Posted on August 10 2020
If the COVID-19 panic taught us anything, it is that the food supply chain is fragile. Within minutes of the pandemic being identified as a major health threat, grocery store shelves were stripped bare of essentials such as frozen vegetables, bread and meat. The ability to locate and gather basic ingredients for soup, chili or a meat loaf was severely limited. But there were some households that got through the mayhem with very little disruption. These people weren't necessarily "preppers" but they did have the foresight to can and preserve enough of their home-grown garden staples to get through any rough patches. And today's kitchen technology has made food preservation easier than ever before.
The Pressure Cooker / Canner
Canning using a pressure cooker is old school, but this tried and true method is one of the best ways to keep a bumper crop of tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers and fruit of all kinds. The home cook who loves to make sauces, pickles, pie fillings, jellies and jams will find the pressure cooker to be the primary go-to gadget throughout the growing season.
Old style pressure cookers were a bit of a challenge, both from an operational and a safety standpoint. The cooker was composed of a lid lined with a rubber gasket, a pressure gauge and a lid lock. If any part of the cooker failed, the canned goods inside would likely spoil as they wouldn't have been brought to the proper internal temperature to kill bacteria. Furthermore, the pressure gauge had to be watched carefully throughout the canning process. Too much internal pressure would result in a literal explosion, with the pot of the cooker turning into shrapnel. And if the lid was removed before the pressure had gone down, hot food and liquid would spew out of the pot like a volcanic eruption.
Luckily, today's pressure cookers were designed with safety in mind. Stovetop models come with a quick release valve that triggers if the internal pressure gets too high during cooking. They also have a lid that automatically locks and stays locked until the internal pressure goes down sufficiently to allow the lid to be removed safely.
Although electric pressure cookers are ideal for preparing soups, sauces and other foods quickly, they are not recommended for canning. USDA testing has determined that the internal temperature of the jarred foods does not come up to the temperature necessary to eliminate dangerous bacteria. The exception to this is the Ball brand Electric Canner, which was created specifically for canning high-acid foods. Low acid foods and meats should still be preserved using a stovetop pressure cooker.
Drying is an ideal way to preserve certain fruits, plum or Roma-type tomatoes, hot peppers, herbs, soup beans, fish and meat. Drying food used to require stacking wire racks of foods in the sun and hoping that the harvest would go unnoticed by insects, the neighbor's dog or other roving livestock. Today, there are several models of electric dryers available, ranging in size from floor models that accommodate multiple trays at a time to countertop sized mini-dryers.
Electric dryers work by combining gentle heat with air circulation. This removes the moisture content from meats, fruits and vegetables without compromising the flavor or texture of the item. Because the heat of the dryer does not rise above 155 degrees, meat must be precooked before drying in order to destroy any harmful bacteria. Game meat especially can harbor E. coli or trichinella, both of which can be lethal if consumed.
Drying has some advantages over canning or freezing. First, it's much less labor intensive. Canning often demands an entire day, first to sterilize the jars and lids, then to fill and seal the jars, and finally to cool the jars and ensure they have been sealed properly. Moreover, canning season usually begins just as the heat and humidity begin to build. Having a steaming pressure cooker perking in a kitchen that already feels like a sauna isn't the most pleasant experience. In addition, having enough pantry space to contain several jars of canned goods may be a challenge. Dried foods shrink so they take less space. And unlike frozen foods, dried foods require no additional energy to maintain them. According to the University of Pennsylvania Extension Office, home dried beef jerky can be used within three weeks if stored in a food-grade plastic bag in a cool, dark, dry pantry. Vacuum packaging offers a storage time of 1 to 2 months, as it eliminates any air which can cause off-flavors and increase the possibility of spoilage.
One of the most recent innovations in food preservation technology is the home freeze dryer. Although somewhat pricey, the home freeze dryer provides a safe alternative to pressure canning of low-acid foods, meats and vegetables. Freeze drying also preserves flavor, color and texture. Traditional drying methods often discolor herbs, hot peppers or flowers, turning them an unsightly brown; freeze drying retains a fresher appearance for these items. Freeze dried items can be re-hydrated fully and easily, so the texture of freeze dried fruits and vegetables compares well to that of fresh or canned.
Freeze drying can also be used to preserve perishables such as dairy products or eggs. This is a boon to households with a flock of laying hens or milk goats, as freeze dried milk and eggs require less storage space than their fresh or frozen equivalents. Freeze drying also maintains a food's nutritive value; according to the USDA's Food Composition database, freeze dried broccoli, pineapple and cooked chicken all compared favorably to their fresh equivalents.
The primary challenge to the household considering purchasing a home freeze drying unit is the cost, both of the appliance and of the supplies needed to operate and maintain the equipment. The smallest unit can retail for over $1,000. In addition, the freeze drying machine consumes a considerable amount of electricity when running, compared to a traditional air dryer. Additional supplies and oil to keep the vacuum pump lubricated add to the operating costs.
A second obstacle is that the appliance itself is fairly large, starting at 139 pounds, and it must be elevated off the floor in order for it to work properly. Acquiring or building heavy-duty shelving for the machine should be factored into the purchase price.
In addition, the freeze dryer produces noise and heat when it is operating. Freeze drying a batch of food can require up to 40 hours of operating time, meaning that the machine will be running while the household is trying to sleep or have family time. The vacuum pump in the appliance has been rated at about 62 decibels when it is running, which is the equivalent of having a vacuum cleaner or dishwasher operating continually. Unless the freeze dryer is located in a separate building such as a pole barn or workshop, the noise it creates may be annoying to members of the household.
Vacuum packaging or vacuum sealing is one of the best ways to store your food and comes with heaps of benefits. Vacuum sealing is a method of packaging that removes air from the package prior to sealing. Vacuum sealing greatly extends the lifespan of many different kinds of food, from cheese to meat to soup. For example, by using traditional methods, meat will typically last about 6 months in the freezer. However, vacuum sealed meat will last 2-3 years in the freezer. Refrigerating vacuum sealed carrots will last up to 2-3 years, as opposed to the 2 weeks for carrots stored using standard methods. The intent of vacuum sealing food is to remove oxygen from the container to extend the shelf life of foods and, with flexible package forms, to reduce the volume of the contents and package. Ideally saving space on your shelves and freezer.
Vacuum sealing reduces oxygen, limiting the growth of bacteria and preventing the evaporation of volatile components. It is also commonly used to store dry foods over a long period of time, such as cereals, nuts, cured meats, coffee and potato chips. Preserving food for longer means less food spoilage and therefore less wasted food. Plus, this allows you to buy food in bulk at a reduced cost and safely store it for future use.
On a more short term basis, vacuum packing can also be used to store fresh foods, such as vegetables, meats, and liquids, because it inhibits bacterial growth. Vacuum sealing food adds a layer of protection from external sources. Additionally, this method prevents food from becoming dehydrated and will avoid the risk of freezer burns. By sealing your food and removing air, the flavors, texture, and moisture of the food will be retained. Plus, you’ll also get much more taste out of your stored food as vacuum sealing will help to preserve nutritional value in food. Preserving food doesn’t have to be only for fresh food, it’s also great for leftovers. Instead of throwing out leftovers or forcing yourself to eat everything within a day, just vacuum seal and keep it for months. A vacuum sealer allows you to reseal open products which were previously sealed.
Improvements and innovations in kitchen technology have made food preservation safe, simple and fast. Even those individuals who are time-challenged can find a way to take advantage of bountiful harvests and fill the pantry with meats and produce that are preservative-free and gathered when their flavors are at their best.