Studies estimate that most Americans waste food, an average of 25% or a little over $2,000 annually in the family grocery shopping budget. Fresh produce tops the list of food waste items. Below are easy ways you can preserve fresh fruits and vegetables before they spoil. Even if you have never tried any food preservation methods, you can easily incorporate a few of these simple methods into your weekly routine.
Easy food preservation methods that help avoid food waste
To preserve the best quality fruits and vegetables, it helps to understand the difference between maturity and ripeness. Maturity means the produce will ripen and become ready to eat after you pick it. Ripeness occurs when the color, flavor, and texture is fully developed. Once it is fully ripe, fresh produce begins the inevitable and declining spoilage process. Here’s a guideline:
- Mature, slightly underripe produce is optimal for canning and pickling.
- Ripe produce is best for fresh eating, drying, and freezing.
- Overripe produce is suitable for cooking and freezing; cook fruit as jam or sauce, and vegetables as soup or stew.
- Put moldy or decaying produce in the composter or worm bin!
To prepare fruits and vegetables for preserving, wash in plenty of running water, peel or trim as needed, remove any seeds or cores, and cut into slices or cubes.
Drying is one of the simplest and least expensive forms of food preservation. There are several different drying methods. The easiest methods are oven drying and an electric dehydrator. Oven drying is a good choice if you want to do occasional drying or are drying for the first time. Caution: the oven-drying method is not safe in homes with small children. After drying a few foods, if you want to continue to use the oven method, consider investing in an electric food dehydrator. An electric food-dehydrator can more easily and consistently produce quality dried foods. You can purchase a basic model for as little as $50. The basic process for drying fruits and vegetables is to preheat the oven or food dehydrator to 130°F to 140°F. Place prepared foods on racks or drying trays. Dry until foods have shrunk considerably, are wrinkled. Fruits should no longer be sticky, and vegetables should be brittle. Cool and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Freezing is the process of chilling foods to at least 0°F. True freezing is not possible in the freezer compartment of your refrigerator where the temperature typically hovers near 32°F. Therefore, treat your refrigerator-freezer like a checking account and make small, regular deposits and withdrawals. Freeze fruits and vegetables using the tray pack or liquid pack. Tray pack frozen fruits and vegetables stay separate, allowing you to remove part of the contents and return the frozen remainder to the freezer.
- For tray pack, prepare fruits or vegetables and place in a single layer on a parchment covered tray for 30 minutes or until solid. Transfer to a freezer-safe container.
- For liquid pack, prepare fruits or vegetables, pack into freezer-safe containers, and cover with plain, sweetened (for fruits), or salted (for vegetables) water. Choose meal-size containers, since the product must be thawed and used at one time.
Before drying or freezing, pretreat all vegetables to inactivate spoilage enzymes, unless you know you will be using them within 1 month. Onions, celery, and peppers are exceptions; these vegetables may always be dried or frozen while raw. Blanching fruit is not necessary because it contains natural sugars and acids that delay enzyme activity. Blanching time varies with the size of the vegetable pieces. Leafy greens, small vegetables such as peas and 1/4-inch cubes or slices take as little as 1 minute. One-inch cubes and thicker slices need 2 to 4 minutes, and corn on the cob from 7 to 9 minutes.
- Steam blanching is a good method to use before drying vegetables. You need a large pot or wok fitted with a rack that will hold vegetables over, not in boiling water. Add pieces of food in a single layer, cover, and steam.
- Water blanching is a good method to use before freezing vegetables. Use any large pot (8 to 10 quarts or larger), and a metal sieve or strainer to add and remove vegetables. A large pot with a basket (such as one used for cooking pasta) is ideal.
Test food for sufficient blanching by cutting through or biting into a piece. It should be tender-crisp—tender on the outside, and firm or crunchy in the center. Exceptions are beets, winter squashes, and sweet potatoes; cook these vegetables until tender.
Before drying or freezing, pretreat fruits or vegetables that are susceptible to browning. Prepare produce such as apples and potatoes, and then soak for 5 minutes in one quart water that has one of the following acids added: 750 milligrams ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), OR 1 teaspoon powdered citric acid, OR 1⁄4 cup fresh or bottled lemon or lime juice, OR 1-1/2 teaspoons vinegar AND 1-1/2 teaspoons salt.
Pickling is the process of soaking food in brine (salted water) or acid (such as vinegar or lemon juice). Cultures around the world favor pickled foods to serve with bland, starchy, but economical meals of beans and grains. The easiest type of pickle to make is refrigerator pickles; simply prepare vegetables and cover with a solution of 3/4 cup vinegar or lemon juice, 1/4 cup water, and 1 to 2 teaspoons salt. For sweet pickles, add 1 to 8 tablespoons sugar. “Quick-process” canned pickles require a tested recipe.
Canning heats food in jars to kill bacteria and form a vacuum seal. You must use a tested canning recipe and special glass jars with two-piece canning lids designed for this purpose. The easiest products to can are high-acid foods using the boiling water bath canning method. High-acid foods include most fruits and fruit products such as applesauce and jam. In addition, pickles and relish are safe for water-bath canning, even though they contain low-acid vegetables. Tested canning recipes for pickles and relish have determined the amount of added acid (such as vinegar or bottled lemon juice) to make them safe for boiling water canning.
For more information about food preservation methods and recipes, see the book The Home Preserving Bible by Carole Cancler, available from booksellers everywhere.
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