Preserving Food for Winter Storage

Mary Lou Shaw preserves her summer’s harvest by freezing, canning, drying and winter storage in a homemade, basement root cellar.
By Mary Lou Shaw
January 11, 2013
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“Growing Local Food” by Mary Lou Shaw clearly charts the path to a healthier and more rewarding life through simple living and growing your own food in fertile soil. 
Cover Courtesy Carlisle Press

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Mary Lou Shaw, author of Growing Local Food (Carlisle Press, 2012), is empowering individuals and communities to grow more of their own food. This book is a good primer on getting back to a healthier lifestyle with 22 chapters that explore ideas as simple as growing herbs in a pot to information on catching rain water for the garden. The following excerpt is taken from chapter 20, “Additional Ways to Store Food for the Winter.” 

Buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Growing Local Food.

Preserving Food for the Winter

“It’s convenient to have a root cellar or a basement where canned goods can be stored, but if you have neither, you can still put aside local garden produce to eat in the wintertime. It’s meaningful and satisfying to do just one or two new things each year that will get you closer to self-sufficiency and healthier food. Perhaps you can freeze a few tomatoes when they’re in excess at the farmers’ market. Next year you might want to buy equipment to can tomatoes. You’ll smile to see them in the kitchen cupboard instead of processed food from the store.”

There are other ways besides canning and fermenting to have local food to eat in the wintertime. Here are three more ways to preserve the summer harvest for our winter feasts:

The freezer still seems essential: The content of our freezer varies with the current year’s harvest. We always enjoy the small green beans that are barely steamed before being placed in freezer bags. The pressure cooker softens vegetables, so I prefer freezing them to preserve their texture. My mouth waters now to think of winter meals when we cook them lightly in olive oil, garlic and salt. I’ve learned to label freezer bags so I don’t thaw diced bell peppers for dinner when I wanted green beans. Some of last year’s peaches made it into the freezer too, but this year I used the water bath method to can them. Shredded zucchini or even zucchini bread is frozen, and makes easy desserts and nice gifts in the winter.

The downside to using a freezer was that our electricity came from a coal-burning plant. We’re dependent on freezing for preserving the chicken and beef from our farm, so are delighted that we finally got solar panels installed.

What did people do before they had electricity to freeze food? Smoking meat to preserve it was one option, and a smokehouse was part of every homestead. Canning meat takes energy and a pressure cooker, but then the meat can be stored on shelves. Drying meat for jerky is still in favor, and there are methods that don’t require the amount of preserving chemicals that you find in store-bought jerky.

It’s fun to dry: Dried beans have become a staple at our house and are a frequent ingredient in winter meals. Many varieties of beans have made their way to us through friends and seed-savers. Whether bush or climbers, we eat or process some in the summer while they’re in the tender, green bean stage. Next stage is the shell beans that one can still bite into, and require 15 to 20 minutes cooking time. After that, I fall behind and allow the beans to dry on the vine. When one variety of beans appears dry and there’s an extra moment, I cut or pull the vines and put them in a bushel basket in the hot toolshed. They stay there until the slower evenings when I pull out a lawn chair to face the sunset and sit and shell beans into a large bowl. When the chickens head into their coop, I close up the henhouse and head inside for the night. I’m surprised when people comment on how much work it must be to have such a variety of dried beans in glass jars on the porch shelves. No wonder I find it a pleasure instead of work!

Have you heard of Leather Britches? The entire bean pod is threaded and hung up to dry completely before storing in an airtight container. The pod and its beans need several hours of cooking to be tender, but actually have a unique and good flavor. It’s fun to find one more way to store and consume more of what we produce.

Drying other fruits and vegetables is an excellent way to preserve nutrients and preserve food for the winter months. I resisted adding more electrical equipment for food storage, but my husband has come to the rescue by building a solar food dryer. Apples and tomatoes are especially flavorful dried this way. To build your own solar food dryer, read Eben Fodor’s The Solar Food Dryer.

Treasures in the basement: A final method we use for storing food is the root cellar. We built an underground one thirty years ago and found the year-round temperature in the 50s worked quite well for all root vegetables and winter squash, as well as aging the cheddar cheese.

When we moved across the road to the little farmhouse, my husband created a basement root cellar as a substitute for the underground one. It uses one interior cement wall, and is otherwise a well-insulated nine-by-six-foot room with two four-inch pipes to exchange air with the outside. We uncap these pipes to cool the room in the autumn and wintertime, and it gradually reaches a more ideal storage temperature of the upper 30s. An alternative to the pipes would be to include an outside window in one wall. Be sure to insulate your basement storage room well, however, so you don’t increase your heating bills in the winter.

A basement root cellar has the advantages of being less expensive to build than an underground cellar. Additionally, in winter I appreciate the convenience of fetching potatoes, onions and squash from the basement rather than outside. Its main disadvantage is that its interior temperatures are higher in the summer and don’t cool quickly enough for the usual harvest time. We attempt to compensate for this by planting and harvesting winter storage crops later in the year.

It’s a good feeling when you have shelves lined up with canned food and a full freezer and root cellar. You are prepared to eat healthily and economically all winter long.

Read more: Hear the story of how just wanting a few milking cows turned into helping to save a rare breed in Keeping Heritage Breeds: Dutch Belted Milking Cows.

This excerpt hasbeen reprinted with permission from Growing Local Food by Mary Lou Shaw and published by Carlisle Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Growing Local Food.

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