An important aspect of our can-do self-reliant lifestyle is preserving food from our garden for the winter months. Doing so extends the summer cost of living benefit we receive by eating the vegetables we grow in our garden rather than buying them from the store. Preserving food can be done in many ways. Virtually all early pioneers constructed “cold cellars” in which they stored foods that were not typically canned, such as fresh or dried fruits and potatoes. When I was a child, we stored our garden potatoes for the winter in a long wooden bin in the dirt cellar beneath our house. Some pioneers who didn’t have a cold cellar would dig trenches and line them with straw, hay, or sawdust within which they could bury cabbages, fruits, or potatoes during the winter. However, doing so meant having to carefully dig through the snow, dirt, and/or frost in the cold winter months to retrieve them. Meat can be conveniently smoked or packed in salt to preserve it over the winter. One way or another, self-reliant families found creative ways to preserve their summer farm bounty to feed themselves over the long, cold, lifeless winter months.
We don’t produce meat from our farm, but we do occasionally repackage and freeze meat we buy in bulk from various local sources. What excess vegetables we obtain from our garden that we do not consume fresh or sell at the farmers market we either can or freeze for the winter. Canning is a time-honored traditional folkway that we and many of our neighbors still practice. Some of the older families in our area (multi-generational natives) can huge volumes of vegetables even though there may only be two people living in the household. Most of their canning recipes were designed to serve big families with many children that have gradually shrunk in size over the generations because children in the modern society have become more of an additional expense to raise than an essential and necessary source of household labor. It is common for us to hear our older farmers market customers talk about buying our vegetables to can 30 or more quart jars that would feed a small army of people because their canning recipes were originally designed to feed a household of six or more people rather than the two that are left behind today. We typically can and package most of our winter food in half-pint jars or single-meal freezer bags so that we only have to open (unseal) what we actually need for each two-person meal.
I recall many late summer/early fall days during my childhood when my adoptive mother and grandmother would transform our large farmhouse kitchen into a food processing plant. In that era, our canning was done in canning jars that had glass lids with a rubber gasket to seal them. Those jars were typically sealed in a large pressure cooker to vacuum seal the lids. However, it ended up being a hit or miss preservation process, if the gasket didn’t seal well or was reused from a prior season (as we often did to save money). I can remember being sent by my mother into the cellar to retrieve jars of canned vegetables stored on shelves lining the walls. In the latter part of the winter season, some of them became so discolored by a purple-shaded brine that I couldn’t tell what they contained. This occurred because the seals on those jars had been compromised, resulting in contamination of the contents. When you canned vegetables in glass jars with glass lids you had no way to know how well they were sealed until you could see that their contents had spoiled. The more modern canning jars with metal lids and threaded outer rings have a button on the top that depresses when the jar is sealed, so you can always know which jars sealed properly and which didn’t. When we can our food today, we can know which jars didn’t seal properly before we store them. We simply put the occasional improperly sealed jars in our refrigerator so we can eat them first before they spoil.
Our canning process begins with a canning recipe. There are many such recipes, and it is a hit-or-miss proposition to find the one you like best. Some of our vegetables, like green beans, are simply cut up and packed in a jar with boiling water prior to sealing. No specific recipe is needed for that. However, other food products you may wish to can, such as pickles, jellies, catsup, sauerkraut, or relish, require advance food preparation and processing time before the canning work can be done. For this reason, you have to find a recipe that you like best to prepare your food for canning.
It is also important to understand that there are at least two main canning methods you can use, depending on the food you intend to can. Non-acidic foods, such as beans, carrots, beets, turnips, and even meats are canned using a pressure cooker, which consists of a stainless-steel pot with a self-sealing lid and a built-in pressure valve and gauge that are used to regulate the amount of pressure that builds up within the pot. Water is placed within the pot to a specified level and the water is brought to boiling before the canning jars are placed inside and the cooker lid attached to begin the pressure sealing process. Careful attention must be placed on the pressure gauge to keep it within a specified level and the time that has lapsed once the proper pressure level on the gauge has been attained. When the proper sealing time has passed, the lid must be removed and the sealed jars extracted and set out to cool. As the jars cool, a popping sound can be heard as the button on the metal lid depresses, indicating that the jar is properly sealed. I always test the buttons on all the jars to make sure they have been sealed. If any of the buttons are not depressed—as some lids may not seal properly—those jars must be resealed (with a new lid) or placed in the refrigerator for more immediate use. Never think that you can wash and reuse a metal canning lid as the seals are not designed to last beyond the first canning use.
Acidic fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes, pickle relish, sauerkraut, peaches, apples, and blackberries should be canned using a boiling water bath in an unpressurized pot, such as the large ceramic-lined pots that we use. These pots have a metal lid that rests loosely on the top of the pot and a metal rack that sits in the bottom of the pot to keep the jars from resting directly on the bottom of the pan. The pans are filled with water to a level that is roughly one inch above the top of the canning jars that will be placed in it and brought to boiling. Once the water is boiling, the jars can be placed into the pot (with the lid set on the top of the pot) and left to boil for a specified period of time. The time required to seal the jars using this method is usually longer than is required for a pressure cooker because no pressure is built up in the pot to force the jars to seal, but you don’t have to focus on maintaining a constant pressure level. When the recommended boiling time has passed the jars can be removed to cool and seal in the same manner as for the pressure-cooking method.
We also preserve some of our garden vegetables, such as broccoli and potatoes, by direct freezing. We slice our potatoes into French fries and deep fry them lightly to put a light glaze on them, but not to a deep golden brown. This helps reduce moisture in the potatoes so that they will not become too mushy when they are defrosted. We then seal them in plastic bags with a portable vacuum sealer and load them in our chest freezer for long-term storage. Other vegetables like broccoli are blanched or par-boiled before they are sealed.
Corn is a different item to preserve, as it can be done in many ways. We have frozen some of our corn in kernel form and as creamed corn. We also have dried some of our corn and ground the kernels into corn meal that can be used as an ingredient to make cornbread or other foods. Many pioneers used to store corn on the cob by hanging them from the husks in a shed. Beans and certain fruits also be effectively stored by hanging them to dry. In pioneer days, beans that were strung and dried were often known as “leather breeches.”
Preserving food for the winter, whatever method or recipe you use, is a fine way of extending the value you obtain by growing your own fresh vegetables and fruits in a garden. You’d be amazed at how much money can be saved by preserving your own home-grown food. During the early days of my childhood, we visited a grocery store less than twice per month on average, and most of those trips were to buy staples, such as flour, sugar, salt, and yeast, that we typically used to make other foods but could not conveniently produce at home. Food preservation is one of the most essential and important skills to acquire for self-reliant living, and it is the most critical to know if our modern society should collapse. Being wholly dependent on grocery stores or restaurants for all your food needs is the best and quickest way to starve to death when they are no longer available. That’s why we practice and promote our most essential and cherished traditional lifestyle skills here at Peeper Pond Farm.