Our ancesters were very good at keeping food from a harvest and storing it for later use. They had to, because not storing food would have meant going without in the colder months. They had to learn by trial and error how to stop food going bad so that it would keep for long periods and how to use the food they had stored, which often meant differnt cooking methods than when using fresh. They didn't have access to the modern methods or the chemical additives used by commercial maufacturers today.
With the ease and convenience of shops and global markets we no longer need to store our food. Any produce we love that is made using preserving tequniques food manufacturers are happy to provide for us. However this doesn't mean we shouldn't have a go especially if we have spare food available. I get a great deal of pleasure making my own jams and chutneys etc they taste better than the manufactured versions and have no nasty additives in them. My own preserved food has less carbon miles too.
Lets take a little look at some of the preserving methods available to us today, some of which would not have been available to us years ago.
Top of the list for most of us is freezing. Storing food at very low temperatures slows down the aging process, it does not halt it altogether though especially if the container you use is split or damaged, also the main cause of frozen food drying out and becoming unpalletable. Most food can be successfully stored in frozen conditions however there is a time limit beyond which it will no longer be safe to eat, this is one of the reasons you should date the food you freeze. Some foods benefit by being cooked or part cooked before freezing in order for it to be at it's best once thawed again. Food should be thoroughly defrosted before it is eaten especially if it is not going to be cooked or reheated first. Things I freeze include bread, cakes, raw meat, fruit and vegetables, oh and of course ice cream!
Preserved in bottles or jars
This is the second most popular food preservation method for home use. Similar to canning and equally effective, this is the best option for most food preserved at home which will be stored at room temperature. Glass bottles and jars are easy to access, either by saving ones bought containing food or by buying the empty versions which are widely available in kitchen supply shops. The food is often, but not always, cooked adding sugar, vineger, oil or alcohol. The result of your efforts is the Jam, chutney, pickles, bottled fruit and veg, flavoured oils and vinegars, jellies and fruit butters, juices and cordials we love so much. Whenever making preserves in this way always ensure that the containers are steralized before you fill them. The most regular preserves in our household include Raspberry jam and Runner Bean chutney.
Historically drying and Salting were the most popular methods used to preserve fruit, vegetables, meat and fish products. With the invention of home freezing drying has become a forgotten art in most homes these days. It is not however the preserve for hot countries alone though and should be given a go as it is extremely effective. Most of the water content is driven out either by leaving the food in the sun, by heating it slowly in a warm oven, hanging the food in a warm dry place with a steady flow of air, in most cases the food needs to be rehydrated before use. At home drying is most often used for preserving home grown herbs and drying out citrus fruit for Christmas decorations. In our house we like to dry tomatoes which we store in the refridgerator in olive oil.
In the past this method of preserving as been limited to food manufacturers due to the cost of the equipment. It is now possible to buy vacuum packing machines for home use. The vacuum removes all the air from the plastic packing which seals itself around the food being stored. The bag is then heat sealed. This method of food preservation is great for raw and cooked meat, poultry and fish, it is not so good for cakes and pastries, which have a high air content! We do not have a vacuum packer however a friend of ours does and he loves it, his wife was not happy when he vacuum packed her scones though!
Storing food in cans is an extremely effective preserving method. It is not something we would do at home due to the complexities of sealing the tins. The methods used to prepare the food for canned storeage mean that any bacteria present will be killed, the tins or cans are seralised and air tight so no bacteria will survive to multiply inside to spoli the food. Never buy damaged canned food as it is possible the can will have a hole and the food inside spoilt. Baked Beans, chopped tomatoes, Tuna fish and pulses are our store cupboard staples.
Salting is an ancient method of food preservation which historically was used to ensure a supply of meat, fish, nuts and beans through the lean winter months. Modern preserving methods and home freezing have almost killed off this traditional preservation method both at home and in commercially produced foods. The process itself involves layering your food in a sealable container with salt or a strong salt solution. The food is normally soaked to rehydrate and remove the excess salt. Salting is till very popular in scandinavian countries for preserving such delights as herring and where would we be without a packet of salted nuts.
Just a quick note about eggs. As a chicken keeper I know how tricky it can be to keep a steady supply through the year. You get loads through the spring and summer, relatively few in winter. We manage to eat our glut with no difficulty and buy extra when we need them. Other than pickling and freezing I had not come across preserved eggs before I undertook research for this section of the website. I have since learned that it is possible to extend the life of your eggs by sealing the undamaged porous shells with petroleum jelly or similar substances. Have a care before you use them though as the slightest damage to the outer shell will result in a rapid deterioration and the smell is terrible so break your eggs into a cup before you add them to other ingredients.
There is a wealth of detailed information available about each of these preserving methods, and others, in books. "Preserved" by Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton, is particularly good. It covers some of the more unusual preserving methods as well as those above and gives recipes for using the preserved foods you have made. Check out some of the recipes for pickles and jams available in the "Grow and eat your own food" section and if you have a recipe you would like to share, please let us know, we would love to hear from you.