It’s the time of year when the tables of every farmer’s market are heavy with fresh fruits and vegetables, and the array of delicious produce that’s available makes your heart (and your stomach) feel satisfied. But this seasonal flavor bomb doesn’t have to be limited for a few months out of the year. Yes, it’s true, we can enjoy this fresh bounty all year long with food preservation! While modern-day preserving is very easy and much less time-intensive than the food storage of yesteryear, there’s some key tips to get as much flavor and tastiness as possible. So, let’s dive in!
While it’s great to preserve a wide variety of different fruits and veggies, that’s not really what I mean here. It’s better to diversify your prep with one item in different ways (more on that later). Usually, when we’re preserving, we currently have a lot of one single thing. Like five pounds of peaches, or ten pounds of tomatoes. We’ll usually set aside a day or afternoon to make a big batch whatever recipe we’ve decided to preserve, like a ton of tomato sauce, and leave it at that.
And while it might make things seem easier on the day of preparation to make a giant batch of one single type of dish, you’re not doing your future self any favors. In March when you’re on month seven of having the same flavor and texture of your tomato sauce, you’ll be kicking yourself for not making a few different things with all those tomatoes. Instead of just having sauce, you could also halve and roast some and freeze them in jars. You could also freeze some raw and chopped up or make a salsa. This gives you a much wider variety of dishes and flavors you can enjoy later.
The point of preserving is to capture an ingredient at the height of its flavor, and if you get the timing wrong, you can end up with a whole lot of mediocre food. Pears are a great example of this. An unripe pear is gritty, mealy, and unpleasantly bland. But give that pear up to one week on the countertop in your kitchen, and it turns into a sweet, juicy, and tender treat.
So, whatever it is that you’re preserving, make sure that you’re 1) getting it at the height of its season, and 2) confirming that it’s ripe before preserving it. If that means letting your peaches or pears or tomatoes sit on the counter a bit until they’re tender and fragrant, so be it. Your patience will be rewarded with flavor!
One thing that will really help with tip #2 is sourcing your produce from a local farmer’s market. Whatever they have available is exactly what is ripe at that moment. And because it doesn’t have to travel very far, you have a wider variety of produce and a higher likelihood that the produce is currently ripe and ready for preserving.
The produce you get at the grocery store is shipped from far away and is usually picked when it’s slightly unripe and physically harder/firmer so that you can stack them without crushing the product. The varieties there are also bred for physical hardiness, rather than for taste. When you shop at the farmer’s market, you’re getting THE most flavor-packed produce possible. And you’re financially supporting the community you live in, which is pretty rad!
When it comes to food preservation, canning is a popular method because it makes the food shelf-stable, so you can keep it at room temperature without worrying about it spoiling (for a time, the food safety window depends on the recipe). But with canning, you have to heat-treat the food in the jar by boiling it for at least 10 minutes (the duration depends on the recipe). When it comes to the delicate flavors of autumn and winter, this heat can break down the enzymes that create some of the more delicate and fresh flavors.
So, I recommend using your freezer to preserve the harvest. Freezing means you don’t need to heat-treat it for consumption, and it preserves the vibrant flavors of the harvest perfectly. But there are a few key things to note here.
Sheet pans are incredibly helpful for preserving individual pieces of your harvest. So rather than large dishes that combine your produce into a single large recipe (like applesauce or tomato sauce), sheet pans preserve more individual-sized portions of your harvest.
I like using them for both raw and roasted small portions. For example, I slice my Roma tomatoes in half, then roast them on a sheet pan with some olive oil, salt, and pepper. I take them out of the oven, let them cool, and then place the sheet pan in the freezer for a few hours. Once they’re frozen, I can take the individual frozen roasted tomato halves off the sheet pan and transfer them into a mason jar or Tupperware container and put them back in the freezer again. This makes it easy to grab one or two roasted tomatoes to add to a recipe, whereas if I’d just put all the roasted tomatoes in a jar and froze that straightaway, I’d have to thaw and use the entire jar at once.
And when it comes to freezing raw produce, the exact same principle applies. Slice up your peaches and then spread the slices out on a baking sheet and freeze that for a few hours. Then transfer the sliced frozen peaches to an airtight container and put them in the freezer, so you have as many or as few sliced juicy peaches at your fingertips for the rest of the year.
That’s it, folks. Follow these five tips for a sure-fire way to harvest your summer and fall produce for the winter months. Enjoy!