So you've grown the garden, and the quantities of tomatoes and zucchini are getting really embarassing. How do you preserve it, using the fewest possible fossil fuel inputs? What's the best way to keep your pantry full and your democracy alive (if you have no idea why I'm talking about democracy and pickled cabbage together, you might want to read my post on "Food Preservation and Democracy" here:http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/05/food-preservation-and-democracy.html -they really do go together like locally produced hot dogs/tofu dogs and sauerkraut ;-)).
A lot of what I'm talking about here applies best to people with space for decent sized gardens or even small farms. But a good deal of this can apply to urbanites with no or small gardens. For example, even urbanites can forage for herbs and greens to eat and preserve. In many cities it is possible to keep rabbits or chickens for meat and eggs, and preserve them, and many cities have fruit trees on private or public property whose fruit goes unharvested. Simply asking may get you abundant citrus or peaches or apples. And, of course, everyone can go to local farms and farmer's markets, buy large quantities of food and put it up. If money is an issue, the best time of day to go is late in the afternoon, when farmers have a strong incentive not to haul everything home. Buy what they have and put it up.
I will also note that I am including a discussion of preserving meat here. I know many people have ethical or religious reasons not to eat some kinds of meat, or meat all. That's fine, but I'm not going to discuss vegetarianism in this post, and I'd ask that you refrain from bringing it up. If information about meat preservation doesn't apply to you, go on to the next item. I'll gladly discuss vegetarianism at another time, but this post is about the best and least energy intensive ways to produce all foods, whether any given reader eats them or not.
Before we get started, the odds are good that unless you are adding a major energy hog appliance (that is, you are going out and buying a big freezer), you will be reducing your fossil fuel dependence in total when you put up food, no matter how you do it. The food you grow or buy locally to put up has already used vastly less fossil fuels to produce it, and when you freeze things, you are saving yourself trips to the grocery store, which many of us do by car. So whatever choice you make will probably be better than not putting up food. But it still makes sense to cut fossil fuel whenever possible.
Generally speaking, when I talk about food preservation, people immediately think "canning" and "freezing." Those are the most familiar methods of extending the life of food in our garden. But they are also the most energy intensive choices. Both are also water intensive (electricity generation takes a lot of water, as does canning), canning is comparatively time intensive, and generally, they are more expensive than other options. So while I do both, my long term planning increasingly deemphasizes both of these. There are other options. Food can be salted down, preserved in sugar or alcohol, lactofermented (more on this shortly), root cellared (stored in a naturally cool place), dried or dehydrated, or preserved by keeping it alive in the garden or barnyard through season extension or "keeping it on the hoof". And while I do can and freeze some foods, I'm increasingly focusing on other methods because they are lower input, and often produce better results.
Freezing is probably the most common way we preserve food, and is generally the most energy intensive. In _Eating Fossil Fuels_, Dale Pfeiffer notes that if food is kept more than four months, freezing is usually more energy intensive than canning. But of course, this information is based on an average person, canning on average gas stove, compared to an average chest freezer. There are any number of factors that might change this equation some. If, for example, you have a very small freezer, and an electric stove, the length of time might change. Or, for example, if
you can do much of your canning on a wood stove you'd be using anyway to heat your house. But generally speaking, freezing is the most energy and emissions intensive methodology. And freezers have the added disadvantage, if you don't have one already, of putting more freon into the world.
On the other hand, if you have a freezer and are going to run it anyway, the most efficient way to run it is to keep it full all the time (I'm assuming you are using a newer chest freezer, which is vastly more efficient than an upright or much older model). All of which is an argument for freezing if you already have a freezer you are using. We do have a freezer, and since we're finally turning off the fridge this weekend (yay!), it will be our only method of refrigeration, keeping the ice packs for the coolers cool, and also we'll be keeping the freezer full. In our case, using the freezer for some foods makes sense for now. In the long term, however, our plan is to get rid of the freezer too.
The things that I think are best kept frozen are: Raw meats, apple cider, milk, butter, blanched brassica vegetables (broccoli especially), okra, pesto, zucchini some leftovers and peas. That really isn't a very long list, but given that we generally have our poultry for the year butchered all at once, the turkeys and chickens will take care of it. Eric put up about 10 quarts of broccoli yesterday. Even though other brassicas freeze well, we don't bother with it much because they almost all keep well by other methods. So at the end of the year, the freezer generally has some broccoli, some peas, some okra, our meats and a bunch of gallons of apple cider that we stick in to have over the course of the winter. Honestly, the more I look at this list, the more I wonder why we're keeping the freezer at all.
At this stage, we don't freeze much milk or butter. But it is worth noting that these products are usually produced using grain when they are eaten year 'round - that is, they are produced by feeding human food to cows. That's not evil, but if the goal is to make as much food available to human beings as possible, seasonal, grassfed milk from goats, sheep and cows might make more sense. This is the historical way of doing this - animals were allowed to dry up during the winter. Grassfed dairy could be produced here for 7 months of the year, more or less, and the rest of the time we'd be eating preserved (frozen or salted and kept cool) butter and cheese. And, if we were running a freezer, we might keep some milk frozen.
Other people freeze other vegetables, but generally speaking, I find that most of the typically frozen veggies do as well or better in other means of storage, or we simply don't like them frozen that well, so we eat them only in season. Chief in this latter category is green beans. I love green beans - fresh. I'll eat a few as dilly beans. But generally speaking, both canned and frozen are distinctly inferior to my mind. Which means that we enjoy green beans from July to October, and then just stop worrying about it, and eat other things. We feel asparagus is another such vegetable.
In fact, seasonal eating is helpful in putting all of this in perspective - that is, if you insist on eating the exact same things all year around, you can expect to find food preservation time and energy intensive. But if you are content to enjoy things in their season, your need to transfer, say, summer foods to winter is going to be reduced to luxury and pleasure. We eat our fair share of bread with blueberry jam in the winter as well, but it is helpful to recognize that things have their time, and that winter apple season, not blueberry. That means I don't have to worry about a year's worth of blueberries - just enough for our regular jam fixes and a few dehydrated for winter pancakes.
Canning is the next most energy intensive method, in part because it requires extended periods of boiling, and also because each canning requires new canning jar lids. Canning is also time intensive. Some of that time you don't have to be paying attention - for example, with practice I've found I can pressure can and do chores at the same time, as long as I stay in the same room. But much of the time you spend canning food, you have to be keeping an eye on it. The good thing is that much of one's canning can be done in intensive batches, or casually, a little each evening. One way to cut back on difficulty is to do some of your canning later in the season. Applesauce, for example, can be put up in the fall after you get the apples, or in the winter, as you sort through the stored apples and sauce the ones that are getting wrinkled. I often wait to do pickles until things have cooled down and the stove is welcome.
Generally speaking, using older style jars with reusable rubber rings is not recommended. I know some of you may do it, but botulism is nothing to play with, and I certainly wouldn't recommend canning anything other than high-acid (pickles, jams and jellies) foods. The same goes for reusing canning jar lids, or sealing jars with parrafin. Generally speaking, not a great idea, and if you had to do it, don't do it with anything that could support botulism spores.
There are two kinds of canning. Water bath canning is only for high acid foods - fruit juices, jams, jellies and some tomato products (generally with added lemon, vinegar or vitamin c tablets). Pressure canning is for everything else, and you need a pressure canner in good working order to do it safely. If you don't do it correctly, your family could get botulism, a deadly bacteria that thrives in anaerobic environments and is endemic in our soil. Don't mess with it. Get a copy of the _Ball Blue Book_ for canning, check out USDA regulations, and don't use older canning books - ever. I'm not trying to be discouraging, but there's a lot of misinformation about canning out there, and the price of screwing up can be deadly. Learn how to do it right.
Once you have, canning is generally a good method for longer term storage. It is less energy intensive than freezing, and while in the short term there's some loss of nutrients, by the time frozen food is six months old, it has lost more nutrients than canned. Canning is by far the best method of putting up jams and jellies, some pickled things, and is, I think a good way to store cooked meat items, like chicken broth and stew. Such food is convenient and tastes good. It does require an outlay for materials (a good, reliable pressure canner, new lids, water bath canning rack, a few other things), but is a vastly smaller investment than a freezer, for example, and I've acquired every single canning jar I own (800+) for free or less than 5 dollars for a big box of them. They are common fodder at freecycle, yard sales, estate sales, etc...
I don't can all that much food, and again, I could get along quite comfortably entirely without it. I make jams (strawberry, blueberry, black currant, raspberry), apple butter, pumpkin butter, and other sweets. I usually put up some grape juice (for sabbaths), and can some pickles. And, of course, tomatoes as sauce, salsa and canned tomatoes. And later in the cold weather, after we butcher, while the stoves are running anyway, I'll put up turkey and chicken. But everything but the water bathed, high acid jams, pickles and tomatoes could be preserved in other ways as well. For all that we tend to think that canning and freezing are essential to get through the winter, they really aren't - if they were, humanity wouldn't have survived for the last few thousand years before they were invented.
The method I like best is root cellaring. I don't actually put my food down cellar -our cellar is gross, damp and floods occasionally. Instead, I store food in a closet on our enclosed front porch and in our attached garage. I've also stored foods on the uninsulated porch itself in a cooler. But you can use any area that doesn't freeze but gets quite cold. There's a wonderful book by Scott and Nancy Bubel _Root Cellaring_ that covers the details. You can also build or dig an unattached root cellar, or build a small insulated above-ground space. All this does require a cold period, but if you have one, it is well worth a one-time investment creating a secure space for cool food storage. Attics will often work, so will existing basements - you can build a small seperate area which is insulated with board insulation and vented. If you do it yourself, it might not cost more than a few hundred dollars, and could provide you with thousands of dollars of food storage every year. Heck, a closet on an outside wall could be lined with board insulation and an outside air source added - instant root cellar!
We store more food this way than any other. We store potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, celeriac, apples (15 bushels a year), pears, quinces, cabbages, persimmons, salsify and more, and there are plenty of things you can store that we don't. These are the basis of our winter eating. It does take up space, but surprisingly little if kept well organized.
This is especially important because of the potatoes - potatoes grow everywhere. They can be grown on rocky or hilly or poor soil that won't grow anything else. One year, I threw an inch or two of compost down and dumped potatoes on my gravel driveway, covered them with straw and got respectable yields. You can also grow large quantities of potatoes in barrels. They are nutritionally dense, tasty, store well and much easier to grow and preserve than grain. They can be the basis of your diet. Sweet potatoes and some other roots (manioc, taro) can do the same. That makes it possible for ordinary people to grow an entire, healthy diet on a space the size of an average suburban lawn. Ecology Action has emphasized potatoes and sweet potatoes and found that really good gardeners on really good soil could feed themselves a fully balanced diet on 700-1000 square feet. The book _One Circle_ documents how.
IMHO, if you can do one thing, it would be grow and store potatoes and sweet potatoes. We would all prefer more variety in our diet (and at a minimum, make sure you grow multiple *varieties* of potatoes and sweet potatoes - not doing so caused the potato famine in Ireland), but potatoes are life sustaining in difficult times. There are places you can't root cellar and places you won't need to, but if you don't live in one of them, consider finding a place for cold storage of roots and other crops.
We also store some food in our house, with us. There are some foods - sweet potatoes, pumpkins, squash, onions and garlic that tolerate or prefer cool home temperatures - that is, they like the temperatures that conserving people have in their homes in cool weather - 50s to low 60s. So it is simple to store squash under the bed, stick the sweet potatoes in a spare closet, and hang the garlic up in your kitchen. These vegetables can and should keep us company.
Then there are the things we dehydrate. We have an electric dehydrator, and we dry some things in the sun outside. My husband is presently building a solar dehydrator so that we can dehydrate more of our food without using energy at all. Electric dehydrators are commonly available at yard sales (I've bought 2 and seen many more) and generally speaking use the equivalent of a 40 watt bulb's worth of energy. Mine takes about a day to dehydrate most items. So depending on how much you use it, this could be a big energy expenditure or a small one.
For those who live in dry climates, particularly in the west, it should be possible to simply lay the food outside on a screen, with a layer of cheesecloth covering it. For us in humid places, a solar dehydrator is a little more complicated. But there are many plans on the internet, and they work beautifully. I've also used my car as a dehydrator, and while there are some concerns about outgassing, I tend to think if you *sit* in your car, you have more to worry about than eating food dehydrated in a car with the windows left partly open. It works very well, although the entire vehicle smells like strawberries if you do those ;-). Your gas oven with a pilot light on will work quite well, as will a rack hung at a reasonable distance from a woodstove.
Dehydrated food keeps less of its essential nutrients than most other methods. Generally speaking, the most nutrients are retained when food is dried away from direct sunlight, at comparatively low temperatures - the lower the better. Thus, the best way to dry many quick-drying things is simply to hang them up in a well ventilated, airy place away from direct light. This works very well for herbs, greens, hot peppers, and even apple slices and green beans (called "leather britches" when they are dried this way. Take a needle and lace a string through the peppers, or just bunch the herbs and hang them. Once things are dry, no matter how pretty they look, however, store them in glass (great use for those old rubber ring canning jars and the jars with nicks) jars or other bugproof containers. I regularly find metal tins from flavored popcorn at yardsales - these work well.
We dry herbs, greens, tomatoes, sweet peppers (if you like sun dried tomatoes, dried sweet red peppers are even better), sweet corn (delicious!), almost all fruits, pumpkin and fruit "leather," garlic and hot peppers. We've also made dried meats before, like jerky, but since poultry doesn't work, local fish is mostly contaminated and we don't eat much red meat, it isn't a big thing for us.
We also dry some foods on the plant. In dry places, I'm told you can pull up the entire plant of "Principe Borghese" tomatoes and hang it over a fence and the tomatoes will dry on their own. That doesn't work here. But beans, peas, limas, favas, corn and grains will dry on the plant. I find that popcorn often needs a little more time drying inside, but generally speaking with peas and beans, all you have to do is leave some on the plant and harvest when the pods are dry and rattling.
Generally speaking, I tend to think that dried foods are among the tastiest, and dehydrating, like freezing, is quite quick - just cut up the food and ignore it until it is at the stage of dryness you want. Using solar energy, ambient air circulation or heat that you'd be creating anyway, it requires no additional fossil fuels. After root cellaring, drying food is a favorite.
But not quite as favorite as season extension/keeping animals on the hoof. Because, after all, in most of these cases, what we're seeking is the flavor of fresh growing things as closely approximated as possible. There are exceptions, of course - jams or sundried tomatoes, flavors we enjoy in their own right. But generally speaking, we don't freeze peppers to get the terrific flavor of frozen pepper - we're trying to get as close to fresh as possible. So the best strategy of all is, as much as possible, to extend your garden season so that you can have fresh, really local things when you want them.
I've written about fall gardening here, and that might be a place to start planning.
http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/07/thinking-ahead-to-fall-garden.html. We find that with very basic season extension techniques - no greenhouse, artificial heat or anything like it - we can have fresh greens and salads as well as a few extras from the end of March to the end of December. But as Eliot Coleman's _Four Season Harvest_ demonstrates, the possibilities are much, much greater - you can have food 12 months of a year with minimal inputs in many climates.
Everyone, for example, can sprout seeds all winter long. Most of us can keep some fresh herbs alive. And if you have no garden, you might consider talking to local farmers or your CSA farmers, and telling them that you'd be glad to pay for local greens all winter long. Perhaps someone will start the project.
I don't freeze most cabbage-family vegetables because we can have them all year. Kale will overwinter in the garden with minimal protection - it often isn't easily available to us because of deep snow, but it is there all year round. The same is true of leeks, and some other greens like miner's lettuce and arugula. Brussels sprouts and cabbage will generally hold out until December here, and the brussels sprouts will last another month in cold storage if the plants are pulled up whole. Cabbage will last many months - often through the whole winter. Lettuces can be grown in a sunny window all winter long to provide some salads. So there's really no reason for the inferior taste of frozen cabbage or brussels sprouts.
Turnips and beets will sprout greens in cold storage, and these can be cut several times. I've never done it, but endives can be forced in winter. Leeks will overwinter here pretty reliably, as will parsnips and salsify. So if you are reasonably content to eat turnip greens, beet greens, kale, lettuce, spinach, arugula, asian greens, cabbage, sprouts, fresh herbs, brussels sprouts, and supplement these greens with root cellared vegetables, dried ones, and other methods I'll talk about, there's really no reason, even in cold snowy places like upstate NY, to *need* freezing or canning. You may want them - and that's fine. But they really aren't necessary for a delicious and diverse winter diet.
For those who choose to eat meat, keeping meat animals alive may or may not be a more efficient way of preserving their meat than canning or freezing. And no, this need not apply only to farmers. For example, a suburbanite or even many urbanites could easily keep several hutches of rabbits which would be fed mostly on food scraps, very small quantities of grain and "hay" and dried weeds from your yard cuttings (make sure you know something about animal nutrition).
Generally speaking, if you can produce an animal's winter food without too much in the way of fossil inputs, it may make more sense to simply care for the animal until you are ready to butcher it. The meat will be fresher, have greater nutritional value and will taste better. This technique is particularly useful if you eat meat mostly for festivals, and share with neighbors and community members. For example, in many nations at holidays, extended families will come together to butcher a sheep or goat and share it out.
Generally speaking, if you are feeding purchased food to an animal, you probably would be better off butchering and preserving some other way, rather than wasting food, especially grain, on an animal whose destiny is to be dinner. And generally speaking, this requires you be willing to do your own butchering, rather than sending animals away to be processed. Personally, I prefer to do my own when possible, because it is better for the animal and less traumatic for them, and this encourages us to butcher one animal at a time, only as needed. There's no better way, I think, to sort out your relationship to the meat you eat (if you do) than to be responsible for the animal's life and death. This isn't feasible for everyone, but more people could and perhaps should do it than do.
The other food preservation method I recommend is lactofermentation. The two forms of lactofermentation most Americans are familiar with are making sauerkraut and barrel pickles. If you've ever bought a pickle from a barrel or a refrigerator case, or *fresh* (not canned) sauerkraut, you've had a lactofermented food. But there are many other kinds, chief among them is kimchi, the Korean national food, to which I'm entirely addicted.
Lactofermented foods use a salt brine to encourage natural bacterial fermentation, and lactofermented foods are very good for you - unlike any other method of food preservation, some vegetables stored through lactofermentation are actually more nutritious than the original vegetable, because the fermentation makes additional nutrients available. For example, kimchi has levels of B vitamins that are twice as high as the chinese cabbage alone. The acid preserves the foods naturally, and they will last for many months kept in a cool place. You can can them, but I don't recommend it, because the hot water will kill all the bacteria and reduce the nutritional levels. Sauerkraut (which really tastes infinitely better homemade than anything you've ever eaten from a store) is very high in vitamin C - enough to prevent scurvy over long winters.
You need only pots and salt to do this, so it is very cheap, very low energy, very low time and very tasty. You can make many complicated and delicious flavors - for example, my great-grandmother made sauerkraut with sour cherries in it. When most people think of kimchi, they think fiery, but in fact there are hundreds of kimchis, some sweet, some spicy, some very sour. All the ones I have ever had are delicious. The average korean eats 200 *pounds* of kimchi a year.
Lactofermented foods also have the specific advantage that some of them produce natural, narrow spectrum antibiotics specific against ecoli, listerian and clostridium botulinum. That is - they protect you against food poisoning. With all the food contamination scares we've had recently, this is a non-trivial benefit. Fermented foods in general tend to have these - yogurt and miso as well, but sauekraut, brined pickles and kimchi have especially high levels of these natural antibiotics.
If you have a spot cool enough to keep potatoes, you can keep lactofermented foods. They will very gradually get sourer over time, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing.
There are still other methods of food preservation. For example, the preservation of fruit in alcohol (as liqueurs or as rumpot), the salting of fish and meat, preservation in fat, smoking, preservation of vegetables and fruits in layers of sugar and salt all have a long history. We've experimented a little with some of these, but the above are the major techniques we use. If you are interested in these other methods, the book _Keeping Food Fresh_ by the Gardeners and Farmers of Terra Vivante. None of their food preservation recipes include canning or freezing.
So what's the best way to preserve food? Well, the lowest energy techniques are generally root cellaring, season extension (especially in climates that require little or no protection), solar/ambient dehydrating, and lactofermentation. The fastest ways are generally root cellaring (overall winner), season extension, solar dehydrating and freezing. The most nutritious methods are generally lactofermentation, season extension and root cellaring, followed by freezing for short periods. Canning and freezing are generally speaking not best at much, and I'm personally working on reducing them in my life.
The best tasting way? Depends on the food. Below I've listed my personal preferences in order of preference, but you'll have to experiment and see what you like.
Apples: Root Cellaring, dehydrating, canned as sauce/apple butter
Apricots: dry, sauce (canned)
Asian greens: season extension, lactofermentation
Bananas: dried, frozen
Basil: frozen as pesto
Beans, dry: dried
Beans, Green: eaten fresh, pickled/lactofermented
Beets: Root cellared, pickled
Blueberries: jammed, dried
Brussels sprouts; season extension
Carrots: root cellared, season extension
Cabbage: root cellar, lactofermentation
Corn, sweet: dehydrated, canned, frozen
Corn, pop: dry
Corn, flour: dry
Citrus: Root cellared, salted (preserved lemons), sugared and dehydrated (orange slices), liqueurs, dried (peel), canned (juice)
Cranberries: jammed, sauce, frozen, dried
Eggs: Root Cellared, on hoof
Garlic: root cellared, dried
Greens: season extension, lactofermentation
Herbs: most dried, some salted
Lettuce: season extension
Meats: On hoof, canned, frozen, dried
Milk: fermented as cheese and yogurt, frozen, preserved as salted butter
Onions: Root Cellared
Pears: Root cellar, canned, dried
Peas, snap and snow: frozen
Peas, shell; dry, frozen
Peaches: dry, canned
Peppers, sweet: dried, frozen
Peppers, hot: dried, frozen
Plums: Jam, dry,
Potatoes: Root Cellared
Pumpkin: root cellared, dry (the USDA recommends against canning pumpkin or squash at home), seeds dried
Raspberries: sauce, jam
Strawberries: Dried (fabulous), jammed
Summer Squash: frozen
Tomatoes: Season extension, root cellared, dry, canned
Zucchini: dry, frozen, pickled
I've probably missed a few things, but here's some.