Preserving your harvest often seems like a daunting, time-consuming task, involving pounds of produce, stacks of jars, and boiling kettles on some of the hottest days of the year. Large-batch canning can operate that way: as a project, albeit one that fills your pantry. But it’s not the only way to preserve what you grow. Preservation can happen every time you come in from the garden with a little more than you and your family will eat at the next meal.
Refrigerating, freezing, and dry storing are the trifecta of quick preservation. As I mentioned while describing their pros and cons last week, produce preserved in these ways requires minimal prep and handling. Most of the tools and packaging you need are likely already in your home. Storage times can vary widely with these techniques, but some tips and tricks will let you get the most out of each. Best of all, a wide range of food can be preserved simply and easily with these quick preservation techniques.
What You Can Save
Almost everything I grow can be saved in the fridge, freezer, or a dry place. Many fruits and vegetables can be saved in more than one of these ways. Here’s where I put things when I haul in extra food from the garden:
- Dry storage: apples, beets, carrots, garlic, herbs in salt, horseradish, onions, potatoes, pumpkins, winter squash
- Freezing: asparagus, basil, blueberries, broccoli, carrots, cherries, chilies, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, huckleberries, onions, peas, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries, sweet peppers, tomatoes (cherry to full size), zucchini
- Refrigerating (short term): apricots, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, celery, cilantro, cucumbers, green onions, greens and lettuces, parsley, plums, pears, radishes, rhubarb, snap beans, snap peas
- Refrigerating (long term): apples, beets, carrots, green tomatoes, tomatillos, zucchini, plus pickled, fermented, and other prepared foods
The Tools You Need
If you want to preserve on the fly, you often need to look no further than the standard equipment and tools in your kitchen. With refrigerating and freezing, the biggest challenge can be finding space for long-term storage. Otherwise, the same airtight containers and heavy-duty bags you use for leftovers can hold frozen produce and refrigerated prepared foods, like condiments. In the refrigerator, I’ve mostly transitioned from plastic packaging to cloth bags for fruits and vegetables; they let the produce breathe, are reusable, and can be easily and cheaply sewn at home.
Before you bag or box produce for the freezer, a few other common kitchen items will come in handy. An ice-cube tray works beautifully when freezing pestos and purees. A rimmed tray or pan lets you prefreeze berries and small or chopped vegetables so that they don’t clump into a solid mass in a bag. If you weigh the produce before you freeze it and use a permanent marker to mark this weight on its bag or container, you can pull out precisely what you need for a recipe.
Dry storage is mainly about finding space and repurposing old boxes, buckets, or other containers. Apples keep best when individually wrapped in paper. Beets, carrots, and horseradish keep well when buried in sand; you can pack away a layer at a time or fill a whole container (I use broken-down ice chests) at your final fall harvest.
Making It Quick
Refrigerating, freezing, and dry storage can happen while you’re preparing a meal. If you have extra fresh, whole produce, toss it in a cloth bag and refrigerate it for short-term storage. As I reaffirmed while writing my pickling cookbook, you can pickle almost everything your garden grows. In a few minutes, you can stir up a simple brine for a jar of refrigerator pickles that will last weeks or longer.
Cut fresh fruits and vegetables last less time in the fridge, but they’re easy to spread on a tray, freeze, and bag. So are whole berries and cherry tomatoes; freeze them before they start to spoil, and then pull them out later and defrost them when you’re ready to make and can a sweet or savory jam. Delicate herbs like basil, which will turn dark in the fridge and only last a short time at room temperature, can be quickly chopped and frozen as a pesto or simply in water in ice-cube trays.
I tend to set aside food for dry storage in large quantities, because it often keeps well in the garden until the end of the season. But you can squirrel away a bit at a time and then re-examine, cull, and repackage it as needed after you’ve put the garden to bed.
How Long It Will Last
Refrigeration provides the shortest storage window—sometimes as little as a few days for fresh berries and greens. But some produce, like apples and carrots, can stay fresh for weeks. Check that your fridge is set between 35°F and 38°F; food lasts longer and keeps bacteria at bay when its temperature is no more than 40°F. Produce that is freshly harvested and dry will last longest in the fridge. Storing vegetables and fruit in cloth, rather than plastic, lets them breathe—they may dry out over time, but they’ll be less inclined to mold.
With proper preparation, dry-stored vegetables and fruit can keep into spring. Sort through your haul as you prepare to store it; any pieces that are damaged should be used or frozen. Temperature, humidity, and light affect how well and how long produce keeps, with different fruits and vegetables needing different care. Check on your stored produce regularly and compost anything that starts to spoil before it affects the entire box.
Of this trio of quick processes, freezing preserves many garden treats the longest. In many cases, I’m using up the last of frozen fruits and vegetables just before the next year’s harvest ripens. To make it easy to use, weigh or measure your produce before it goes into the freezer, dividing it into the portions you’re most likely to need, such as 1-3/4 pounds of cherry tomatoes for Tomato–Basil Mac and Cheese and 1 cup of eggplant puree for Baba Ghanouj. Write the weight on the zip-close freezer bag or freezer-proof container, along with the contents and date.
Twice as Tasty
As I mentioned last week, this post ties into a free, real-time, virtual workshop I’ll be teaching on July 15. To get a registration email for the hourlong discussion, simply sign up for the Free the Seeds mailing list. You can find other workshops in the Free the Seeds series here. And although the workshop is free, you’re invited to support Free the Seeds in its mission of building a sustainable and resilient future through real seeds, real food, and real skills.
To keep an eye on what I’m harvesting and preserving from my own garden, follow Twice as Tasty on Instagram. I’d also love to see what you’re harvesting and preserving; just tag Twice as Tasty on Instagram or Facebook.
Update: My live Prepare to Preserve the Harvest presentation is now available online. Watch it here. You can also read the blog series:
- Prepare to Preserve
- Quick Food Preservation (dry storage, freezing, and refrigerating)
- Prepare to Dehydrate
- Prepare to Can
- Prepare to Pickle
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