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Can? Dry? Freeze? Storage options for local food

Posted by Nola Poirier

It's that time already, when some of the food in the garden is ripening and ready, or almost ready, to be harvested and enjoyed. Even if you don't have gardens, farmers markets and produce stores are full of local fruits and vegetables.

For me, July through October is the season to prepare for a long winter of local food by canning, pickling, dehydrating, and freezing foods to store. While preserving food takes a little work up front, it doesn't take much, and it definitely pays off in winter when you are eating peach pies and your own sun dried tomatoes, corn and beans. And it cuts down on food shipping which is a huge contributor to climate change.

Canning: a delicious, eco-friendly choice

Despite what some people think, canning is not difficult. It takes a few hours and it will make a mess in the kitchen, but when you taste your pasta sauces, canned peaches, tomatoes, chutney, and jams in the middle of January, you will think fondly on yourself for spending a few evening hours preserving these wonders.

Remember that canning large batches at once is more energy efficient and saves cleaning the kitchen more times.

In order to keep, foods need the appropriate acid balance; some require adding something like lemon juice to the jars. Look up canning recipes on-line to know what you will need to add – check out a few sources for the best recipes. There are also canning classes advertised at many community centres and farmer's markets. Classes can be a great way to learn more delicious ways to preserve pickles and sauces and other delicious wonders – or throw a canning party to share ideas, work and make it fun.

Canning is more energy efficient than freezing food, so where possible, choose to can. There are a few hours of stove use to sterilize and seal the jars, but then the energy use is over and the shiny jars sit on your shelves waiting for winter. The only trick is not to devour them all by December. Can lots. As a rough guide, I usually do about 60 - 70 pounds of tomatoes for my family for the winter, and I dry another 30 or so.

Drying: a challenge, but worth it, on the coast

I lived in the Okanagan years ago. In the hot summers, we would put slices of tomatoes and zucchini on window screens in the sun to dry. Sometimes we'd even sprinkle sea salt and spices on the tomatoes to make them like tomato chips. YUM.

Living on the coast, it's much harder to sun dry tomatoes as the humidity keeps them moist for too long. However, you can get food dehydrators that work efficiently to dehydrate your food. Ensure your trays fit properly and that you don't have any energy wasting cracks in the dehydrator. Cut food fairly small to minimize drying time and leave it in until it's dry enough to last for months.

You can set things outside during a hot dry spell, but bring them in at night to avoid the morning dew. You can also accelerate the drying process by putting them in your warm oven, after you've been cooking or baking, to dry in the residual heat. The most efficient way to dry food is with a solar dehydrator or even a solar oven, which not only saves energy, but dries your food the fastest.

Other than tomatoes, some of my favourite things to dry include: slices of peaches, apricots (cut in half – dry all the way or they will mold), plums, apples, and cherries.

I also dry herbs like basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and dill. For these, just harvest them in bundles and tie them up so they can hang somewhere dry (sometimes I use my clothesline or a makeshift line by a window in my kitchen). They dry in a couple of days and can be rubbed off their stems into jars for later use.

Freezing: start with an ENERGY STAR® freezer

Before you decide to put anything into a freezer for winter, there are some important things to consider:

  • Use an ENERGY STAR approved freezer, it will save at least 10% of the energy use over a non ENERGY STAR model.
  • There's a $25 rebate through BC Hydro Power Smart for purchasing an ENERGY STAR freezer.
  • Chest freezers are more energy efficient than upright models.
  • A freezer works much more efficiently when it's full. Fill in any excess space with ice to reduce energy use.
  • Remember when you can fit everything from it into your fridge freezer, unplug it until harvest season comes around again.

This is zucchini season and anyone who grows it knows you can get overrun with them. So shred some up and store it in the freezer until you are ready to bake on a cold winter night – zucchini is a great way to moisten cakes and muffins. Tomatoes can be frozen too and cooked up later, but I prefer to can and dry mine and use the room in my freezer for berries and peaches for pies and corn for soup in the winter.

Storage tips

I get many of my jars from thrift stores and then buy new lids and sealing rings for canning into them. Most grocery stores also start selling canning jars at this time. They also make great storage for dried beans, fruits and nuts.

My place on the Sunshine Coast has a root cellar, something I've never had and am excited to use. It's a stone building (covered with grapes in summer) that has lots of venting, but no place for rodents or other visitors to enter.

I can store apples, squashes and other food over the winter where it will be cool, but not freezing, and dry. In some areas cellars can do this job, however on the coast most basements get too damp for good food storage, instead you'll want to use a pantry, cupboard or closet somewhere that can stay cool, have ventilation, and not be damp.

How about making that backyard shed into a root cellar, and a pantry in that closet that's full of equipment no one has used in years?

Thinking about storing food is harder than doing it. Many of these processes can be done more quickly than preparing a meal. And the environmental and personal rewards are well worth it. If I can, you can can too.

Nola Poirier is a freelance writer and a key contributor to bchydro.com's Green Guides.