As we begin to enter the colder months, storage will become important. Back in the day when we didn’t have the luxury or ability to eat food out of season, people became dependent on canning and freezing vegetables for the winter. We’ve lost our knowledge of how to stock a pantry for the winter, a skill that I would love to relearn. However, that is just not practical for everyone, for one it is incredibly time consuming. But knowing how to store a little bit of food long-term is very handy. Fortunately, here in NC, we have a fairly long season and quite an abundance of local farmers (and regional suppliers), so storing is not quite as necessary as it once was. But it is still valuable to know different ways to store your produce, how often do you have a little bit too much of something and you can’t finish it before it goes bad? Some common ways of storing produce are freezing, canning, and drying. Freezing and drying herbs are considerably easier than canning, but all are doable for anyone willing to take the time.
Before you freeze any vegetable it is very important to blanch it, which means you boil it for a certain amount of time (it’s different for every vegetable) and then put it in an ice bath. “Blanching slows or stops the action of enzymes which cause loss of flavor, color and texture. Blanching cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms, brightens the color and helps retard loss of vitamins. Blanching also wilts or softens vegetables and makes them easier to pack.” source. Bring the water to a boil, add the vegetables to the water, start timing when the water begins to boil again.
Once the vegetables have cooled in the ice bath, take it out to dry on a towel, pack it into plastic bags (try to get as much air out as you can), or whatever container you want to use, and freeze it! Don’t forget to put the date on it in case you find it in the back of your freezer several years down the road.
Blanching time for specific vegetables:
Broccoli: 3 minutes
Cabbage: 1 ½ minutes
Carrots (diced): 2 minutes
Collards: 3 minutes
Kale: 2 minutes
Potatoes: 5 minutes
Sweet Potatoes: cook completely
Pumpkin/Butternut Squash: cook completely
Rutabagas: 3 minutes
Turnips: 2 minutes
Freezing Fruit: When freezing fruit, blanching is not necessary. You can pack fruit in water, simple syrup, sugar, or dry. I’ve always frozen fruit dry, which means you wash it and cut it into smaller slices, then pack it into the container and freeze. Easy as pie. Go to this website for more information.
Canning is a more complex process, but is better than freezing for certain vegetables and if you already have an overstocked freezer, canning could be something to look into. There are two ways to can: water bath and pressure canning. Water bath canning is a slightly simpler method and can be used for jams, jellies, salsas, pickles, relishes, and different kinds of condiments. The food must be more acidic for water bath canning to be safe. Pressure canning is for low-acid foods such as green beans, corn, squash, etc. For in-depth descriptions and video tutorials about canning check out this website.
The great thing about canning is that you can find tons of interesting recipes for different kinds of pickles, fermented foods such as kimchi or sauerkraut, and jams and jellies. These are the best recipes to start canning with because they’re easy and do not require a pressure canner.
Drying herbs is almost laughably easy, and fresh herbs go bad so quickly that this can be a very valuable skill to have. Dry herbs retain flavor for 6-12 months and are stronger than fresh herbs. Simply tie the stems together with a twist-tie (so you can tighten it as they begin to shrink), wrap a paper bag with holes in it around the herbs, and hang them upside-down in a warm, well-ventilated place. Check out this article for a more in-depth description and other ways to dry herbs.
Arugula: Arugula should be kept in a plastic bag to prevent moisture loss, and refrigerated. It will keep for just a few days. Arugula tends to be gritty, so don’t forget to wash it just prior to using. If cooked, it should be added in just the last few minutes to prevent flavor loss and overwilting. Arugula makes a great pizza topping!
Lettuce heads : Lettuce loves moisture. Remove any wilted leaves, and dampen interior remaining leaves. Place in plastic bag, and store in refrigerator. Hearty lettuces like romaine tend to keep the longest, thinner leafed lettuces tend to wilt faster. If lettuce becomes wilted, you can revive it to an extent in a cold water bath. Fill a sink with cold water and a little ice, and submerge the lettuce for 10-15 minutes. The water will be absorbed by the plant, and can revive leaves that are starting to dry out or wilt. However, watch the lettuce carefully to guard against oversaturation and wet-rot.
Spinach: Spinach should be stored in a plastic bag to retain moisture. Spinach is generally rinsed by the farm, so it should have some moisture, but check the bag to make sure that it is not sitting in water. If it is, punch holes in the plastic bag, and drain any excess water. Store spinach in the refrigerator. It will keep for up to a week.
Pac Choi/Bok Choi: Bok choy is a very versatile green that is commonly steamed, boiled, or stir fried. Full sized bok choy stems should be removed from the leaves and discarded, but baby bok choy stems are usually tender enough for cooking. Baby bok choy stems will likely require a little longer cooking time than leaves, so it is usually a good idea to separate them and cook stems a little longer than the leaves which will just need a few minutes. Boy choy should be refrigerated and will keep for 1-2 weeks.
Beets: Beet roots will keep best if the greens are separated from the bulbs. However, the greens will keep longest if kept on the bulb, which will provide the greens with moisture. It’s a judgment call as to whether you will do best to remove the greens, or leave them on depending on your uses and timeframes for each. Beet greens will keep for up to a week, whereas bulbs will keep 2-3 weeks, so if in doubt you are probably better off keeping the two together. Beet greens can be used similarly to spinach or chard, and are the most nutritious part of the plant.
Broccoli: Broccoli should be stored in the refrigerator where it will keep for 4-5 days. Like most vegetables, broccoli will lose moisture as it ages, which you want to protect against, but you also want the broccoli to be able to breathe, so it is not a good idea to enclose it in plastic. A perforated plastic bag, or just an open plastic bag, are usually the best options.
Bunched Herbs: Commonly bunched herbs include basil, cilantro, and parsley. Remove band or tie, and pick out any stems or leaves that have been damaged from banding. Snip the base of the stems, wrap in damp paper towels, and store in plastic bag in the refrigerator. This will help herbs to retain moisture, and extend storage life.
Cabbage: If possible, do not remove outer leaves from cabbage. Outer leaves protect interior from damage and from moisture loss. However, if refrigerator space is an issue, you can remove the outer leaves, and will have a smaller head of cabbage, just know that it won’t keep quite as well. Cabbage can be used in portions, but once you cut into the interior of the cabbage, you will need to wrap the remaining portion tightly in saran wrap. Cabbage is a versatile vegetable that can be used raw as in coleslaw or cooked in a variety of ways. Cabbage is a food staple and is used in many types of cuisine.
Celery: The best way to store celery is to wrap tightly in aluminum foil and refrigerate. Alternatively you can cut off the bottom, wrap in a paper towel, and store in a plastic bag. Celery will remain crisp for 2-3 weeks when stored correctly.
Carrots: Carrots will keep best if you can avoid moisture loss. Do this by storing carrots in a plastic bag, and by cutting off the greens about an inch or two above the carrots. Carrot greens will suck moisture out of the roots if they are left on. Carrots should also be stored away from fruits, which emit ethylene gas that may cause carrots to develop a bitter taste over time.
Cucumbers: Cucumbers should be refrigerated and kept relatively dry. Over exposure to moisture can cause premature deterioration through mold. This is why English Cucumbers are commonly shrink wrapped, and grocery store cucumbers are often finished with a coat of wax. You can check the life of a cucumber by squeezing the ends. The ends generally turn squishy before the rest of the cucumber, so if they feel soft or start to look wrinkled, the cucumber is coming to the end of its storage life.
Collards/Kale: Greens should be placed in a plastic bag, and stored in the refrigerator. If greens start to look wilted, you can revive them by snipping the base of the stems, filling a tub with cold water, submerging the greens in the water, and placing the water tub in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours. The freshly snipped stems will soak up the cold water, and revitalize the greens. Grocery stores commonly use this trick before placing greens on their produce shelves.
Green Onions: First, go through the bunch of green onions and cut off any smashed or damaged tops. Tops are often damaged in the fields, or during transport, but it is important to “prune” them before storage so that they do not accelerate deterioration on the rest of the bunch. Green onions will start to lose moisture and wilt in just a few days, so it is best to store them in a plastic bag, prior to placing in the refrigerator.
Potatoes/Sweet Potatoes Sweet potatoes and potatoes should be stored at room temperature. They often keep for over 6 months, just don’t forget about them!
Pumpkin/Butternut Squash: Squash will quickly go bad if stored in temperatures lower than 55, it is best stored in a cool, dark place like a cabinet. Length of storage life varies for different varieties; acorn squash will last about a month, butternut 2-3 months, spaghetti 4-5 weeks, pumpkins 2-3 months.
Radishes: Remove tops from radishes to prevent moisture loss. Radishes should be stored in the refrigerator, and will keep for up to a week. Radishes have a peppery flavor that usually goes well in salads or in appetizers. A simple radish appetizers includes sliced radishes served with melted butter and salt on the side. The peppery flavor is most concentrated in the radish skin, so they can be peeled for a milder flavor. Radish greens can also be used raw in salads, or cooked as you would other greens.
Rutabagas: Rutabagas have a sweet taste, without the peppery undertones of turnips. They should be refrigerated, and generally last longer than turnips as their thicker skins protect better from moisture loss. Rutabagas should be peeled before using. Roasting will concentrate their flavor, while boiling will dilute it. Look to Northern and Eastern Europe for inspiration on rutabaga cuisine.
Turnips: Turnips have a sweet, slightly peppery taste. They should be stored in the refrigerator, in a plastic bag to prevent moisture loss. Smaller turnips are sweeter, and more tender, but tend to lose moisture and go bad the quickest. Use small turnips first. Larger turnips are not quite as tender, and will need to be peeled, but will keep for 1-2 weeks. If the greens are attached, remove them and store them separately, as they will suck moisture out of the turnip root.
Apples: Each variety of apple will have a different storage life, some will stay crisp longer than others. Apples will keep longest when stored in the refrigerator. To prevent moisture loss while in the refrigerator, store apples in a plastic bag. Most varieties will keep 2-3 weeks if stored in the refrigerator. Apples can also be stored at room temperature, but may only keep up to 7 days before they start to turn soft or mealy.
Strawberries: Check for any damaged or bruised strawberries, and remove them from the container. Damaged fruits release ethylene gas which signals other fruits to ripen at a faster rate. This means that one bad apple really does spoil the bunch. Berries can go bad quite quickly, so make sure they are covered, and store them in the coldest part of the refrigerator. However, strawberries will be at their juiciest at room temperature, so if possible bring them to room temperature prior to consuming.