One of the things I love most about the summer is enjoying my backyard container garden. While I always introduce some new plants each year, a number of my staples never change — you can’t go wrong with lettuce greens, peppers, and certain herbs.
These plants produce well and provide enough food to last all year. Unfortunately, they won’t stay good that long. But with a bit of careful planning, you can preserve many of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs you grow to make your harvest last throughout the year.
Preserving Produce & Herbs
Freezing, drying, pickling, and canning are effective ways to preserve the produce and herbs you grow during the gardening season. The method you choose depends on what you hope to do with the food when it comes time to eat it.
For example, if you have some productive blueberry bushes and love blueberry muffins, freezing them is the best route. If you’d rather enjoy those blueberries as a jam throughout the winter, preparing and canning a jar or two is probably best. No matter which of these preservation methods you choose, knowing what to do with the produce helps you extend its life.
Freezing is one of the easiest ways to preserve a variety of vegetables and fruits. While it’s a pretty simple method, it does involve a bit more than just tossing a few vegetables into a zip-close bag and stashing them in the freezer. Before you freeze them, you should blanch (cook briefly in boiling water) many vegetables, such as beans, peas, and corn, and savory fruits like tomatoes and peppers. And the sooner you freeze produce after you harvest it, the better.
Blanching before freezing has several benefits, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP). It preserves the color of the produce, reduces vitamin loss, and cleans the vegetables (you can skip the blanching if you’re freezing most fruit).
Follow these steps so you can enjoy a variety of produce throughout the winter:
- Prep the Produce. You must prepare produce before you freeze it. For example, you must remove shelling peas from the pods before blanching. Chop larger vegetables, such as broccoli, into smaller pieces. One exception is corn, which is easier to blanch (the next step for some produce) while it’s still on the cob. If desired, slice it off of the cob after blanching. You can prep fruit for freezing by washing and drying it. You must also peel and slice some fruits, such as peaches.
- Blanch Vegetables. You can skip this step for fruits, including vegetable-like fruits such as peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Fill a large pot with 1 gallon of water for every pound of produce. Bring the water to a boil, and place the vegetables in a blanching basket or heat-proof colander the right size to fit into the pot. Once the water is boiling, submerge the basket or colander, making sure all the vegetables are covered with water, and wait for it to once again rise to a boil. Alternatively, you can put the vegetables directly in the water and strain it in a colander after boiling. How long you cook the vegetables depends on their size and density. Peas need about a minute, while bigger, thicker vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, need around five. The Canadian Produce Marketing Association provides a handy chart that lists blanching and reheating times for various vegetables.
- Rinse, Cool, and Dry. Once you’ve blanched the vegetables, turn off your stove, and strain them. Cool the vegetables by pouring them into a bowlful of ice water. Keep adding ice to the bowl of water to keep the temperature down. Keep them in the ice water for the same amount of time as you cooked them, then strain them again and spread them out on a towel to dry. If you’re freezing fruits, simply give them a quick rinse and let them dry.
- Package. You can package fruit and vegetables for the freezer once they’re dry. Plastic zip-close freezer bags are best — they tend to offer the most efficient use of freezer space, and you can use a variety of sizes. Smaller bags are ideal if there are just a few people in your household, while larger bags work for bigger families or larger produce, such as whole tomatoes. Squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible before sealing it, label each bag with the name of the produce and date, and stash them away in the freezer. You can also use a vacuum sealer to get an airtight seal.
Keep in mind that some vegetables just don’t freeze well, as they suffer chilling injuries when the temperature is below freezing. For example, cucumbers, celery, and cabbage are likely to turn into waterlogged messes if you freeze them. For reference, the NCHFP has a list of foods you shouldn’t freeze. Those that do freeze well can last for up to a year in a zero-degree F freezer.
Unlike freezing, drying changes the flavor of the produce somewhat, as the removal of water concentrates it. It also changes the texture, making fruit leathery and herbs crumbly.
Dried produce can keep for up to a year if stored at room temperature. Pack the vegetables, herbs, or fruit into airtight containers. Glass Mason jars or zip-close plastic bags are two reliable storage options.
How you dry your harvest depends on the type of food. You can dry hot peppers and hardy herbs like sage or rosemary by hanging them up in a cool, dry, dark place — a closet, for example.
Other herbs and vegetables benefit from a bit of heat when drying them out. There are two methods you can use to heat-dry produce: your oven and a dehydrator.
In general, you follow these basic steps for drying produce in the oven:
- Prepare the Produce. Give the vegetables, herbs, or fruit you’re drying a thorough cleaning to remove any dirt or debris, then pat them dry with a towel. Once all excess moisture is gone, cut away any parts you don’t want to dry, such as the rind of winter squash, the stems of herbs, and the pods of beans or peas. Cut produce such as sweet peppers, squash, and tomatoes into slices.
- Blanch It. Blanch the vegetables the same way you would if you were freezing them. Cool them with ice water, then strain and let them dry. Skip blanching for most fruits and herbs (blanching fruit changes its flavor, and it’s unnecessary for herbs).
- Dry It. You can dry produce in your oven. Turn the oven on at the lowest temperature setting — usually around 150 degrees F. Arrange the vegetables, fruit, or herbs in a single layer on a baking sheet, then slide the sheet into the oven and leave the door slightly ajar. Drying takes anywhere from just a few hours for herbs to as long as 24 for certain types of fruits and vegetables.
- Watch It. Keep an eye on the produce as it dries, as it can burn or become too dry if you let it go too long. Usually, herbs and leafy vegetables are ready when they’re flaking or crumbly. Vegetables and fruits are ready when they’re wrinkled, shriveled, and tough-looking. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service has a list of oven-drying times for a variety of foods.
If turning your oven on in the middle of summer or leaving it on for hours or overnight doesn’t appeal to you, another option is to use a food dehydrator to preserve your produce. A food dehydrator is about the size of a large slow cooker and looks like a toaster oven or bread machine with multiple shelves.
Using a food dehydrator is very similar to oven-drying. In fact, you prepare any fruits, vegetables, or herbs the same way you would for the oven.
But instead of running your oven all day, arrange the produce or herbs in a single layer on the trays that come with the dehydrator. Turn the appliance on and let the produce dry for anywhere from eight to 12 hours. How long it takes depends on the produce or herbs you’re drying. Usually, the instruction booklet that comes with the food dehydrator provides a list of recommended drying times.
At the end of the recommended drying time, test the produce to see if it is ready. Remove a piece from the dehydrator and let it cool until you can comfortably handle it.
Touch cooled vegetables or herbs to see if they’re dry. They should feel brittle, according to the NCHFP. Fruits should have a slightly higher moisture content when dried, compared to vegetables. You do not want them to feel brittle. You can test fruits for dryness by cutting a slice in half or breaking it. If moisture beads form at the break, the fruit needs more time to dry.
Pickling isn’t just for cucumbers. If you grow carrots, radishes, beans, snap peas, or cabbage, you can try to preserve them through pickling as well. You can even pickle sweet produce, such as peaches and berries.
You have two options when it comes to pickling produce: quick-pickling or lacto-fermentation. Also known as refrigerator pickles, quick pickles are soaked in a brine of water, vinegar, and salt. Fermented pickles are cured, so they produce a type of acid-producing good bacteria that also gives them their distinctive flavor, according to the University of Minnesota Extension. Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), fermented cucumbers, and preserved lemons are some examples of fermented produce.
Fermentation takes longer than quick pickling. Depending on what you have grown and your yields, you might be able to try both options to make your harvest last as long as possible.
As the name implies, you can enjoy quick pickles sooner than their fermented counterparts, usually within a few hours. They last for up to two months.
Yields 1 quart
- 1 pound produce of choice
- 2-quart saucepan
- 1 cup distilled white or apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon pickling spice (or other seasoning)
- 2 (16-ounce) wide-mouth Mason jars with lids
- 1 (4-quart) or larger saucepan (big enough to hold the jars) with lid
- Peeler (optional, if produce calls for it)
- Chef’s knife (optional, if produce calls for it)
- 1 (2-quart) saucepan
- Sterilize the Jars and Lids. Place the wide-mouth Mason jars in the large saucepan, cover them with water until they’re submerged and filled with the water, and put the saucepan on the stove. Cover it with a lid. Turn the burner to high heat and bring the water to a boil. Allow them to boil for 10 minutes, then turn the heat off. (Note that 10 minutes is the proper time at sea level. Add 1 additional minute for every 1,000 feet above sea level.) Remove the lid and place the Mason jar lids into the saucepan with the jars, submerging them in the boiled water. Replace the lid and let them sit.
- Chop the Produce. Meanwhile, use the peeler to remove any unwanted skin and chop it with the chef’s knife if necessary. You can cut the vegetables into shapes, such as slices, discs, or sticks, keeping the sizes uniform. Use tongs to remove the jars from the hot water, dry them thoroughly, then fill them with vegetables. Pack them in, but don’t crush them. Leave about 1/2 inch of space at the top of the jar. Use the tongs to remove the lids from the water, dry them, and let them sit on a clean surface.
- Pickle the Vegetables. Place the 2-quart saucepan on the stove, and add the vinegar and salt. Turn the heat to high and stir until the salt dissolves. When the salt is dissolved, add the water, bring the mixture to a boil, then remove it from the heat. While the liquid cools, add the pickling spice or other seasonings directly to the vegetables. Pour the vinegar mixture over the vegetables in the jar, covering them completely.
- Store. Let the pickle jar cool completely, then put a sterilized lid on it and store it in the refrigerator. Let the jar refrigerate for a few hours before tasting. It should taste like a true pickled vegetable at this point, but the flavor will continue to develop over the next few weeks.
The exact process of fermenting produce varies based on what you’re preserving. You can use the recipe below to produce a batch of lacto-fermented vegetables. Since you’re playing around with bacteria during fermentation, it’s critical that you follow the recipe precisely. Doing so will produce the ideal environment for the good bacteria to thrive while killing off or minimizing any bad bacteria.
Adapted from the National Center for Home Food Preservation
- 4 pounds of your choice of vegetables, such as carrots, pickling cucumbers, cabbage, or cauliflower florets (or a combination of multiple vegetables)
- 4 sprigs fresh, clean dill (optional)
- 1/4 cup pickling spice (or other seasoning, such as garlic or red peppers, optional)
- 8 cups distilled water
- 1/2 cup pickling salt or non-iodized salt
- Chef’s knife
- 1 clean (1-gallon) pickling crock with lid or food-grade storage bin with lid
- 1 (12-cup) mixing bowl
- Crock weight (or other clean, heavy object suitable to keep the vegetables submerged)
- Wash the vegetables in cold water, then dry them. Using the chef’s knife, cut them into the desired shape.
- Pack the vegetables into the pickling crock or storage bin, then add in the dill sprigs and the pickling or other spices you’re using.
- In the mixing bowl, stir together the distilled water and pickling or non-iodized salt, letting the salt completely dissolve.
- Pour the salt water over the vegetables in the crock or bin until the vegetables are completely covered. You might not need all the salt water.
- Place a crock weight on top of the vegetables to keep them submerged in the solution.
- Cover the crock or bin with the lid, then place it in a cool, dry, dark place. The ideal temperature is between 70 and 74 degrees F, according to the University of Minnesota Extension. The vegetables will ferment more slowly at cooler temperatures and faster at hotter temperatures.
- Check on the vegetables at least once per week to make sure they’re still covered in the brine and check for evidence of spoilage. Don’t be alarmed if the mixture looks cloudy or has a whitish color. That means fermentation is happening. You will also notice bubbling and a somewhat sour smell. Remove the crock weight and skim off any surface scum (yeast) or mold. If the pickles develop an unpleasant odor; turn gray; or become soft, slimy, or soggy, discard them.
- The vegetables are ready when the salt water stops bubbling. The process can take anywhere from 3 weeks at an ideal temperature to more than 6 weeks at colder temperatures. Once fermentation is complete, store the crock or bin in the refrigerator, continuing to check weekly to skim off surface scum or mold. They will keep for about 4 to 6 months without canning so long as you continue to check and skim them regularly and they stay refrigerated. However, canning is a better option.
Canning preserves foods by creating an environment that’s inhospitable to bacteria. A lot of things can be canned — from salsa made from homegrown tomatoes to berry jam made from homegrown blueberries. Of all these food preservation options, it’s definitely the most complicated.
There are several important factors to keep in mind when canning. You should use vegetables and fruits at their peak ripeness, and use glass canning jars that are in good shape and aren’t chipped or cracked. And no matter what you decide to can, follow the recipe instructions to the letter since deviating from them can create a bacteria-friendly environment.
If you want to get into canning but aren’t sure what to start with, try one of these commonly used options:
- Tomato or pasta sauce
- Cooked, diced tomatoes
- Fruit jelly or jam
- Pie fillings
- Hot or chili sauces
No matter what you decide to can, test the jar to make sure it’s fully sealed before storing it. Tap on the lid with a teaspoon — a sealed can makes a sharp ringing sound, not a dull one. Once you’ve confirmed your cans are sealed, label them with the name of the food and date and store them at room temperature for up to a year.
Two canning methods exist: Boiling water bath canning and pressure canning.
Water Bath Canning
Boiling water bath canning is best for high-acid foods, such as pickled vegetables or fruit preserves. The combination of canning and the acidity of the food should be sufficient to keep bacterial growth at bay.
You can think of water bath canning as the next step after pickling vegetables, making salsa, or preparing jam or preserves. It helps to extend the shelf life of these acidic products without requiring refrigeration.
Water bath canning is a relatively easy though somewhat involved process. You begin by sterilizing the jars. Then you add your food, leaving some room at the top. Sterilize the rim and top securely with a metal canning lid. Check the seal to ensure it’s secure.
To create shelf-stable foods, you must sterilize the jars with the food in them by repeating the boiling process. Place the sealed jars in a potful of boiling water for the time recommended in the recipe. If you are at an altitude higher than 1,000 feet above sea level, you will likely need to process the food for longer, according to the University of Illinois Extension, as water boils at lower temperatures at higher altitudes.
Allow the jars to cool completely. Some people recommend cooling them upside down to increase the chances of a good seal (that is different from regular inversion canning, as the food is already sterilized). After they’ve completely cooled, recheck the seal. Then store them in a cool, dark, dry place for up to a year. Once you’ve opened one, you must refrigerate it.
Check out our article on canning for a more detailed look at the process.
Although most bacteria die when exposed to boiling water, some are hardier. The spores of Botulism bacteria can survive a dip in 212-degree F water but die at temperatures over 240 degrees F. That’s where pressure canning comes in. In a pressurized environment, water boils at a higher temperature than usual.
Pressure canning is preferred for low-acid foods, such as unfermented or unpickled vegetables. These foods need higher canning temperatures to protect them from bacterial growth.
If you own an Instant Pot, you know it’s a versatile appliance. It can make yogurt, steam vegetables, cook rice, and act as a slow cooker. One model, the Instant Pot Max, also offers an option for pressure canning.
There are a few things to know if you’re considering using your Instant Pot as a canner. One is that the NCHFP advises against using the appliance for pressure canning. There’s no way to gauge the temperature inside the jars you’re canning accurately in an Instant Pot, meaning there is a risk the food inside those jars isn’t reaching a temperature high enough to kill bacteria and other germs.
Another thing to consider is the size of the pot. According to the user manual, the Instant Pot Max holds four 1-pint jars, which isn’t very many, particularly if you’re making multiple batches of jams or pickles.
If you want to use your Instant Pot as a canner, use it as a boiling water bath canner rather than a pressure canner. As when canning on the stove, make sure you follow the instructions of your canning recipe exactly.
If you’re interested in pressure canning, your best bet is to buy a pressure canner for use on the stove and follow the recipe exactly. A pressure canner works similarly to an Instant Pot but lacks some of the safety features. The NCHFP has some helpful tips on safely using a pressure canner.
Your canner should also include directions for its use and safety. Always read the instructions carefully and follow them to the letter, both to ensure food safety and to reduce the risk of pressure buildup and explosions.
Whether you’re freezing your bounty or canning pickles, good hygiene is essential. Wash your hands before handling any fruits or vegetables and make sure the tools you’re using are completely clean. You don’t want to preserve food only to learn later you preserved dirt along with it. When pickling and canning, make sure you sterilize the jars and lids before putting food in them.
What food preservation method are you most looking forward to trying?