By ERIN TURNER
Despite the slow start to the growing season, crops are finally popping up and the tables are starting to fill up at Farmers’ Markets all over town. In my own garden, the herbs are plentiful and the kale has been steadily supplying our family and friends for a while now. The peas are almost ready to be picked and finally the broccoli is struttin’ its stuff.
These are the days filled with fresh food straight from the garden (or from the markets). I love the ease and simplicity of summer meals because of the fresh produce. But soon there will be an abundance of this food and even my “Hungry Men” can’t begin to tackle the piles of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, carrots and more.
Buying produce this time of year is economically wise (click here for more tips on produce). In the next couple of weeks, things will be in full production and you will begin to see prices for fresh produce drop. This is the time to buy and stock up. But we all know it doesn’t last forever…or does it? Well, not forever. But it can last through the winter at least! Yup…I’m talking about preserving the abundant summer harvest. I can’t tell you the joy of eating corn in the middle of February or indulging in Strawberry Jam on Christmas morning!
Plus, the money you save by canning or freezing your summer produce is huge. We buy very little produce during the winter because our freezer is always full from the summer. So, we see a significant reduction in our grocery bill thanks to our garden and the effort we put in preserving the food.
If you have never preserved food before, I would highly suggest the Ball Blue Book as a wonderful beginning resource. It is available all over town. It’s my go-to book for recipes, info and tips for preserving food using various methods. But there are numerous other resources as well. I kinda have a fetish for books about preserving food, especially old ones.
Canning has been a mainstay in America since we settled here. With the lowering cost of sugar and the helpful woodstove, women in the 1880’s began the idyllic “Summer Canning Frenzy”. This summer routine continued well into the late 1950’s until industrial food won the hearts of many homemakers. Canning made a come back in the 1960’s and 70’s and again is having a resurgence in popularity.
Some supplies you will need for canning: A large canner, canning jars, lids, utensils for lifting the hot jars out of the boiling water and ingredients from your recipe. I have seen canning kits at Walmart, Ace and even some grocery stores. I have also seen them at thrift stores and garage sales.
Starting with an inexpensive kit will get you all the tools you need to get started. It’s important to research and learn about canning before you start. You are preserving food and feeding it to your family…it’s perfectly safe if you do it according to the rules but if you don’t do it right, you could make a lot of people sick and that’s no fun.
Tomatoes can be turned into salsa, paste, ketchup, spaghetti sauce and soup base. While cucumbers can be turned into dill pickles, sweet pickles or relish. The ideas are endless and so much fun. Again, it’s important to know what veggies can be canned using a simple hot water bath and what veggies need to be pressure cooked. Many veggies are low in acid and need to be preserved in an alternate way. We found this out years ago after canning beets. A few weeks after our marathon canning event, our shelves were covered with a brilliant pink/purple liquid. The beets had exploded because they are a low acid food and needed to be preserved differently. Now, we stick to freezing our beets or pickling them (which doesn’t require pressure cooking). Lesson learned.
Our favorite item to can is sauerkraut. It costs so much in the stores and the taste of commercial sauerkraut is so slimy and icky. Homemade sauerkraut is to die for and considering the savings of using fresh cabbage when it is so cheap makes it taste that much better.
By the end of summer, our shelves will be filled with summer’s abundance. I taught my husband to can and now he is a pro so it has been a fun thing for us to do together. Plus, we feel like we are continuing an American legacy.
Freezing is another method of preserving food. We find freezing the best option for most of the veggies. They seem to stay fresher tasting and hold their texture better. When we freeze, we use plastic freezer bags which tend to cost a lot, so we coupon ruthlessly for these throughout the year. Again, I recommend the Ball Blue Book for hints and instructions on freezing. Most of the veggies need to be blanched in hot water then cooled off in an ice bath before packing into a freezer bag. Freezing the summer’s harvest can save room on your pantry shelves and allows you to determine the size of portions easier than canning. But just like canning, you can expect to see a huge dive in your grocery bill throughout the winter.
The final method of preserving food is to dry it. I do this will all my herbs. We received a dehydrator years ago as a gift but I have seen them at garage sales for super cheap. Even if you invested in a brand new one, you would recover the cost quickly. We dry herbs, garlic, onion, meat, fruit and so much more. I recently read about drying spinach, kale and other vitamin-packed greens and then sprinkling the flakes on your food for added nutrition. What a novel and super cheap idea! You know I’ll be trying that soon. Drying food is an easy way of preserving any of your summer produce. Once again, the Ball Blue book will offer you some suggestions and recipes for dehydrating your food.
I love all the produce of summer and my family tries to eat as much of it as we can while it is fresh but there comes a time when we are maxed out and can’t consume that much food. Plus, the pioneer in me keeps reminding myself winter will be here soon and I need to have enough food to get through the winter. So, preserving food using the methods of canning, freezing and drying have given our family a way to continue to enjoy the fruits of our labor and other farmers’ hard work well into the winter months. It’s not only another way for me to control the quality of food I serve my family but it also gives me much pleasure in the amount of money I save by preserving summer produce when it is abundant and inexpensive!
Erin’s got tons of tips for saving money, couponing, and sticking to a budget in her previous posts: Frugal Living: 25 Money-Saving Uses for the Humble Coffee Filter, Frugal Living: Grow Your Own Food and Save Money, and A Pinterest Project: DIY Spice Jars. Be sure to check out the Missoula Save it Club.
Erin Eisenman-Turner is proud to be a native Missoulian. Along with her husband and three sons, they raise chickens, pigs, rabbits, and vegetables at Turner Family Farms in the Orchard Homes area. When the farm chores are done, the coupons clipped, and the blog written, you can find Erin exploring Montana, collecting antiques, and trying to maintain a well-run, happy, and organized home for her family.