Rim Country gardens are going great guns these days, so most gardeners are harvesting hand over fist.
To help make the harvest last longer, organizers of the Payson Community Garden presented two programs on preserving foods. The first was Wednesday, Aug. 14 and a second was held Tuesday, Aug. 20 at the Church of the Nazarene on Tyler Parkway.
Led by members of the LDS Relief Society Ladies, the program featured information on freezing, canning, dehydrating and pressure canning.
Linda Kreimeyer discussed freezing. It is a quick way to preserve food at its peak condition and probably the easiest method. Freshly picked vegetables, properly frozen can last up to a year.
“Freezing is great way to preserve the natural flavor of foods,” Kreimeyer said.
The equipment needed isn’t anything special: a vegetable slicer/mandolin or sharp knife, a pan for boiling water with a colander insert and tight-fitting lid and heavy-duty plastic bags or containers in which to freeze the food. Kreimeyer had Ziploc bags and opaque plastic containers on display. Members of the class have used the seal-and-freeze machines, which help extract the air from their packages of food.
The most critical step in making sure vegetables keep their freshness when frozen is to blanch them. Blanching is scalding vegetables in boiling water for a short time and then quickly cool (using an ice bath is recommended) before placing in containers. The blanching process stops the enzyme action that can cause loss of flavor, color and texture.
Each vegetable has its own blanching time; most require less than 5 minutes. The exceptions: Globe artichoke hearts (7); corn on the cob – small ears, (7), medium ears, (9), and large ears (11); and especially large onions, which must be blanched until the center is heated (up to 7 minutes). A few vegetables must be actually cooked instead of blanched before freezing: beets, winter squash and sweet potatoes.
Before beginning the process to preserve your produce with blanching and freezing, make sure you wash it well. Kreimeyer recommended adding a half-cup of vinegar to a sink filled with water and let them soak for about five minutes.
Method for Blanching and Freezing
• Bring water in pan to a rolling boil
• Slice vegetables about 3/8-inch thick (green beans don’t have to be sliced)
• Place 2 to 3 cups of sliced vegetables in colander
• Place colander with vegetables into boiling water
• Place lid on pan and keep vegetables immersed with a rolling boil for 2 to 3 minutes (as recommended)
• Remove colander and vegetables (open the lid away from you to avoid steam)
• Cool vegetables rapidly by immersing into cold water, add ice to keep water temperature low and change cold water frequently (cooling the vegetables takes about the same time that is used to blanch them)
• With vegetables still in the colander, allow them to drain for a few minutes
• Place in freezer bags or heavy plastic containers with tight fitting lids.
For additional guidance go online to www.nchfp.usg.edu/how/freeze – this is the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia. Information can also be obtained from the local office of the University of Arizona Extension Service at (928) 474-4160, leave a message and someone will get back to you.
• If it takes more than 45 seconds for the water to return to a rolling boil after you have put the vegetables in, you have too many vegetables in the pan
• Leafy greens, such as kale and collards, don’t need to be blanched, just wash, pat dry and freeze
Preserving food through canning in a water bath can be a tedious process. The big drawback is the time it takes for the water to get back up to the proper, high temperature to seal the canning jars once they have been submerged. It takes anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes for the water to get hot enough and, so, if you are trying to do large batches you can expect to spend all day working in hot, humid conditions.
Stephanie Jenkins, who presented the program on traditional canning, recommends using a steam canner. It cuts preheating time by up to 50 percent.
“Steam canning has been around for the last 25 years. It is so much easier and faster than the old water bath your grandma uses. No more waiting for water to boil and no more waste of water. Steam canning uses only three pints of water compared to the two the three gallons used in a water bath.”
With steam canning you can preserve all fruits, jellies, jams, pickles, tomatoes, salsas and all recipes using tomatoes. However, it cannot be used for canning vegetables and meats, pressure canning is the method recommended for these foods.
The unit she had on display costs $50. It has a shallow bottom; an insert on which to place the jars and lift them out; a tall, tight-fitting lid with a gauge on top indicating when the water is hot enough to seal cans at the altitude in Rim Country.
Jenkins explained that the first step in canning is to prepare your jars. Used jars and screw tops can be used, but the sealing top, with its rubber ring, must always be new.
Check the jars to make there are no chips or cracks and the screw tops have no dents. Wash the jars and screw tops and heat the sealing lids as you prepare to use them.
Put the food in the jar and fill with boiling water to about a half-an-inch of the top and add a teaspoon of special canning salt. Use a non-metal blade and run it around between the food and the inside of the jar to get rid of the air bubbles.
“This is one of the most important things to do. If your canning has air bubbles in it the quality of the food will be destroyed,” Jenkins said.
Once the air bubbles have been cleared, use a lid lifter and take the sealing lids out of the hot water and place them on the canning jars and screw the tops on and place in the steamer.
Put the lid on the steamer and when the gauge pointer reaches the “right elevation” marker (and steam starts coming out of the unit’s vent holes) start timing.
“One of the best sounds in the world is that ‘ping’ you hear when your jars have sealed,” Jenkins said.
When the canning process is complete, use a jar lifter, which comes with canning kits, take the jars out and set them aside to cool.
Drying to preserve food
Food preservation by drying is one of the oldest methods of keeping food for extended periods of time.
The program on drying (dehydration) was presented by Ruth Newton and Patty Cotney.
There are two types of dehydrators on the market — a round unit that requires the user to rotate the drying trays to keep the temperature even; and a square unit that circulates the heated air automatically. Cotney cautioned that food dryers with only heating units and no blowers are not appropriate for dehydrating food.
A round unit requires the initial rotation of trays about four or five hours into the process and then every hour thereafter.
The round units start around $50, while the square units run from about $250 to $430, if you want a timer included.
It is recommended the vegetables be washed, blanched and cut into uniform sizes prior to drying. The uniform size makes it easier to target the processing time.
Newton recommended a food cutter by Progressive, which with a firm push of the bladed lid on the food in the container unit results in extremely uniform sliced, chunks and dices.
“Food drying is fun and practical, especially for couples and singles,” Cotney said.
Once the food is properly dried and stored in tightly sealed jars it can keep for years. To rehydrate it, cover the bottom of a saucepan with about a half-inch of the dried food and then cover it with about an inch of water and allow it to reabsorb the moisture the dehydration process removed.
It isn’t necessary to have special equipment for drying food, some people have let the heat in attics turn grapes into raisins, or dried food under the back windows of their cars and on special framed screens covered with cheesecloth and sealed against bugs and rodents outside.
To help keep dried food the longest, make sure the containers are stored in a dark, dry place.
To keep canned food it is best to store it in a dark place where the temperature doesn’t exceed 70 degrees.