Food Preservation 101: Part 3 – Dehydrating

Like canning jars, food dehydrators seem to be regulars at the local thrift shop. I got mine, brand-new with receipts still attached, for a whopping $1.75 at the local thrift store a few years back thanks to a neighbor who volunteers there and snapped it up for me. It’s not fancy and it doesn’t have multiple heat settings like some of the fancier ones, but I’ve gotten a lot more than two dollars’ worth of use out of it in the last few years.

Dehydrating not only adds a bit of variety to the winter pantry, but it also allows you to make things that are a bit more portable than a jar of canned goods. Things like dried tomatoes, apples, or pears make a great snack for the children’s school lunches and are also good for adding to things (tomatoes to soups, the apples and pears to my Christmas mince pies!). And dehydrated food takes up less space in the cupboard which, judging from the endless sea of canning jars in my kitchen, can be a good benefit for the preservation obsessed.

A few tips before you start slicing and dicing everything and putting on the dehydrator:

  • Make sure that food is fresh. I mean, really, really fresh. If the tomato has some bad spots, cut out a generous portion of good tomato around the bad spot. If you don’t, you’ll get off flavors, they won’t last as long, and they might discolor or, worse, spoil. If you wouldn’t can it, don’t dehydrate it.
  • Use citric acid to preserve color and flavor. If you want your preschooler to eat the stuff you dehydrate, it’s best if its the right color. You know, red tomatoes, not brown. Creamy yellowish apples and pears, not brown. Not that I have anything against brown in general, but a quick bath in 1T citric acid dissolved in 4 c of water will keep the brown away. Oh, and skip the expensive fruit fresheners with added sugar, etc. Plain old citric acid from the drug store (the kind I have around the house anyway because I use it to make cheese) works just fine and is less expensive.
  • Slice things evenly so that they dry evenly. I’m notoriously bad at this as my sisters and husband can attest, but I try to be good when I’m prepping food for the dehydrator. If there’s a wet spot in a single apple in your bag, you could get mold and spoilage. Slicing things in even thicknesses really does help. That’s why I have one of those nifty old-school apple corer/slicers. Because I’m just not that precise otherwise.

I think you can tell from my post that tomatoes, apples, and pears are my favorite things to dehydrate, but this year I’m also freezing a whole lot of fruit pulp that would make great sorbet or fruit leather! The children love fruit leather and I don’t do it much because of the messiness factor and the tooth decay factor, but in moderation, it’s a great treat. Herbs also dry really well on the dehydrator, although it’s so dry here that I can just hang them upside down somewhere out of the sunlight and they dry in a day or two.

I’ve also tried lemon peel, raisins, zucchini, and apricots on the dehydrator and although they’re edible, I probably won’t do any more. As usual, the Ball Blue Book has lots of ideas for drying things. As my brother learned when preparing food for my sister’s through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, things like onions and garlic taste great dried but stink up your whole house. Perhaps a solar dehydrator (you know, used outdoors) would be good if you really want to make your own onion or garlic flakes 😉

AP Newswire: Canning not just for old ladies any more!

OK, the AP didn’t quite phrase it like that (read the full story on Salon.com), but when I first started canning almost ten years ago in my early twenties, I felt like the only person of my generation who was even interested. I learned much of what I know today about canning from the older generations: my Aunt Amy, my mother-in-law, my fantastic former-neighbor.

So when I used to mention to folks my own age that I was into canning, I think they just thought, “there’s just another quirky thing about Julie.” Since having children, I’ve met up with another couple of moms of my generation (younger, even!) who can, and have discovered a couple of canners through blogging as well!

Not it turns out that we were trend-setters and we didn’t even know it. The Associated press reported today:

As food prices rise and the economy declines, more people are turning to home canning…Retail sales of Ball canning products have increased nearly 30 percent this year, and sales of the company’s plastic freezing containers have doubled over last year, according to market data from Information Resources Inc.

“It fits with what we’ve seen historically from the 1970s and even before then: When people tighten their belts, they focus a little bit less on convenience items and convenience foods and focus a little bit more on staying home and making their own, whether you’re talking about food or fun,” Scherzinger said.

I admit that saving money was not really a factor in my decision to start canning years ago–I just wanted the incredible taste of home-canned grape juice all year long–but it’s an added bonus now that there is economic uncertainty. And I certainly prefer knowing every last ingredient in our food and knowing that most of it came from local farmers I visit every week at the market.

So, now that you know that canning’s not just for old ladies any more, would you like to try it? Check out my series on food preservation:

And watch this space for the next installments on freezing and dehydrating!

Make Your Own Cure for the Winter Blues!

This past winter, I tried hard to limit our grocery store fruit purchases to US fruit. That meant a lot of citrus from Texas and a lot of apples from Washington, which overall, was fine with us. Then, it happened. An insidious interloper appeared on the grocery store shelves. Something so seemingly-wonderful, and yet so completely out of place that it caught not only my eye, but my son’s: watermelon in January.

He begged. He pleaded. He wheedled. He drove me nuts. He wanted that watermelon. I stuck to my guns, knowing that watermelon in January from Ecuador could not possibly taste as sweet as watermelon in August picked the day before and transported by hand to the market. Then we went to a friend’s house and saw, you guessed it, watermelon.

My friend reads this blog and teases me about the watermelon (especially because, months later, Gabriel STILL asks why I wouldn’t buy it for him) and she’s given my family a free pass to come eat non-local food at her house during what some may perceive as my latest experiment in dogmatism.

But this winter, I have the cure for those wintertime watermelon blues! In a bit of forward-thinking genius, I decided to spend a few hours this summer turning the perfectly ripe fruit of August into perfectly delicious sorbet syrups that I could freeze and make either into sorbet or popsicles this winter.

So next time those Ecuador melons rear their “bred for 5000 miles of travel, not flavor” heads, I’ll be prepared. So far, I’ve done strawberry, muskmelon, and, of course, watermelon. I’ve got quite a few more planned, but I’ll share the basic recipe:

2 cups fruit pulp
1/4 – 3/4 c sugar or honey, or a mix, to taste (quantity depends on the sweetness of the fruit, so I did none for muskmelon, 1/4 cup for watermelon, and 3/4 c for the strawberries)
Puree in the food processor and either chill, then pop it into the ice-cream machine or label and freeze for January!

Some of the recipes I have for sorbet call for additions like wine that I will add when it’s time to make the sorbet (no, I won’t be adding wine to the popsicle mix!). Others call for HFCS, which I have conveniently forgotten to add. I know this will make the sorbet more icy, but I think it will still be a yummy diversion mid-winter.

Food Preservation 101: Part 2 – Making Jam!

There is nothing sweeter than home-made jam. And that’s not because it has more sugar. It’s because the fruit is fresher, the jam is less processed, and, well, because making it yourself always makes it taste better!

If you are new to canning, please review Part 1 in this series, Home Canning for all the details on getting started.

Selecting Fruit for Jam
This is one case where bigger is not always better! Especially when it comes to strawberries, the giant, white on the inside, weeks of shelf-life varieties are not going to make good jam. I use ones from the local market, picked the day before at the latest. You know, the kind that start to disintegrate in the bag on the way home…Yep, those are the best ones. Red all the way through and sweet enough that you can probably cut back the sugar in your jam recipe a bit (especially if you’re using added pectin). But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Selecting a Recipe
If you’re new to making jam and feeling a bit nervous, a recipe that includes added pectin may be for you. Added pectin pretty much guarantees that your jam will set and reduces the cooking time dramatically. If you like jelly (chunk-free) instead of jam (bring on the chunks!), you will probably have to use pectin for best results (I made a batch of grape jelly without added pectin once and although it tasted good, we cooked it FOREVER!).

If you’re an experienced jam-maker, trying to be really, really, local/simple, or just have an insane delight in stirring very hot sticky liquids for 30+ minutes, opt for a recipe with no added pectin. That’s the kind of jam you’ll get from ChezArtz and, although I have made one batch waaaaay too soft and another batch waaaaay too firm this year, I always find uses for the fruit (try a batch too soft for toast as ice-cream topping or in your home-made yogurt–yum!). These recipes usually contain fruit and sugar. That’s it.

To Add Pectin or Not to Add Pectin?
What is pectin, you might ask? Pectin is a substance that occurs naturally in fruits that puts the “gel” in jelly. Apples, grapes, blackberries, cranberries, currants, gooseberries, and plums typically have lots of natural pectin. Blueberries, cherries, apricots, peaches, pineapples, and rhubarb are lower in pectin. So it’s easier to make jam with no added pectin from the high-pectin fruits than it is from the low-pectin fruits, but I can personally attest that it is not impossible (or even that difficult) to make jam from peaches, apricots and strawberries with no added pectin.

If you use added pectin, you need to follow the directions in your recipe carefully with regards to the amount of sugar. Too little sugar and the jam might not turn out. If you choose to skip the pectin (which I almost always do), you can add less sugar, substitute honey for part or all of the sugar (this does affect the flavor, especially if you use a stronger wild honey), and otherwise play around with the recipe until you’ve got it just right for your family’s tastes.

Best Strawberry Jam
I’m pretty much obsessed with jam. I like it on just about everything and so do my children. And Matt never seems to complain about the massive quantities of jam in our cupboards either 😉

This recipe, from the Ball Blue Book, is one of my favorites. It is technically a preserve instead of a jam, but the thing is, whether conserve, preserve, or jam, they all taste great and I smear them all on toast, so I’m not inclined to remember the difference!

2 qts strawberries (there I go dinking with the recipe, which calls for 1.5 Qt of fruit)
1/3 c lemon juice
5 c sugar

  1. Combine the strawberries and sugar in a large pan. Let stand 3-4 hours.
  2. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  3. Add the lemon juice.
  4. Cook rapidly until strawberries are shiny and syrup is thick, 10-12 minutes (I have found this takes longer at elevation, up to 20 minutes).
  5. Let stand, uncovered, for 12-24 hours in a cool place.
  6. Start your canning bath and have pint or half-pint jars, bands, and lids on hand.
  7. Reheat the fruit mixture to just below boiling point.
  8. Ladle hot fruit into the jars, which you’ve placed in the canning bath so that they’re good and hot (this prevents the odd freakish jar shattering that really can make a mess in the bottom of your boiling-hot canning bath), leaving 1/4 inch head space.
  9. Put your lids and bands on and lower the cans into the bath.
  10. Process for 20 minutes (below 1,000 ft), 25 minutes (1,001-3,000 ft), 30 minutes (for us here at 5,500 ft), or, if you’re really high up there, 35 minutes (6,001-8,000 ft), or 40 minutes (8,001-10,000 ft).
  11. Pull the jars out and resist the urge to monkey with them until they have cooled. Sometimes the jars won’t seal (you know, the nice little “pop” that they make as the air is finally forced out and the lid pulled down snug) until they start to cool. So don’t poke, prod, or twist the caps. Seriously!

Telling When Jam has Reached the Gelling Point
The gelling point is the holy grail for jam-makers and it’s one of those things that you have to see once before you can really know it. Sugar & fruit mixtures get pretty foamy and have a tendency to boil over if you don’t stir like mad, and the gelling point isn’t reached until you’ve moved past the foam to a clear, thickening liquid. You can dribble some on a plate you’ve cooled in the freezer to see if you’ve made it to the gelling point, and it is possible to go beyond the gelling point and end up with jam the consistency of hard ice-cream, which is not nice for spreading on toast.

So play around a little, and don’t be afraid to repurpose an undercooked batch of jam for yogurt, as I already mentioned! It seems more likely that you’d undercook the jam than overcook (the batch I overcooked came right after an undercooked batch, so I was a bit on the paranoid side!). The ease of not quite getting it right, even if you’ve been making jam for years, is why I chose a slightly different recipe above. It takes less cooking because soaking the fruit in the sugar syrup naturally pulls out much of the pectin.

Food Preservation 101: Part 1 – Home Canning

A couple of folks have asked me for a quick how-to on making jam. I realized I couldn’t jump straight into recipes & tips until I covered some basics on canning itself. What is home canning and how does it work? What do you need to get started? Do you really need to take a Master Food Preservation class before you can start? Do you need a pressure-canner? Well, here are my thoughts, as someone who has been canning for close to ten years now…

What is Home Canning?
Home canning is the process of vacuum sealing food into glass jars using bit pot of hot water, oodles of clear glass jars, and time spent stirring and ladling food into those jars. The air is forced out of the jars as the jars sit in a bath of boiling water (the “canning bath”) and as the jars cool, the disposable lids, which have a heat-activated sealant, seal tight to keep the food inside fresh for up to a year (OK, that’s the official story–I have no problem using food that I myself have canned and that looks and smells fine for up to two years).

There is a lot of great information on CSU’s Nutrition Resources Pages if you want to learn more from the experts in addition to what I’ve put together below.

How do you can food?

First, I am not a high-tech canner. I do not own a pressure canner, which means that anything low-acid (like green beans or carrots, for example) gets dried or frozen, not canned. Texture is better anyway, in my opinion. So I primarily can things like jam, pickles & high-acid fruits and use a very simple and inexpensive canning bath that came in a kit like this one. Some of the kits are upwards of $50 now, so watch for sales, borrow from a friend, or look for a used set if you’re looking to invest less at the beginning.

The great thing about these kits, though, is that they also come with the Ball Blue Book, which is essentially the canner’s Bible. If, like me, you have one of your Grandma’s old copies from 1952 hanging out on your bookshelf, keep it for posterity, but double-check the recipes from a newer edition. The kits also typically have a pair of canning tongs for moving hot jars, a funnel for getting hot food into the jars, a nifty magnet for lifting hot lids onto the tops of the jars, and, depending on whether you get the simple or deluxe kit, some canning jars, canning lids, and some plastic lids to use once you’ve opened a jar of canned food.

Although most grocery stores carry lids and jars, you can often find them at thrift stores, on Craig’s List, or even Freecycle. As long as the jars are not chipped and the canning bands are not rusty, you might as well get the freebies, because once you’re obsessed with canning, you’ll need lots of jars in lots of different sizes (wide mouth quart jars for canning peaches, for example, narrow mouth quart jars for apple cider and grape juice, wide mouth pint jars for pickles, and narrow mouth pint & half-pint jars for jam).

Selecting food & recipes

Once you’ve got the supplies assembled, it’s time to consider a recipe. While I think the Blue Book has the best overview of canning and is a great resource, many of the recipes are the traditional ones you might have eaten years ago (adjusted for the additional safety guidelines that now exist, of course), but are not, perhaps, as contemporary as your palate. So poke around on the Internet for recipes or consider one of several great new canning books that are out there (I personally have not ventured much beyond the Blue Book because I mainly can staple foods like jam & fruits).

When selecting food to can or preserve, the fresher, the better. If you can get it picked the day you’re going to can it, do. Our canning season starts with strawberry jam in late June/early July, then moves on to apricots for both jam and canned halves, cucumbers & onions for pickles, and the first of the peaches (also jam & canned halves) in July, then plums, grapes, tomatoes and more peaches in August, and wraps up with pears & apples in September & October. While you can preserve the very last tomatoes you pull from the vine in October, the ones you pick at the peak of ripeness in August will last longer and taste better.

The quality of the fruits & vegetables you select is the most important factor in the success of your canning. A tie for close second goes to the recipe you choose and the techniques you use in canning, which I’ll touch on in part 2 tomorrow.