Preserving the harvest has been a goal of growers and farmers since the advent of agriculture. Whether through drying, root cellars, pickling, or fermentation, humans have always sought to increase access to nutritious foods outside of their growing seasons. With the invention of the Mason jar in the mid 1800s, canning became a go to method for food preservation at home.
Back then, learning to can was somewhat of a practice of survival, ensuring access to vital nutrients that were hard to come by in the depths of Winter. We have come a long way since then. We now have specialized jars and lids that ensure a safe seal, canning tools, special bags to freeze items in, and lots of rules to follow for safety.
It’s such a thrill growing your own food and putting it up to enjoy in the off-season. There is nothing quite like pulling homegrown green beans out of the freezer in bitter cold January to have alongside pork chops or warming up tomato sauce you crafted using your grandma’s tried and true recipe in February. It’s also nice to have some preserved items on hand when you need a quick meal in a pinch or a homemade gift for a friend.
Winters (for some of us) are long and cold making good quality food hard to find in northern regions. Preserving Summer’s bounty through the methods described below can offer you a more varied diet at a lower price even when store stocks are low and fresh veggies are at a premium price.
Here are some of my favorite foods to grow, can, dry and freeze so we’re fully stocked up on homegrown goodness all winter long!
What’s the deal with food preservation?
There are a few different ways of preserving food including freezing, canning, drying, curing, fermenting, and pickling.
Maybe you’ve never tried making your own pickles or taken a stab at fermenting kimchi. However, if you have a high yielding garden and love to eat well even during the wintertime, it may be time to see what the fuss is all about. There are lots of ways to preserve your harvest so just pick one you feel comfortable (or a little uncomfortable!) with and go for it!
For any questions regarding safe boil canning, I always refer to the Ball Mason Jar website. If you have never tried canning be sure and review their food safety recommendations before you get started.
Putting up Tomatoes
Everyone’s favorite in the summer, but if done right, you can have that same bright flavor in the depths of winter. This year we learned that whole red, ripe tomatoes can be frozen for later use. We have found that when thawed on the counter, the skins peel right off and they can be used for sauce just the same as when they are fresh!
My go-to tomato sauce recipe for canning:
Crush about 12 large tomatoes in a large pan on medium-high heat until boiling. Then lower heat to a simmer/low boil until it gets to the thickness you want, about 2-2.5 hours. Stir a lot at first so the bottom does not burn.
Add about 2 tbsp of fresh or 1 tbsp of dried basil and any other herbs to taste and 2 tbsp of sugar. If canning, add 1 tbsp of bottled lemon juice to the bottom of sterilized pint jars (wide-mouthed works best for sauce), then spoon in the sauce, leaving about ½ inch headspace. Screw on new lids and lower jars into boiling water in your canning kettle, ensuring there is at least one inch of water over the top of each jar. Boil for 40 minutes, then remove and allow to cool fully on the counter. The lids should pop to indicate the seal was properly done.
You can also skip the canning process and simply ladle the sauce into freezer bags, label and freeze. They will keep for 6-12 months.
Note: The lemon juice ensures a safe acidity level. Over the years, many tomatoes have been bred to contain lower acidity for flavor profile and are not at a safe level to can so do not skip this step! Sauce should keep for 12-18 months in a cool, dark space after canning.
Drying cherry tomatoes for Storage
We also LOVE to dehydrate cherry tomatoes. Simply halve or quarter them and put them face up on the racks. Use the tomato setting and dry for about 10-14 hours until the moisture is gone. If you leave them chewy, you risk them molding during storage.
After they fully cool, you can then freeze them or put them into a jar for later use. We pop these into soups and sauces all winter long to add sweetness and a little summer brightness! Soak them in warm water to soften them up and toss them in a salad or on a wrap.
Preserving Green Beans
Green beans are so fun to grow and harvest. Just tip the leaves back and you’ll feel like you’ve hit the jackpot when you see all the beans dangling underneath! Eat them right off the vine as a snack or quickly sauteed with garlic and onions as a nice side dish. When you’re sick of eating them fresh *gasp* below are a few ways to preserve the harvest.
Green beans are a great vegetable to freeze because they keep their flavor and crispness if they are blanched before freezing. Simply clean them and trim the ends. Either keep them whole or cut them in half, depending on preference. Get a pot of water boiling and dunk the beans in batches, being sure not to overcrowd them in the pot. Once the water is boiling again, leave them in for 3 minutes. Scoop them out and put directly into an ice bath to stop the cooking. Do this to each batch of beans, being sure the water comes back to a boil in between rounds.
Then lay out the beans in a single layer on a cookie sheet, pat them dry and freeze. Once totally frozen, you can transfer them to a freezer bag or vacuum seal them. Be sure to date them. They should keep for several months just fine.
Another option is dilly beans! If you like dill pickles, you’ll love dilly beans. Gather sanitized canning jars and canning kettle, vinegar, spices and your beans.
Fill your canning kettle with water, fill your rack with the jars and bring them to a simmer. Keep the jars warm while waiting to be filled, otherwise you risk them breaking when you pour hot liquid into them. Meanwhile, wash your beans and trim the ends off. Cut them to be the size of your canning jar. Now, these can be made to your specific taste but you can start with putting about a ¼ tsp red pepper flakes, 1-2 cloves garlic and 1 head of dill or 2 tsps dried dill. Fill the jar with beans, tightly packed.
Mix the following ingredients together in a pot. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
1/4 cup canning salt
2 1/2 cups white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
2 1/2 cups water
Now carefully pour brine over each jar, leaving about ½ inch of headspace. Remove any bubbles and adjust the bring making sure it covers all your beans. Screw on lids and process jars at a hard boil for 10 minutes, ensuring water covers all the jars by 2 inches.
After 10 minutes, remove jars from the canning bath and let cool completely on the counter. Lids should have popped within 24 hours. Let them sit for a few weeks to develop flavor and keep them for 12-18 months in a cool, dry space.
How to Store Carrots
We've been told on many occasions that our homegrown carrots taste like a different vegetable when compared to a store bought version and I agree! If grocery store carrots in the wintertime just don’t do it for you, try preserving homegrown ones.
Fill a bucket with leaves, sawdust or moist sand and pack in your carrots. Be sure to put a lid on the bucket before storing in a cool, dark place. They should last about 3 months. You can occasionally check on the carrots, pulling out any bad ones.
You can also remove the tops and store them in the refrigerator in an airtight bag with a small towel or paper towels to absorb any moisture. The towel should be changed frequently to keep moisture away from carrots. Go through the carrots each month, removing any bad ones.
If you would prefer to store them after cooking, you can roast, sautee or mash them, then freeze in freezer bags to add later to soups.
People love or hate beets, but I’m convinced everyone has the ability to love them, they just haven’t tried eating them prepared the right way for their taste buds.
Beets are a root vegetable that can keep for up to 2 months unwashed and uncooked in an airtight bag in your fridge. However, if you want them to last even longer, consider pickling them!
We love a good “quickle” in our house which just means refrigerator pickle instead of the formal canning process to pickle vegetables. This can be done much more quickly and although they won’t last quite as long, it is a good alternative if you’re crunched for time. They are great for an easy snack, added to salads or to a charcuterie board.
Put everything in a pot or big pitcher and stir until the sugar and salt have dissolved.
You can use this brine to pickle just about anything. Simply fill clean canning jars with your ingredients and cover with the brine. This should keep in the refrigerator for 2 months. Like most things that need time for flavors to marry, they are ready when you think they are :)
Preserving Blueberries and Strawberries
Some great ways to preserve berries are to simply freeze them to later put atop yogurt and granola, add to smoothies, or make jam. But our all time favorite way to use them is to make pie filling for the freezer, pulling it out on a winter day to make a homemade baked fruit crisp. Just roughly clean and chop up about 3 lbs of fruit and put in a large enamel pot. Add 2 tbsp butter, ½ cup sugar, 1 tsp lemon juice and ½ tsp or more of cinnamon. Cook for about 4 minutes over medium heat, allowing the fruit to soften. Mix in 2 tbsp of cornstarch once the filling has mostly chilled and allow to fully chill.
Spoon into plastic freezer bags, date and freeze for later use! You can pour it over ice cream, make a traditional pie, or make a simple oat crisp topping and bake it up for dessert. This should keep in the freezer for up to 4 months.
Pro tip for frozen pie filling from my Grandma Carol:
Put the bag of filling into a pie pan before freezing so it’s the exact shape of the pan. This way, you can place the frozen filling directly over pie dough and pop it right into the oven!
Growing up, my husband’s parents made hot pepper jelly every summer and they enjoyed it all winter long, mostly just with a cheese and cracker appetizer. Now that we do most of the growing, we took over making the jelly too. It makes a great hostess gift!
How to Make Hot Pepper Jelly
1 ½ cups red pepper finely chopped
1 cup yellow pepper finely chopped
1 ¼ cups green pepper finely chopped
½ cup jalapeño finely chopped
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1.75 oz box powdered pectin
5 cups sugar
6-8 oz jars
Recipe courtesy of Sure-Jell.
Note: You can remove all pepper seeds or leave some for aesthetics. I prefer to leave a few jalapeño seeds for extra spice.
Sterilize jars. Place all peppers in a large pan over high heat. Add vinegar and pectin, mix. Stirring constantly, bring to a rolling boil. Remove from heat. Add sugar and put back on high heat. Return to a rolling boil for ONE minute. Remove from heat and skim off any foam.
Ladle into jars leaving ¼ inch headspace and screw on lids. Place jars into a canning kettle of hot water, not boiling. Cook on high and boil. Process for 5 minutes once boiling. Remove from heat and let fully cool on the counter. Lids should pop if properly sealed.
Sweet peppers cut into strips or coarsely chopped also freeze very well for future use in soups.
How to Pickle Cucumbers
Bread ‘n’ butter pickles were another staple in my husband’s house growing up. The recipe that has since been passed down to us is a little time consuming but let me tell you, there is a cult following for these pickles! After last year’s extreme rainfall, we lost all of our cucumbers so we did not make a single jar of pickles. Friends and family were so bummed at Christmastime!
Anyway, our go-to recipe for bread ‘n’ butter pickles was submitted by Ethel Wyckoff from a publication my mother-in-law saved. Thanks Ethel!
5-6 qts pickling cucumbers, sliced into rounds (measuring after slicing is easiest)
6 medium yellow onions, sliced
2 green peppers, diced, seeds removed
3 cloves garlic, peeled, kept whole
⅓ cup kosher salt
5 cups sugar
1 ½ tsp turmeric powder
1 ½ tsp celery seed
2 tbsp mustard seed
3 cups apple cider vinegar
Lots of cracked ice
Sterilized jars and new lids
Slice cucumbers to the thickness you desire.
Add cucumbers, onions, peppers, garlic, and salt and mix. Then cover with ice. Let stand for 3 hours.
Combine remaining ingredients in a separate bowl and pour over the cucumber mixture.
Heat just to a boil in a large pot.
Ladle into hot, sterilized jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Make sure juice covers the contents. Screw on lids and process in a canning kettle for 10-15 minutes.
Allow to fully cool on the counter.
These are best tasting if you wait about 3 weeks after canning. Enjoy!
Growing Winter Squash, Garlic and Onions for Storage
I grouped these together because they are sort of a hands off crop to grow with big rewards. They are excellent root vegetables that can be cured and stored for many months.
Growing Heavy Feeding Storage Crops:
Prep your soil and heavily amend as these are all heavy feeders and will be in the ground for a long time. After being properly hardened off, transplant them into your prepped beds, following appropriate spacing. Most winter squash require about 18-24 inches, onions you can plant every 6 inches and we plant garlic 4 across at a 6 inch spacing.
In zones 3-9, you can overwinter cold hardy onions, otherwise you should plant them in the spring after the risk of frost has passed. Garlic is always planted in the fall so it has time to establish all winter long. All 3 of these crops should be heavily mulched to keep weed pressure down. Water regularly. For the most part, garlic and onions don’t have many pests to worry about.
Squash plants should be checked for squash bug eggs early on when they are young and vulnerable. Planting a few radish seeds around the base of your squash plants will help deter these nasty little pests.
In the spring, you should pull back the mulch on your garlic, give them a quick weed and feed them, then put the mulch back on. Spring planted onions, garlic and winter squash grow all summer long, are harvested in late summer when the plants start to die back and then cured for a few weeks. Curing of winter squash and onions can be done on wire racks using fans for air circulation, while garlic can be tied up and hung for several weeks.
Storing for Winter:
Winter squash can be stored as is for 2-4 months under ideal conditions which are in a cool, dark place. These are great to halve, stuff and roast for a cozy winter meal.
Garlic can and should keep all winter if cured and stored properly. You may get a bad clove every now and then but that’s to be expected. Add it to any recipe as needed or make a raw honey garlic tincture for an immunity booster.
Onions should also be stored in a cool, dark place and will keep for 2-4 months. Keeping outer layers on will help keep them fresh longer.
Going into your pantry in winter for any of these 3 items is so comforting!
Try Preserving Your Own Food, It’s Worth it.
I hope you try growing some of these crops in your own home garden. If you don’t have the space or time, find your local farmer and stock up! Farmers at the market will often have great prices on things that are high producing that week. If your favorite farmer seems to have a lot of one item you would like to preserve, ask if they would be willing to sell you a larger quantity next week. That way they know to pick extra and you can get going with your preserving.
There is just nothing like eating a homegrown meal when there is snow on the ground and a fire burning.