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Storing the Bounty

by | Oct 22, 2021 | 0 comments

Photo © Olga Volodina/Dreamstime.com

I am a strong proponent of extending the growing season whenever possible, and utilizing row covers, tunnels, and greenhouses to keep up the flow of fresh foods to our tables. However, most of us live far enough north that we cannot harvest all year, so we will need to store some of our bounty.

What are the options? Depending on the crop, it can be frozen, canned, dehydrated, fermented, or held in a root cellar or dry, cool area. The last three options are typically best from a nutritional standpoint, but are more limited in shelf life. Freezing, canning, or dehydration can extend storage life to a year or even more. Let’s look at each one individually, as well as some crops that might be best stored in this manner.

Freezing can apply to almost all fruits and vegetables. A few, such as melons, will lose their texture and become mushy if frozen and completely thawed. Even this type of fruit can be frozen if it is consumed while still in a slushy condition. Freezing is the storage method of choice for most berries. Other than this, the choice between freezing and canning mostly comes down to personal taste and convenience. In most cases, freezing will retain more nutrients than canning.

Canning is a viable choice for the majority of vegetables and fruits. For many people, the freezer gets full before the garden gets empty. Others do not have electricity, so freezing is not a convenient option. There are two types of canning common for household use. You can use an atmospheric pressure water bath canner to preserve most fruits. Lower-acid vegetables and a few non-acidic fruits require a pressure canner to preserve safely. Some canner and jar manufacturers publish canning guides. You can also likely get the needed information from your local extension service. Just be sure to get the information you need before attempting to use this method of storage. Too much processing with a canner will destroy the flavor and nutrition of your food. Too little processing, or using the wrong type, can lead to deadly food poisoning.

Fermenting can be a good way of storing a few foods, especially in conjunction with some form of refrigeration or cold storage such as a good cold cellar. Fermented foods can also be canned, although this will decrease some of their nutritional benefits. Canning fermented foods will help to keep them milder in taste.

Sauerkraut from cabbage is probably the most common fermented vegetable and also the most foolproof. All you need to make sauerkraut is grated cabbage, a crock or large jar, and salt. For basic sauerkraut, use about 2 tablespoons of salt per quart of cabbage. Use a tamper of some sort to pound the cabbage and salt into the jar until you have a layer of liquid on top. Then cover tightly and let it sit at room temperature for about three days before transferring to cold storage. It may be ready to serve in a week, though a longer fermentation time is better. In my opinion, this type of sauerkraut never canned or frozen is good for about four to five months of storage in a refrigerator or cold root cellar. Some individuals enjoy it older and stronger. If you enjoy this sauerkraut, there are many variations of fermented foods you can try. Cultures can be purchased for some types of fermented foods which, if used properly, will greatly increase the success rate. A variation that we often use is to add some grated carrots and onions when making our sauerkraut.

A cold cellar can be a most useful method of storage for many crops. Ideal cold cellars will be freestanding away from other buildings and buried deep enough into the ground to be below frost level. It must be well-drained, either by a drain run downhill from the location or with a sump pump. In very dry desert climates this requirement may lose importance. Unless a cold cellar is built into the side of the hill, it will typically be accessed by a set of steps. In the case of a sidehill level entry model, the front wall and doorway should be thickly insulated. Where a cold cellar is accessed from above, two regular doors, one at the top of the stairs and one at the bottom, are likely to be sufficient insulation. Regardless of other factors in design, every cold cellar should include some ventilation pipes to allow for a slow exchange of air.

Although not as ideal, an acceptable cold cellar can be constructed in an existing house basement by well insulating a room along an outside wall (ideally on the north side) and providing some means of ventilation to keep the temperature down. The practicality of this will vary widely with building types and climates, but you want a space that you can keep just above freezing and with relatively high humidity for as long as possible during the winter months.

Other methods of cold cellaring include burying an old chest freezer a foot or two below the soil and using a piece of plywood or some such cover for a lid at ground level to further insulate the freezer lid. A large garbage can buried with room for a couple of straw bales on top is another improvised cold cellar.

Crops that are ideal for cold cellar storage include carrots, beets, celery, leeks, potatoes, cabbage, apples, pears, oranges, and grapefruit. Also, for a shorter period of time, broccoli and cauliflower can be stored. Carrots, beets, celery, and leeks prefer very moist conditions and are best stored near the floor of the cold cellar. Carrots especially do very well stored in tubs of damp sand. The other crops listed prefer slightly dryer conditions and will store best on shelves up off the floor. Ideal conditions are 32° to 40° Fahrenheit and 85% to 90% relative humidity.

Although the ideal storage conditions are similar for all the crops listed, fruits and roots do not always store well together. Fruits, especially apples, emit ethylene gas which can cause roots to turn bitter. When using the same cold storage for both, keep them as far apart as possible, and consider using sealed containers for the root crops.

Other crops are best stored cool and dry, particularly garlic and onions. The ideal for these crops are 32° to 50° F and 50% to 60% relative humidity. These conditions can sometimes be met in a garage or dry outbuilding kept from freezing with good insulation or a nominal heat source.

Pumpkins, winter squash, and sweet potatoes are best stored moderately warm and dry. About 60° F and dry conditions will keep these for maximum time. You might consider storing these crops in a spare bedroom with the registers closed, or in a closet on the cold side of the house.

Many other crops can also be stored in these conditions if they are dehydrated. Naturally dehydrated foods include grains and dried beans. Many other moist vegetables and fruits can be mechanically dehydrated and stored for extended time. Dehydrated foods for extended storage should be sealed in tightly closed containers to prevent insect and moisture entry. One advantage to dehydration over freezing and canning is that the food is calorie dense and very portable.

Regardless of your storage choice, remember to work the stored food into your daily diet. Avoid wasting your time and God’s blessings by holding stored food past its shelf life. If you cannot enjoy it all yourself, and perhaps even if you could, remember to share with the less fortunate.

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