It is manifestly the case that I have never fully mastered keeping things from getting overwhelming, but I get better at it every year (mostly). And there is a lot you can do to make sure that the canning and preserving don’t make you crazy!
Despite the fact that you’ve got a life, a job, a family, volunteer responsibilities and enough backlog in your life to keep you busy until 2182, you’ve decided that you are going to do some food preservation too. And you are definitely wondering if you are a little nuts. After all, this means finding time to do so, and isn’t always easy. It helps to plan for the realities of the harvest – and this is planning that applies both to people with gardens who may now be planting, and people who plan to put up food from local farmers.
It is possible to use a few tricks to make some of the things you harvest come when you want them – not everything can be done this way, but since none of us have so much time that we can afford to waste it, there are a few tricks worth knowing. For those of you not able to control the harvest – ie, you are getting things when the farmers have them, console yourself with the fact that not growing a garden, almost certainly takes less time than growing one, even with the time saving tips ;-).
The way harvesting typically goes is that for a long time it is slow, slow, slow….and then oh, crap, what do I do with all these beans and the blueberries and the… Now there are several ways to address this. I know someone who takes her vacation in late July every year, so she pickles, cans, jams and preserves her way through the bounty. Other people simply recognize “ok, no point in picking more than I can put up after dinner and on the weekends, so might as well give the extra away.” Others of us, perpetual optimists, take the course of saying “of course I’ll do it, even though I don’t immediately see how or when” and then end up with rotting tomatoes on the counter. This latter one is not the recommended method, but I seem to do it surprisngly often
The first thing that helps is obvious – do you know when things are going to come ripe? When you planted your currant bushes and apple trees, did you look at the ripening dates? If the currants are always ready the second week of July, you already know that you have to make time for them then – they won’t wait. So that means that when you are setting up your schedule, you can add “currants” to it, right along with the dentist appointments and the lunch with your sister. One of the problems with domestic work is that we tend not to view it as important in the same way appointments are important, so we don’t make time for it.
The next thing you can do is ask yourself whether you really need to preserve everything in sight. That may sound odd coming from me, but the truth is, some foods really aren’t that great when preserved, even if they are fabulous fresh. I love fresh figs, but I think dried figs are only ok – so why not enjoy the figs while they are fresh and then just wait until next year – there are plenty of other fruits out there. I adore fresh asparagus, but don’t think frozen, dried or canned asparagus is all that great, so I just look forward every year to asparagus season, and preserve other foods.
The idea of preserving is to make sure you have plenty of good, healthy, delicious food to eat, and also to make sure that you get to take some essence of summer (or the wet season) into winter (or the dry season) – that is, that you take the abundance that the growing season offers and put it away. But that abundance should be good – if you were starving, fine, you’d eat canned asparagus. In the absence of zombies, though I prefer to preserve what I actually like to eat.
These strategies can help, but preserving itself is a time commitment, and when the food needs you, it needs you. So find out when the CSA expects to have its peaches, look up when those Wolf River apples come ripe, ask around about when it is time to hunt for morels, and add them to your schedule. If anyone asks, you can say you have lunch planned with Mr. Peach .
You also want to plan you plantings around your intentions. If you want to root cellar your apples, instead of saucing or drying them, you probably want apples that are harvested late in the season, when it is quite cold – otherwise, you may have trouble storing them. Some of our harvest planning comes when planting – if your beets are mostly going in the root cellar, you will want them to be ready when it gets cold, so there’s no point in planting them in April – they’ll just get woody sitting in the ground.
If you want to put everything up at once, you probably want a lot of paste tomatoes of one variety – an early one, or a late one – that way, the week you’ve devoted to tomato canning will provide you with lots. If you don’t know when that will be for your local farm, talk to them now, maybe even put in a reservation for extras.
If you would rather do this gradually, a little at a time, you’ll want a staggered harvest – instead of planting 50 pickling cucumber plants tomorrow, plant 10, and plant another 10 in three weeks. Make sure you think about this in terms of perennials – instead of 50 strawberry plants of one variety, how about 15 each of an early, mid and late season.
What preserving technique do you want to use for each crop? If I want to dehydrate, and use the sun instead of coal powered electricity, that means I need the crops to come ripe when it is still early in the season – my best dried apples will be from the early apples that ripen in August and September, since I can’t use my solar dehydrator much in October. But if I want sauce, I’m going to enjoy standing over a hot canning kettle a lot more in chilly October, than I am in steamy August. Sometimes you are stuck – the blueberries come in July, and there’s really no way to mess with that. But a surprising number of crops have a wide range of harvest times. Obviously, this will vary a lot with your climate, so think about what’s realistic.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to can when it is cooler, dehydrate in the warm weather, root cellar when it is getting quite cold, lactoferment in the cooler weather (fermentation happens *very* fast in warm weather, and it can be hard to keep the stuff), preserve meat when it is cooler (since you are less likely to have spoilage while smoking, drying, or cutting), preserve eggs and milk when they are flush (ie, in the spring and early summer), and make alcohol/preserve with alcohol and vinegar when it is warm (since things ferment so nicely.
There are some crops that simply have to be dealt with when they are ready, and it makes sense to put a list of these together – strawberry time is june, sweet corn is at its best in August, the pumpkins are ripe in October. So I need to remember that I’ll be making pumpkin leather in October, strawberry jam and dried strawberries in June and dried, frozen and canned sweet corn in August. It is really up to you whether you’d like to do a bit at a time or in one swell foop – I actually prefer to simply suck it up and put up several hundred ears of corn at once, because I find the job so annoying that I’d just rather get it over with. Since corn silk and bits of corn end up everywhere, I’d rather have the mess one time in the summer, two at most, and be done with it. Other people might reasonably prefer to put up a dozen ears here, a dozen there.
In the heat of summer, if you are going to harvest, you need to have time to preserve – all of us have probably left something “just a little longer” in the summer, only to find swarms of fruit flies or a yucky pile of rotting fruit at the end of it. Things go bad fast – and things get ripe fast. Remember, that tiny 2 inch zucchini is going to be a 2 footer by tomorrow. So keeping up with things is one of the keys to enjoying this.
So is getting many hands to make light work – if you have to husk corn or shell peas, don’t just do it, get everyone to do it. Invite friends to come and help with the preserving, in trade for lessons or a few jars of jam. The work bee has a long history. So does “making your loved ones suffer a bit too ). Make it as pleasant as you can – put on loud rock and roll, or quiet jazz. Watch a movie while you snap the green beans, get sweetie to rub your back while you shell peas.
There are tools to make things easier. Some of them work, some of them don’t – it really depends. A lot of it is a matter of preference -for example, I’ve used every imaginable tool to cut corn off the cob, and come to the conclusion that they all suck, and that a knife is no harder than any of them – the ring sort cause my fingers to go numb eventually, which probably isn’t good, the slide kind causes me to cut my fingers. On the other hand, a good cherry pitter can save you hours of labor if you have a lot of cherries. Experimenting with the right tools can make your life easier, but don’t assume that just because a tool exists, you need it.
Some steps that make preserving take longer can be skipped. For example, I never take tomato skins off before I can tomatoes – I just decide that I don’t mind tomato skin. Blanching when dehydrating is one of those things that varies a lot – a lot of books tell you to do it (I have one that suggests you blanch grapes, which is just totally insane), and it may well get you better textures or tastes, but I believe firmly it is always good to see if you can get away with skipping extra steps. The exception, to this is in canning, where skipping steps can give you botulism poisoning, so that would be the only place I recommend against experimentation – otherwise, try it and see!
Some jobs can be put off – for example, I know someone who shoves all her tomatoes into the freezer, and then cans them in December, when she’s got no other canning to do. I always think this is a great idea, and then don’t have room in my freezer. Maybe you can get the farmer to store your apples or potatoes until it gets cold enough – just ask if you can pick them up in November.
And you should always ask yourself “is the result worth the effort.” Sometimes, if you are new to this, you won’t know, but after that first year, ask yourself – how convenient was it to have tomatoe sauce or salsa right there for all those meals? Do we really love pickled dilly beans enough for me to make them again? Are we fig preserves people? A lot of the time, the answer is yes – watching my boys devour an entire jar of pickles, for example, or being able to have green gage plum jam on fresh bread in January is definitely worth it. On the other hand, while I like pickled beets, I find I don’t care enough to bother pickling them – I’m happy to eat them fresh out of the cellar.
I’ve found that I save a lot of time that way – for years, we would blanch and freeze broccoli for winter, but we always would eat everything else first. Finally, we decided we just don’t like frozen broccoli, and we’re happier with chopped frozen kale in the winter months – poof, that’s one job down. Or we decide that an easier technique is as good – I like both canned and dried sweet corn, but it is less effort to throw the corn in the solar dehydrator than it is to can it, so I’m canning a bit less.
Remember, little bits count. So you only canned 3 pints – so what? That’s three weeks of jam, or three meals of carrots. So all you had the energy to do was to hang up those herbs to dry today – great, you’ve got enough sage now for the whole month of December. A little at a time adds up fast. Yes, you may want to do bigger jobs sometimes, but every little bit helps!