Everyday Cooking - Storage methods for your home grown produce
Everyday Cooking is a feature of laterlife.com run by Rosemary Martin.
Covering topics such as bread making, meals for one, nutritional meals, healthy eating, freezer cooking, seasonal cooking, microwave cooking, bulk cooking, preserves etc., Useful for older people and those on a limited budget, or single householders…
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For August I thought Storage methods for your produce would be an extremely useful subject, and have taken this column from Jackie Sherman's excellent book, 'Making the Most of your Glorious Glut'.
I cannot praise this book enough - it's packed full of great advice and yummy recipes.. It is essential reading for people who grow their own produce, or indeed for anyone who picks or buys seasonal crops from Pick Your Own farms, or farm shops.
How to store your crops
Without any treatment at all, there are two ways in which you can store many vegetables and fruits: in the ground, leaving them where they are growing, or harvested and stored in a cool, dark room.
For most people, the storage method that is most familiar is freezing, and this will require time spent preparing the fruit and vegetables for the freezer to ensure that they keep in top condition.
There are a few root vegetables including carrots and beetroot that can safely be left in the ground until you want to use them, although digging them up during a hard winter might be difficult. To protect them against frost or to stop them rotting in heavy rain, cover them with materials that will trap air such as wood chips, straw or horticultural fleece.
If you can, leave large winter squash to ripen on the vine for as long as possible, although harvest them just before the first frosts.
Perhaps this is also the place to add that, if you leave podded beans such as broad beans and runner beans on the plant to dry out during a dryish autumn (or pull up the plants and hang the whole stem inside), you can then harvest and use the dried beans in stews and curries (as well as retain some to plant next year).
More conveniently, you can store most root vegetables in a cool, dark place such as a basement or garage as long as they are unblemished and in perfect condition. The ideal temperature is between 32 and 50oF (0 and 10oC).
Carrots and beetroot will store particularly well between layers of damp sand or peat but for most root vegetables you can also brush off any loose earth and pack them, unwashed, in wire or plastic baskets or between layers of sawdust or crumpled newspaper in crates or boxes. (Take care with wooden containers as they can rot in the damp.)
It is a good idea to check your vegetables now and again for any signs of rot and to move them every few weeks so that one spot doesn't stay in contact with the container all the time. It is usually best to store the larger specimens, and you should always leave an inch or so of stem on the plant to reduce the risk of infection.
Winter squash need to be cured (i.e. left so that their skins have time to harden) for a few
weeks before being stored on slatted wooden shelves, and they like slightly warmer and
moister conditions than root vegetables. Ideally, store them at temperatures of 50 – 55oF (10 – 13oC).
Tomatoes store well if picked when green as they will ripen slowly in paper bags, drawers
or shallow trays covered in newspaper or a black bin bag loosely tied. Some people say
you should add a banana or apple to the drawer but I haven’t found that necessary, as
long as you check the fruit regularly and always leave at least one that has nearly ripened,
to give off the required ethylene gas.
Apples need more air flow than vegetables and are usually wrapped in newspaper before being stored in crates and baskets, so that one going bad does not infect its neighbours. Eating apples seem very hard to keep, but cookers will last right through the winter and well into spring.
Pears can be stored between layers of shredded newspaper but they tend to be more delicate and bruise more easily than apples. They can be kept in a cool cupboard or room but should be checked more frequently and they won't last as long. For this reason, it may be best not to wrap them in newspaper first as you won't be able to spot problems until it is too late.
The most important thing about freezing is not to freeze anything you wouldn't want to eat fresh. So for example, if your runner beans are stringy or your carrots are woody and shrivelled, they will not be improved by sitting in the freezer for a few months.
Almost all vegetables and fruits can be frozen in some form or other, but if they contain a great deal of water, for example courgettes and cucumbers, you will unfreeze a mushy pulp if you simply put them in bags in the freezer. Depending on what you want to do with your produce, you therefore need to choose an appropriate freezing method. It is also a good idea to freeze in portion sizes so you don't need to unfreeze your entire stock when cooking for one or two.
Labelling everything is important as one bag of frozen puree can look very like another, and as well as knowing what is in the bag or box, you need to note down when it was frozen so that you use up food in good time rather than keep it so long that it starts to deteriorate.
One problem with freezing is that it can result in an unpleasant taste and appearance known as "freezer burn". This happens when the pack loses moisture and then dries out and the food reacts with air. It can be avoided by removing as much air as possible during packing, sealing the freezer packs very carefully and not keeping the food stored for too long.
Two different ways to remove air before freezing:
- Slowly squeeze the air out of a plastic bag or non-rigid container by pressing round the food without squashing it too much and then tie firmly
- Tie the bag shut round a straw, suck air out of the bag and then remove the straw quickly and tie the bag tightly.
For fruits or vegetables to keep their shape when unfrozen, it is best to start the process off by spacing them out on oiled trays that you then freeze for about an hour or so. Once the individual pieces are solid, you can pack them together in bags or boxes and they will retain their shape when you use them later. Obviously, if you know you only want to use the food in a puree or stew, this extra stage is unnecessary and you can pack them in bags straight away.
Open freezing is certainly the perfect method for freezing small berries such as blackberries or raspberries where you may want to use the fruit as a garnish for your puddings; otherwise, they will unfreeze in a broken and pippy mess.
Fruits and vegetable fruits such as tomatoes should be washed and picked over before being open frozen directly either whole, quartered or chopped, (although tomatoes when thawed will never be anything but mushy and so don't expect to serve them in salads). If the fruit has stones, it is better to stone them before freezing as they can then be used in cooking straight from the freezer without further treatment and it is also possible that the stones might taint the flavour over time.
Most vegetables including sliced runner beans, marrow, squash, green beans, carrots, spinach and broad beans should first be blanched. This process sets the colour and destroys enzymes which cause a loss of flavour, vitamins and texture and can limit the time the vegetables can be kept. Blanching involves adding the vegetables to boiling water, bringing it back to the boil and boiling for a short time – from a few seconds to a couple of minutes, depending on size and water content - before plunging them into cold water to stop the cooking process. They should then be drained and patted dry before freezing.
Although rhubarb can be frozen without any cooking, it can improve the flavour and appearance if it is first blanched. Blanching is also a good method to use if you want to peel tomatoes, damsons or plums before freezing, as the skins will slip off easily.
When freezing courgettes, you can keep small specimens whole or slice larger ones and either blanch them quickly (no more than about 10 seconds) or fry them in butter or oil for a few minutes instead.
Beetroot should be cooked completely rather than blanched, with the tops left on so they don't bleed and lose their colour. After cooking, peel them before freezing either halved, sliced or, if very small, left whole.
Some fruits will keep better and have a better flavour if frozen with sugar. For gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants that you are going to use for jams or sweet puddings, hull, peel or top and tail, sprinkle with sugar and turn them so they are thoroughly coated. This will draw out some of the juice and keep the fruit firmer. They can then be packed into containers.
For any fruits such as rhubarb that are not so juicy, or if they have been stoned e.g. plums and damsons, layer them in rigid containers covered with a syrup made using 8 oz of sugar dissolved in each pint of water.
Apples are very versatile as you can peel, slice and blanch them and then freeze them unsweetened, coat them in sugar or cover them with sugar syrup. Pears are different and it is probably best to poach them in sugar syrup first before freezing.
To save space when freezing crops you know you will want to use in drinks, sauces or stews, or if the fruit or vegetables are particularly ripe, it may be better to process them first. Extract the juice or prepare a simple puree by liquidising the fruits or vegetables with or without sugar. You can also create and freeze a finished sauce, although at this stage don't add the final seasoning or spices.
When ready, pour the juice, puree or sauce into freezer tubs, boxes or plastic bags. To keep plastic bags more stackable, start the freezing process by filling the bag held inside a rigid container such as a cardboard box. As soon as the contents have started to solidify, the cardboard can be removed and the bag will hold its square shape.
When filling bags and boxes, it is important to leave room for expansion as the liquid contents freeze, and any cooked food must be allowed to cool first or it will raise the temperature of the freezer and may start thawing frozen food in neighbouring containers.
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