Sunday, April 15, 2012
Methods of Food Preservation
For humans today, nutritious food is available year round, either (relatively) fresh in our meat and produce aisle or canned or otherwise preserved on the store shelves. But as I've discussed previously, I think we should preserve our own food, grown in our own gardens or bought in season when it's at its peak for freshness, and at its lowest prices due to market saturation. I think that many homemakers today would find nutritional food choices easier to make if they were preserving their own food.
Today I'm going to talk about the most common methods of food preservation. I'm not going to touch on smoking, salting, fermenting or other less common methods, simply because I have no experience with them. I use canning, freezing, refrigeration, and dehydrating to preserve foods to make sure I can serve my family healthy foods even when those foods aren't currently in season. While fresh is always better, as any type of food preservation causes loss of nutrients, preserving food when its in season, whether you grow your own or buy it, is a good way to increase the nutrients and decrease the empty calories in your family's diet.
The most basic method of food preservation is refrigeration. When you put the gallon of milk in your fridge so you can enjoy it with your cookies three or four days from now, you're engaging in food preservation. If you stored the milk on your counter, it would be unusable within hours. The plus side of refrigeration is that it's available to just about anyone. You can stock up on salad greens if they are on sale or ready to use from your garden, and have lovely salads all week long. The downside is that it doesn't last long. Even preservative laden foods will eventually go bad, and your fresh meat or produce doesn't have a long shelf life in the refrigerator. It's a very short term method of food preservation.
Next, we have freezing. Freezing doesn't require any special equipment, although some foods like potatoes and corn, need to be blanched prior to freezing. It's much easier to preserve food this way if you have a freezer besides the one on top of your fridge, but even if you don't, you can buy two or three weeks of fresh meat or produce and store it in the freezer. I have two freezers, a chest freezer and an upright, and frequently use freezing to preserve my foods-especially when I was waiting on a part for my canner. Some foods simply freeze better anyway. Potatoes and some squashes don't can well, but freeze just fine-although potatoes don't last long in the freezer. I do, though, freeze several batches of grated potatoes for hashbrowns when potatoes go on sale. The downside to freezing is that you're susceptible to loss if you have a power outage, and the amount of time that foods can safely stay frozen can be fairly short. Freezer burn is not your only concern. Freezing only slows the multiplication of bacteria, it does not stop it completely.
Canning has been in existence since Napoleon, ever trying to build a better army, held a contest to find the best method of long term food preservation to feed the men on long marches. Nicolas Appert came up with the methods that led to home canning as we know it. By the 1880s, open kettle canning was widely practiced in America. Subsequent changes in safety rules and innovations in kitchen gadgets led us to where we are today. There are two accepted methods of canning: Water Bath Canning, used for high acid foods, and Pressure Canning, used for everything else. Most home canned products can sit on a shelf for about a year, and the great bonus of home canning is that you can home can fully prepared meals like soups, stews, Sloppy Joe mixes complete with meat, making dinner prep when you're having "one of those days" a snap. Almost any food can be canned, although potatoes, some squashes, asparagus, and a few other foods do not hold up well to the process. The downsides to canning are few, but they are there. You'll be replenishing your stash of jars once in awhile, and getting started is not cheap, although it's far cheaper than buying a freezer. It's hot, messy work, and it takes a lot of hands on or at least fully present time. It also takes up a lot of space, with storage needed for your canner, jars, rings, and lids.
In short, each method of home food preservation has its pros and cons. The bottom line is this - if you want to make sure you're fully aware of every ingredient in your family's diet, it's essential that you preserve your own food!