Modeling Sustainable Food Preservation
The Need to Preserve Food
Picking Apples for Cider
The systems that produce food, while intricate and full bodied, are just one component of any food system. In a temperate climate, the art and science of food preservation is just as important to providing nutrition for the table year round. Most of the food production systems described here have an ebb and flow to their cycles, periods of growth and rest.
As co-collaborators with these systems, we can extend the productive season though often at a cost of either energy or long term health and vitality but we cannot escape the natural limits created by our chosen home. So, this means that there are months of the year when more food is available than we could possibly eat and there are months when most of the food production systems are producing minimally, if at all.
The Cherry Harvest!
There are a variety of techniques that we use to preserve the season's bounty, and each year we integrate more strategies or improve existing ones. Some processes we use include: canning, drying, freezing, dry storage, pickling and fermenting. Diversity strengthens resilience in many systems and food preservation is no exception. Some foods are more challenging or time consuming to preserve in one way over another, and sometimes foods just taste better or are more easily integrated into meals when preserved a certain way. The appropriate balance of which techniques to use depends on the personal preferences and limitations of any given household.
The Fruits of Summer
Canning once played a large role in the household economy, and lost its place with the advent of industrial food processing. But for those who want to be intimately involved in their food systems, canning is an integral skill to learn. For once learned, the variety of of delicious concoctions you can make is limited only by your own creativity and the resources at hand.
From jams to chutneys, whole fruits to sauces, canning enables a bit of summer to come to the table even in the midst of of a February snow storm. However, as a practitioner of canning well knows, canning requires a significant amount of time and energy (in the form of cooking), which is important to keep in mind when determining how to preserve the season's bounty.
Considerable space that does not freeze in the winter is also required to store the jars. With canning, perhaps, more than with other preservation methods, it is extremely important to use proper sterilization and cooking techniques, as the health consequences of not doing so can be quite severe.
Loading Elderberries into the Solar Dehydrator
Drying or dehydrating foods is a simple method that works quite well for a variety of food products. While electric dehydrators are faster, solar dehydration uses less energy. An added benefit of dehydrating foods is that dehydrated foods take up considerably less space than their fully hydrated counterparts, and when stocking up for the winter, space quickly becomes a concern.
Nutritional value is well preserved in dehydrated foods and there is little need to add ingredients, such as sugar or salt, which is commonplace when canning and pickling. Not all foods can be used the same fresh as dried: for example while apples can be rehydrated to make an apple crisp and zucchini and peppers are easily added to soups and stews, making tomato sauce from dried tomatoes doesn't work as well. Cookbooks, grandmothers and good old experimenting are the best ways to find your way through this maze.
Processing Goat Meat for the Freezer
Freezing is perhaps one of the easiest ways to preserve food, as few time intensive steps are needed.
However, freezing can be an energy intensive process and it doesn't take very much food to fill up a freezer. While we continue to freeze some fruits and vegetables, we have been moving away from this practice and have been utilizing that space instead to freeze meat and other animal products such as eggs and milk that also come in seasonal cycles.
Unfortunately, there is always the risk when relying on electricity to preserve foods that a power outage or failure of some kind could render those food supplies no longer safe for consumption. We do have long term plans for constructing what are effectively walk-in freezers powered by the sun.
Garlic Stored for Winter
Storing goods in cool, dry locations is a time-tested and inexpensive method of preserving food through the winter months. Select produce can keep for weeks if not months months when kept in the appropriate conditions (35-40 °F, dry, protected from mice, chipmunks, squirrels etc). Some of these items include: potatoes, carrots, garlic, parsnips, rutabagas, beets, turnips, winter squash, sweet potatoes, cabbages, onions, green tomatoes, apples, quince and tree nuts (still in their shells).
Some varieties of these food items are better suited to winter storage than others, so it is important to keep this in mind when selecting varieties for planting. Basements and garages are often well suited to serve as root cellars. People also use the insulating capacity of the earth to create dry storage space. For example, we converted an old chest freezer into a dry storage space by simply digging a hole in the ground deep enough to contain it.
Pickling is the process of preserving foods in an acidic, salty solution, an environment that kills most bacteria. In addition to cucumbers, one can pickle a variety of perishable vegetables to store them through the winter, including beets, zucchini, green beans, cabbage, watermelon rinds and even eggs. Pickled foods often add a distinctive and refreshing flavor to a meal.
Making Hard Cider
Fermentation is an age-old method of preservation. There are notable benefits to fermenting foods such as minimal requirements of time and energy and the highly nutritional aspects of probiotic foods. Well known fermented products include yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut and alcoholic drinks.
Kefir and kombucha are less popular, but no less delicious, foods also produced through a fermentation process. Cheese, yogurt, kombucha and kefir are all regularly produced in the kitchen. Our initial efforts to make hard apple cider have been met with quite high success and so this too will likely become an annual ritual.