8 Ways to Preserve Food At Home
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There are many ways to preserve food at home. Learn which foods can be canned, dehydrated, fermented, infused, dry cured and more with this in-depth guide.
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Whether you consider yourself a homesteader, a farmer or vegetable gardener, or simply a foodie who strives to eat as locally and seasonally as possible, learning how to preserve the harvest in the summer and fall months saves you money, helps make sure that nothing goes to waste, offers some level of food security in case of emergency, and provides you with healthy, organic homegrown (or locally grown) homemade food all year long.
The good thing is, preserving food isn’t as difficult as it might seem to a novice (and I can vouch for that considering I was a novice myself just a few years ago). Once you can your own homemade strawberry jam, ferment your first batch of sauerkraut or make your first batch of homemade fruit leather in your dehydrator, you quickly realize that home food preservation is both safe and easy, not to mention fun and addicting!
To be honest, one of the hardest parts of preserving food is knowing which preservation technique to use with which foods, because trust me when I say that zucchini does not lend itself to canning and cucumbers don’t freeze well.
Luckily there are many different ways to preserve food, both modern and ancient. So whether you’re just getting acquainted with your freezer or you’re building a smokehouse for this year’s salmon run, you’re guaranteed to find a food preservation technique to fit your skill level and comfort zone, and that also works well for the type of food you want to preserve.
Here are nine ways to preserve the harvest no matter what you’re puttin’ up! So break out your Mason jars and freezer bags and get started stocking your pantry shelves!
Eight ways to preserve food at home
Freezing is the most common form of long-term food preservation in our modern era. Even city folk with no inclination toward homesteading or stocking their pantries can use a freezer in the most basic way. For this reason, freezing is a great way to get your feet wet with home food preservation if you’re looking to preserve some berries from your local U-pick farm or some vegetables out of your garden.
Freezing is incredibly easy and versatile, so it works for a wide range of foods from meats and dairy to fruits and vegetables. The downside is that it relies on electricity to stay cold and keep your food from spoiling, which means you’re out of luck if you’re off-grid or if the power goes out for some reason.
Nevertheless, freezing is an important food preservation method to utilize in today’s world and even modern homesteaders rely heavily not their home freezers to put up a large part of their garden harvest, or at least freeze it until they can get around to canning it or preserving it another way later in the season.
Below are some foods that freeze particularly well. Just make sure to wash them all well first and remove any stems and debris from fresh fruit!.
Foods that freeze well:
- Berries & Cherries (flash freeze them on a tray first and then dump into freezer bags. This helps ensure they don’t stick together in the bag. Blueberries are the exception. They can go right into the bag!)
- Peaches & Mangoes (flash freeze first and then pack in freezer bags)
- Bananas (slice and flash freeze to use in smoothies or baking or pop them in the freezer whole to thaw and use in banana bread later on)
- Broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, snap peas and shelled peas (blanch for two minutes first)
- Carrots (blanch first)
- Avocados (here’s how to freeze avocados if you’re lucky enough to have ‘em!)
- Pumpkin and winter squash (peeled and diced or cooked/puréed)
- Tomatoes (to be canned or turned into sauce later on)
- Shredded zucchini (for zucchini cake or brownies)
- Herbs (frozen as-is or chopped up and frozen in oil, as pesto or in a compound butter)
- Shredded or diced cooked potatoes (must be blanched first or they will turn black!)
- Meat, poultry and seafood
- Dairy (milk, cream, cheese and butter)
- Eggs (I’ve never frozen eggs, but check out this article to learn how)
- Tofu (if meat and dairy aren’t your thing, tofu actually freezes surprisingly well!)
Foods that DO NOT freeze well:
- Whole or sliced cucumbers
- Whole or sliced zucchinis
- Uncooked potatoes
- Most raw vegetables
Cold Cellaring/Root Cellaring
Next to freezing, cold cellaring is probably the easiest form of food preservation. In fact, it’s even easier than freezing because it requires almost no prep work. It does, however, require access to a root cellar or at least a cold room in your house or garage that will keep foods cool and moist.
Check out this article from Mother Earth News to learn more about cold/root cellaring.
The best part about cold cellaring is that you hardly have to do any prep work in advance. Pumpkins, apples, potatoes and cabbages can be preserved whole and raw in a cold cellar. Carrots and beets do best when stored in boxes of moist sand. Ferments like sauerkraut and kimchi store exceptionally well in a cold cellar too, as do garlic and onions.
Foods that store well in a cold cellar:
- Pumpkins and winter squash
- Cabbage (whole heads or fermented)
- Potatoes & turnips (just brush the dirt off but don’t wash)
- Apples and pears (wrap in paper first to keep them separated and slow the release of ethylene gas which can cause food to spoil. Because one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch!)
- Carrots & beets (remove green tops and store in layers in boxes, buried in wet sand)
- Garlic and onions (cure both first, then braid and hang to dry or clip off hard neck garlic stems and store in an open basket that allows air to circulate)
Foods that DO NOT store well longterm in a cold cellar:
- Tomatoes & peppers
- Berries and soft, fleshy fruit (ie. peaches, plums, bananas, etc.)
- Zucchini & cucumbers
- Raw meat (should be salted and cured first)
- Raw dairy (some homemade cheese can be aged in a root cellar)
Water bath canning
When we think of homesteading and food preservation, canning is usually the first thing that comes to mind, and for good reason.
Canning was invented in France by a man named Nicolas Appert in the early 1800s as a means to feed the armies during the Napoleonic Wars. Later, in 1858, right in the thick of the pioneer days in America, the Mason jar was invented by John Mason and with that, home canning as we still know it today was born.
There are two types of home canning: water bath canning and pressure canning. Water bath canning is the least intimidating and most accessible form because it doesn’t require much in the way of special equipment. Really all you need is a large stockpot and a canning rack to put in the bottom, or a water bath canner with a built-in canning rack. And of course your Mason jars and canning tools.
Water bath canning is safe for jams, jellies, salsa, pickles, most sauces, canned fruit, pie filling and generally safe for all acidic fruits and vegetable with a PH level of 4.6 or less.
For a full rundown, check out my Beginner’s Guide to Water Bath Canning.
Foods that can be water bath canned:
- Berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, currants, mulberries, etc.)
- Stone fruits (peaches, cherries, plums, mangoes, etc.)
- Apples and pears
- * Tomatoes (the PH balance of tomatoes has changed over the years through hybridization so not all tomatoes have a PH lower than 4.6 now. Tomatoes that are water bath canned require the addition of lemon juice in order to guarantee acidity and make it a safe product to water bath can. For more information on acidifying tomatoes, click here.)
- Pickled vegetables (cucumbers, carrots, asparagus, green beans, cauliflower, etc. But they MUST be pickled in order to make them safe for water bath canning).
Foods that CAN NOT safely be water bath canned:
- Meat, poultry and fish (must be pressure canned)
- Low acid vegetables (most vegetables need to be pressure canned less they are pickled)
- Eggs and dairy (shouldn’t be canned at all)
Pressure canning is the source of most home food preservation nightmares. May people fear they’ll either blow up their kitchen with a pressure canner or they’ll poison their families with botulism. They’re legitimate fears too. These things have happened in the past, and although pressure canners are made with all sorts of safety features that make them pretty much impossible to explode, carelessness and unsafe canning practices can still run you the risk of botulism, so a little healthy fear isn’t a bad thing.
However, as long as you follow safe canning practices, including following a tested recipe and using a pressure canner for low acid foods like the ones on the list below, pressure canning is extremely safe and easy.
Honestly, the danger lies more in your water bath canner if you’re canning a low acid food, and most modern cases of botulism were due to low acid foods that should have been pressure canned, but that were water bath canned instead.
So embrace pressure canning! Just don’t embrace your pressure canner while it’s operating. That would NOT be a safe canning practice;)
Oh, and check out my No-Fear Guide to Safe Pressure Canning to learn more and ease any worries you might have:)
Foods that can (and MUST) be pressure canned:
- Meat and poultry
- Root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, etc. Must not be mashed!)
- Winter squashes (pumpkins, butternuts squash, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, etc. Must be cubed and not puréed. For more info, check out this post on pressure canning pumpkin at home)
- * Tomatoes (if lemon juice is not added to acidify them, or in the case of some sauces and combination recipes)
- Beans (green beans and shelling beans)
- Peas (shelled varieties only, not snap peas or snow peas)
- Combination recipes (soups, sauces and stews that contain a variety of vegetables and/or meat products)
Foods that CAN NOT safely be pressure canned:
- Puréed pumpkin or winter squash (the thickness of the purée makes it impossible to kill all harmful bacteria even in a pressure canner)
- Leafy greens (they will just turn to mush)
- Brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussles sprouts, romanesco, etc. Again, this is more of a quality issue than a safety one, but they will also just turn mushy)
- Pasta and rice (again, this will turn mushy with the high heat and pressure so for combination recipes like chicken noodles soup, just add the pasta at the time of cooking).
- Flour, breads, oats, barley, etc.
- Eggs and dairy
Dehydrating is another fun and easy way to preserve food, and it’s one of the least intimidating because there’s really no way to go wrong with it. In the rare case that the food isn’t dry enough, the worst that will happen is it will grow obvious, visible mold and you’ll have to throw it out. You don’t have to worry about botulism or food poisoning with dehydrated foods.
You can use your home oven at the lowest temperature, or you can dry food in the sun (raisins and sundries tomatoes are good candidates). But my favourite way by far is to use an at-home food dehydrator. It makes dehydrating so incredibly easy.
All you do is lay your food out, set the temperature and the time and let the dehydrator do the rest. You can leave it on as you sleep or go about your day without having to keep an eye on it. Plus it allows me to make healthy snacks at home like fruit roll-ups (aka. fruit leather), kale chips, vegetables chips, dried apple slices and dried cherries, strawberries, etc. to mix into granola and trail mix.
My dehydrator is by far one of my favourite food preservation tools. I use an Excalibur 9-tray dehydrator (affiliate link), which is what I recommend if dehydrating is something you want to get into.
There are some cheaper, smaller ones on the market, but with the amount that we preserve I find I regularly use all nine trays at once. Plus Excalibur dehydrators are the best quality dehydrators on the market and come with a built-in five-year warranty. So ya, I’m a fan:)
Foods that can be dehydrated:
- Berries (small berries can be left whole as long as they are pitted and stemmed and pricked to allow shrinkage (like in the car of blueberries). Larger berries like strawberries should be sliced.)
- Sliced fruit and fruit leather (dehydrated apples, pears, peaches, mangoes, bananas, etc.)
- Tomatoes and peppers
- Meat and fish (red meats and fish like salmon are the best candidates for jerky)
- Kale and some leafy greens (make kale chips or dehydrate kale and other greens like spinach to make a powder that can be added to soups, stews, sauces, meatballs, sausages, etc.)
- Cucumbers and zucchinis (make great veggie chips)
- Root vegetables (carrots, beets and potatoes should be sliced and blanched first and then dehydrated)
- Citrus fruits (sliced into rounds)
Foods that should NOT be dehydrated:
- Eggs (technically you can dehydrate eggs if they’re scrambled, but from my research they don’t rehydrate well and the texture can be rubbery and off-putting. However they can be freeze dried, but that’s some next level food preservation that we’re just not going to get to in this post!)
- Dairy, including milk and butter (the fat content is too high)
- Avocados (high fat content means dried avocados will go rancid)
- Fatty cuts of meat (again, fat doesn’t dehydrate well!)
Fermenting is another ancient form of food preservation that can seem a little intimidating to many people at first. There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding fermentation and lots of people worry about the bacteria growth on fermented foods, and wonder what the difference is between fermentation and food simply going bad.
But fermentation is definitely not the same as spoiled food. In fact, it’s the exact opposite since the lactic acid produced during fermentation acts as a preservative and is used to produce and preserve all sorts of foods and beverages, from beer and wine to yogurt and pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi to kefir and kombucha… all of these foods are made possible thanks to the process of fermentation, which has been used to brew beverages and preserve foods for at least 10,000 years (source). Plus, fermented foods are full of healthy probiotics that are great for supporting healthy gut bacteria and overall health and immunity.
Fermentation requires no special equipment other than glass jars, some cheese cloth and some sort of weight to keep certain foods below the surface of the liquid. The weight could be as fancy as these glass weights made specifically for fermentation, or as simple as using a small jelly jar or even a clean rock!
You can also purchase airlock fermentation lids (which I’m eager to try out soon!). But personally I’ve never had a problem just using some cheesecloth and a canning band. Some quart-sized Mason jars and a couple gallon jugs will go a long way. And always keep cheesecloth on hand. It comes in handy in so many ways in the homestead kitchen!
Foods that can be fermented:
- Cabbage (sauerkraut and kimchi)
- Cucumbers (lacto-fermented pickles)
- Most vegetables (can be fermented in a mixture of salt and water)
- Dairy (yogurt, sour cream and kefir)
- Apples (can be fermented and turned into apple cider vinegar or hard cider)
- Grapes (can be fermented and turned into wine)
- Most fruit (can be fermented and turned into wine, mead or alcohol of some sort)
- Soybeans (miso, soy sauce, tempeh, etc.)
- Eggs (lacto-fermented eggs)
- * Fruit can also be added to kombucha on the second ferment and will ferment and flavour the kombucha, as well as help it to carbonate)
Foods that should not be fermented:
Most foods can be fermented in one way, shape or form, but not all foods are as easy or tasty to ferment for homesteaders and beginner fermenters. Here is what I would recommend against fermenting (unless you’re really adventurous):
- Meat & seafood (unless you’re curing meat, which I’ll cover briefly under the “salting” preservation method outlined below).
- Potatoes (unless you’re making vodka!)
- Lettuce and other delicate, leafy greens like spinach (kale can be fermented and holds up in vegetable mixes)
Infusing is a lesser-known food preservation method, because when it comes to infusing, you’re not really preserving the food itself, but rather the nutrients and flavour of the food or herbs that you are infusing into a given solvent.
An infusion is made by immersing herbs in a liquid solvent and infusing the properties of that herb into that solution. The solid matter is discarded and the liquid infusion, otherwise known as an extract) is reserved and used, usually either as food or medicine (or in some cases, in beauty and personal care products). Solvents include water, oil, vinegar, alcohol, glycerine and honey.
Fresh or dried herbs can be used for infusions, however only dried herbs must be used in honey and oil infusions meant for consumption due to the risk of botulism. Also, I don’t recommend making any herbal oils for consumption, and if you do, be sure to follow the safety guidelines outlined here. Rather, use herbal oils topically by creating medicinal salves or using as a carrier oil with essential oils.
Foods that can be infused in a preservative solvent:
- Herbs & medicinal flowers (use fresh or dried in alcohol, vinegar and glycerine infusions, and dried in honey and oil infusions. Plus, follow safety guidelines for herbal oils intended for consumption).
- Fruit (in vinegar and alcohol)
- Garlic and onions (in vinegar infusions like fire cider)
- Hot peppers (in vinegar or alcohol)
- Roots like ginger, turmeric and horseradish (alcohol or vinegar)
- Citrus fruit rinds (in vinegar or alcohol
Foods that should NOT be used in infusions:
- Most vegetables (except the ones listed above)
- Meat, poultry and seafood (never!)
- Egg and dairy products (also never!)
Dry Curing & Smoking
Both salt and sugar inhibit microbial growth and have been used as preservatives for thousands of years. Salt is an important ingredient in any pickling brine, but in this case we’re talking specifically about dry curing (without any additional liquid brine).
Salting is used predominantly to cure meats, including ham, salami, jerky and bacon, but you can also preserve herbs in salt, as well as citrus fruits. Sugar is sometimes used in tandem with salt and spices when dry curing meat.
Smoking is an extra step in the curing process for most meats and seafood like salmon, although it is still recommended that you can or freeze smoked salmon and some smoked meats (unless they are dried completely and turned into jerky and then vacuum-packed). Some salt-cured meats can be stored in a root cellar as well.
I have never personally tried salt curing or smoking for preservation purposes, so please make sure to do your research before trying it out with meats if you don’t plan on pressure canning them after or using refrigeration/freezing to preserve it. For more info on curing and smoking meat, check out the latest information from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Foods that can be salted and/or smoked and cured:
- Meat and poultry (ham, salami, pepperoni, deli meats, jerky, etc. should be stored in the fridge, although it’s possible to store some cured meats in a cold cellar)
- Fish and seafood (salmon, trout, oysters, etc. should all be smoked and canned or frozen after)
- Herbs (dried first and preserved in salt)
- Citrus fruits (preserved lemons in salt is a popular Moroccan preserve)
- Egg yolks (check out the following post from Ashley over at Practical Self Reliance to learn how to preserve egg yolks in salt!)
Foods that shouldn’t be dry cured in salt:
- Most vegetables (must be preserved in a liquid salt brine)
- Most fruits (will be too salty)
- Whole eggs
Whatever it is you’re harvesting, if you have a substantial amount, you’ll surely want to preserve some for later, so having at least a few of these food preservation skills in your apron will serve you well. Plus, nowadays there are more (safe and tested) ways to preserve food than ever before, including some methods we didn’t even cover here, such as freeze drying and, of course, good ol’ refrigeration for short or medium-term food preservation.
So, tell me… What are you preserving right now and what method(s) are you using? What food preservation method do you want to learn more about?
Let me know down below:)
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