Summer Preservation Review

by Meg Cotner on October 3, 2011

lots of canningWhat a summer of preserving this was! Now that’s it’s officially fall, I thought I’d review the preservation methods I used this summer (and late spring). It was so fun to learn new ones, and refine my skills with the ones I’ve used over the years. And now I have a pantry (and freezer) full of delicious summer food to be used in winter.

There’s something very satisfying to have a pantry full of food you preserved yourself. It’s gathered when in season, so the flavor profile is going to be the best it can be. Having the taste of summer tomatoes, corn, and peppers will no doubt give us a boost when it’s dark and cold outside.

So, here is what I accomplished this year, and what you can accomplish next summer, too.

sour cherry liqueurInfused alcohol. Sour cherry season is fleeting, lasting really only a couple of weeks in the early days of summer. For some reason, sour cherries really came into focus for me and I couldn’t get enough of them. I worked with two batches – a smaller, darker cherry provided by our CSA, and a bigger, lighter cherry that I bought at the farmer’s market. I preferred the smaller, darker cherries, personally.

One thing I did with my sour cherries was make a sour cherry liqueur. This isn’t so much about preserving the cherries to eat them later, but to use the cherries to enhance vodka (and rum, in my case). The sour cherry liqueur will be available to me for cocktails and for baking this winter. I imagine the cherries could be used – boozy cherries over vanilla ice cream sounds pretty good to me.

Additionally, my work with alcohol was in the form of vin d’orange and vanilla extract.  The vanilla extract is pretty straightforward but the vin d’orange may not be. It’s a way of infusing rosé with citrus (oranges and grapefruit), with the addition of vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, and sugar, with a bit of vodka added at the end. It infuses for about 6 weeks in the fridge, and what results is a delicious liqueur that is sweet, a little bitter, and tastes like summer. It’s really wonderful.

Syrups – Shrub and Simple.  Syrups are a way to preserve fruit and/or herbs – it’s the sugar that is the preserving agent. I personally do not care for pieces of fruit preserved in a sugar syrup – it’s just not my kind of thing.

bottled shrubThe shrub syrup is an old style of fruit preservation that can be traced back to Colonial America. Fruit and sugar macerate for 1-3 days, and the resulting syrup (with any sugar that hasn’t dissolved) is mixed with vinegar to make a sweet and tangy syrup. The longer it sits, the mellower it gets.

I’ve made shrub syrup with both plums and white peaches. Shrubs work particularly well with stone fruit, though I expect you could do it with pears and apples. Grapes, too, but my experience with pickled concord grapes was dreadful combined with vinegar. Berries would be spectacular.

My one and only experiment with simple syrup was a mint syrup made from the mint growing on my back deck. It was delicious and made wonderful mint sodas. A very nice way to preserve herbs.

drying tomatoes in the food dehydratorDehydrating. This is also an old way of preserving food – originally people would set things out in the sun to dry them out. These days, most people use a very low setting on their oven, or a dehydrator. I’ve used both, and I prefer the dehydrator these days. It is far less messy, and keeps things contained. Some people (not me) freak out when it comes to keeping the oven on for an extended time, and the dehydrator solves this issue.

I first encountered using the oven to dehydrate food when I was a teenage. My grandmother would make sheets and sheets of apricot leather using the low setting on her oven. I helped her once or twice, which was a lot of fun. I still love apricot leather.

I only did two sessions of dehydrating this summer – I dehydrated some zucchini earlier in the summer, and then five pounds of tomatoes in late summer. The tomatoes actually live in the freezer, which is the perfect introduction to the next method of preservation, the freezer.

Freezing. The freezer is my old stand-by and freezing was the first way I preserved my tomato shares. I’d crush tomatoes and put them in freezer bags before I got the courage to start canning them. This year I’ve frozen some awesome chicken bone broth; basil pesto; one quart of whole blueberries; some roasted tomato sauce; dehydrated tomatoes; sour cherry preserves; ground cherries for future preserves; and corn niblets.

I’ll be pretty disappointed if the power ever goes out.

Freezing is very easy, though there is the risk of freezer burn, but I accept that. I learned from AJ how to suck out as much air as possible, so that will cut down on the risk of freezer burn, too.

Salting. Salt is used in many cultures to preserve food – think bacalao and preserved lemons. I’ve  preserved herbs in salt in the past, and whole Meyer lemons, but this was the first time I’d salted just (organic) lemon rinds. I saw this tip in a post about smoked paprika chipotle sauce where she specified preserving your lemon rinds in salt for this recipe. I expect I can use these in North African dishes – I’m looking forward to trying them out.

Pickling – Refrigerator and Water Bath (see below). I got a lot of snap peas in my CSA share this year, so I pickled a bunch of them. This is also a very simple way to preserve food and makes snap peas in particular very tasty. I’m a big fan of vinegar, so I really enjoyed them.

lacto-fermented beetsLacto fermentation. I’m very fond of lacto-fermentation as a preservation method – using bacteria for good rather than evil. It doesn’t require any special equipment (though you can use special lids and crocks if you like), and increases the nutrition in the resulting product. This summer I fermented some beets, made yogurt, kefir, and a ginger bug in preparation for ginger ale.

The beets are a recent ferment. I used these new fangled lids – plastic storage lids with a 1/4 inch hole drilled into each, a grommet placed in that, allowing an airlock to be inserted in it. Let me tell you – these are the best tasting sour beets I’ve made. I’m convinced that the lid had a lot to do with that. I will write more about these beets in a future post.

Water Bath Canning – Pickles, Preserves, Tomatoes, and Tomatillos. This is the most complex form of preservation in my book. It involves specific equipment, an extra dose of caution, and care must be taken to keep the acidity levels up at an appropriate level. Otherwise bacteria can wreck havoc on your product. There’s also risk of scalding from the boiling water, but there are ways around that.

I have memories of the canning my grandfather would do. He made strawberry jam, bread and butter pickles, and chili sauce (I should really get that recipe), and probably canned tomatoes, but I’m not sure of it. In the 80s he would use paraffin to seal the jars (mostly with jam), which is not a safe way to preserve food. For more on that, check out this article by Marisa of Food in Jars -
Canning 101: Why You Shouldn’t Can Like Your Grandmother Did.

Pickles. This year I made my first batch of dilly beans, using the recipe in Wild Fermentation, which is Sandor Katz’s father’s recipe. I must admit – I haven’t opened them, yet, but I’m confident they will be delicious. These pickles are vinegar based and contain dill, garlic, and chiles. I processed the jars in a water bath for 45 minutes.

plum vanilla jamFruit preserves and jam. I worked with so much fruit this summer! In my pantry right now are: blueberry jam; strawberry lemon preserves; peach preserves; fig walnut jam; apricot jam; tomato jam; and plum vanilla jam. Each has a different texture, which I’m happy about – some are looser, and some are quite firm. None used pectin, and all were processed in a water bath for 10 minutes.

Crushed tomatoes. This was my big canning job this summer, and I’ve canned crushed tomatoes for the past four summers. From 45 pounds of raw tomatoes, I ended up with 21 pints of crushed tomatoes. I always up the acidity with a tbs of fresh lemon juice (bottled lemon juice has a chemical taste to it) per pint. This business about acidity levels – it’s really important.

All pints were processed in a water bath for 35 minutes.

Roasted tomatillo sauce. This was a pleasant surprise – this is a fabulous roasted tomatillo sauce and I am bummed that I only made one batch. It’s not the spiciest sauce out there, but it will be terrific for salsa verde chicken. I enjoyed using it on eggs, too.

Note that this is not the same tomatillo sauce as my salsa verde, as that recipe is not constructed with water bath canning in mind – basically, the acid level isn’t high enough. This recipe has a lot of lemon juice in it, plus I add a tbs of lemon juice to each pint.

So, that about wraps up my summer preservation review! I’m really happy with everything I canned – there wasn’t a dud in the group.

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