Grow It! Preserving Food for Winter

Richard Langer explains how to preserve your harvest for winter by drying fruits, fermenting sauerkraut, building root cellars and churning homemade butter.
By Richard W. Langer
January/February 1974
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You can construct a simple outdoor fruit drying rack from scrap lumber and layers of wire screen.
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At last! For the first time since the Have-More Plan was published way back in the 1940's, a fellow named Richard W. Langer has come up with a 365-page book that really introduces a beginner to small-scale farming. Want to raise your own fruit, nuts, berries, vegetables, grain, chickens, pigs, ducks, geese and honeybees? GROW IT! tells you how to get started. We like it, so check out this chapter about techniques for drying fruits, the process of fermenting sauerkraut, tips for storing your harvest for winter and how to make homemade butter from goat's milk.  

SPECIAL NOTE: All material here printed from GROW IT! Copyright ©1972 by Richard W. Langer. 

Chapter Excerpt: The Larder

Let them make sausage of me and serve me up to the students.—ARISTOPHANES 

One of my fondest memories of childhood was sneaking into the ice shed and chipping off a sawdust-flavored "popsicle" in the heat of midsummer. The ice shed wasn't a house where an ice machine was kept, our ice machine was a pond in winter. The ice was cut into large blocks from the center of the lake by timber saw and then hauled by sled to the ice shed, where it was covered with layers of insulating sawdust. Come summer, the frozen pond still fed the icebox. A real icebox.

In winter the memories were made from the earthy smell of the root cellar, from the salted meat and fish, the onions and the dried rose hips in the pantry, and from the kitchen wood box. Often I wonder how the world has been able to so thoroughly obliterate these glorious aromas. And then I find, in the country again, that it hasn't.

Drying Fruit

Many fruits—peaches, plums, or cherries, for instance—do not store well in the cold cellar for more than a few weeks because they are soft and easily bruised. This, however, doesn't mean they can't be kept, only that the method of preservation is different.

Dried fruit has been an important dietary staple for centuries. But the commercially dried fruit available today is riddled with sulfur. The function of sulfur is essentially that of a cosmetic: it keeps the fruit from darkening in color. In some cases, it also tenderizes it. Sulfur in small quantities may be of some use as a trace element in the diet. The quantities consumed when dried fruits are made a steady dietary supplement, however, certainly can't be beneficial. Fruit does not have to be sulfured for storage. Naturally dried fruits will be darker and a little chewier, but they'll be all fruit.

Prepare the Fruit: Most fruit can be dried. Don't use bruised ones or those with any signs of mold, unusual dark spots or other defects. Use your good fruit. Remember the old saying, one rotten apple spoils the barrel? It does. First wash the fruit and dry it with a towel. Then cut the fruit into pieces, removing pits, stones or other inedible portions. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the drying. Juicier fruits need smaller pieces. Apples and pears may be quartered, peaches the same, since the fruit is small. Do your cutting over a bowl and you'll have plenty of nectar when your work is done.

Drying Methods: Sun-dried fruit is the best if you have dry autumns. Place the cut fruit one layer deep in a double-screen drying tray, screen-topped to keep out the bugs. Keep each piece from touching the next, to increase air circulation. Turn the fruit two or three times a day. Take the tray indoors at night, or the dew will undo the whole day's drying. The fruit is ready for storage in glass jars when the outside is quite dry but a piece is still soft enough to bend with your fingers. You don't want it brittle, but you shouldn't be able to squeeze any juice out of it either.

If you have wet and rainy autumns, oven-dry your fruit. Set the temperature at 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, screen-bottomed trays are best, but of course they don't have to have the bug lid. Average oven-drying time is four to six hours.

Homemade Sauerkraut

Salting is one of the oldest methods of preserving food. In the northern European countries, where long winters and short growing seasons made food preservation a major key to survival, it was almost the exclusive means of hoarding a winter larder throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Unfortunately, a winter diet of solely salted and pickled meats, fish and vegetables is a poor diet; and the health of those dependent on this form of nourishment was often severely impaired. But that doesn't mean the method has to be discarded entirely. Today's winter larder can be well stocked with home-canned and fresh-frozen food. And wintering livestock has become much more economical. Salting is used in the modern country kitchen more to give pleasant variety than to really supplement the regular diet. The family kraut barrel is one tradition that's certainly worth resurrecting, provided, of course, that you like sauerkraut. The bean crock is another, by way of variation on the theme.

What You'll Need: A large container, either an old sixteen-quart or bigger earthenware crock or a barrel. An old pickling barrel is made to order for krauting, and some nail kegs are usable, but make sure when using wood that it's hardwood, not pine. Pine-flavored kraut does not rank high on the epicure's scale. Also, a wooden barrel that has not been used previously to store liquids will have to be soaked in water for about a week to swell it. Whiskey barrels, which are used only once commercially, are ideal if you can find them. Whatever you use, it must be "square" when it is filled; that is, the kraut should occupy an area as deep as it is wide. Be it a barrel, crock (which I personally prefer) or glass jugs, the container should be thoroughly scrubbed and scalded before use. Sun-drying is best.

To Start: Trim off all the wilted outside leaves from a batch of freshly picked cabbages. Add the waste to your compost pile or, if there's not too much of it, feed it to the pigs. (Too much cabbage will bloat grain-fed hogs.) Wash all the heads of cabbage, cut them in half and start shredding. Try to get hold of a traditional kraut cutter for this. It's nothing but a flat wooden board with a sharp slanted blade affixed over a slot in the center through which the sliced cabbage falls, but it makes for a lot easier and even-tempered shredding. The only problem is, a good kraut cutter is hard to come by in this day and age. You may have to settle for some other type of vegetable slicer. Whatever the case, don't count on doing it with a knife. Consistent thinness of the shreds (about one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch) is the key to well-cured sauerkraut. Also, watch your fingertips when using a shredding board, it's not the best way to trim your nails. Things move quickly when you've got twenty pounds of cabbage to slice while sitting around the kitchen table chatting. And you'll need twenty pounds to make eight or ten quarts of the finished product.

When you've got a decent tubful of cabbage shavings, roll up your sleeves and mix the cabbage around with your hands so that any pieces clinging together are broken up. But don't bruise them.

Salting: You'll need salt at the rate of one cup for each twenty pounds of cabbage. "Free-flowing" or table salt salt can't be used because it contains chemicals that kill the necessary bacteria. You need the old kind of salt that cakes up when it's humid. Either granulated or flake salt will do. Sea salt is good, but if you get it in hunks you'll have to grind it before using. Very coarse salt won't do the job. The salt for a kraut barrel is to aid fermentation. You're not using it as a preservative agent, as you would be in making, say, salt pork, where a much greater quantity is added.

Working in small batches, say, five pounds of cabbage at a time, sprinkle in the salt slowly, in this case a quarter cup at a time, while tossing the cabbage shreds gently in a bowl. Place the well-mixed slaw in your barrel or crock in two-inch layers, pressing each layer down with a clean chunk of 2-by-4, an old zigzag potato masher, or whatever similar blunt object is handy. Again, remember not to bruise. You want to compact the cabbage so it will be covered by its own salty brine in the end. You don't want to mash it. While you're layering in the cabbage, you can also sprinkle in some caraway seeds for extra flavor, no more than about a teaspoon per quart unless you're as crazy about caraway as I am, for it can be strong stuff.

Covering and Raising Brine: The ubiquitous cheesecloth enters the picture. Cut six pieces each large enough to cover your jug or barrel and then some for the edge. Once the crock is filled to within two inches of the rim, cover the well-tamped cabbage with the layers of cheesecloth, tucking the extra inch or so down between the slaw and the wall of the crock.

You will need a follower. This is simply a disc just a shade smaller than the inside diameter of your container placed on top of the kraut to help keep pressure evenly distributed over the mix. Don't use a metal disc (metal will react with the acid), pine (lousy flavor) or plywood (same reason). A hardwood disc is best. If you can find a snug-fitting plate, it makes a reasonable substitute placed curved side down as long as no air is trapped between it and the cabbage. The follower is there not only to help squeeze enough juice from the kraut to cover it with brine, but also to keep air out.

To insure an airless brewery, a weight should be placed on top of the disc or plate. A gallon jug is convenient if it will fit atop the follower; it can be filled with just enough water to produce the desired pressure. A big fat stone also works fine and is more like the real thing. Six hours after the weight has been applied, the brine should have risen sufficiently to cover the top layer of cabbage. If it hasn't, add more water to the jug or more big fat stones.

Encouraging Fermentation: Keep your weighted kraut barrel in a well-ventilated spot where the temperature stays between 65 and 70 degrees. Much above this range and you'll have what is politely called slimy kraut, which means it's spoiled. Much below, and fermentation will take forever.

The actual fermentation process produces gas. Peeking under the lid of the barrel, you'll notice small bubbles rising to the surface. You'll also smell them. When there are no more bubbles, usually in around four weeks, your homemade sauerkraut is done. But meanwhile, during the fermentation process, a white scum will keep forming at the top of your mix. This must be removed regularly, usually daily, although it's permissible to skim it off only every second day. Simply remove the weight and follower, then lift the cheesecloth gently so the scum will cling to it. Rinse the cheesecloth well in very hot water. Don't use soap. Cool it off again under cold water before replacing it. A steamy blanket on top of the kraut encourages spoilage.

If during fermentation the brine level in the barrel sinks below the top layer of kraut, fresh liquid must be added to top it up. A couple of pinches of salt in a quart of water will usually be enough to replace the lost brine. Technically, plain water would do, since no salt is lost in evaporation, but the cheesecloth may have skimmed off a bit of salt lick in its daily trip to the sink.

Storage: Once the bubbling in the barrel has stopped, usually in about four weeks, remove the weight and follower permanently. The sauerkraut is now ready for eating. If it's your first batch, you'll probably want to sample it right away. However, ten quarts of sauerkraut is a lot to put away at one sitting. Besides, the reason for making it in the first place was to store it against the wintertime when your garden wouldn't be supplying you with fresh vegetables.

To store kraut, either in its original crock or in sterilized smaller jars, all you need to do is make certain it's still covered to the top with brine, add a layer of paraffin or beeswax to seal out all the air, and put it in a cold place, below 50 degrees, but above freezing.

The acidic property of well-fermented kraut, combined with the lack of air when well sealed, eliminates the growth of spoilage bacteria and mold, provided the sauerkraut is kept in cold enough storage. If it has a dubious look about it when you open up a jar—appearing pinkish, slimy, rotten or black—there was probably something wrong with the way it was prepared. Maybe it was exposed to air, or over- or undersalted, or the scum not properly removed. If so, add that batch of kraut to your compost heap and start again. However, with careful preparation you should have no problems. Making sauerkraut is a basic, easy process, and a well-fermented, well-sealed batch will keep safely for three to four months or longer.

So will string beans, pardon me, snap beans. Just french them first and prepare the same way you did the cabbage, except don't use caraway. Makes a tasty change from kraut.

Build a Root Cellar

For winter storage without refrigeration, there are three distinct conditions needed by various crops: cool and moist, cool and dry, and warm and dry.

Warm, Dry Storage: Often the heating unit for the house keeps the modern basement too warm and dry for use as a cold cellar. This, however, makes it ideal for crops such as the pumpkins and squashes, which store best in precisely such surroundings. Use only the healthiest specimens for storage. Put them on shelves that permit air circulation, but not something like metal rods or wires that would cut into the fruit. Leave room between the pumpkins or squashes so the air can get between them. A temperature in the vicinity of 50 degrees is good.

Cool, Moist and Wet Storage: Building a root cellar is well worth your while for both cool, moist and medium-moist storage. The area toward the bottom of the cellar will be moistest, that toward the top driest. The root crops—beets (leave an inch of green when storing or they will bleed), carrots, rutabagas, turnips and the like—should get the moistest areas. Potatoes, cabbage and cauliflower need the slightly drier area, as do your apples and pears. A temperature in the range of just above 32 degrees up to 40 degrees is what you want for them all. To this end, insulation is necessary. Just burying the root cellar in the earth and mounding it over with the excavated dirt is sufficient in most areas. Plant the roof to a cover crop and crocuses. In any case, you don't want the root cellar sealed off in any way. Ventilation is essential.

If possible, the fruits and the vegetables should be stored in two different cellars, since the fruits have a tendency to absorb odors. At least be sure to keep them as far apart as you can, if you haven't actually got two cellars yet. Dividing a root cellar into two rooms separated by a door works well.

You'll have enough work to do on the farm the first year without building a full-fledged root cellar. But that doesn't preclude storage. Temporary root cellars for individual crops have long been in use. A half-buried barrel of apples will carry you through till spring. A cabbage mound will handle that crop. Another mound for potatoes and a third one for mixed root crops and you're all set for the winter.

Cool, Dry Storage: Onions, garlic and beans need dry, cool storage. Hang them inside a shed unoccupied by livestock. An occupied barn would be too warm and moist. Your livestock would probably get to them before you could, so they wouldn't necessarily be wasted, but that's not what you're hanging them for.

Lest you be disappointed after eating garden-fresh vegetables all summer by the flavor of your storage fruits and vegetables, one might as well admit right here and now that they'll be about on a par with those you've been buying at the super market. Also, you're not going to have apples all year round, nor strawberries nor grapes. But the deprivation will just make you appreciate them more. Today's lifestyle of always being able to buy what you want, if perhaps not of the best quality, has leveled life to a kind of seasonless mediocrity. You'll be amazed how wonderful an apple tastes when you've grown it yourself, waited for it, when your mouth began to water with the first apple blossom and continued to water as the fruit slowly formed. That first bite of a fresh, ripe apple then tastes every bit as good as it did to Adam.

How to Make Butter

If you happen to have found a cream separator at a country auction sometime, so much the better when it comes to making butter from your goat's milk. It doesn't separate as readily as that from cows, and a separator will give you something of a head start. Don't let the lack of one stop you, however. Proceed as follows.

Separating Cream: Set out the goat's milk in a cool place, using shallow, covered, heat-resistant glass pans. Surface area is important. A quart of milk in a bottle will separate more slowly than the same quantity in several pans. Leave the milk undisturbed for eighteen hours (a little less if the weather's warmish, a little more if it's on the cool side).

After the first setting period, heat the milk very slowly until a light wrinkly skin forms on the surface. Make sure you don't disturb the top cream when you move the containers to and from the stove. Following their heating, the dishes should be allowed to sit for another eighteen hours. Then skim off the cream. This is what you'll be making your butter from. The skim milk can be kept for the lunch milk jug or fed to the pigs as a bonus dessert on their regular menu.

Churning: To make butter, you can use a small churn or an electric mixer. Goat's cream makes for very slow churning, so don't get discouraged if you're doing it by hand. You may want to blend in just a touch of natural food coloring while you're at it. Goat's butter is white. It's also a little softer and smoother than cow's butter.

As you churn, most of the buttermilk will separate out, while the butter clumps together. Once the clumps are well formed, pour off the buttermilk. (This is real buttermilk, not a waste product.) Then work the new butter with a wooden spoon against the walls of a bowl to squeeze out the last of the buttermilk. Cover the butter with cold water and squeeze it out again. Rinse several times, until the water is clear. If you don't get all the buttermilk out, the butter will keep poorly, but well-washed butter will keep much longer than you'd expect, even without refrigeration. This is handy for two reasons. First of all, you don't want to put in the work making butter every week. Secondly, it lets you make up extra butter just after the goats have freshened and their production is at a peak, provided you're not using the milk for making cheese.

Storage: To store butter without refrigeration, mix up a batch of brine, dissolving enough salt in water so that a fresh egg will float. Boil the brine for ten minutes. (Take the egg out first, unless you want hard-boiled eggs.) Let cool overnight. Filter through cheesecloth into a crock. Wrap individual quarter- or half-pound blocks of butter in cheesecloth and submerge them fully. Cover the crock with a weighted dish, making sure the butter is pressed down far enough to be fully submerged. Stored in a cool spot, the butter will keep for six months, so long as you keep the water level up.

Between your crock of butter and your honey pot, not to mention all those berry jams, someone in the family had best start baking up a big supply of home-cracked wheat bread.


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