I can, you can, we all can!: Essential books for preserving seasonal bounty

pantry-remains-5-13-09Well, that sure happened fast. One day I was bundling up in a coat to head outside, and the next thing you know, the weather turned downright summery here in northeastern Ohio. The early crops I planted at the beginning of April are starting to overwhelm me with their bounty — loads of lettuce, reams of radishes, heaps of herbs, and even a scattering of over-wintered scallions.

On top of all that good fresh food from the garden, I've been trying to use up last year's produce from the freezer and the pantry. Jars of tomatoes, tomato sauce, peaches, applesauce, grape juice, jams, and pickles linger on my shelves, quietly tormenting me with the question, "When is it our turn?" I've cleaned out a number of jars in the past couple of weeks, making meals that make the most of fresh and preserved, but I'm clearly in limbo between preservation seasons, and I can't let the remains of last year's harvest keep me from planning how I'll put up this year's.

preservation-prep-sheetsLast year I started organizing my preservation plans, compiling a spreadsheet that listed the types of fruits and vegetables I knew I'd be able to harvest or buy at the farmers market. For each type of produce, I checked off what preservation methods I knew I'd want to use (or at least try) in order to keep me on track during the summer. It turned out to be the best thing I've ever done to get ready for preserving as it helped me clarify how I would really best use the foods, and it gave me a way to track not only how much I put up but also what worked well in terms of my "experiments."

This year I'm starting with the spreadsheet again and have already begun my preservation tasks. But even with this guidance, I still find myself reaching for one of my many books on food preservation to give me some new ideas. Here's what I have in my library:

"Putting Food By" by Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan, and Janet Greene
"Stocking Up: The Third Edition of America's Classic Preserving Guide" by Carol Hupping and the staff of the Rodale Food Center
Both of these books cover all the basics: canning, drying, freezing, jams, pickles, juices — even meats, dairy, and grains. They make it easy to find how to handle specific fruits or vegetables with the basic techniques, as well as to find tasty recipes for more unusual preserves like chutneys and relishes. ("Stocking Up" has a recipe for pickled ginger, while "Putting Food By" has a pumpkin pickle recipe that sounds like it would be worth a try.) Both include recipes for how to use preserved foods as well. I found both at our local used-book store, but both are popular enough to be found or ordered many places.

"Canning & Preserving without Sugar" by Norma M. MacRae
With diabetes running in my family, I tend toward low-sugar jams and preserves when at all possible. This book offers suggestions for different ways of lowering sugar content (fruit juices especially), but I find it most useful for when I'm canning fruit and want a low-sugar syrup using concentrated white grape juice.

"Making & Using Dried Foods" by Phyllis Hobson
When I decided to start drying foods more regularly, I spotted this at the local book store. It gives a straightforward look at individual fruits and vegetables, how to prepare them for drying, how to dry them in a dehydrator or the oven (or even outside), how to store them, and how to use them in recipes, including mixes for camping or hiking. It includes information on drying herbs, dairy, meats, grains, and leathers, too.

veg-flax-crackers"Food Drying with an Attitude" by Mary T. Bell
I borrowed this from the library and am in the process of getting my own copy, because it takes the drying techniques in Hobson's book to the next level. What intrigues me about the book are her claim that you can dry anything (except oil and eggs) and her specific use of purees in drying. Drying spaghetti sauce? No problem! I started with the vegetable flax seed crackers (shown here), using canned tomatoes from last year and fresh cilantro and scallion from this year's garden, and was completely won over to the idea of drying purees. I can hardly wait to try more.

liqueurmead"Making Liqueurs for GiftsMaking Liqueurs for Gifts" by Mimi Freid
This small pamphlet, a Storey Country Wisdom Bulletin, is available for download as a PDF (for $3.95, same price as Amazon.com's print version), though I originally found my copy nearby at Lehman's Hardware. Here's one exciting way to preserve fruit and to share the bounty of the season. I've tried several recipes, but the one that always wins friends is the pear liqueur, liberally laced with ginger.

"Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning" by the gardeners and farmers of Terre Vivante
I bought this title over the winter and have yet to use it, but the more I try to get away from freezing produce (a high-energy endeavor in the long run), the more intrigued I am by other methods. The book's subtitle says it all: "Traditional techniques using salt, oil, sugar, alcohol, vinegar, drying, cold storage, and lactic fermentation." What more do you need?

"Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods" by Sandor Ellix Katz
Fans of sauerkraut or other fermented foods must get this book. I've only begun to scratch the surface here, but Katz's writing is engaging and his recipes are tempting. Having tried kim chee last year (and loved it) and wanting to delve more into dairy fermentation, I'm happy to have this book at hand now.

If, like me, you enjoy foraging for wild edibles, you'll be happy to know that many of the same food preservation techniques can be used for wild as well as cultivated foods. But for specific recipes, I turn to my foraging books: "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places" by "Wildman" Steve Brill, and "Abundantly Wild: Collecting And Cooking Wild Edibles Of The Upper Midwest" by Teresa Marrone.

There's so much wonderful food heading our way during harvest season, and there's no need to gorge ourselves on it now when we have so many useful preservation methods, refined over years of use, at our service. With just one or two of these books in your library, you'll be able to expand the possibilities — and the season for eating good food.

Editor's note: The Ethicurean team maintains a comprehensive list of books about sustainable food and agriculture and related topics at Goodreads.com. You can see some of what we're reading via the Goodreads widget in the righthand column (and if you click on one of those book covers to purchase it via Amazon.com, you'll be helping us feed our own book habit, at no cost to you.) To browse our collective library and read previous reviews, visit our Goodreads bookshelf.

14 Responsesto “I can, you can, we all can!: Essential books for preserving seasonal bounty”

  1. Wow. We're eating some wild stuff but no garden fare yet. Late. :( Good job!

  2. Ed Bruske says:

    I'm a little confused about the low sugar stuff. Substituting fruit juice for table sugar wouldn't make any difference to a diabetic. It's all carbohydrate in the end, just a different form of sugar.

  3. Charlotte says:

    The Terre Vivante book is one of my favorites. I used a recipe for brine-preserved chiles which was great, but they have to go right in the fridge once you've opened a jar or they go bad. I also used their sauerkraut instructions when I put up a crock last winter (we ate the last of it last night). Your spreadsheet puts me to shame though! I just put stuff up as I encounter it ...
    I'd also highly recommend investing in a pressure canner. They're a little pricey, but mine allows me to put up tomato sauce, and I just canned some stewed oyster mushrooms I foraged a couple of weeks ago. I have friends who borrow mine to put up elk and antelope in jars (which I get a few of for the equipment loan). A jar of stewed antelope with a little sour cream and you have a stroganoff that's dead easy on a tired evening. I also was given a beautiful jar of home-canned tuna for my birthday by someone who fishes off Alaska. That was a treat.

  4. Peter says:

    I also recommend the Terre Vivante book (originally published as Keeping Food Fresh), which includes some really simple salt brines (no whey) for everything from sauerkraut to chard ribs. I've found the recipes indispensable, especially the verdurette (a salted vegetable stock). The book's do-nothing mentality is like a One Straw Revolution for the kitchen.

  5. Walter, for once in my life I got into the garden early (April 4) for the first plantings and have been working on planting succession crops ever since.  I think I'm hooked!  Those first snap peas were heavenly!

    Ed, I agree that they are all sugars and need to be taken in moderation.  The book I mentioned offers recipes that reduce the amount of sweeteners used in canning overall, so the fruit doesn't taste so sickly sweet when I eat it.  If I could find recipes for no-sugar syrup for fruit, I'd go for it -- I prefer my applesauce unsweetened, and I would think peaches wouldn't need much either -- but I don't know enough about the safety issues for going without sweetener of any sort.

    Charlotte, your mention of the book on your blog last year is what prompted me to get the Terre Vivante, so I will definitely have to put it to good use this year.  As for the spreadsheets -- well, I'm a kitchen nerd :-) and need to have a way to track all that I put up.  (It's unseemly.)

    I have yet to give in to the nudges to get a pressure canner, mainly because I'm trying to do more drying.  Since I don't eat meat, I don't have that reason to get the canner, and I'm not crazy about canned vegetables.  But I don't rule out the possibility in the future!

  6. Good job on using the succession crops. We plant our seedlings and then plant seeds under the seedlings. We plant things that grow tall among those that sprawl. I have a lot of land but I still garden pretty tightly. Maybe it's old habits or maybe it is that by doing so it virtually eliminates weeds. Or maybe I'm just into efficiency. :)

    Definitely get a pressure canner. I grew up with one and got my own when I left home. Vital tool. We make soups, stews, sauces, etc. The canner does a wonderful job of preserving the harvest and creating hot meals that can be quickly prepared during those long winter days.

  7. Now that's a pair of useful tips, Walter.  I hadn't thought yet about using the shade of seedlings to protect new seeds, but I think that's something I could work on yet this year with the garden.  And using a pressure canner to put up soups is something I could enjoy.  Thanks!

  8. Once it gets cold we live on soups. Hot meals at lunch and dinner warm us internally which really helps when you're working out in the cold on bitter days. Soups, stews and other fluid meals are really good, along with hot mint tea all winter long.

  9. Kara says:

    It is my understanding that you are able to safely preserve fruits without any syrup.  I have an older Blue Ball canning manual and it says that sugar syrups are only for taste, not safety.  In fact, I made unsweetened apple sauce last winter and canned it in a water bath and it turned out fabulous.  The only other ingredient I added was some lemon juice so that it didn't turn a weird color.  Fruits are acidic on their own and adding sugar doesn't make them more acidic or anything.  I'd recommend reading up on it more rather than just taking my advice--I'm just a first year canner, so I'm no expert, but everything I've read has said you can do it without sugar.

  10. Kara, you are correct that fruits are acidic enough on their own for safety not to be a concern, and the syrup itself does not prevent spoilage.  I had not previously seen anything that indicated that halved, sliced, or chunked fruit (like pears or peaches) would be fine canned with no syrup, but apparently the 2006 USDA guidelines for canning indicate that hot water would provide enough liquid in the jars to be acceptable.  I may have to try that this year -- that's a revelation to me.

    I would, however, add a caution NOT to use older canning manuals.  The USDA updated the standards for canning in the mid-1980s and early 1990s to reflect the updated research on home preserved foods as well as the impact of new hybrids like low-acid tomatoes, and older manuals may not have the safest recommendations. The USDA's most recent canning guide is available online, and I strongly recommend it for getting started on canning basics or to answer some of your questions.

    Just goes to show, you can always learn something new.  I've been canning for over 30 years, and I'm still learning!

  11. Sylvie says:

    It's my understanding that fruit can be canned safely in their own juice with a little lemon or citric acid. That's what I do for peaches, apples, and cherries. There is also freezing which is great for all those fruits and berries. Make wonderful smoothies (no need to defrost) and can still be used for cooking.

    Besides Terre Vivante, I've used Putting Food Bye and Ball's Blue Book.

  12. pyewacket says:

    My favorite preserving books are Fancy Pantry by Helen Witty and Mes Confitures by Christine Ferber. Putting Food By is essential for providing basic information, and I love Wild Fermentation as well, but the two books I mentioned have lovely recipes for unusual jams and jellies (and in Fancy Pantry, pickles and relishes and such as well) that I can't find anywhere else. When I need inspiration for something different to do, those two usually can provide it. Also, they both offer impeccable technique. If you've ever made strawberry jam with the method both of them use (strawberries are combined with sugar, brought just to a boil, allowed to cool and sit overnight, then the berries separated out from the liquid and the latter cooked enough to jelly, with the berries added at the end) - well, you can't go back to the more common, everything-heated-together-just-once method.  The flavor and texture are infinitely superior using the more time-consuming technique. So often the case, sadly.

  13. Stephanie says:

    Great post and good info! I'll be investigating some of these books. The Ball Blue Book is also essential for canning and preserving.

  14. illonat says:

    Stocking Up is probably the most useful book I've seen on home preserving. Excellent illustrations and blueprints as well for constructing a root cellar, dehydrator, etc.