Types of Preserving
Now that you understand, from Part 1 of this article, some of the reasons to preserve and priorities in preserving correctly, let’s consider which preserving methods you may want to use. Preserving methods include multi-step processes, like soaking, skimming, rinsing, hanging to dry, freezing, canning (in mason jars), smoking, and sucking air out of bags, containers, and buckets. Your choice of which method to use is governed by the food. For example, you would usually freeze berries but dehydrate and vacuum seal tomatoes and strips of meat (jerky). You could can (in glass jars) green beans, though you could easily freeze green beans. Of course you can try anything you want; who’s to say only one way is right. I have tasted dehydrated green beans, salted and spiced, and they were great, but this is unusual. Below is a description of each major type of preserving method.
For each description below, cut the slices (fruit, vegetables, meat) in equal thickness for each batch, so that each batch will dry uniformly. Lay the slices with a little space between each one, to allow air to circulate well, and follow the directions for operating the dehydrator. Some inferior dehydrators will have items closest to the heat source dehydrate faster, so those pieces have to be taken out earlier.
Meats – Meats can be marinated after being sliced before you put them in the dehydrator, but pat very dry before placing them on the dehydrator tray. There are marinade recipes for beef jerky, or you can make up your own. A good method for carving a roast into strips is to first freeze the whole roast half way before carving it. This makes it very firm, and it is much easier to hold onto so you can cut long thin strips. There is also a very easy method to dehydrate meat in the sun. You drape the meat over a stick suspended between two props. Under it you keep a small, slow, smoldering smoking pit. This keeps the flies away. When it’s dry and crispy, you’re done. (This takes 8-16 hours or more, depending on how much you have and how sunny it is.) Fat is the enemy of dehydrated meat. It will cause your meat to go rancid, so trim off all the fat possible before dehydrating, or make sure it is completed dehydrated into a hard, crisp texture.
Fruits and Vegetables – Vegetables are to be washed thoroughly, sliced evenly, and patted dry before dehydrating. Make sure the pieces are not too thin. Due to high water content, fruits and vegetables can become as thin as a feather and shrink to an inch square in size after being dehydrated. So, make sure you slice them in good size pieces and about ¼ to ½ inch thick.
Herbs – Grow your favorite herbs yourself. Herbs are really too easy to grow to be a major preserving item. To dehydrate herbs, tear off the leaves and lay out on coffee filters until completely dry. (You don’t need to use the dehydrating machine, unless you want to.) Then grind them in a coffee bean grinder, and store the ground up herb in jars to use as needed. Do not vacuum seal ground up herbs in bags; the ground up herb will just get sucked up into your “vacuum”! For long-term storage, put the ground up herb in zip lock bags, with a small oxygen absorber in each to prevent them from getting musty. By the way, “fresh” herbs are used at three times the quantity. For example, if a recipe calls for a teaspoon of basil you’d buy from the store, use three teaspoons of fresh basil.
You can vacuum seal food that has been placed inside a plastic bag by removing the air and sealing it shut with a vacuum sealer machine. Vacuum sealing can be used to preserve meat, fruits, and vegetables only if they have been already dehydrated or to preserve bulk grains, like oatmeal, rice, and beans that are already dried.
A hose connects from the machine and is placed into the opening of the bag (plastic or Mylar) after it’s been filled with food. The open edges of the bag are inserted into the machine at the beginning of this process. The hose draws the air out of the bag and then seals it tightly. Vacuum Sealer Machines (VSM) are only used if the food has been fully dehydrated first or if the food product is a dry grain.
Using a VSM with Mylar Bags
Vacuum sealing using Mylar bags is preferred since these bags block sunlight and are available in different thicknesses, called mils, i.e. 3 mil, 4 mil, 5 mil, et cetera. They come in all sizes and are used with oxygen absorbers (O’s) to eliminate all traces of oxygen. This leaves the food in a preserved atmosphere. To know how many oxygen absorbers to add, use 300 cc’s per gallon size bag; so a 5-gallon bag uses 1500 cc’s of O. Os work so well by themselves that you really don’t have to use the VSM, but it always helps to vacuum seal the bags to remove as much air as possible, so it never hurts to use the VSM.
- Fill the Mylar bag with food, but leave 4-5 inches along the top to give you enough to seal with an iron. (Ironing is the method used to seal or glue together the open parts of the bag together).
- Gently iron the bag closed by leaning the open ends of the bag over a table’s edge. Iron closed except for about three inches down one side longwise, so you can insert Os. The point of the iron can puncture the bag, so be careful.
- Place your O’s in through the opening you left on the side. At this point, you can choose to use a VSM or not. If you use the VSM to draw air out before sealing with an iron, go to step #4 below. If you want to seal the bag without using the VSM, go to step #5 below.
- To use the vacuum sealer first, maneuver the tube down the opening where you just put in the Os, and turn on the machine. Draw out as much air as possible.
- Press out as much air as possible (or at the moment you shut the VSM off) quickly press down to close the bag the best you can, pushing out any excess air.
- Iron the bag closed with as much air removed from the bag as possible. In a few hours (or less) you will see the bag start to draw inward showing that the Os are working. The bag will become very firm and stiff. The Mylar will hug the food completely with absolutely no loose movement of the food. If this is not the case, then you need to reseal it.
A good practice for using Os is to keep them completely sealed up until they are used. You may prepare all the bags at once to get them ready for the last step where you would put the Os in.
Using a VSM with Plastic (clear) Bags
Vacuum sealing with clear plastic bags is normally done for smaller quantities of food, such as a few handfuls at a time of dehydrated food (per bag), or a dozen or so of beef jerky pieces (per bag) for example.
- Lay the bag flat on the table and put your food in it. Do Not pack it tightly.
- Attach your VSM’s tube to your machine and slip the other end of the tube into the bag’s opening, and pull the bag into the machine. Close the lid. Follow the manufacturer instructions. Each type of machine is a little different. (In the description for using Mylar, you did not use the sealing feature so you did not insert the bag into the machine.)
- When you are done, the vacuum sealed food will be very firm and stiff, with the plastic hugging the food completely so that there is absolutely no loose movement of the food. If this is not the case, then you need to reseal it. There is no need to use oxygen absorbers with this method since the food quantity is so small.
Canning is a method using glass jars, generally either Mason or Ball brand jars. The tops for the jars are made of two pieces– the flat round circles that lay on the jars’ openings called “lids” and the “bands” that have threads that screw down around the circumference of the tops to secure the lids down. Jars are given a “bath” in boiling water for a set amount of time according to a recipe. During cooling the lids snap shut tightly with a pop sound. (“Canning” can also refer to the commercial practice of putting food in large #10 cans, but we will not be covering that.)
Supplies – There are special tools to use in canning, such as tongs specially designed to lift the jars out of the hot bath, funnels with wide openings instead of the narrow openings so you can easily fill jars with food, and other canning gadgets to make the job easier. These are all available online and at local retailers.
Handling Jars – There are special ways to handle jars during canning, such as how to properly “cool” the jars so the glass does not crack, and checking that lids “snap down” as a reaction to pressure changes when the jar cools. Bands are supposed to be snug but not tight when jars are boiled in their bath. These descriptions and other things are described in your recipe books.
Recipes – All the particulars about how to actually can are easily found in canning books. Some recipes direct you to make brine (spices and salt boiled in water) to use for pickles or cabbage. Using brine may not require the jars to have a bath, since for this method you just fill up the jars with the brine and add food, like cucumbers or cabbage. There are so many variations and tricks to the trade, such as the practice of submerging your cucumbers in ice water just before putting them in the canning jars to make them turn into crispy pickles. Your recipe books will be invaluable during canning.
The “County Extension Office” where you live has literature and holds classes that teach you how to adhere to safety standards. In canning meat, for example, the “baths” involve literally locking down a large metal lid on your pot to create great pressure. In pressure canning, safety is essential, so a class and hands on experience to learn this type of canning is advised. You have to decide what type of canning will be best for you and what you are willing to take the time to learn.
Meats, Fruits, and Vegetables – It’s a good practice to cut out imperfections and wash and blanch fruits and vegetables before freezing. Blanching is the act of submerging the food in rapidly boiling water for about 10 seconds to purify its surface. Some fruits may discolor over time and will benefit from a little lemon juice lightly sprayed on it before putting it in the freezer bags. Meats, of course, can be frozen uncooked or after they have been dehydrated.
- Use a zip lock bag made for the freezer, or wrap several times in clear plastic wrap, to eliminate as much air as possible.
- When you want to freeze small, wet items, like berries, lay them out on a flat pan first to freeze before putting them into a zip lock bag. This will protect them from getting mushy or sticking together while freezing.
- If using zip lock bags, push out as much air as possible before closing. It’s possible to zip it almost shut and then use your VSM tube to suck out air before zipping it closed. You can also freeze food vacuum sealed in plastic bags, as described earlier, but you don’t have to vacuum seal foods to freeze them.
- Lay your food flat in the freezer. Watch that the bag does not droop down in-between the slats of the freezer shelf and get stuck.
- Consume within six months.
You can smoke fish and meat, as a way to preserve. In order to smoke fish and meat if you’re camping, you will need to build a device in which to hang meat or fish that will retain both heat and smoke– a smoker. The description below describes how to create a smoker, if you’re camping. If you use a commercially-made smoker, it will work the same way.
Making a Smoker
- First, dig a fire pit approximately two by two feet in size and about one foot deep in the ground. Next, create the device on which the food will be placed– either a spit or a cooking grate set two to three feet above the top of your fire pit.
- A “smoker” will be constructed by building a tee-pee style structure of branches a few inches in diameter, tied together at the top using vine, rope or even a shoelace. The gaps between the branches can be filled using moss, tree boughs, or a wet piece of canvas or even wet cloth. Leave a small area open so you can tend to the fire and turn the food when needed.
- You can also make a log cabin-type box that has only three sides and a top. Whatever you do, the idea is to trap smoke and heat while allowing some air to get in to produce smoke.
- Collect firewood. Hardwoods or fruit woods are best for smoking fish and meats. Oak, maple, hickory, cherry, and apple wood make smoked foods taste great. Get a variety of wood sizes so you can control the temperature and the amount of needed smoke much easier.
- After placing the fish or meat to be cooked on the spit or cooking grate, start a small fire. The trick is to keep the fire small, adding wood a little at a time. Let the fire burn down and add some small twigs to the hot coals to help create smoke. After two to three hours, your fish and meat should be ready to eat. However, to preserve it for long term use, smoke it continually until it is leathery and resembles jerky with no moisture and no soft fatty parts at all. Then you can vacuum seal it. Remember you must use indirect heat and not direct heat where the meat is over the flames.
Tools of the Trade
Following is a list of common kitchen items to have on hand as you get started preserving:
- Coffee bean grinder. Since you will need electricity to use these machines, you will need to prepare for the possibility of not having electricity. You can erect alternative 110 electric power made from a 12-Volt solar battery system. To do this, you will need an inverter that changes 12-Volt to 110. You could then plug your machine into the inverter. Otherwise, you can use a “pistol and mortar”, which people used to use to grind things on great grandma’s farm!
- Coffee filters. There are 1,001 uses for these. They can be used to lie out and organize things on the counter. You can write on them, and separate and dry foods, while keeping everything sanitary.
- Vacuum Sealing Machine (VSM). As in the first item above, have an inverter from 12V to 110, in case you have no electricity.
- Three feet of clear tubing per VSM machine.
- Plastic food bags. Keep these sanitary while stored.
- Mylar bags. They come in different sizes (1–5 gallons) and different grades in mils, (3-8 mil, with the higher the mil being the thicker). It does not hurt to fold the bags for storage. Make sure they are not pierced when food is in them while moving them into storage.
- Canning equipment for “baths”. This includes jars, lids, bands, jar holder, funnel, large pots, et cetera.
- Buckets and lids that are food grade. Even if food is sealed in bags, you can place them in buckets with O’s for extra protection.
- A well-stocked library. This would include charts, recipe books, calendars (dates stuff grow), and so forth.
- Kitchen food staples, based on your favorite recipes. This might include vinegars, allspice, pickling spice, canning salt, spices, marinades, et cetera.
- Basic Kitchen equipment. Most kitchens have these most of these items, but there are some items here you may need to add, if you don’t have it already. You may want to have cheese cloth (used to strain fluids to take out particles), labels and magic markers, colander (strainer), wooden spoon(s) (suggested to use to stir food around in hot jars to get rid of air bubbles before you give the jars a bath), large stainless steel bowls, stainless steel anything (utensils and bowls of various sizes), cutting boards, and sharp knives.
- A “plan”. Plan to grow, preserve, store, and rotate only what you are going to eat. (Comfort foods and barter foods are additional types of foods to store.)
- Controlled environments. A green house, seed area, a large cool storage place, outdoor kitchen, indoor kitchen, library area, a way to organize kitchen tools, and/or another area that might make your food preservation and storage efforts successful for you and your family.