Small Details in Food Storage Make a Big Difference

Reader Contribution by Mary Moss-Sprague
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Okay, folks, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for summer already! Slogging around in a 20-inch snowfall (in one day!) is a bit much. Unfortunately, since it’s not even February yet, summer’s a long way off — but, hey, attitude is everything, right? 

During these deep-snow times, I am so grateful for our winter stores. Pulling down a jar of home-canned stewed tomatoes to toss into a soup or stew is a stress-reducer. There’s no need to try to navigate out to the market — yay! Ditto with a dish of canned peaches or applesauce; it’s all there, just waiting to be used for breakfast.

One of the best things about having home-preserved food available is its relative safety. I say “relative” because some foods put away for later use are not safe if they’ve been canned and/or stored incorrectly.

Do you enjoy raw garlic, and have you ever tried storing it in vegetable oil? Did you put it in the refrigerator right away and use it up within three weeks? Garlic carries botulinum spores, so it cannot be stored at low temperatures in an anaerobic environment for long periods and still remain safe to consume.

As I noted in my previous blog here, winter “down time” offers a good opportunity to review food safety. It’s a great time to go through the refrigerator and pantry and check for foods that might have overstayed their visit. For instance, any of those home-bottled oils flavored with raw garlic and other seasonings must be culled if they’ve been lurking around for more than three weeks. I know, it’s hard to part with something so yummy, but you want to be around for the next canning season, right?

I don’t pay too much attention to expiration dates on non-fresh food items. The dates serve more as advisories as to potential diminishment of food quality. I see it pretty much as a blatant, purely commercial gimmick that many food manufacturers use in order to scare consumers into throwing out food unnecessarily and buying replacements.

Most commercially-canned vegetables and fruits have a shelf-life of three to four years. However, any of these cans that show signs of spoilage — bulging can ends, leakage, spurting liquid, off-odor, or mold — pitch it without using and don’t do a taste-test! Home-canned fruits and vegetables, similarly, should be used up within about four years of the canning date.  Check them, too, and make sure they’re still safely and correctly sealed.

If you canned a batch of peas (in a pressure canner, of course!), do they have cloudy brine? That’s an indication of three possible things: (1) bacterial spoilage, (2) minerals in the water, (3) or anti-caking agents from table salt. This is a warning flag and bears closer investigation; it may mean that the batch will have to be tossed. It’s also a lesson in the importance of using canning salt rather than table salt; the little details do make a difference! 

The ideal storage place for dried foods is cool, dark, and dry. Mold is the most common storage problem (and type of spoilage) for dry food. Double-check now to see that your stores of these foods are not molding. Also, check for any infestations of meal moths in flours and other grains. I’ve found that the Safer brand of traps for these critters work very well and aren’t hazardous to use.

Next time, I’ll discuss some more details about safe food storage and share some tips on food safety.

Mary Moss-Spragueis a certified Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver in Corvallis, Ore., and author of Stand Up and Garden: The No-digging, No-tilling, No-stooping Approach to Growing Vegetables and Herbs. Read all of Mary’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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