Cygnet Brown currently lives in the Missouri Ozarks. She loves writing, researching history, and gardening.
What Is the Best Way to Preserve Homegrown Food?
Since the recession hit in 2008, more people than ever before have been gardening, raising animals for food, and then preserving their bounty. How do we know which method works best for our situation? The truth is, there is no best method for every situation. In this article, we will explore the practices of eating fresh out of the garden, root-cellaring, and freezing what we've grown. If you would like to learn about the practices of canning, pickling, drying, and smoking and the advantages and disadvantages of each, consider reading my complementary article.
Pros and Cons of Eating Food Fresh
Many people do not consider fresh fruits and vegetables from a local source as a home food preservation type, but in many ways, it is. The idea of food sustainability is present in fresh foods. Foods grown from sustainably produced heirloom seeds or native plants are a form of food preservation because it guarantees the reproduction of tried and true food sources. Foods that are sustainably grown and eaten fresh in season can be considered the ultimate food preservation method.
- Fresh fruits are better than preserved foods in that they are good for our bodies and are readily available when in season. Fresh meat, including beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and seafood, is available year-round.
- Fruits and vegetables grown from locally produced heirloom seeds or native or naturalized plants are especially resistant to local diseases. These plants and trees are more resilient, and little or no protection from insects or diseases is required to grow these plants.
- Fresh raw fruits and vegetables, in particular, are nature’s fast food. It does not require any special preparation. All that is required is that you wash it and serve. The closer your foods are to the original source, the better. Homegrown vegetables picked within minutes of serving have the highest nutritional value. Fresh-picked also has the best flavor. If you have never tasted a vine-ripened tomato fresh-picked off the vine, you have never tasted a fresh tomato.
- Fresh food from a local source is exposed is less likely to be contaminated because it is handled by fewer people and has not been exposed to endemic diseases from outside your local area. Eating food fresh is the least expensive way of preserving food because you're using it from its source. No extra packaging needed, no extra energy needed, just prepare and serve.
- Fresh food needs to be eaten right away. Even if refrigerated, most fresh foods will not last longer than a week. Enzymes cause nutrient and color loss in fruits and vegetables. Cut an apple, expose it to air, and it turns brown. This is the work of enzymes and a prelude to decay.
- After fruits and vegetables are picked, they continue to breathe, a process also known as respiration. This process breaks down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, thereby reducing food value, flavor and nutrients. Though keeping it cold helps, the process does not stop. Asparagus, lettuce, broccoli, corn, mushrooms, and peas have very high respiration rates. These vegetables lose their nutritional value far more rapidly than apples, garlic or onions that have low respiration rates.
- Fresh food is not always available, and food transported long distances are not as nutritious as food grown and consumed locally.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Root-Cellaring
Root cellars are for keeping food supplies at steady temperatures and humidity. In the winter, they keep food from freezing, and in the summer, they keep food from spoiling. Vegetables stored in a root cellar are put there in the autumn for harvest during the winter and into spring.
- Food is pretty much as it comes out of the garden and is considered fresh
- It is a greener alternative to storage than using an extra refrigerator or freezer.
- It is healthier to use whole foods than it is to use foods processed by freezing or canning.
- You save money on gasoline because you do not have to make as many trips into town.
- You save money on electricity because you don’t have to refrigerate the stored food.
- You will probably be able to store more of your harvest than you could in the refrigerator.
- You are not dependent on external sources.
- Food stored in root cellar requires little technology. Leave the vegetables in the garden to “harden” or “season” for a couple of weeks, and place in root cellar.
- The longer vegetables are stored, the lower the nutritional value.
- Damaged or already rotten vegetables or fruit can spoil the whole pile. Be sure to pull any rotten potatoes or apples from your piles of produce to prevent the one from spoiling the whole.
- Fluctuations in temperature can cause items to decompose faster. You don’t want temperatures that go or too high temperatures. Frozen produce will rot as fast as overheated produce once the temperatures go above freezing.
- Pests can be a problem in the root cellar, and rodents are the most common. Install metal wire screen to keep them out, also, maintain rodent traps, and keep cats around to keep rodents away from your root cellar. Keep poison baits away from stored food. Battery-powered repellents can also be used. Containers with tight seals work best for storing more susceptible foods.
- Most root-cellared foods do well over the winter, but as the growing season approaches, keeping produce becomes more difficult. The longer the produce is stored, the more likely the produce is to either dry out or begin to sprout. Lower temperatures will combat the mold and bacteria problems that are common in warm, wet conditions. As spring weather conditions approach, your best alternatives include either eating what you have stored or finding another mode of storage.
- Different foods require different temperatures and humidity levels. Potatoes, cabbage and apples also do best at 32 to 40 degrees F but with 80-90% humidity. Try storing potatoes in paper bags. Apples emit ethylene gas, which promotes ripening and maturation of other vegetables and, at some concentrations, can promote sprouting in potatoes. Keep apples away from potatoes. Garlic and onions should be kept in cool (32 to 50 degrees F) and dry conditions ( 50 to 60% relative humidity) You could hang garlic bulbs and onions in mesh bags where conditions are similar to what you find in a refrigerator. Carrots, beets, carrots, turnips, celery, winter radishes, and Jerusalem artichokes like very humid conditions (90-95% humidity) and store best packed in sawdust or moist sand, and prefer cold temperatures (32-40 degrees F). Pumpkins, winter squash, and sweet potatoes prefer warmer (50-60 degrees) and drier conditions. Pioneers kept these vegetables in the attics.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Freezing
For centuries people depended upon snow and ice if they wanted to freeze food to keep them from spoiling. The German engineer Carl von Linde invented a type of freezer in the 1870s when he became the first man to liquefy oxygen and nitrogen. This appliance did not begin to come into popular use until after World War II. Now most homes in the civilized world have at least a small freezer as part of their refrigeration. Many use a large-capacity freezer to preserve large amounts of food.
- This type of preservation is a relatively quick process. A hundred pounds of meat can be packaged into meal-size packages within an hour. You can blanch a large amount of vegetables in just a few minutes.
- You can preserve food and keep it longer, and always have things available to cook with or eat. You can buy items in bulk when on sale and save money. Blanching prior to freezing stops enzyme activity and helps maintain nutritional value in the foods.
- You can double recipes and create convenience foods that do not contain chemicals, preservatives, excess salt, or sugar. Some families create convenience meals to last a whole month, thus saving time and money.
- It has several advantages over canning. Freezer containers are cheaper than canning jars and lids. The simple blanching process emits less heat into the living space and requires less initial energy usage than canning does. It also preserves vitamins better than canning does as well.
- Vitamins B and C are lost in the freezing process. Antioxidants, which protect you from cell damage, are also lower in frozen fruits than they are in fresh fruits. Vitamins A, E, carotenoids, fiber, minerals, and proteins, however, retain their values in frozen fruits and vegetables.
- Freezer burn can affect texture and flavor. Foods frozen in containers that are not designed for freezer use can be exposed to air. Because of this exposure to air, damaging ice crystals form on the food. The cells in the frozen food rupture, resulting in moisture, texture, and flavor loss. Freezer burn is the dried out, gray-brown edges or sections of meat, dried sections of baked goods, and the dulled coloring in vegetables and fruit. Eating freezer-burned foods is safe, but it is unappetizing.
- Many vegetables and most fruits lose their crispness when frozen, even if when you blanch them for a short time. Cooked frozen corn on the cob, zucchini, potatoes and broccoli result in mushy vegetables that taste waterlogged. Other vegetables, such as peas, however, taste better than many of the fresh varieties. Corn removed from the cob, some varieties of green beans and chopped leafy vegetables such as spinach or kale work well in soups or stews where a crisp quality is not necessary.
- Some items also change texture when frozen and do not taste/feel the same when thawed out and eaten.
- Frozen foods that are not properly packaged can pick up the smells of other items around them in the freezer.
- You have to know which items must be thawed before use and which ones should be allowed to thaw while cooking.
- Freezers are expensive. Not only does it require an initial high-priced investment into the freezer, but also there is a continued expense involved in keeping electricity to it.
- An electrical outage can mean disaster for a frozen food plan. When the electricity goes out for extended periods, you could lose hundreds of dollars of food. Electrical outages are not the only problem. Freezers can and do have mechanical malfunctions. A couple of years ago, my own deep freezer compressor went out. First, I placed as much of my more expensive meat into my refrigerator freezer as possible. I then canned and dried as much of the produce and meat left in the freezer as I could before they went bad. Fortunately, I was able to save much of it before any of it went bad.
- Freezer storage is recommended for a year or less. The longer an item is left in the freezer, the more likely the item is to become freezer burned.
Questions & Answers
Question: What are the disadvantages of Sugaring?
Answer: It depends on what you mean by Sugaring. If you are suggesting adding sugar to canned foods, the sugar is there mostly for flavor. However, adding sugar in other processes like smoking or making preserves actually does help prevent spoilage as well as improve the flavor.
Question: What are the merits of burial food preservation?
Answer: Burying food as a preservation device has benefits in that it costs very little to do. In addition, this method uses the earth to temper the temperatures to which the food is exposed. Be careful with this method because underground insects and burrowing mammals may discover your buried food and eat what you worked so hard to put away for yourself.
© 2013 Cygnet Brown