Gardeners still proud to save and share the fruits of their labors
By Natalie Reidford
Generations ago, many boomers spent the late summer months plucking tomatoes, shucking corn and snapping beans picked from the family garden. After that came the task of boiling quart-size jars over the stove and filling the steaming jars with the fruits of their labors.
Home canning, or “putting up” jars of jelly, salsa, pickles, fruit and more, meant a flurry of activity as foods were harvested and preserved, ready for the family to enjoy all winter long.
Are gardeners still interested in food preservation? The answer is yes.
Purdue University is currently offering a series of home food preservation virtual sessions. As of May, more than 300 people had registered, so home food preservation obviously “is something that’s on people’s minds,” said Tonya Short, Purdue Health & Human Sciences extension educator.
While canned food is readily available at the grocery store and food preservation may not have the urgency it once did, many people still preserve homegrown produce. Gardeners might say the taste is superior to commercially-canned products. Also, knowing where one’s food came from and how it was processed is a plus that makes home preservation worth the effort.
Besides, what’s better than cracking the seal on a quart jar of homegrown green beans?
Gardeners have options for preserving the harvest. Two of the most common methods are freezing and canning.
“Freezing is obviously the easiest method to preserve food,” Short said, since canning involves more rigorous methods for keeping foods shelf stable. Freezing foods is usually quicker and less cumbersome, eliminating the work that goes into sterilizing and sealing jars for home canning.
The disadvantage of freezing is that one needs a dedicated freezer. The refrigerator/freezers in our kitchens are not ideal for preserving food.
“For best results, food that is preserved by freezing should be kept at 0 degrees or lower,” Short said. “This impacts two items: The initial time it takes for the food product to freeze and long-term storage. The longer it takes a food to fully freeze, the lower-quality the product. The freezing compartments of our home refrigerators struggle to maintain this as they are not designed to operate in this way; plus, we open the door multiple times a day.”
“Even at 10 degrees, the storage life of our food is significantly decreased,” Short added. “Typical recommendations are 12 months in a dedicated freezer and three months in the freezer compartment of our refrigerator.”
Freezing foods may take less time than canning, but it isn’t always a matter of just cutting up food and setting it in the freezer. Before freezing, many foods need to be blanched.
“An enzymatic process allows foods to continue ripening after preservation, and blanching halts the process,” Short explained.
Canning food in jars is done through either water-bath or pressure canning.
“This is where it gets tricky,” Short said, because while high-acid or pickled foods may be processed in a water-bath canner, many foods — including all vegetables — must be processed in a pressure canner.
“We think of tomatoes as acidic,” Short said. But, in fact, “acid needs to be added to canned tomatoes.”
Home-canned foods have the advantage of being shelf stable. But canning is more expensive than freezing because more supplies are needed. A pressure canner is more costly than a water-bath canner.
Intact jars can be reused, but “if you are brand-new to canning, you won’t have last year’s jars,” said Short.
In the past, many home canners believed turning jars upside down to seal them was enough. But this method is not safe.
“Yes, the jars sealed,” Short said. But among other things, “the headspace is not sterilized.”
Other unsafe methods she’s heard of include people using their ovens or dishwashers to can foods.
People may not realize the recipe is also critical to safe food preservation.
“Someone may have a good crop of tomatoes and peppers, for example,” Short said, “and decide they want to make their own salsa recipe.” But for safety reasons, homemade recipes should be avoided.
“Use a recipe that’s been tested,” she said.
Why? The consistency and viscosity of the food determines whether the jars and contents reach the temperature needed to kill harmful organisms.
This isn’t your grandmother’s kitchen
So what about recipes that were handed down from years ago?
They might be good for eating immediately — but don’t use them for canning.
“If they have an old recipe that was their great-grandmother’s,” Short said, “I respect the history and integrity of the recipe itself, but it may not be considered safe any longer.
“The recipe should be framed and displayed and not used for preservation anymore.”
In other words, just because it hasn’t made anyone sick in the last 50 years doesn’t mean it won’t.
Where should gardeners look to find a recipe that’s been tested?
Purdue Extension recommends these resources for all things related to food preservation:
The National Center for Home Food Preservation
The University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation was established with funding from the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (CSREES-USDA) to address food safety concerns for those who practice and teach home food preservation and processing methods. The website, https://nchfp.uga.edu/, is a trove of information about canning, freezing, pickling, smoking, curing and fermenting foods. Readers will find tips and tricks on subjects ranging from keeping a gardening book to safely mailing food items to U.S. military.
The University of Georgia publishes a book, So Easy to Preserve 6th edition, which is available for purchase online or in the local Purdue Extension office.
Food preservers can download the USDA canning book from the National Center for Home Food Preservation: https://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html.
The USDA publishes a book, USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, available online or for purchase in the local Purdue Extension office.
For best results, food that is preserved by freezing should be kept at 0 degrees or lowerTonya Short, Purdue Health & Human Sciences extension educator
The Purdue Extension website also has information on current best practices. The USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning and the “Let’s Preserve” series can be found at the Purdue Education Store: https://edustore.purdue.edu/ by searching “canning” and “preserve.”
Usually, Purdue University Cooperation Extension Services hosts an annual five-day training session in home food preservation. Topics include food safety and freezing food, boiling-water canning, pressure canning, pickling and drying foods, and jams and jellies. This year’s session was canceled due to the pandemic, but to attend next year’s session, contact Karen Richey: 574-935-8545 firstname.lastname@example.org; or Atina Rozhon: 812-352.3033 email@example.com.
The bottom line? Whether you’ve been preserving food since you were old enough to hold a spoon or are growing your first garden, you need to use the most recent best practices. You and your loved ones will enjoy the fruits (or vegetables) of your labor well into the winter — until it’s time to plant the garden again next spring.
Recommended sources for home food preservation
United States Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture
search keyword: canning
National Center for Home Food Preservation
Purdue Education Store
search keyword: preserve
USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning
So Easy to Preserve 6th edition
Both books are for sale online or out of the Knox County Purdue Extension office, 4259 N. Purdue Road. Staffing changes may be in effect due to COVID-19; call ahead at 812-882-3509.
Virtual education series
Purdue University is currently offering a series of home food preservation virtual sessions. Sessions began June 2 and continue every Tuesday from 1 p.m. – 2 p.m. through July 21. Topics covered in July include pickling, dehydration and fermentation. To receive the Zoom link, go to https://bit.ly/3brn/NSe. Previous sessions are available for viewing at https://ag.purdue.edu/foodsci/Pages/Food-Preservation.aspx.