Homemade Preserves – Not Just for Grandma Anymore!
Many of my young, “hip” friends are going to cringe at what I’m about to say…I absolutely adore the idea of feasting all winter long from a basement filled with jars of goodies that I’ve spent endless hours canning and dehydrating before the season’s first snow flake fell from the sky. And, I’m sure many of them will consider it strange for a 30-something-year-old to be writing about her adoration for food preservation. Surely, canning is something they associate exclusively with their grandmothers!
I must confess that, although I’d love to feast on a season’s supply of canned goodness, I’ve never quite committed myself to the preserving that such a feast would require—unless you count the bazillion bags of peppers that I diced up and froze from my garden last year, but that’s “amateur” stuff—to say the least!
I’ve slowly been coming to terms with the harsh reality, though, that as a local foods advocate, it’s well past time that I reach beyond my “chop-it-up-and-throw-it-in-the-freezer” technique of food preservation. Perhaps next year I’ll be equipped to wow you with my canning expertise, but for now, you’re best left in the hands of this month’s featured guest writer, Rebecka Fleischman, from 4-F Farm in Tekamah, Nebraska.
I met Rebecka earlier this summer at the Florence Mill Farmers Market where I couldn’t help but notice the fine display of dehydrated soup mixes at her stand. We got to chatting, and I discovered that she is quite the self-sufficient gal, and, like me, her commitment to eating REAL food has rewarded her with health improvements worth their weight in…canned peaches! Lucky for all of us, Rebecka has been preserving all sorts of food at home for years, and she has graciously agreed to share with us some “tricks of the trade”…
Canning and Preserving at Home
Over time, the home preservation of food has fallen by the wayside—but, in the last couple of years, it’s been starting to make a comeback. Home preservation of food (pressure canning, open-kettle canning, dehydrating, and freezing) allows my family the year-round luxury of eating local chemical-free, delectable fruits, vegetables, pickles, jams, and jellies, as well as meats. And, best of all, the goodies are ready and waiting anytime we’re in need of a no-fuss, fantastic meal!
If you ever start preserving your own foods, you’ll be hooked! My daughter says that I’ve turned our 6-year-old grandson into a “food snob”—he won’t eat any corn, green beans, tomatoes, etc. unless they are fresh from the garden or home preserved. I even have family members and friends who insist on my dehydrated soup mixes for Christmas and birthdays! If you are trying to get away from corporate processed food, home food preservation is the only way to accomplish that.
I was raised by a Grandmother who always preserved food. Nothing was wasted—you could give it away—but if that failed, you did something with it. I drifted from that philosophy for several years. (Oh, we always had a garden and ate seasonally out of it, froze sweet corn and raised our own meat, but that was it.) When I got sick about five years ago, we got serious about getting our family away from processed, chemically-enhanced foods. We started raising a much wider variety of vegetables and started selling the extras at local farmers markets. I also learned to can, dehydrate, make cheese & butter, grind wheat, etc.
We currently grow about 60% of what we are eating, and by introducing one new thing each month, we are working toward a goal of 90% in about two more years. For now, we grow almost all of our own vegetables; get most of our fruits locally; stone-grind wheat and rye for flour; milk goats; and raise chickens, sheep and meat goats.
Not a farmer? No worries. Just because this is how we live, that doesn’t mean you need to raise all of your own food. You can preserve your own foods without a farm and without a garden—just buy what’s in season locally, and preserve it so you’ll have that great, fresh product year round.
Whatever the season, there’s always something special to preserve for later use. Almost anything you find on a store shelf can be preserved easily at home, instead, without all of the preservatives, MSGs, etc. … YOU have control of what is in your food! And best of all, by preserving what is in season you save big money!
Saving money, better taste, better health…what are you waiting for? Let’s get started…
4 Preservation Methods
Methods of home food preservation include pressure canning, open-kettle canning, dehydrating and freezing. I use all four methods and will explain the benefits and downfalls of each method, along with a general overview of how to use the method on one popular food. (Note: For anyone interested in home preservation of food, the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving is a must for any beginner. I still use mine often!)
This is the simplest, least time consuming, and cheapest (if you already have a freezer) way to home preserve food. The downfalls are that you need to invest in a chest-type freezer, your product needs to be used within a year or less, and if you have any type of long-term electrical interruption you can lose everything. Freezing can be used for almost any vegetable or fruit. Personally, we only freeze sweet corn, peas, and meat. Sweet corn is wonderful eaten fresh during the summer, and it’s just as wonderful when frozen for the winter (and, yes, you can taste the difference)!
Start with fresh corn that has tender kernels that are still in the milk stage (i.e., when you press your thumb nail in a kernel it will squirt a “milk-like” substance at you).
- Step 1: Remove husks and as much silk as possible (do this outdoors if possible) and cut or break off the ends.
- Step 2: Wash the corn using a soft brush to remove any pesky remaining silk strands.
- Step 3: Cut corn from cob. I use a one-piece angel food cake pan. Use the center to hold the bottom of the ear of corn. Hold the top of the ear with one hand, and use your other hand to cut off the kernels (I use a serrated stainless-steel knife). The kernels will fall into the pan as you cut!
- Step 4: Fill a large pan half full of water and bring to a boil. Add enough of the cut corn to fill the pan ¾ of the way full. Begin counting time as soon as corn is in boiling water. Keep heat on high and cover with lid. Blanch for 4 minutes. Immediately remove from heat.
- Step 5: Immediately drain hot corn and put corn in cold water to stop the cooking process. Stir, making sure corn is cooled. You can always drain again and add more cold water. Corn should be completely cooled in less than 5 minutes.
- Step 6: Drain kernels and pack in freezer bags, removing as much air as possible before sealing. Package in the amount your family eats at one meal.
- Step 7: Place in freezer, spreading out bags for quick freezing.
- Step 8: Eat and enjoy
The same basic process is used for most vegetables. For some, such as onions or green peppers, you would not blanch before freezing. If you don’t plan on using your frozen products within less than one year, be sure to vacuum seal them for longer storage time.
2. Open Kettle (Boiling-Water) Canning
This is the cheapest way to start home canning. This method is used for canning fruits, jams, pie fillings, tomatoes, BBQ sauce, ketchup and pickles. Properly canned and stored foods will last three to five years. Do NOT use this method for low-acid foods (green beans) or meats, etc.
Necessary equipment: Boiling water canner with wire rack, glass canning jars, canning lids and rings, canning funnel (fills jars without spilling), jar lifter (lifts hot jars safely out of canner), lid wand (magnetic end lifts lids out of hot water), and a bubble remover (slides into filled jar to release air bubbles and measures head space). The canner will cost around $20-25 and can be found (seasonally) at most discount stores. Ball also offers a utensil kit that includes a jar funnel, jar lifter, lid lifter, and a bubble remover and head space tool for $10-$15. (Check out this Ball Home Canning Kit )
Many of these items can be found at garage sales, auctions, Craigslist, etc. Just get word around to your neighbors and friends that you are going to be canning and need jars. A note tacked up on a grocery store or church bulletin board also works. I’m still using the “old” blue colored canning jars that I’ve picked up. Always check jars for cracks and chips by running your finger around the top to make sure there are no tiny chips. Used rings can also be purchased; they only need to be solid and strong and are reusable for years, serving only to hold the lid down on the jar during the canning process.
Canning with the hot water bath (open kettle) is a simple process: cleaned, sterilized jars (I run mine thorough my dishwasher’s hot rinse cycle or you can boil them, instead) are filled with hot high-acid food. The jar rim is wiped clean. A hot, new lid is placed on the jar, and a clean ring is screwed firmly onto the jar. The filled jars are then placed carefully in the rack and lowered into the boiling water bath of the canning kettle. When filled, the water level needs to be one to two inches above the top of the tallest jars. Put the lid on the pan and allow water to return to a full boil. Start the processing time after the kettle returns to a full boil.
At the end of the processing time, turn off heat, remove lid and allow the kettle to sit for 5 minutes. Carefully lift the rack out and hang it on the edge of the kettle. Using your jar lifter, carefully remove each jar and place onto dry folded towels. You will start to hear a loud “ping” as each jar seals. Leave the jars alone until they are cool. I let mine sit 24 hours. Don’t wipe, touch or move them—this may cause your jar not to seal properly. And do not screw the rings tighter—it will NOT help the jar to seal.
After the jars have cooled, remove the rings, wipe down the jars, and place them in a cool, dark, dry area to store. I date the lids and always rotate my foods. If the contents are not obvious, you will need to label what the contents are. Raspberry jam looks an awful lot like blueberry jam, and spaghetti sauce and tomato sauce look alike, too!
3. Pressure Canning
Compared to open kettle canning, this method allows you to can many more items at once, but the initial investment is much greater, which is the downfall of pressure canning. On average, pressure canners cost $100-$150. (The one I currently use cost over $300, but it allows me to can 14 quart jars per batch—a great time and energy saver when canning large quantities). The rest of the necessary equipment is the same as for open kettle canning. The pressure canner allows you to can low-acid veggies (green beans) and meats (there is nothing better than canned beef or chicken)! This is one area of home preserving I don’t recommend doing alone if it’s your first time. It’s best to have someone with canning experience to help you—not because the canner will blow up (as many fear!), but because there are just some things such as venting, pressure gauge, rocking rates, etc. that are more easily learned from an experienced canner than from reading a book. You need to see these things in action! Ask around, you’ll find someone with experience to guide you.
Last, but not least. This is my favorite method of home food preservation! Friends and family members call me the “dehydrating queen,” and my husband swears that he’s scared to sit still for more than two hours at a time, for fear that I’ll cut him up and have him in the dehydrator for later use!
The advantages of dehydrating are that it’s a relatively low-cost investment (small round dehydrators can be purchased for less than $60); less storage space is required (10 pounds of fresh carrots will dehydrate down and fit in a one-quart canning jar!); it provides longer shelf life (if sealed properly, foods can last up to 10 years); dehydrated veggies maintain about 90% of the nutrition of fresh; and most dehydrated foods look like they have been freshly chopped once they’re re-hydrated.
The downfall to this method is that re-hydrating the items when it’s time to use them is more time-consuming than opening a jar of canned goods.
Essential equipment for this method is, of course, a dehydrator. I started with the small round ones but kept burning them up. If you’re new to all of this, I suggest starting with the small (cheaper) round ones to see if dehydrating is for you. You can also find these at garage sales, Craigslist, etc.
I currently have two Excalibur home 9-tray dehydrators (about $300+ each), and they pretty much run 24/7. I chose this dehydrator because it has square trays for bigger quantity, the fan is in the back, it comes with a 10-year warranty and has variable temperature control. I dehydrate all vegetables, herbs, and most fruits, and I make my own croutons, etc. I do not use these dehydrators for meat because I don’t want to worry about cross contamination.
We make eight different dehydrated soup mixes, and dehydrated tomatoes, onions, chives, and spinach flour that we market to the public. I also make our own “Betty Crocker” style potatoes, “Stove Top” stuffing, instant oatmeal, etc. This allows me the convenience of boxed foods without all of the preservatives, MSG, and salts. The only other equipment needed is probably already in your kitchen: cutting board, sharp knives, vegetable peeler, large kettle, a colander, and air-tight containers (all of our friends save their glass jars, and I reuse them).
When I started dehydrating, I purchased The Dehydrator Bible. But, to be honest, I have only used probably twenty pages of this book, and there may be better books out there. Start with the book that comes with you dehydrator and experiment. When bananas go on sale, I purchase them in large quantities. Some I slice, and some I chop. We use the sliced ones for snacks and the chopped ones for breads, cookies, and instant oatmeal. By pure accident, I learned that if you use a stainless steel or plastic knife when slicing/chopping the bananas, they don’t turn as brown. Some tell you to dip them in lemon juice water, I don’t do this because they become slimy, and I don’t like the texture. This is a preference, so you need to see what you like.
Okay. Are you ready to start preserving? Get going! Don’t try everything at once, though—choose one method, learn that, and then add another skill. When you’re ready to expand, let me know. I’m glad to help!
If you ask me, there is only way to enjoy the rich and versatile flavors that food can offer, and that can only come from one place – YOURS!
About our Farm
My husband, Allen, and I have a 40-acre farm northwest of Tekamah, Nebraska, located about half-way between Omaha and Sioux City, Iowa. We live on the farm my husband was born on. We have four children and two grandchildren. Currently, only our youngest son, Garrett (age 17), is at home; he grows his own garden and markets with us.
We raise a large garden and sell fresh produce at local farmers markets. Currently we market at Tekamah, Blair and Florence Mill Market. Next year, we are adding the Outdoor Midtown Market and working on getting into a couple of other Omaha markets. In addition to the farmers markets, we also market our "Simply Soup" dehydrated soup mixes, dehydrated veggies and herbs, and stone-ground wheat flour and wheat mixes.
When we started down this road of getting away from processed foods, I really missed the convenience of packaged foods. The answer we came up with was dehydrating and making our own mixes—all free of preservatives, MSG, and salt! This summer we started marketing some of these items:
- 8 different soup mixes (each make 3-4 quarts of soup that tastes home-made. All are appropriate for those who are vegetarian, six are Vegan appropriate, and three are gluten-free).
- fresh stone-ground wheat and rye flour
- wheat pancake mix
- wheat beer bread mix (I call it cheat bread—no kneading, no waiting for it to raise)
- spinach flour
- dehydrated herbs (as available)
- dehydrated onions, tomatoes, radishes, garlic
- potato mixes, stuffing mixes, instant oatmeal mixes, pumpkin pie mixes and about 5 other soups that we don’t market…YET!
We also offer gift baskets and soups made to your specifications or special needs.
We welcome visitors to our farm by appointment. Remember to bring your old shoes, this is a working farm and you will find chickens, guineas, ducks and the occasional sheep or goat in our front yard! We can be reached at 402-374-2287 or emailed at 4Ffarms [at] gmail [dot] com—or comment below!