Here on the farm, we’ve been learning to grow our own food through trial and error for about two years. We have a garden and two greenhouses because our growing season is pretty short (mid-June/July – October).
The past two harvests have been pretty good. We’ve learned which plants like to grow here and which don’t. We’ve learned what we can grow easily but don’t really like to eat and we’ve discovered what we love! Lastly, we’ve learned which pests also like to eat our food.
John spent a couple weeks building a deer fence around the garden area last month, and this month we’ve been spraying pesticides regularly to try and keep the grasshoppers down. Neither of us is crazy about using chemicals, but this is a serious fight – a fight that we lost last year as thousands of grasshoppers descended on our corn and devoured it.
We had to drive three hours to get fencing supplies because 8′ fencing was nowhere to be found. We bought it early, actually (fall 2021), and it sat in a snow-covered pile all winter until we could install it in spring. If we’ve learning anything, it’s get it while you can (whatever “it” happens to be).
Anyway, between the deer, grasshoppers, and food shortages, we’ve learned never to take food for granted. While we’re doing all we can to grow and preserve our own food, we have a healthy stock of storable items, just in case.
I know not everyone lives on a farm or has room to grow food, but the preservation methods below can be utilized in any environment. At least, for now.
Here’s a look at what we store, long-term, and how:
Our primary method of preservation is canning. It’s the same canning your grandmother may have done when she made peach preserves, and I’m probably even using the same book she did. I like canning because, in addition to fruits and jellies, you can also can meats, thereby eliminating the need for refrigeration.
There are two basic methods for canning based on whether a food is high acid (fruits/tomatoes) or low acid (meats, seafood, vegetables). Although canning isn’t complicated, it’s important to follow the directions carefully to prevent bacteria growing in the jars and spoiling your food. Canned properly, foods will preserve safely for years.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation has an excellent website, although I prefer physical books. After all, what good is having a bunch of recipes or instructions saved on your computer if the power goes out?
Low acid foods (meats/vegs) require a pressure canner and jars with a seal. I use wide-mouth Ball jars and lids but I also have some Tatler lids because they are reusable. Preserving meat takes several hours as you cook it briefly, can it, and process it for 90 minutes… but that doesn’t include the time it takes for the canner to build pressure and release pressure at the end.
You can’t be in a hurry on the day you can meat but, in a day, you can preserve several weeks’ worth of food.
Once my tomatoes and peppers ripen, I make meat sauces with ground beef and sausage. You can also make and preserve various stews and soups – just be sure to get the acidity correct (use the Ball Canning book!). Of course, you can buy canned salmon, chicken, tuna, and even shrimp at the store but it’s filled with preservatives and salts – and it’s not very economical. Especially now.
If you can catch meat on sale and are able to buy in bulk and preserve it, you’ll be ahead financially and otherwise. Over the past year (2022) food has been the wisest financial investment we’ve made, not to mention the other benefits.
Canning high-acid foods is similar, except you can do it in a stock pot by covering the sealed jars with boiling water to build pressure. It’s quicker to can high-acid foods than meats. Sometimes, depending on price, it can be more economical to buy fruit preserves than make them, unless you have an orchard or easy, inexpensive access to lots of fruit.
Freezing is probably the most common method of food preservation but, as I mentioned earlier, there is always the risk of a power outage. We bought a natural gas freezer and converted it to propane. Our freezer can also operate using electricity, but we reduced the number of appliances that draw from our solar system to a minimum.
If you’re in a city, it’s a good option to buy a freezer that can use power when times are good but also have the option to switch to some other method should things go awry. Generators are okay, but they’re loud (thereby advertising to the neighborhood that you have power), and usually use gasoline. Remember, if the power is out in your area, the gas station’s pumps are probably out, too.
When I started seriously freezing foods, I used Ziplock freezer bags. I recently cooked some chicken drumsticks that had been frozen since July 2020 and they tasted delicious, but I’ve had other items get horrible freezer burn in Ziplock bags. I’ve since transitioned to a vacuum sealer which is also more economical since I can size my own bags from a roll of vacuum bag material.
I’ve seen vacuum sealers for $400 or more, but I got this one for $125 online and it works great. I buy rolls of Weston sealer bags that I cut to size, as needed.
My vacuum sealer has an added benefit I didn’t know about when I bought it. It can also be used to seal Mylar food preservation bags.
Mylar Food Preservation: Oxygen is the cause of most dry, shelf-stable food spoilage. Eliminating oxygen can help preserve these foods indefinitely:
- Powdered Milk
- Instant Potatoes
- Dried Fruit
- Dried Pet Food
I use the 7 Mil gusseted bags (because they stand up when I’m filling them), in one gallon and two-quart sizes. After filling the bags, I use an Oxygen Absorber appropriate to the size of the bag to complete the process before sealing the bag, first with the zip-feature and then with a heat seal.
It’s this last step – the heat seal – for which my vacuum sealer came in handy. Just don’t use the vacuum and seal option or you’ll suck flour out of your bag and all over the place (not that I’ve done that)! And if you don’t have a sealer, you can also use a hot iron or hair straightening iron to seal bags.
The mylar method can preserve flour and other stable dry items for up to 25 years! Without using some form of dry preservation, flour and other grains can “go buggy”. Tiny evil weevils are sometimes present in newly purchased flour, although the eggs haven’t hatched so you just don’t know it yet. Sometimes eggs are lain in the grain kernels and survive the milling process. After time, they hatch in your cupboard and your “grits go buggy”, as we say.
You can rid your grains of these creatures by freezing, but that just takes up more room in your freezer. You can also use storage buckets but, eventually, the oxygen they need to live gets in. As someone who bakes a lot (and has a well-stocked pantry), the mylar storage method offers more peace of mind.
Dehydrating. Last but not least among food preservation methods is dehydration. I’m not a fan of dried meats, but I do dehydrate certain vegetables and fruits. Unlike canned foods, you can reach into a jar of dehydrated foods anytime, take what you need, and close the lid again.
If you slice potatoes and blanch them in water with citric acid, they won’t discolor (1tsp citric acid to 1 qt water). They’ll also dry crispier. Dehydrated tomatoes are a favorite because their flavor concentrates so beautifully. Dehydration is a nice option to have when you’re overflowing with tomatoes in August and you’re just so sick of canning! You can add dried tomatoes to mac and cheese, or scalloped potatoes, or grilled cheese…. anything that could benefit from just a bit of tanginess. Onions dry beautifully also, as do eggplant slices, strawberries, and other fruits.
I hope you’re taking some steps to build your food stocks now. It’s a win-win. If nothing you’re worried about ever happens, you’ll have extra food. If everything you’re worried about happens, you’ll have food. See? Can’t lose.