). For example, garlic begins to sprout if temperature fluctuates regularly; sprouting is desired from the October-planted garlic in the ground that will be next year’s crop, but the garlic that we want to keep eating into March needs to be tricked into thinking that it’s not time to grow yet, and stable temperatures will help. Sweet potatoes like it warm and will start to go bad if they get too cold. Most other storage crops are happier in cooler conditions. We don’t have a proper root cellar, dug into the ground to ensure high humidity and temps just above freezing all winter, though it’s a someday-project. It’s also possible to construct a basement version, in effect a cold-storage room that stays colder than the basement itself (see these articles from Mother Earth News on building a proper root cellar and a basement version).

We do, however, have a house that is larger than we need, and whose back rooms we hardly ever use and thus don’t heat or cool artificially. So for years we’ve used the back “master” bedroom as an excellent root cellar, as it tends to remain between 34-40F throughout the winter, given the large buffering presence of a basement underneath and well-insulated walls. Apples, garlic, onions, and more do well back there, the former in crates or boxes and the latter hung in bundles or spread on wire racks. Other items store best at warmer temperatures, like sweet potatoes and winter squash, and we store these in the house itself, often in the same room we cured them in originally. Darkness is important, too: daylight will encourage sprouting or other unwanted developments.

Storage time:
We don’t always intend our storage items to last a really long time, given that we also preserve lots of food in other ways. In most cases we shoot for things like apples, potatoes, and squash to last us into January, at which point we can start dipping into more canned and frozen foods for the next few months. Garlic and onions usually last us into March with some attention. It’s important to check your storage items regularly, and use anything that’s starting to sprout or otherwise go bad. You can’t predict ahead of time which onions will sprout in January versus March, but regularly checking and using the ones just showing some green will naturally cull the supply without much waste.

If you take your home food supply as seriously as we do, refusing to buy produce from off the farm year-round, you quickly realize that the “hungry” months aren’t winter, but spring. We still have plenty of food on-hand in the depths of February; it’s the warm rainy days of March through May in which food supplies are actually the thinnest. By this point the only fresh food is lightweights like salad greens and radishes; you still have months to go before the heavy hitters of summer and fall show up again. This is why we use root cellaring as a complement to other preservation methods, as a way to delay the use of longer-term storage items. Our special Mercuri winter tomatoes are the same way; we don’t expect them to last all year, but we do expect them to keep us out of the canned tomatoes for a few extra months, thus saving the need to do extra canning during the already-busy season.

Salvaging stored items:
When you do notice stored items starting to sprout or go bad, there are many ways to salvage them before loss. Sprouting onions can be cut up and dehydrated, an easy task for a cold February day. Now you have onions for much longer, without doing all the work in busy onion season. My favorite trick for saving sprouting garlic is to steam-roast large batches, then freeze the pulp (a trick I learned from a Michael Ruhlman cookbook). I pack a glass baking dish with sprouting garlic heads, pour a little water in the bottom, cover it with foil or a lid, and roast for an hour. Then I squeeze all the soft, aromatic garlic pulp into a dedicated ice-cube tray and freeze it, creating little “bullion” cubes of pure roasted garlic that add great flavor to soups and sauces for months past the expiration date of the whole garlic. Mid-winter squash or sweet potatoes can be cooked up into pulp, then frozen, replacing empty spots in your freezer where you’ve started pulling out other items. Mid-winter apples turning brown can still be made into applesauce.

All of this could  be done in the fall, but that’s when we’re already too busy preserving food that has to be dealt with then, and still actively farming. If nothing else, cellaring/storage is a way to delay some of that preservation work a few months, spreading it out so it’s not so overwhelming, and extending the storage life of these items. At best, it’s an easy way to enhance the diversity of your winter menus with food that took little to no preservation work, simply the dedication and planning required to acquire and store fresh local food when it’s available.

On-farm hog slaughter setup

 We’ve slaughtered and processed our own meat on-farm for years, primarily goats, deer, and poultry, and have found that these animals are fairly straightforward to deal with. Hogs, however, take a lot more work, care, and preparation to do properly, and there is remarkably little detailed information online to guide others like us who are independent-minded in learning such things. After doing our first smaller pig last year, we wrote up lots of ideas and observations on how to make things run more smoothly in the future, and followed these notes in setting up our slaughtering system this year. While we need more practice in the actual killing process (hogs are harder to kill cleanly than goats or poultry), we were very happy with the efficiency and practicality of our processing setup this year, and so offer this photo tour of the infrastructure & setup we used to allow just two of us to do this work effectively.

Note: this is not a post on how to kill and process a hog. We’re still working out our favorite methods, and with only two of us, taking step-by-step photos is quite impractical once we’re bloody and busy. This just shows how we arranged the job and the tools we used, as a guide to others considering similar work.

Above is this year’s hog, a full-blooded Berkshire we purchased post-weaning from JJR Farm, which raises certified organic pork about an hour south of us. We got him in May and kept him on pasture throughout the summer and fall, feeding out a certified organic feed along with as many vegetable scraps, dairy whey, and on-farm byproducts we could generate. We’re ironically grateful to the Missouri Department of Agriculture for their idiotic no-feeding-commercial-pigs-vegetables ruling, as this guy alone ate every scrap we produced and still powered through lots of grain; we’re too efficient in our vegetable handling and didn’t generate nearly enough waste to cut the grain budget for even one pig, much less several. We don’t know his live weight when butchered, but the carcass minus head and guts weighed around 210 lb, so probably in the mid-high 200s total (head and guts are large and heavy).

 Above is an overview of our processing setup; most of this will have closeup photos following. We waited for a series of days with daytime temperatures a bit over freezing, and nights just below, to keep the meat cold while handling outdoors. This cloudy day was ideal, as even cold sunlight heats what it touches. From left to right:

Scalding tank in which whole carcass is dunked to loosen hair before scraping.
Heating fire behind tank, heats water and cold farmers.
Temporary cattle-panel pen in which actual killing happens
Large stainless-steel sink for rinsing small intestines.
Stainless steel work table for scraping and handling carcass.
Plastic table for holding tools, soap, and other needs.
All-weather hydrant with soap and hose.
Tractor with bucket & chains for handling a heavy carcass with only two people

Note that the whole area is set up along an open, linear plan that allows the tractor to move forward and backward unimpeded. This very important for clean and practical carcass handling, as it needs to be moved from killing pen to scalding tank to work table, then eventually up to the main barn for hanging, and having open ground makes this easy, quick, and safe. You don’t want to be bumping into things with the tractor or the carcass. We actually ended up moving the work table just in front of the scalding tank (as viewed in the photo) as a more convenient location to scrape the carcass, requiring less tractor movement.


 Assorted useful equipment, from left to right: Pots and tubs for useful scraps (heart, liver, etc.), jar for collecting clean blood for blood sausage (didn’t happen this time), knives & sharpeners, sanitary gloves and band-aids (in the interest of preparedness), bell scrapers for removing hair, burlap sack for dunking in hot water and spot-scalding difficult bits of hairy skin, sausage stuffing attachments (helpful for flushing water through the small intestines which we clean for sausage casings), salt for water that the small intestines are temporarily stored in after an initial flush, towels, vodka for dulling hog’s senses prior to killing, soap & sponge, matches for fire, reference book in case just in case.

Not shown but also needed: A string to tie off the bung. We found that we needed more containers than we had for holding organs, tongue, jowls, ears, fat scraps (to be rendered for lard), and various other tidbits (such as the bladder, which we initially saved but didn’t end up using because we found insufficient information on how to handle it). The knives shown are not sufficient for sticking a full-grown hog; one with a long, solid blade, preferably double-edged, would be ideal (this appears to be a good example). 

 Main stainless steel work table (purchased at restaurant auction), sharp carpenter’s saw for bone work, buckets for blood (collected for soil fertility reuse) guts and other nasty bits, all-weather hydrant with splitter, hose, and nozzle. The splitter allows for hand-washing at either the hydrant or at the end of hose. There’s a bar of soap tied into a clean piece of scrap silk long underwear; this keeps soap accessible & suds form right through the cloth (pantyhose works best but we don’t have any).

 Scalding tank and fire. We weren’t sure how well the seams on this old tank would hold up to direct heat, so didn’t build the fire directly under it, but just off to the side. The tank is propped up on concrete blocks so we could shovel hot coals underneath and thus manage heat better. This works quite well and allows maintenance of a nice fire at all times to warm the cold workers. Next year, we might add one more course of blocks to allow a higher coal heap; it got a little tight under there. We were also concerned the tank might be just a bit small for our large hog, but it fit perfectly. Setting the water level about 2/3 full also worked just right, enough to submerge the carcass but not to slosh over meaningfully.

We prepped a double log cabin fire structure the day before so we could get the fire going with little effort in the morning. The firewood is mostly cedar scrap, both log ends and leftovers from on-farm milling, that produce a nice hot burn. We easily kept a good fire going most of the day, but let it die down when the tractor had to drive by so there would be no problems with stray sparks/embers. We positioned the fire relative to the rest of the work area with the forecast of a gentle north wind (photo is looking SSE), expecting the smoke to always blow away from us. Instead, as we should have known, the topography of our narrow valley meant that for much of the day the local smoke was blowing east instead, right into our scalding tank and scraping location. Figures. The shovel and rake shown were used to rake and move coals as needed. We monitored tank temperature (you want around 145F) with a small soil thermometer inserted into a hole in a cedar plank, which floats happily on the surface and gives a good reading. It took about three hours from initial fire starting to get the water to temperature. We actually overshot a bit, but cold water from the hose took care of that problem.

 At left, .22 rifle and bucket of aromatic cedar sawdust (we have lots left over from milling). The latter works well for soaking up blood and odors, especially once the day is done, to help prevent too many predators and scavengers from descending on the farm. The rifle is used to shoot the pig prior to sticking (cutting vein in throat to allow proper bleedout). This is harder and more complicated than the straightforward killing of a goat or chicken; we’re still not expert with this step. Quick version: it takes more than a quart of vodka to put a full-size hog to sleep (or we soaked it in too much corn), we haven’t found a .22 to have the stopping power with a hog that it does with a goat, despite many references to the contrary, and we need a longer sticking knife. I got the cut basically right this year, but my knife wasn’t long enough so it took several thrusts to get deep enough.

At right, tractor bucket with chains set up for hanging/transporting carcass. The hooks at each end of the chain can either go into a back-leg hock (hanging the animal vertically head-down, for blood-draining and gutting), or if you tie each pair of legs together first, the hooks go into the rope-tie, hanging the animal horizontally with its back down, perfect for transport, dunking in the scalding tank, and setting down on a work table for scraping. We fumbled with the rope a bit while trying to get the legs tied together properly; the rope broke once or twice, and getting a good knot around a tapered leg took longer than it should have. Next year we might try some straps that can be cinched down quickly around the legs. Also note the stump under the bucket; tractor hydraulics only hold their strength when the engine is running, so if you want the bucket off the ground with the engine off, you need to prop it up safely (I did this time so I could work on chaining the bucket just right without getting a faceful of exhaust). We leave the engine running whenever the carcass is hanging; I don’t trust any props to hold up nearly 300lb of pig with us anywhere nearby; diesels burn very little fuel while idling and it’s a worthwhile safety margin.


 Killing pen made of four cattle panels with T-posts at the corners, tied together with baling twine. We left one panel end loose so it could be swung out as a gate (to get him in and us out), and secured it with a bungee. Next time we’ll probably place T-posts at the halfway points, too, as a full-size hog can easily push through an unsupported 16′ panel if you’re not watching him (which I was). It’s also helpful for the panel nearest the tractor/work zone (foreground in this photo) to be able to come off quickly, so you can drive the tractor in as soon as the hog is down and chain him up for maximum bleed-out. Next year we’ll use bungees instead of string on that side, too, to make this faster/easier. Alternatively, hog panels would allow easier access as they’re much lower than 4′ cattle panels. The tractor bucket could be rested on one so it’s ready to go if you drop the hog in the right place.

Preparations also involved gathering/preparing/purchasing a few things that aren’t photographed, but here’s a list for reference: Butcher paper, freezer tape, lots of regular salt, a little curing salt (pink salt), brown sugar (for curing bacon), diesel (for the tractor), proper food-grade containers for curing bacon & hams. We also put cattle panels across the front of the barn (to keep dogs/coyotes out), hung a scale off of a rafter, and hung a singletree off of the scale. A couple of old feed bags under this setup kept blood from dripping onto the gravel.

For reference, here’s the order we work in:
– Shoot & stick hog.
– Hang by back leg(s) to bleed out.
– Hang by all legs to scald, using bucket to raise & lower carcass so that water sloshes all around it.
– Set carcass horizontally onto work table to scrape  (can turn tractor off since weight is on table).
– Remove head when scraped (usually needs extra work separately to remove hair). We’ll often also do some work on loosening the gullet and front-end tubes through the neck cut before hanging for gutting (see below), as it’s much easier to do this on an even table than with the carcass dangling over you.
– Hang by back legs again for gutting; set large tub below carcass to catch guts as they fall out; we work from back to front (top to bottom). This helps keep everything clean, since we salvage many organs and the lower intestine for sausage casings. You could also do this while the carcass is on its side on a table.
– Hose out carcass thoroughly (hung from back legs if previously working horizontally).
– Transport to overnight hanging place, still using bucket. We were able to carefully transfer the quite-heavy carcass from the bucket chains to a singletree (rod with two hooks) chained to a barn rafter while keeping the carcass suspended, rather than setting it down on the ground and hooking it up to a pulley before hoisting. This kept the carcass off the ground, and didn’t require the use of a rope pulley which works fine for 140 lb goats but which we were unsure about for a much heavier hog.

At the end of daylight, with two people working, we had the carcass scraped, gutted, cleaned, and hung; casings emptied, rinsed, and temporarily stored in salted water; and the working area cleaned up and liberally covered in sawdust. After dark, we got the small intestines fully cleaned, scraped, and packed in salt for sausage casings without staying up too late. That’s with a relatively slow start, as we didn’t even get the fire started until around 8:30am (hog went down a little before noon), given the demands for milking & other morning animal chores, and just not feeling the need to be too hyper about rushing the work.

For various parts of the next week, we cut up the carcass, started the hams and bacon curing, boiled bones & scraps for broth and chicken food, froze the bulk meat, cleaned interesting bits like the head and feet, rendered fat for lard, and so on. But the methods and setup described above let two people kill and clean a large hog on a long but not unreasonable day that was efficient and methodical.

Busy week

This has been, and will be, an especially busy week for us. We had intentions of continuing the Food Preservation series with posts on root cellaring, fermentation, and cheesemaking, but those will have to wait. Here’s a brief look at this ultra-busy early winter week on the farm.

Sunday
The week’s forecast clearly showed perfect butchering weather, a set of stable days with highs in the low 40s and lows around freezing. Time to slaughter the pig. We spent much of this day setting up the infrastructure and plans for this complex task: set up killing pen, prepare scalding tank & fire site, set up processing tables/knives/soap/etc, prepare gut buckets & other containers, prepare hanging location in barn, set up tractor for carcass transport, clean kitchen, etc.

Monday
Pig slaughter: Start the fire to heat the scalding water (and to keep us warm), kill the pig when the water is ready, scald & scrape the carcass, remove & process guts (separating useful organs like heart, liver, small intestine for casings, etc.), begin processing head, etc. Got the carcass hung and all the infrastructure cleaned up as dark fell. Spent evening cleaning & scraping small intestines for sausage casings. Below right, carcass hanging in barn with cattle panels to keep dogs/coyotes away. Sans head and guts, this still weighed in around 210 lb.    

Tuesday
Pig processing & cold snap preparation. Morning, worked on cutting up and freezing pork, such as this slab above left. Processing includes skinning sections we don’t want hide-on (we leave hide on bacon & ham), scraping fat from hide for lard rendering & sausage making, cleaning up head for head-cheese, separating cuts for immediate freezing (ribs, shoulder, sausage scrap) and those for curing (ham, bacon, jowl). Afternoon, did necessary farm work for seriously cold Tuesday night (low 20s forecast), including covering spinach beds, harvesting remaining daikon radishes, harvesting lettuce, greens mix, & beet greens, bringing in hoses & other plastic items, moving all unfinished pork sections into coolers for cold protection (both hams & one side). Evening, make leberkaese (German liver loaf), continue processing meat, especially starting cuts curing for planned Saturday smoking session. Cleanup takes a long time each night, as we have to wash everything including tables and counters.

Wednesday
Planned work: return our visiting breeding buck to his home farm after a month’s sojourn with our ladies, transitioning the rest of the herd from their pasture shelter to their winter barn (below left) with new paddocks set up. Continue processing pork (hopefully finish, including getting hams curing), other farm work if time allows. Likely work on putting together first CSA email & member survey to begin direct prep for January distribution; we’re rebuilding our website to make it more CSA-centric and are testing some new programming and content. May start rendering lard.

Thursday
Expected to be a reasonably warm day (50ish), so harvest & wash some root crops (carrots, parsnips), try to finish building the new chicken shed (below right) to be done by Friday evening given weekend plans. Collect bedding pile from final goat pasture shelter & start new compost pile. Continue work on CSA needs, lard rendering, etc.

Friday
Finish chicken shed if not done, fill gaps with lots of other winter farm cleanup (mulching overwintering crops, compost pile maintenance). Given forecast for extremely cold weather coming Monday, with weekend pretty much shot for work (see below), there will be plenty of prep work to get done.

Saturday
Spend morning smoking pork & bacon, cooking, baking, housecleaning, and otherwise preparing for exciting overnight visit from long-unseen friends. Afternoon arrival stops all work, then host dinner for visitors & several local mutual friends, doubling as birthday celebration for Joanna.

Sunday
See off visitors in morning, then host more friends for lunch who are moving to Wyoming and leaving us 16 laying hens, hence the need to finish new chicken shed by Friday. See off those friends mid-afternoon and get ready to host local author Emma Marris & family for dinner, in honor of her fantastic new book Rambunctious Garden.

Monday
Collapse and enjoy a cold day with a warm fire after one wildly busy week.

Food preservation methods: Canning

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.

CANNING (Boiling water bath)
Canning heats and seals food in glass jars, using a large pot of boiling water, making it shelf-stable for a long period of time. It takes the most supplies, prep work and processing of any method, and must be planned for accordingly. It is also more dependent on having a critical mass of food to be preserved, as it is highly inefficient to heat a large water bath for just two jars of something, as opposed to the quick-and-easy packing of a few containers to be tossed in a freezer. However, canning allows the bulk preservation of many extremely useful staple foods that would require rows of freezers otherwise, and makes the preserved contents instantly usable when desired (unlike thawing or rehydrating).

Canning does raise more food safety concerns than other methods; the process must be done properly to ensure the food is safe to eat, and some items cannot be safely canned in a boiling water bath (pressure canners are more flexible, but are more expensive and not covered in this discussion). It is highly important to follow and understand reliable directions & guidance; this is available from numerous reputable sources and we will not be attempting to reinvent the wheel in covering this topic thoroughly. However, we are considering holding one or more canning demonstrations next year for CSA members interested in learning more.

Canning is generally most appropriate for high-acid foods (such as vinegar pickles) and/or high sugar foods (such as jam). Our canning effots this year included pickles (cucumbers, beets, & green tomatoes), relishes (zucchini & green tomato), crushed tomatoes, tomato juice, whole tomatillos, jams, fruit butters, applesauce, green tomato pie filling, and peach halves in syrup. Notice the green tomato theme? They were extra abundant this year. On the other hand, we didn’t get to some of our favorite canning recipes including ripe tomatoes, such as tomato paste and salsa, as there weren’t enough tomatoes to accomplish this.

 

Methods:
Canning leaves little room for creativity in the kitchen; ingredient ratios often have to be just so to ensure a safe results. Recipes that are intended for canning should be followed precisely; recipes not labelled for canning should not be assumed to be safe for canning. For example, the Ball company (preeminant maker of canning supplies) has a large website devoted to guidance and recipes. Our primary reference for canning is the book So Easy To Preserve, available from the Georgia Extension; their website also seems to have most or all of the recipes & info from the book. That said, we occasionally tweak a recipe now and then, but only in minor ways that don’t mess with the ingredients or ratios that are critical to the food safety. For example, we once ran out of dill seed while making pickles, started substituting other spices in the same quantities, and discovered some really good spice combinations to make pickles more interesting (for example, a mix of cumin, coriander, fenugreek, cloves, and fennel makes amazing pickles).

The need to be careful to produce a safe product should not frighten people away from canning; it is no worse than handling raw meat in a proper manner or any other sensible handling of food products for which the home cook should be able to take responsibility.

Canning involves multiple steps, which we’ll only summarize because again there are many other thorough references available (such as this complete timeline) Empty jars are heated in a large boiling water bath, then packed with hot food (either complete liquids like applesauce, relish, and jam; or solids like cucumbers and tomatillos surrounded by a pickling liquid). Metal lids with rubber seals are applied, held in place by a screw-on ring. The jars are returned to boiling water for a recipe-specified time to ensure food safety, then removed to cool. The process of cooling creates a vaccuum within the jar, compressing the lid to create an airtight seal which allows the food to be stored at room temperature for a year or more.

This all takes time, including bringing a large quantity of water to boil, preparing all the food ahead of time, processing the jars, and so on. With experience you’ll learn how long each of these take, and learn to balance the tasks to take a minimum of time. For example, with pickles I’ll often start the water-bath pot going before I even start to cut up cucumbers, whereas prepping and cooking down applesauce takes far longer before you’re ready to can. In some cases you might break the work into two days, such as making applesauce one night and reheating it the next night along with the water bath to do the actual canning.

Jars may be reused, though with each use their chance of breakage increases with varying levels of loss. Cucumbers may be salvaged from a pickle jar which breaks in the water bath and eaten fresh; applesauce which took half an evening to prepare and cook will disperse through the water and be a total loss. We generally use new jars for high-value items like applesauce and tomatoes, reserving used jars for lower-value or salvagable items like pickles and tomatillos. Lids should NOT EVER be reused, as the rubber seals cannot be guaranteed through more than one use; the metal rings are fine as long as they’re clean and unbent.
Equipment:

  • Canner & jar holder: These large black pots come in two sizes, one that can hold pint-size and smaller jars, and one that can hold quart jars. (We have one of each.) The rack that comes inside the canner keeps jars from bouncing around next to each other.
  • Jar lifter: a special and necessary tool that safely lifts hot jars into and out of boiling water.
  • Metal funnel: Needed for getting food into the jars with minimal mess. We prefer metal to plastic given the amount of hot-boiling material involved.
  • Thermometer: This is helpful for maintaining the temperature of the water that the lids sit in before being put on the jars. The water should be around 180ºF. Boiling the lids before they go on the jar can ruin the seal.
  • Bubble remover: Bubbles will sometimes form in the food as it goes into the jar, and these should be worked out of the food before putting the lid on. We’ve found that a small wooden spoon works reasonably well. A small, heat-resistant rubber spatula might be an even better choice. Some canning starter kits come with plastic bubble removers, but we prefer to avoid plastic. We’ve read not to use metal utensils to remove bubbles becaues they can scratch and weaken the jar. 
  • Kitchen scale: not always necessary but helpful for judging product quantities.
  • Jars, lids, and rings
  • Large soup pot for preparing sauces or brines

All needed supplies are widely available at grocery and hardware stores, at least in our area. I estimate a starting setup would cost $50-$60, all of which will last a long time. Jars which cost about $1/each for quarts (including rings & lids), and should give several years of use with careful handling.
  

Food preservation methods: Dehydration

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.

DEHYDRATION OF FRUITS & VEGETABLES

Dehydration, like canning, takes more up-front work but produces a shelf-stable food item that requires no further energy to store. Numerous fruits and vegetable can be dehydrated; our favorites include herbs, tomatoes, peppers (hot & sweet), okra, shiitakes, strawberries, and locally purchased peaches and apples. Some dried foods are quite good just as they are. Others can be rehydrated for a few minutes in boiling water and used in cooking.

In many cases, dehydration intensifies flavor and sweetness, especially for fruit (including tomatoes). For example, during wet summers, we’ve harvested cherry tomatoes with mediocre flavor and frustratingly quick splitting. These often did not meet our criteria for market quality, so we dried a test bunch as a salvage operation. To our delight, the flavor of the resulting product was superbly sweet and complex, and they served us well on pizza throughout the winter. Now we make a point of dehydrating cherry tomatoes every year; another way to utilize what would otherwise be a waste product on the farm.

Equipment:
In some climates, sun drying is an option; not so much in central Missouri. It’s generally too humid here to safely or effectively dry most foods. Some ovens can be set to low-enough temperatures to act as dehydrators, but this can tie up the oven for long periods of time. And it is possible to build your own dehydrator, but by the time materials and labor are accounted for, we’re not sure that would end up being cheaper than buying a good, reliable one. After researching the options and reading online reviews, we decided to invest in an Excalibur Food Dehydrator, and we absolutely love it. These are American made and sold direct from the California factory. And they work really well. Given the cost of many dried foods like sun-dried tomatoes, or dried fruit, a good dehydrator can pay for itself in a reasonable time period, especially if you have access to extra produce through a garden, CSA, neighbor, or other source.

We have the nine tray version with an automatic turn-off timer, which is really useful for letting items dry for the proper time even if that ends in the middle of the night or when we’re not near the house. We strongly recommend getting a version with a timer. Nine trays are actually quite a lot of space to fill; working with some smallish end-of-season sweet peppers, it took the two of us about an hour to fill nine trays. Some things are faster than others; with the help of an apple peeler/corer/slicer and a capable user, trays of apple slices go pretty quickly. (Our apple peeler/corer/slicer is from Back to Basics in Draper, UT, and we quite like it. We’ve used other versions that haven’t worked as well. We can’t find a website for Back to Basics, but this gadget is available from various online sources.)

Before buying a dehydrator, you might consider where you’re going to put it. Often a running dehydrator will smell like the food inside (it is running a strong fan in there, after all). This is not a big deal when it’s tomatoes or apples, but if it’s peppers (even sweet peppers), hoo boy. We can’t be in the same room as nine trays of drying hot peppers; we tend to keep our unit in an unused back room while it’s running. It certainly doesn’t need to be in the kitchen, as the unit is self-contained and not messy. You can do all the prep and tray-loading in the kitchen, then carry the trays back to wherever your drying chamber is (spare bedroom, closet, basement). It’s also helpful to be able to open a window. Just thought we’d mention it before someone with a one-bedroom studio chases themselves onto the street with a full load of drying jalapenos.

Methods:
For most items, the basic idea is to cut up the produce, maybe seed it (like peppers), and spread the pieces on each tray before setting them in the dehydrator. You can dry some items whole (like hot peppers), it just takes longer. Generally it makes sense to at least halve things. Also, the smaller the pieces, the more trays you can fit in the dehydrator at a time. When I’m doing whole cayennes, for example, I can only get 5 trays in because they stick up so much, whereas sliced Anaheim peppers allow all 9 trays.

Whatever size pieces you choose, best practice is to make all pieces roughly the same size so the whole tray or batch finishes at the same time.  Judging doneness can be difficult, and somethimes I think we’ve erred on the side of over-drying just to be safe. Over-drying results in a crispy product that won’t be as good, while under-drying risks the product molding or otherwise going bad in storage. Rotating the position of the trays can also help to ensure even drying. We consult the references mentioned below to know which products should be leathery and which brittle. Examples of the latter would include items you intend to grind or powder later, like herbs and some hot peppers (one of our standard winter spice mixes involves blending lots of different dried peppers in a food processor to make an intense pepper powder, great for salsas and sausages). There are lots of good books, manuals, and online resources (such as this University of Georgia site) for getting drying times right (our dehydrator also came with a reference manual). We’ve also relied heavily on the book Making & Using Dried Foods.

Many dehydration books are full of oddball ideas for things to dry, including lettuce (???). We’ve tried unusual things like mustard greens, which were really neat to powder into a broth, but took lots of space for almost no resulting product. It’s fun to play with trying different things. Herbs can work quite well as a way to preserve summer bounty and cut the need for purchasing old spices from a store.

Washing all the trays can be mildly annoying, so we often try to do multiple batches of the same thing before changing. Washing between different items can be quite important, though. We once dried mint, then went straight to apples thinking the uncut herbs couldn’t have left any residue. We ended up with a batch of apple rings that tasted like toothpaste. Wash your trays; no one wants hot-pepper dried strawberries.

Also, we once had an insect outbreak in some tomatoes, so we’ve started to put products in the freezer for a week or two after dehydration as an extra way to kill insects. It’s easy and increases the storage life. Just don’t open the container or bag until it comes back to room temperature, or condensation will decrease the storage life by partially rehydrating the food.

Storing & using dried foods:
Dehydration results in a substantial volume reduction, since vegetables and fruit are mostly water. This sometimes feels a little depressing when nine trays of peppers fit in a few small jars, but it also means a lot of food can be stored in a small space. We store most of our dried items in old glass canning jars that we don’t trust for canning anymore. They arrange nicely on storage shelves and seal well enough to preserve the food. Sometimes we’ll use sealed plastic bags, but these aren’t as reuseable. Masking tape labels ensure we know when the food was dried (so it doesn’t sit too long) and what exactly it is (you can’t always tell which peppers are which, hot or sweet, once they’re dried).

Apple slices, halved strawberries, and cherry tomatoes are great snacks just as they are. Others we use in soups and stews, like onions or okra, or as pizza/pasta toppings, like tomatoes, peppers, or mushrooms. These can be easily rehydrated by soaking in boiling water for a few minutes; in some cases I’ll just toss dried stuff into a simmering soup broth and let it absorb the liquid already there.

Food preservation methods & supplies: Freezing

We’ve had questions from new CSA members regarding home food preservation techniques and any relevant items that might make good holiday gifts. We’re thrilled that folks are thinking ahead to preserving next year’s bounty, as that’s the key to getting the most out of a CSA and building the economic sustainability of local foods in general. This series will present some of our experiences and advice, along with ideas for kitchen items that we’ve found to be useful investments as serious practitioners of home food preservation.

FREEZING
Freezing is one of the easiest methods of food preservation, and this technique relies on a minimum of specialized equipment. We freeze many types of food including beans, greens, basil in oil, shredded zucchini, sweet corn, okra, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, an assortment of prepared foods (zucchini soup, chutneys, sauces, frijole mole), meat, broth/stock, and more.

Methods:
Methods vary depending on what is being frozen, with advice available from many cookbooks and at this site by the Georgia Extension (their excellent food preservation book is our standard reference). A few products can be frozen with no preparation at all. Blueberries and (contrary to other advice) okra are two examples that we just chuck in a container or bag and put in the freezer. Most vegetables benefit from being blanched before freezing (okra turns too slimy if you blanch it). We generally blanch in boiling water, and standard kitchen supplies are sufficient for this process: a big soup pot or two, a colander, and a large bowl to hold ice water for chilling.

Food can either be packed into a container or bag right away, or spread on a tray for freezing, then packed into a container after freezing. The former is faster but means you get a solid block of frozen material that needs to be thawed all at once; the latter takes more work up front but means you can dip into the bag/container for just what you need at one time. We especially use the tray method for whole okra, strawberries, and some green beans. Either way, try to drain or dry the food before you pack it up; otherwise you’re wasting energy freezing water and it can decrease the product quality.

The freezer itself:
The freezer compartment of a normal refrigerator can hold a pretty good amount of frozen food, if well managed. Upon outgrowing that, a larger standalone freezer is worth considering. Size is the biggest consideration, since freezers are most efficient to run when full, but of course fullness fluctuates over the course of the year. Ours is stuffed to the brim by Nov./Dec. (when it is loaded with vegetables and freshly butchered animals) and is least full by about May (when we put numerous ice blocks in to fill otherwise empty space). We like to support locally owned businesses, so we bought our chest freezer at Downtown Appliance, and have been very happy with it.

Containers to put frozen food in:

  • The cheapest route is to reuse containers (such as quart yogurt containers). When we stopped buying food that comes in containers, we eliminated this option for ourselves.
  • Most hardware stores in our area sell Arrow plastic freezer containers. The square shape makes these among the more space efficient containers we have, but we’ve found that the lifespan of these is shorter than desired. We’ve had quite a few develop cracks in the bottom.
  • This year, we’re trying out some Ball plastic freezer jars, also available at our local hardware stores. These are BPA-free, stackable, and tight-sealing, plus they appear to be durable. They are more expensive up front, but we think they may be cheaper in the long run than the alternatives. They’re also round, which makes them less space-efficient than the cheaper square ones.
  • Glass jars can work for freezing some things, but it is important not to fill them too full. We have lots of small glass jars around, and we tend to use these for condiments that we want to thaw in small quantities, such as chutney and pesto.
  • Freezer bags are convenient for some items (okra and chicken, for example) that don’t pack well into solid containers. We keep some on hand for times when we run out of other containers. However, these generally head for the landfill after a couple of uses, so they rank low on the sustainability front.
  • Freezer paper is our choice for wrapping cuts of meat.

Optional accessories, one cheap, one expensive:

  • A freezer alarm will beep if the freezer temperature gets too high (whether due to the freezer being accidentally unplugged, the door being left open, or some form of malfunction). This is an inexpensive investment to provide some protection to the large amount of flavor, effort, and money represented by the food in the freezer, though you still have to be near the freezer to hear it (we don’t go in our basement every day).
  • In case of an extended power outage, a generator will provide a true backup. A few years ago, Joanna’s parents in Arkansas experienced a severe ice storm followed by a week (or longer) power outage and temperatures in the 70s, a nightmare scenario for a freezer full of a year’s worth of food preservation. Eric drove down with a chainsaw and a newly purchased generator–one of the last ones available in Columbia, a couple hundred miles from the storm zone. When generators are needed, they can be hard to obtain. Dry ice can also be used to get a freezer through a power outage.

Tracking frozen items:
One of the keys to making the best use of a freezer is knowing what’s in it. We generally defrost our freezer in November or December, and this is a great time to do an inventory. We make a list with all of the freezer contents & quantities, post it in the kitchen, and do our best to check off each container that comes out of the freezer. This way, we can pace ourselves as the winter progresses, making sure to use everything that is available. Come spring, we can also assess whether there were some things that we froze way too much of (shredded zucchini, anyone?), and we can adjust our quantities the following year.

Using frozen items:
We don’t generally try to use preserved items in the same way as their fresh counterparts; you won’t find a pile of frozen green beans steamed in a pile on our plates in January. Part of seasonal eating is learning seasonal cooking, in which different recipes work best at different times of year. We don’t make many stews and soups in summer when produce is at its individual best, but do this all the time with frozen and preserved produce in the winter. It’s much more effective to combine these ingredients in diverse dishes that build on the strength of each, but hide the weaknesses. For example, it’s incredibly easy to grab a stack of broth, beans, okra, greens, corn, and more to simply chuck in a soup pot with some onion and turn into a nice stew, when many of those served on their own would be noticeably less interesting than the fresh version. Frozen fruit is mushier than the fresh original, but made into a baked good or thawed into yogurt, the flavors come through nicely without noticing the loss of texture. Pre-making soups, sauces, and other mixes to freeze also makes using frozen foods more practical, as they’re more space-efficient than their raw ingredients. Finally, some items are best to thaw before use (broth, sauce) while others are best used half-frozen. For example, okra is easiest and least messy to chop when frozen whole and chopped just slightly thawed (a few minutes on the counter).