>> Monday, December 14, 2009
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When it was autumn the fathers gathered the barley and wheat and corn that they had planted, and found that it had grown so well that they would have quite enough for the long winter that was coming.
"Let us thank God for it all," they said.
THE FIRST THANKSGIVING DAY by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora A. Smith
In modern America, foods such as cheese, sauerkraut, picklets, jellies, jams, and smoked meat are prepared more for their taste than for their natural ability to keep long on the shelf. In fact, store-bought preparation of these types of foods can sometimes even include artificial preservatives so that their shelf life is extended even further in an attempt to gather more dollars for the manufacturer. Along with the loss of the skills for putting aside food, activities such as bee-keeping, maple syrup creation, and so on have been delegated to hobbies - something a very few people do (and love doing), but is also forgotten by most.
Fortunately, although food preservation is sometimes considered a forgotten art, modern technology has also brought convenience and ease to the methods available to us. All methods, regardless of current enhancements, sacrifice some degree of either taste or nutrition, to prevent spoilage. Each of the following methods serves a distinct purpose and provides either better taste, longer shelf life, food value, convenience, simplicity, or economy:
This method, which can be done either above- or below-ground, preserves food with a minimum of loss in taste, color, and nutrients, but is typically only available in regions where winters are cold but not too cold. Not all types of foods can be stored in this way, either; usually apples, pears, squashes, and root crops. Above ground methods are very simple when you live in an area with wintertime temperatures near or just below freezing. Things like celery or cabbage can be surrounded or buried with dirt and straw and can last until the start of the next growing season! With more prepartion you can build a root cellar which will keep produce fresh with just cold, moist air.
The heating of foods to high temperatures provides a long shelf life but reduces vitamin content of the food, and lessens the quality of the taste somewhat. Keeping the cooking liquid will help to retain some of the water-soluable vitamins, but others are unavoidably lost. If you store food in glass jars, avoid exposing them to sunlight as that can further reduce the amount of riboflavin. Generally, you'll want to keep them in a cool area below 65' Fahrenheit, and use them within half a year to a year of the canning date. One major potential downside to canning is that if food is improperly canned, micro-organisms can survive the process and introduce the risk of botulism. However it is a relatively easy, fairly inexpensive, and mostly reusable procedure for storing food.
The modern age has made freezing convenient and available to everyone, whereas previously it was only possible in cold climates. It has a minimum effect on flavor and food values if everything is packed properly; usually only vitamins E and B6 are lost by freezing. You can freeze a wide variety of foods, but some things such as salad greens, raw potatoes, creams, eggs in the shell, and a few more should not be frozen. You'll want to study up a little bit about tips and techniques when choosing this method, and you should consider what types of containers you plan to use as well. Plastic is an easy choice, but it is not typically reusable or Earth-friendly. Other types of foods require special tricks for home freezing, such as berries: Freeze them while laid out on a cookie sheet, and then transfer them to a large container so as to avoid having a large lump of berries that's difficult to use later. Always use clean, fresh produce and don't forget to date and label your packages.
These methods will significantly alter the taste value of foods but in some instances can actually enhance it positively such as the case of pickles and sauerkraut. In salting, the amount of salt used corresponds directly to how long the shelf life will be and directly opposite to the nutritional value. All of these methods are relatively short-term ones as well, unless the end product is then canned. Typically, without canning, you would only want to store such foods for a few weeks after creation.
Typically things that are jellied are altered significantly in respect to taste and nutrition by the addition of large amounts of sugar, honey, or other sweetener because this is what actually creates the gel. More vitamins are also lost in canning the end product for longer shelf life. This is one method of preservation where you're really going to be choosing flavor over nutritents.
An ancient and highly reliable method, this is a great example of where technology has stepped in to make it more convenient and, in fact, nutritious. Drying removes 80-90 percent of the water content from foods, which is another key ingredient that micro-organisms need to create spoilage. This method can be easily done in large batches by laying foods out in direct sunlight, but this will destroy vitamins A, E, and some B-complexes. There are alternate ways that food can be dried, as well, such as smoking, oven-drying, air-drying, and dehydration. Nowadays, rack-lined dehydrators have reduced the amount of time and have made it possible to do indoors, and both of these features also help retain the food's nutrition. This is a highly-recommended method to choose.
This is an entirely new way of preserving food that has reached a commericial-quality-at-home level. Food is placed in heavy plastic bags and then a kitchen countertop machine removes the air and seals the bag. This removes the oxygen that microbes need to break down food, and retains flavor, color, and nutrition. In addition this method can be easily combined in certain cases such as meats with freezing or herbs with drying. The trade-off of vacuum sealing is that you are storing your food in direct contact with plastic, which must be purchased new every time, and then something must be done with this plastic when you are through with it. If you are interested in vacuum sealing, it is recommended that you look into cold vacuum-sealing containers. This allows you to reuse jars but has specific uses and sometimes limited shelf-life.
Here is a quick, visual chart for choosing the right storage method. It is by no means a complete list, but it will start you in the right direction. Click through for the full size. (Note: Vacuum packing is not listed because it can be used for nearly all things that are not soft, and because its shelf life varies greatly depending on the item stored.)