When coronavirus first descended on my area, and going to the grocery store was fraught, fruit and veg were the thing I wanted most. And while I waited for the first green shoots to push through the garden soil, one thing I could do is crack open jars of Ontario peaches I’d preserved the summer before. It didn’t suddenly give me a well-rounded diet, but it was nourishing far beyond the vitamin A — it felt like a little love letter from my past self.
Preserving food isn’t only an act of tenderness, but also an act of rebellion against the industrial food system — which I take to mean both mass-produced processed food and animals and crops grown and harvested on a massive scale. This system has fed a lot of people but at great cost: it devalues animal life and human labour, strips soil of nutrients, wastes 1/3 of the harvest, relies heavily on oil products and pesticides, devastates biodiversity, pollutes waterways, and often harms human health. Agriculture and forestry are responsible for 24% of global carbon emissions, second only to electricity and heat. Unfortunately, eating isn’t optional, and Big Food isn’t something most of us can’t opt out of completely. But we can occasionally, and every time we choose conscientiously, we’re supporting a healthier world and a more sustainable future. Each action is like one tiny raindrop — not enough water to quench a grasshopper’s thirst, let alone end a drought — but I believe that with time, with effort, with coordination, these small actions can add up to the awesome power of a sudden summer downpour.
Now, as our farmers enter the time of greatest abundance, we can not only enjoy the local offerings, but with a bit of work, save some of that glorious goodness for winter. Food preservation, for me, hits a lot of personal values: shopping local and in-season, supporting sustainable agriculture, avoiding packaging and reusing packaging you have, and increasing self-sufficiency. Plus at this time of year, “putting up” some local produce is incredibly cost effective. So tie on your apron and grab your wooden spoon, because it’s time for food preservation 101. I’ve arranged these options from easiest to most involved, and there’s a place for everyone, even the busiest working parents, to save a little something for those long winter months.
Maybe you’re growing some herbs this year, or maybe you just want to save some of your store-bought bundle before it turns to slime. Drying, the lazy person’s preservation, is an excellent way to preserve herbs such as rosemary, sage, tarragon, parsley, thyme, savoury, mint, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lavender, bay, and basil. I don’t wash my garden-grown herbs first, just pick off any dirty leaves, brush with a towel, and hang in a bunch to dry somewhere there’s good airflow. (I’m not just looking for shortcuts: washing induces browning and makes it more likely to mould.) When the herb is nice and crispy, remove leaves from stems and put in a jar. (If I’m saving herbs for tea, I may save the stem too.) Generally leaves store better if they’re not crumbled, so keep them intact until you use them. (For great advice on growing herbs and using them well, including making infusions, herbed salts, and more, check out Gayla Trail’s Easy Growing.)
In harvesting herbs from my own garden, I can keep myself in herbal tea for the whole year. Which means opting out of chemical-intensive growing, shipping, processing, packaging, more shipping, and sitting in a store. My favourite home-grown herbal blend is a mix of tulsi basil, mint, lavender blossom, rose petals, and lemon balm.
You can also dry fruits, but then you’ll need a dehydrator or to get your oven involved. Still it can be worth it if you’re faced with a bumper crop and freezer space is at a premium.
My freezer is almost always full, especially at the end of the summer. I always freeze pesto in ice cube trays (another great way to preserve herbs, especially basil and garlic scapes) and a lot of summer berries.
If I had more space, I’d freeze a bunch of vegetables too. Most veg benefits from being blanched (boiled a minute or so, then doused in cold water) before its long winter’s storage. Blanching helps the food retain its colour, nutrients, and textures and eliminate enzymes that cause spoilage. Try blanching and freezing peas, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, carrots, and Brussels sprouts. Squash and tomatoes can go straight in the deep freeze without the hitting the hot tub first (though slow roasting some tomatoes in olive oil and then freezing is well worth the trouble). Label your food well, including the date. (You think you’ll remember. You’re wrong.)
Freeze anything you don’t want to clump spread out on a cookie sheet, then once frozen put them in a reused freezer bag or container. I do this with berries, but it also works well for things like chickpeas or other beans if you cook them from dry. (I usually cook double the amount I want to eat in my InstantPot, then freeze the second serving, so it’s as easy as opening a can of beans.)
There are two main types of pickling: quick pickling (or fridge pickling) and water-bath pickling. I’m going to focus on the first right now, because we’ll get to canning below. Fridge pickles have to be kept in the fridge (hence the name), but they are fast, easy, and require no special equipment. It’s just a matter of making a brine (usually a combo of vinegar, salt, and sometimes sugar), and pouring it on the veg in question. My go-to fridge pickle recipe is this one from Queer Eye’s proto-Antoni, Ted Allen, and it makes your veggies crisp and delicious and takes no time at all. These pickles are hot commodities among my friends and family, so most disappear quickly, but they can last in the fridge for around three months, which means I’m still eating garden-fresh pickles in early November!
Fermenting uses the tiny bacteria on food and in the air to help preserve it. And I’ll grant that sounds disgusting, but if you’ve ever had sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, miso, wine, or sourdough bread, you’ve probably eaten something fermented and liked it. Though the health claims can often be overblown, eating fermented foods may be good for your digestion (and regardless, they taste delicious).
Fermenting cucumbers or cabbage doesn’t require any equipment and is pretty low maintenance. For baby steps, try fermenting some pickles or sauerkraut. The ultimate fermentation guru is Sandor Katz; check out his book Wild Fermentation if you want to go all-in.
For a lot of folks, canning brings to mind gruesome deaths of botulism or other microscopic nasties. But you can rest easy for two reasons: 1) botulism can’t thrive in an acidic environment, so anything that contains vinegar, lemon juice, or another acid is completely safe, 2) Botulism is super rare. In the U.S. in 2017, there were only 18 foodborne cases and none were connected to home canning. I give a basket of canned goods to my last living grandmother every Christmas — let that be the ultimate testament to how safe I think it is. Follow basic protocols and you’re not going to poison your best beloveds. If you’re still worried, stick to pickles and high-acid produce. And, as with other foods, don’t eat something that’s turned colour or smells funny, and a bulging jar lid is always a sign to send the contents to the compost. (I’ve been canning for years — none of these has happened to me, by the way.)
There are lots of great guides to water-bath canning (which is different than pressure canning, a similar technique used to preserve meat and low-acid foods), but always get your recipes from a reputable source — keep to cookbooks or canning-focused blogs, and if you want the ultimate in safety, stick to recipes from a canning company like Bernadin. When I want things that are a little more exciting, I turn to Food in Jars (small batches!) or to Batch (recipes that use the whole plant, even asparagus ends or beet skins). Right now, you can also take canning classes online, which is a great way to build confidence: check out these affordable online classes with Ashley English. Whatever the recipe, follow it to a T and don’t substitute any fresh ingredients — we’re doing chemistry and it’s vital to get the acid balance right.
Equipment-wise, you need:
a very large pot (that can allow one inch of water over your highest jar)
a rack to sit inside the pot (or you can make one by joining screw bands — anything that keeps the jars from sitting on the bottom)
some canning jars (used are perfect, as long as they’re not chipped), unrusted screw bands, and brand-new lids (all sold together if you’re buying a case of new jars)
a jar lifter
a canning funnel
This is great stuff to borrow, since it’s something that most people don’t use all that often. You can also buy kits that come with all this jazz and more. (For labelling, treat yourself to one of my favourite inventions, a water-based paint marker.)
You’ll also need more time than you think, a solid heat tolerance (or a workspace with great A/C), a bunch of mixing bowls, and an inspiring selection of swears. Canning is a lot of work, but it’s also incredibly neat (science!), satisfying, and eye-opening — you’ll never take this food for granted. Yes, sometimes you could get a jar of applesauce cheaper at the store, but this is a way of affirming, to yourself and others, that the lowest prices shouldn’t be our highest value. It’s a way of taking back control from packaged food companies, savouring that local flavour all year round, and reusing the same packaging for years if not decades. It’s peak badass Laura Ingalls, and you’ll always have something to bring to a last-minute housewarming. Plus, a jar of local peaches is nothing short of bottled sunshine.
To buy local, avoid packaging, and rebel against the industrial food system, try preserving a little local food for the winter — it can be as easy as hanging some herbs to dry.
Wins of the Week
“Living in a way that honors your values is important, even if your personal habits aren’t going to fix everything. We need to remember what is at stake, and the small sacrifices we make may help us do that.” —Tatiana Schlossberg, Inconspicuous Consumption
This week, we stand up and cheer for:
Carrie and her husband, who are growing garlic and raspberries in their yard — a couple of low-maintenance and really rewarding crops!
Julie, who’s been giving flowers grown from seed in upcycled containers as gifts.
Please do write me and help make it rain wins — I do love a good summer storm.
Thanks to everyone who hit that heart button last week and shared this newsletter: as our numbers grow, so does our ability to change this world for the better.