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Food Preservation

Food preservation is one of the most important tasks for a homesteader.  Not only will preserving food save you money in the long term but living sustainably will help to preserve our resources and reduce waste.

The three main ways of preserving food is canning, freezing and drying.  Anyone can preserve food with these methods and you don’t need any specialised equipment if you are just starting out.

Table of Contents
Food Preservation Considerations
Canning
Freezing Fruit and Vegetables
Drying Herbs and Fruit

Food Preservation Considerations

Always choose fresh firm ripe produce for food preservation then preserve as soon as possible to maintain as much nutrition as possible.

Low Acid Foods

Food that contains little natural acid include all vegetables except tomatoes, meat, seafood and soup.

Acid Foods

Acid foods contain 0.36% or more of natural acid such as tomatoes and some fruits or food preserved with vinegar such as pickles and relishes.

Yeast, Mould and Bacteria

They are microorganisms found in water, soil, air and on food.  They can cause food spoilage if not destroyed by heat.

Botulism

Botulism is the most important consideration in food preservation. This is food poisoning caused by a toxin which is produced by the growth of spores of the bacteria, clostridium botulinum, in a sealed jar.  They grow in the absence of air in low acid food. 

Spores can be destroyed when low acid foods are processed in a pressure canner.  Low acid food should be boiled for at least 10 to 20 minutes before tasting to destroy any spores that may be present.

Flat Sour

This is a common type of spoilage in canned vegetables caused by bacteria which gives food an unpleasant and sour flavour.  This can be avoided by using correct methods of preparing and processing food.

Canning

Relishes, jams and pickles are great for beginners as they can be canned in a water bath canner.  As long as you follow the recipe and get the right amount of vinegar, salt and sugar you can’t go wrong.

As you progress it is worthwhile investing in a pressure canner for processing low acid vegetables.  This is different to a pressure cooker as you will need to be able to adjust the amount of pressure. 

Equipment Needed

Water Bath Canner

This is simply a large saucepan with a rack so the jars don’t rest on the bottom.  It needs to be tall enough so that you can place your jars on the rack and cover them with an inch of water above the top of the lids.  You will need another inch above that for the boiling water.

To save water use this water bath to first boil the jars and lids for at least 10 minutes to sterilise then carefully take out with tongs then place on a baking tray.  Place the baking tray with the jars and lids in a preheated oven 212°F (100°C) to keep the jars hot and sterilised while making your pickles, relish or jam.

For more information see this on Sterilizing Jars.

Use the same pot of hot water to process your filled jars.  It will take less time to heat up and you will use less water.  As this water is clean you can then use it to wash up your dishes or soak stained clothes in after you have finished canning.

A water bath canner is used for relishes, pickles and jams but not for low acid food in brine as they will need a pressure canner.

Try this category on Canning Recipes or try this recipe for Old Fashioned Tomato Relish, Pickled Beetroot or Canned Jalapeno Peppers.

How to sterilise jars and lids

Pressure Canner

A pressure canner is a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid and gasket that prevents steam from escaping.  The lid will have a pressure gauge, vent and safety valve.

The vent can be opened to allow steam to escape from the canner or closed to build up the pressure and prevent steam from escaping.

The pressure gauge measures the pressure and temperature inside the canner.  This gauge is a must for measuring and maintaining the required pressure.

The safety valve releases steam when the pressure becomes dangerously high.

Gaskets are usually rubber and can be removed for cleaning.

Warning

Always make sure the vent, safety valve and the edges of the lid are clean.  To clean the vent and safety valve poke a needle through the holes with string or a narrow strip of cloth.

Jars and Lids

Use canning jars that have been heat treated.  Some jars such as mayonnaise jars will break.  If reusing jars from the grocery store it is best to use jars that have already been used for pickles, relishes or sauces such as pasta sauce. 

Make sure that there is no rust, nicks or dents on the lids and that they seal well.  Any defects will prevent an airtight seal from forming. See my guide to getting the labels off of jars.

Funnels and Tongs

Use silicone or stainless steel but be sure to sterilise with the bottles.  Some cheap plastics may not hold up to the heat.  Funnels are not essential but do make filling jars easier.

Preparation

Wash your jars and lids in warm soapy water, rinse well then invert until ready to use.

It is best to sterilise your equipment before you start preparing your food to be canned.  Boil equipment for 10 minutes in a water bath canner with a rack to keep the glass away from the bottom of the saucepan.

Place equipment on a clean tray in a preheated oven 100°C (212°F).  This will keep the jars hot and prevent any contamination.

Cooking

Use an extra-large saucepan for cooking preserves, jams and pickles to prevent anything boiling out of the pan and splattering on your skin.  Prepare only enough food that will fill the number of jars that fit in your canner at one time. 

Food preservation canning methods. Use a large pot for canning recipes.
Food preservation canning methods. Use a large pot for canning recipes.

Any excess can be stored in a sterilised jar in the fridge but must be used within a week for low acid foods and within a few weeks for higher acid foods or jams.

Always follow the amounts in a recipe exactly to ensure success.  Refer to the recipe for the required head space (the amount of space you leave at the top of the jar).

With most recipes you simply cannot walk away from it for too long while it’s cooking.  It will need regular stirring to prevent sticking and burning.  A little patience goes a long way.  Sometimes it seems like it takes forever to reach the jell point but it will happen.

Using a funnel prevents food from sticking around the rim of the jar when filling.  You can use a clean damp cloth to clean off anything around the outside rim.

Fill the jars immediately after cooking then process straight away.

Processing refers to heating the food hot enough and long enough to destroy organisms that cause food spoilage and stops the action of enzymes.  The kind of canner to use will depend on what is being canned.

Processing in a Water Bath Canner

It is recommended to process foods high in acid in a water bath canner such as fruits, tomatoes, relishes and pickles.  Jams, conserves, marmalade and butters can also be processed in a water bath for a minimum of 5 minutes.

Place jars onto the rack in the canner with hot water then make sure there is an inch of water above the top of the jars.  Bring to a boil then start the processing time from when the water starts to boil. 

Carefully remove the jars with tongs as soon as the time is up then set aside to cool.  The lids will pop on cooling meaning an airtight seal has formed.

Processing in a Pressure Canner

A pressure canner should be used for low acid foods such as vegetables, meat and fish.  Failure to properly process low acid foods in a pressure canner can result in botulism food poisoning which can be fatal.

Always follow the manufacturers directions for your pressure canner.  Usually you will need to put 2 to 3 inches of hot water in the canner depending on its size.

Place the jars on a rack in the canner then secure the lid so no steam can escape.

Watch until steam escapes from the vent.  Let it escape for 10 minutes to drive all air from the canner.  Proper processing is impossible if any air remains in the canner.  Close the vent.

Let the pressure rise to 10 pounds (115°C or 240°F).  When the pressure is reached begin the processing time.

Keep the pressure constant by adjusting the heat under the canner.  Do not lower the pressure by opening the vent and keep drafts from blowing on the canner.

When processing time has finished remove the canner from the heat.

Opening a Pressure Canner

Let the canner sit until the pressure is zero.  Never rush the cooling process by running cold water over the top as cooling too quickly may cause the jars to crack.

When the pressure reads zero wait a few minutes more then slowly open the vent.  Unfasten the lid then tilt the far side of the lid up so the steam escapes away from you then remove the jars.

Using a pressure canner can seem scary at first but as long as you take care and keep an eye on it at all times it can be done successfully and is a great way to preserve food from your garden for the coming year.

If you are concerned about botulism and are not certain that your pressure canning method was correct; boil the food before tasting as botulism may not show any signs of spoilage.

Testing Seals

Test the jar is sealed 24 hours after it has cooled by pressing down gently on the lid.  If it is down and doesn’t move the jar is sealed.  Label with the date made and the contents then store in a dry cool place away from direct sunlight.  Most foods can be safely stored for 1 to 2 years.

If you find a jar hasn’t sealed after processing use the food straight away or empty the jar then can and process the food again in a new jar.  Check the old jar for defects.  Do not store a jar that has not sealed.

Signs of Spoilage in Canned Food

Do not use any food that shows signs of spoilage.  Always examine your jars before opening and check for bulging lids and leaks.  When the jar is opened look for spurting liquid, mould and off smells.

Spoilage may occur in food that is stored in a warm place so always find a dark cool spot for storing your food.

Heating the food will make the off odour more evident.  Boil the food for at least 10 minutes and if it has an off colour or foams during heating destroy it making sure no animals can access the spoiled food.

Freezing Food

Freezing food is the quickest and easiest method of food preservation.  By freezing food picked fresh from your garden you are ensuring maximum nutrition stays in the vegetable or fruit.

How to use leftover beans

Problems with Freezing Food

Freezer burn is the biggest problem causing off coloured limp food but there are ways to combat it.

  • Use thick freezer bags or double up the bags to create a thicker barrier.
  • Ensure all the air is expelled from the bag before freezing.
  • Use freezer containers that can be reheated in the microwave for convenience.
  • Consider blanching vegetables, creating soups and stews which freeze well or make a syrup for fruit.

Blanching Vegetables

Blanching vegetables before freezing will help prevent freezer burn and bacteria.  Blanched vegetables should also store in the freezer for longer.

Blanch vegetables in boiling water for 30 seconds to 1 minute for root vegetables then cool off quickly in ice water to stop the cooking process.  Drain well before freezing.

Freezing Fruit in Syrup

Fruit will freeze for longer if it is stored in a sugar syrup however some fruits will store well without such as berries.  Stone fruits are best stored in a syrup.

It doesn’t really matter whether you make a light or heavy syrup, it is just personal preference.  You can also substitute up to half of the sugar with honey.

Light Syrup

2 Cups Sugar to 1 Litre (1 quart) Water

Medium Syrup

3 Cups Sugar to 1 Litre (1 quart) Water

Heavy Syrup

4 Cups Sugar to 1 Litre (1 quart) Water

You will need enough syrup to just cover the fruit. 

For storing in plastic freezer bags the syrup will need to be cooled slightly so it won’t melt the bags. 

Remember that liquid expands in the freezer so you will need to leave a little head room when sealing the freezer bag or space in the top of a freezer container.

If you know you will use the fruit for a pie filling it is best to make up the filling with the correct amounts prior to freezing.  It is easy to thaw out the one bag overnight in the fridge then add to your pastry crust and bake.

Thawing Out Food Safely

Who hasn’t left food out on the counter to thaw?  Perhaps this is acceptable in cooler climates but it is always best to thaw out food overnight in the fridge or in a microwave to prevent bacteria growth.

For guides on freezing different foods, try this category on Freezing Food.

Drying Food

Drying food is easy and doesn’t require any special equipment but if you do dry a lot of food you may want to invest in drying rack or make some up yourself.  Some foods can be dried more successfully than others.

How to Dry Sage

Herbs

Herbs are the easiest and quickest food to dry.  Simply give your plant a crew cut, placing the leaves in a basket.  Wash the leaves in a clean sink of cold water then leave to drain.

Place the leaves still on their stems on drying racks or trays lined with kitchen paper then turn every day until completely dry.  Over a large bowl run your fingers down the stems to remove the leaves then store in an airtight container in a cool dark place with todays date on the label.

Herbs will store up to 2 years but they will slowly loose their potency over time.

Drying Fruit

Drying fruit can be done in a dehydrator, naturally on drying racks or in the oven with a low temperature.  Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place then use within a year.  Dried fruit can be rehydrated by soaking or added to your cereal in the morning.

For guides on drying different food, try this category on Drying Produce.

Food Preservation Tips

The most important things to remember when preserving food is to ensure your hands and equipment are kept clean, follow the recipe amounts exactly, label with the date, always check for spoilage and store food correctly.

The amount of money you can save, especially with the price of food rising, is well worth the effort.

For more recipes and guides on preserving different foods, try this category on Preserving Food.

To Print or Save this guide on Food Preservation, click the link below for the PDF File.

If you liked this food preservation guide you might be interested in this guide to Homesteading.

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