Storing Your Harvest
Winter and Beyond
Written onAugust 30 , 2012
Until the mid 1950s, gardeners often slaved away at canning— or putting into jars—as much food from the garden as possible. Tomatoes, beans, carrots, peas…you name it, our grannies canned it. This was a time when fresh produce at the grocery store was expensive in winter and often limp and bedraggled.
Then the interstate highway system came along, allowing refrigerated trucks to bring tomatoes and broccoli and corn from Florida or California all year. Frozen foods became readily available, too, and many gardeners downsized their gardens, growing just for the summer’s enjoyment and buying vegetables fresh or frozen at the A&P the rest of the year.
In recent years, it seems we’ve come full circle. More and more people are planting vegetables, and many of them want to store their own food for the winter, rather than participate in a long-distance food system. I grow most of my own vegetables and eat them all year. It’s easy, really, if you’re willing to put in a little effort during the summer and fall.
There are four basic techniques for storing vegetables: canning, freezing, dehydrating, and storing under appropriate conditions. Let’s not focus on canning here: it’s a lot of work, and has the possibility of causing botulism poisoning if done wrong. But here’s a brief introduction to the other three practices.
The least work for you—and what consumes the least amount of energy—is to store vegetables in a cool cellar or spare bedroom, or to build a small “cold box” for storage. But there are strict guidelines to follow: some veggies need high humidity to store well, while others require low humidity.
Let’s start with potatoes, carrots, beets, rutabagas, kohlrabi, and celery root. Those root crops store best between 33 and 50 degrees, with high humidity. You can store them in 5-gallon pails for months, so long as you don’t let them freeze and you keep the mice at bay. I start by putting an inch of clean, coarse sand in the bottom of a bucket and water it lightly. Fill the bucket with carrots and it’s ready for winter. Screening it with hardware cloth (which has quarter-inch spaces that allow air flow) will keep rodents out.
My basement gets below freezing (it has one exterior wall that is above ground and it’s not heated) but I don’t want my veggies to freeze. In order to moderate the temperature and help with the mouse problem, I made a cement-block cold box to hold the buckets. It’s two blocks high, three blocks long, and two blocks wide. The cover is a piece of plywood with Styrofoam insulation on one side and sheet metal on the others (to keep out those dang mice).
I keep an indoor-outdoor thermometer in the cold box so I can monitor the temperature in the box and in the room. I also keep a drop light in the box with an incandescent bulb that I plug in when the temperature gets close to freezing; it provides a little heat. If you don’t have a cold basement, you might store veggies in buckets in a bulkhead or even in a garage if it is attached to the house and doesn’t get too cold.
I also have an old fridge in the basement. The drawers work well for keeping produce cool and the humidity high. The main part of the fridge dries out things fairly quickly, although I’ve stored root crops there by putting them in plastic tubs with wet sand and covering them with cloth. You never want to store veggies without some air circulation or things will get moldy. I’ve not had great luck storing beets in my cold box— they soften up too much and sometimes go moldy, so I prefer to store them in a fridge or cook and freeze them.
The perfect place to store garlic, winter squash and onions is in a spare bedroom with the heat turned off. They want low humidity and temperatures roughly 50 degrees. Les Cate, an old Vermonter (now, alas, gardening in the sky), once told me that you can store winter squash under the bed—so long as you don’t grow blue Hubbards because they sometimes get too big to fit there!
I have a wonderful wooden storage rack I purchased at Gardener’s Supply that has nine pullout wooden drawers. They call it an orchard rack, and it’s made with wooden slats for good air circulation. I keep mine in my mudroom for much of the year, filled with garlic, onions, and winter squash.
Freezing vegetables is another wonderful way to keep food fresh and tasty. Some veggies require blanching (a quick immersion in boiling water) while others do not. Let’s start with those that require blanching: beans, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, corn, kale, peas, and summer squash. Blanching is important because it kills the aging enzymes in those veggies, so they don’t continue to degrade and get woody or tasteless.
A few words about blanching; first, be quick. Older books generally tell you to blanch veggies for three minutes after the water returns to a full boil. That’s not blanching, it’s cooking! Sixty seconds is adequate for most things. Kale, for example, need not even come back to a rolling boil. Just watch it, and when the color changes to a lighter green, it is ready to be pulled out of the water. Cut summer squash into half-inch cubes and blanch for a minute or less to keep it from turning to mush. Use lots of hot water for blanching so the temperature stays high when you drop in your vegetables.
You want some texture and firmness in the veggies you serve, so blanch quickly and immediately put them in a sink of cold water to stop the cooking process. I don’t add ice, although some cooks do. I use tap water and change it when it warms up.
If you plan to freeze a lot, you should get a blanching pot. These consist of a large enamelware pot and a slightly smaller inner pot with drainage holes. This allows you to lift all the veggies out quickly to stop the cooking. I bought a nice small one at Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich for $25 or so.
It’s also important to dry food before freezing. I use a Zyliss brand salad spinner with a pull cord. The cord lets me get it spinning fast, even when the load is heavy. After spinning, spread out the food on a counter covered with cloth tea towels and pat dry.
After drying, place the veggies in freezer-grade (not storage grade) zipper bags and push out as much air as possible with the zipper almost closed. Insert an ordinary drinking straw, close the zipper up to it, and suck out the air. The plastic should cling to the food. Then pull out the straw and zip shut. No need to buy a special machine to do it for you.
Some veggies do not need blanching—so long as you are going to eat the food within a year, which you should anyway. I’ve eaten 3-year old squash, but that’s better fed to the dogs. I don’t blanch the following: leeks, peppers, tomatoes, and most fruit. Frozen whole tomatoes are great in soups, stews and stir fries. Just put them in Ziplocks and freeze. When you want to use them, run the fruit under hot tap water for a minute and the skin will easily rub off. As for fruit, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are fine going directly in the freezer. Some people like to freeze berries on a cookie sheet and then put them in bags, though I’ve found that you can freeze them in bags if you don’t pack in too many. For instance, in a quart bag I put just 2-3 cups of blueberries. Very ripe raspberries, however, are so soft that freezing them on a cookie sheet is better than freezing in the bag. Peaches I like to cut up and add a little sugar to, in order to create some juice and keep them tasty, though some folks do blanch them.
Dehydrated cherry tomatoes are wonderful in stir fries and stews. I use a Gardenmaster Pro dehydrator from Nesco American Harvester to dry mine. There are a couple of different models, but I prefer model FD1010, which has the heating element and fan in the bottom of the unit. All have round trays that stack, easily drying 8 trays, and allegedly up to 30. The dryer uses 1,000 watts of energy per hour and sells for $129.
I cut my tomatoes in half and stack layers of trays in the dehydrator, drying 300 cherry tomatoes or more at a time. (I usually have 10 Sungold tomato plants each year). It takes roughly 24 hours to dry the fruit, and the dried tomatoes can be stored on a shelf, although I have plenty of freezer space so I store them there in zipper bags.
I also dehydrate all my hot peppers so I can then grind them in the coffee grinder and store as hot pepper powder. Apples and pears dehydrate well, too, and are great for snacking.
However you prepare your garden bounty for storage, remember that you should use your best fruits and vegetables for storage and eat the less perfect ones now. Freezing poorquality veggies does not make them better!