For Daniel Gasteiger, the holiday season begins in May when the rhubarb and strawberries ripen. That’s when he starts putting foods aside for the many people on his gift list.
The process continues with cherries, tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, apples, melons and a variety of successive garden crops.
“If you don’t deal with them when they’re fresh, you’re not preserving them,” said Gasteiger, author of Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too (Cool Springs Press). “Then they can sit on a shelf until wrapped as presents for neighbors, teachers and others.”
Hear the word “preserving” and people generally think canning or freezing, said Gasteiger. But there also is dehydrating, sugaring, fermenting, quick pickling, smoking, salting and cold storage.
“The way we go about it hasn’t changed much over the years, but the technology is better,” he said.
All food preservation techniques delay or stop spoilage while sealing in flavor and nutritional value. Yet each does something different. In some cases, new foods are even created — raisins from dried grapes, for example.
His comments on the most common methods:
Canning: preserves fruits and vegetables, jams and jellies, pickles, relishes and meats so they can be stored for months without refrigeration. Canning cooks food, however, changing its makeup and flavor.
Freezing: leaves you with fresher flavors but transforms textures. “Produce tends to become mushy,” Gasteiger said.
Dehydrating: gives fresh foods remarkable longevity, with vegetables rehydrating especially well for cooking. “Having a dedicated dehydrator can reduce the amount of produce you waste,” he said. Think bananas, or those fruit and vegetable remnants that ripen so quickly in the kitchen.
Fermenting: Submerging vegetables in saltwater brine produces lactic acid, which is a food preservative. But: “Vegetables soften and develop a tangy flavor that some people don’t care for.”
Cold Storage: Root crops, including potatoes, carrots, yams, beets and turnips, have tremendous staying power under the right conditions. They will remain fresh for months in a dark, dry environment. Potatoes prefer a place maintained at around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Carrots, beets, rutabagas and cabbage keep longest when cooled to 34 degrees.
You don’t need a garden if you want to put up fresh, flavorful foods year around. Shop the sales. Seek out farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Buy in bulk. Patronize U-Pick operations and orchards.
“Picking your own makes for great family outings, and prices generally are about a third of what they’d be if someone did it for you,” Gasteiger said.
Few crafts offer as much payback as food preservation. It saves money, encourages creativity and puts a quality product on the family table, Gasteiger said. Small batches of preserves done up in decorative jars and wrapped in ribbons make tasteful and inexpensive holiday gifts.
“There’s also an ecological component,” Gasteiger said. “I’m gradually replacing my lawn with edibles.”
Photo: Stock photo