Of all the problems that gardeners run into, having a bigger harvest than you know what to do with is the best problem to have. If you find yourself in this enviable position, you’ll want to listen to my conservation from a few summers back with Theresa Loe on preserving your garden harvest.
For nine years, Theresa was the co-executive producer and on-air canning expert of Growing A Greener World®, my national public television gardening series, and the founder of Living Homegrown and The Canning Academy. An advocate of urban homesteading, Theresa grew up in Los Angeles has been canning and preserving for as long as she can remember. In addition to having an engineering degree, she is a graduate of the Master Food Preserver program and studied both culinary arts and sustainable horticulture at UCLA. She is an expert on not only how to preserve food, but the science behind it.
Theresa started The Canning Academy to help people conquer their fear over food preservation. While teaching water-bath canning steps, she explains the reason for each technique, which she finds makes it easier for students to remember and takes away the fear that they may do something wrong. But she doesn’t stop there. She shares chefs’ tricks for getting the best flavor from their preserves.
I asked Theresa to lay out ways to preserve the summer bounty — from your own backyard garden or from the farm stand — with no need for special equipment. Theresa notes that there are many simple, fast, easy ways to preserve your harvest without a canning kit so it can be enjoyed later and still have garden-fresh taste.
Theresa Loe’s Top Tips for Preserving Your Garden Harvest with No Special Equipment
- Rinse and dry tomatoes — don’t core or peel. (Blanching tomatoes is unnecessary.)
- Place tomatoes, whole and spaced out, on a cookie sheet and freeze.
- Pop frozen tomatoes into freezer bags and press out as much air as possible.
- Label the bags, including the date, and put them back in the freezer.
- Use within 6 months for best results. After that, they lose texture, nutrients and flavor and can start to get freezer burn, which is caused by contact with air and dehydration.
- Follow the same steps as tomatoes, but these can be stored in glass jars rather than freezer bags if desired. (Because air can’t be squeezed out of jars, freezer burn will happen sooner in jars.)
- Follow the same steps as tomatoes, but consider blanching them before freezing so they will stay crisp.
- Slice peppers in half before putting them in the freezer for convenience and ease of use.
- Blanch if using for stir-fry.
- If used for muffins or breads, blanching is not necessary because it will be baked.
- Shred-it and freeze in 1-cup increments (muffin tins are an easy way to proportion).
- Add individual servings to dated freezer bags and use as needed.
Roasting cherry tomatoes and freezing (Theresa’s go-to for tomato flavor)
- Place on parchment paper and drizzle halved pieces with olive oil and season with coarse salt, freshly ground pepper and herbs of choice.
- Roast at your oven’s lowest temperature (about 7 to 8 hours at 200 degrees F, or 250 to 275 degrees for 3 to 5 hours).
- Roasting is key to caramelization.
- Stop roasting when the tomatoes have lost most of their juice and are still bendy — before the fruit becomes crisp.
- Put roasted tomatoes in a jar with oil and freeze. (Theresa cautions not to store roasted tomatoes in oil at room temperature or in the refrigerator due to the risk of botulism.)
- Onions, shallots, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and winter squash (butternut) all need to be cured to toughen the skin. Then they do very well in dry storage.
- To cure, after harvest, wipe off dirt but don’t wet the fruit to clean it.
- Store in single layers, in newspaper or cardboard boxes in a cool and dark place, around 50 to 60 degrees F, for two weeks.
- Keep light off potatoes (so they don’t turn green or sprout) by laying newspaper on top.
- After two weeks, brush off remaining dirt with your fingers and place in a lidless storage container that allows airflow — a covered basket works well. Here a cooler place at 35 to 50 degrees F will allow them to last for several months.
- Remember that hard neck garlic lasts about two to four months after curing and soft neck garlic lasts about six to eight months.
- For pumpkins and winter squash, leave them on the vine as long as possible. When harvesting, leave part of the stem on. Wipe down with a damp cloth (pumpkins and squash are the exceptions here). A warmer location for curing for 10 to 14 days will toughen up the skin. Then store in a cool dark place below 60 degrees. They can be displayed to be admired in the house but should be kept out of direct sunlight.
- What is a quick pickle? Putting cucumbers in vinegar — a high-acid environment — makes a pickle that is ready to eat in 24 hours. It’s not fermented, like a traditional pickle.
- Make dill pickles, sweet pickles, spicy pickles — the sky’s the limit.
- Watch Theresa demonstrate how to make quick pickles in this two-minute video.
- A dehydrator is a kitchen appliance that provides low heat and air circulation provided by a small heating element and a fan.
- No need for an expensive, fancy dehydrator. Less expensive ones are typically just smaller.
- The key is the proper temperature and the right amount of time. Variables include the thickness of slices of various fruit, the equipment and the settings.
- Dehydrate food to about 95% dry. You want it to be crispy when you finish. If you put all fruit in a bag when still pliable, there will be too much moisture, and they can become moldy.
- After it’s cooled off, place dehydrated produce in plastic bags or jars. Bags or jars can be kept at room temperature.
- Pre-treat pears, apples or anything that turns brown with a lemon solution so it will keep its color. They can also be frozen to keep color.
- Dehydrated fruit will remain optimal for about six months, then starts to lose color — but is still safe to eat for up to a year.
While preserving the harvest is great, please consider generously donating much of that bounty to your local food pantry. There are many neighbors in need who you will never know about. But your homegrown harvest can make a world of difference to hungry families in your community. Organizations like AmpleHarvest.org can direct you to donation sites near you, or guide you to where you can find fresh, donated produce to receive as well.
Do you enjoy canning and preserving what you grow in the garden? Share with us in the comments below.
If you haven’t listened yet to my conversion with Theresa Loe, you can scroll up the page and hit the Play icon on the green bar. You’ll be glad you did. For more on Theresa Loe and her tips, check out the show notes from the original airing.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!