How to Preserve Food
Summer is of course gardening season and if you manage to get a bountiful harvest despite all the things that would set you back you need someway to save all of this produce. To that end I will be presenting you the definitive guide to preserving all sorts of food from the garden.
There is no way that I could cover all the things that could and should be done to safely preserve food. The knowledge of how to do this fills bookshelves in stores and your local library and all I will atempt to do here is give you a basic overview of the 4 most common types of food preservation.
For as long as humans have been growing food for their consumption we have been developing ways to preserve that food. In the early days of agriculture, we had two main methods for preserving food. One was to grow food that can be kept at room temperature or in root cellars a.k.a shelf stable if it was protected from animals and moisture. This would be things like wheat, rye, barley, winter squashes, beets carrots, etc.
The second common method was drying the food to a certain moisture content. By removing the moisture, you remove the ability of microorganisms to propagate in the food which prevents decay and rot. This drying was accomplished a variety of ways using, fire, salt, sun and wind drying.
Drying and shelf stable foods were for the most part were it for food preservation right up until 1809 when a Frenchmen named Nicolas Appert discovered that you could preserve food by sealing it in glass jars and then heat them up to kill the bacteria in the food. This led to the advent of canning food which dramatically increased the amount and types of food that could be preserved and eaten throughout the year. What is ironic is that this technique was developed because of the need to feed Napoleon’s army as it conquered Europe during this time period. Canning techniques became yet another example of the pressures that war places on societies to advance and improve.
The final great innovation in food preservation only happened with the advent of modern refrigeration and freezing. We now have the ability to freeze food both quickly and for long periods of time. Freezing food when compared to all the other techniques retains nutrition and overall quality of the food much better than anything else. That being said freezer preserved food is also the most vulnerable to failure since freezers can break or power and be cut off.
Root Cellaring/Shelf Stable Food
Root cellars are by far one of the oldest forms of food preservation that exist in the world. The principles behind root cellaring are simple. A hole is dug in the ground at a place that is above the local water table and food is stored on shelves or crates in that hole. Now a root cellar works for two different reasons.
The temperature in the ground maintains an average temperature of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit depending on season and location. This basically acts like a giant fridge in the ground that can be maintained with very little input.
Reason # 2
The root cellar assuming there hasn’t been too much rain or it wasn’t built into the water table will regulate the humidity of the air which help preserve food by keeping just the right amount of moisture in the air.
Root Cellars are a great way to store many types of food like,
Drying like the title implies is the removal of moisture from food so it doesn’t spoil. This works because life as we know it requires water in order to survive and propagate. When the moisture threshold hold is to low bacteria and fungus which are responsible for spoilage cannot survive and reproduce. Since they can’t reproduce they can’t destroy the food.
Drying food is relatively easy these days with the availability of in house tray dryers like these,
They can dry slices of fruit of vegetables in as little as 5 hours depending on the size of pieces. You can also use them to dry meats into jerky after you have soaked them in a flavor brine which uses both the salt in the brine and air drying to preserve the meat. I personally am a big fan of the dehydrator because it is a great way to create safe to eat shelf stable foods that can be used for emergencies or long camping trips where weight is an issue.
Other methods of drying use heat or salt by itself to dry and preserve the food. Common examples of these methods would be using a smoker to preserve meat or the creation of ham or bacon from pork. Before refrigeration quite of bit of meat was covered in large amounts of salt and left to “cure” a.k.a get dried out so they will be able to eat them all winter.
Like the food preservation techniques that came before it canning added to the types and variety of food that could be preserved. Canning itself is a fairly simple process of placing the food in glass jars and then heating the food to kill any bacteria it might be harbouring. The ironic thing about canning was that even the person who invented it didnt know why it kept food from spoiling. The discovery that germs/bacteria were responsible for food spoilage wasn’t made until over 50 years later by Louis Pasteur. The techniques that he used to pasteurize wine and beer do much the same thing that happens when you can food.
There are two types of canning you can do,
Pressure canning works pretty much like hot water bath expect of course it is done in a pressure cooker instead of big pot of boiling water. You can pretty much can all the same food you would with a hot water bath but you can also do meats and other types of food that you don't acidify or add sugar to.
We have finally arrived at the latest and some would say greatest step in food preservation. Being able to keep things consistently cool or frozen revolutionized the way we eat in the modern world. It allows us to ship fresh food all around the world and still have it in good shape when it gets there.
Freezing is by far the best way to preserve food freshness and nutrition for the long term. Properly harvested and prepared food that is frozen loses almost none of is nutrition value and is essnetially just as good for you as the day it was picked. But of course the main downside to freezers is that you only have so much space and if you lose power for more than a few hours the food could be ruined.
Preparing food for freezing can be very quick or time consuming depending on what you are freezing. Most vegetables will need to be chopped up and put through a process called blanching. Blanching is when you briefly heat the vegetables to halt the enzyme action the reduce flavor, color and texture. It is possible to over blanch (cook) and under blanch so make sure to know how long to keep the food in the pot.
The Moral of the Story
Being able to preserve food that you grow is a large step in developing the skills that will let you lead a greener life. This is because up to 40% of all food in the industrial food system is wasted and industrial agriculture produces a large portion of greenhouse gases that are causing the climate to change. Anything you can do to sever yourself from that system will benefit the planet and lead to you living a greener life.
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