How to Preserve Your Harvest

Learn how to store and preserve your favorite fruits and veggies.

Got tomatoes coming out of your ears? Running out of room on the countertop for all that squash? Just served green beans for the fifth night in a row? It’s time to “put up” all that bounty, as our grandmothers might say. But don’t panic—you don’t need a big country kitchen, a pressure-cooker, or even a pantry. Preserving food these days is faster and easier than ever.

Stash it

One of the easiest ways to preserve garden produce is to keep it at plain old room temperature. Onions, garlic, dried herbs, and winter squashes (such as butternut and acorn) will stay good for weeks. Just harvest, brush off any dirt, and “cure” them for a few days by spreading them out on newspaper in a cool, breezy place out of direct light.

Dry it out

Drying and dehydrating is another time-tested way to store foods. For example, you can cut herbs from the garden, gather their stems together with rubber bands, and hang them upside down in a cool, dry place (such as a closet) for a few weeks.

Apples and tomatoes can be dried in the oven. Wash them thoroughly, slice them up, and treat fruits as needed with ascorbic-acid color keeper (such as Fruit Fresh) to prevent discoloration. Spread out on multiple cookie sheets and bake in a 250°F oven for several hours, turning once or twice, until leathery. Since it’s difficult to get the produce dry enough with this method to prevent any spoilage, store in plastic bags in the freezer.

A food dehydrator is a more efficient way to dry food. It allows you to process large amounts of fruit and vegetables. A dehydrator, which starts atabout $60, dries food so well that you can keep the dehydrated produce at room temperature for several months.

The big chill

Freezing food is one of the easiest methods around. It preserves the flavor, color, and texture of foods extremely well. Deep freezers are surprisingly affordable—they start at just $150.

Freezing is ideal for most fruits and berries. No method preserves their taste and texture better. Wash thoroughly. Cut up larger fruits. Treat apples, pears, peaches, and other produce that might brown with ascorbic-acid color keeper. Freeze on cookie sheets until frozen solid. Store in plastic bags or rigid plastic containers for up to one year.

Or, go ahead and prepare some of your favorite desserts and freeze them unbaked. Fruit pies and fruit crisps freeze unbaked very well. (Some pie aficionados argue that fruit pies actually bake better this way.) Then bake as usual, still frozen, but allowing extra time. Freeze up to three months.

Soups and sauces made with homegrown produce also freeze easily. Tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, tomato soup, vegetable soup, and squash soup freeze beautifully. Dishes containing pasta, Rice, or potatoes, however, don’t freeze well. They absorb too much liquid and get mushy or mealy. Pack into rigid plastic containers and keep for up to a year.

Can you can?

Canning strikes terror in the soul of some cooks. It seems old-fashioned, difficult, and rife with the danger of food poisoning. But as long as you follow a reliable recipe and take the specified precautions, you’ll be fine.

Canning is divided into two basic methods. The easiest—boiling-water canning—requires a special canner pot or a big stockpot with a lid. Just boil filled jars for a specified period of time to sterilize the food and seal the jar. (Times vary; check canning recipes for details.) This simple method works for pickles, jams, jellies, salsas, plain tomato sauce, canned tomatoes, most fruits, and many other foods.

Pressure-cooker canning is used for foods with lower acid levels, in which more types of harmful microorganisms can thrive. The pressure canner (which starts at about $60) heats food to a hotter temperature than a boiling-water canner. Forget the horror stories you’ve heard about exploding pressure cookers—today’s pressure cookers are safer than ever. Just follow directions. Pressure cookers are required to safely process green beans and other vegetables (except most tomato recipes), most soups, and anything containing meat.

If traditional canning sounds a little daunting, start out by doing some “cheater” canning. Make refrigerator pickles, refrigerator pickled garlic, pickled hot peppers, and other pickled vegetables that don’t require heat processing. Just cut up fresh cucumbers and other fresh produce, pack in jars with a vinegar-based brine (often prepared with no cooking), and store in the fridge for at least a week or up to several weeks, depending on the recipe.

Or you can make freezer jam—just mash up fruit, sugar, and pectin. It’s softer than traditional jam, but with a delicious, fresh flavor. It will keep for up to six months in a freezer.

Other preserving methods

There are other delicious ways to preserve the bounty from your garden, too. Try preserving in alcohol. Brandied peaches or pears are wonderful topped with ice cream. Or make a fruit cordial—a combination of fruit, alcohol, and syrups. Some recipes are more about preserving the fruit to eat and some are more about creating a memorable after-dinner sipping beverage. To make brandied fruit or other fruit preserved in alcohol, simply submerge washed fruit (either whole or cut up) in brandy to which some sugar has been added. Use a plate or other clean weight to hold the fruit under the liquid. Look for recipes online, including ones that include a variety of fruits, spices, and other sweeteners. Food preserved in alcohol will last several months and often years.

You can also preserve foods in vinegar or create flavored vinegars with produce from your garden. Make herb vinegar (tarragon is a favorite) or fruit vinegar (raspberry is classic).

Oil is also a centuries-old way of preserving food, though these days food scientists recommend that it be stored in the fridge to prevent spoilage. Try dried tomatoes preserved in olive oil, or make your own garlic oil.

Few things are more satisfying than lining a shelf with neat rows ofhomemade preserves, salsas, and sauces to enjoy for months to come. Or, on a wintry day, enjoying toast topped with raspberry jam you made back in July. You’ll savor the food—and a true sense of accomplishment.

Veronica Lorson Fowler is a garden writer living in Ames, Iowa. She is a contributing writer and editor of You Can Can (Better Homes and Gardens, 2010) and has taught canning workshops for the National Home Gardening Club.