Serious Green: Freeze It Now, Eat It Later
"Freezing is easier than traditional canning, but don't just start chucking plums into the freezer with reckless abandon."
Summer is on its way out the door and it's taking delicious fruits and vegetables with it. Now's the time to preserve the bounty from your garden or local farmers' market, to keep you eating local during the tomato-less and berry-less days ahead.
Over the past couple of years, I've fallen head-over-heels in love with canning. I've canned blackberry-ginger jam and sweet pickles, spicy tomato sauce and sour cherry preserves. I've got a shelf full of canning books, both new and old. I've taught others to can, and I even wrote a 50-page senior essay on the history and significance of canning. But somehow with all of my jamming, canning, and processing of jars, I totally missed the boat on the freezing method.
For me, the freezer has been always a place for storing quarts of homemade chicken stock (when I don't feel like cooking) and applesauce, but not much else. I don't consider myself a frozen vegetable kind of girl. But when my friend Ellie relayed stories of her freezer success, I realized it was time to give the ol' icebox a second thought.
This summer, I'll be freezing the last of the tomatoes, corn, and anything else I can get my hands on. The freezing method is frugal, quick, safe, and easy. Some tips, after the jump.
Low-acid foods such as corn and beans can't be canned in a water batter canner (they require a steam-pressure canner) so I usually forgo canning them. But the freezer doesn't discriminate. All fruits and vegetables, no matter the acidity level, are welcome.
Freezing is much less time-consuming than using a boiling water bath (big plus here, folks) since you don't have to stand over a boiling pot during the hottest days of summer. In addition, freezing products at their peak means they'll retain most vitamins and minerals. Yes, freezing is easier than traditional canning, but don't just start chucking plums into the freezer with reckless abandon.
To avoid plastic, I freeze food in quart and pint-sized glass Ball canning jars when I can. If you choose this route, make sure to leave room for expansion so you don't end up with explosive glass all over the freezer. Ball also makes special plastic freezer jars and lids free of the bisphenol-A (BPA) chemical.
Measure and Label
Think about how you'll be using the food. Think about quantities you'll want. Freeze in portions that will suit you and your family. Label clearly. What seems obvious now might be a mystery object in six months.
Buy Seasonal and Buy a Lot
Take advantage of bulk discounts. Just because the farmer doesn't have a sign saying so, doesn't mean they won't give you a special deal if you buy a large quantity (say eight dozen ears of corn). It never hurts to ask. Also, try tromping around the farmers' market just before the end-of-day closing bell for good deals. If farmers have any product left, they'll want to get rid of it fast. They don't want to lug produce all the way back to the farm.
Freezing isn't going to improve the quality of what you've got so don't freeze anything that you wouldn't want to eat right now. Select ripe, firm berries and wash them in cold water, discarding any bruised or rotting fruits.
Cook it Now
Instead of freezing pounds of tomatoes, cook them down into more manageable quarts of ready-to-go tomato sauce. Whip up an extra-large batch of pesto, freeze individual portions in plastic ice cube trays or muffin tins, then transfer the cubes to a freezer bag. Freezer jam is also a revelation. It doesn't get cooked down like the normal stuff, so it really tastes of fresh fruit.
Blanch and Cool. Repeat.
Freezing things raw won't result in a fresher final product either. A quick dip in a hot boiling bath stops natural enzymes from leaving your veggies with an off-flavor, color, and texture. Onions, green peppers, and berries are the only things that can skip the bath. Don't skip this step otherwise. You can check with your local extension agency for a list of blanching times or The University of Missouri provides an excellent guide. As soon as the blanching time is complete, plunge the vegetables into an ice water water to stop the cooking process. If you are putting away large quantities of food, you may want to think about buying a large bag of ice. You'll be going through it quickly.
Freeze Before Freezing
Round up your cookie sheets and enlist them to help you in a new service. I favor the tray-packing method because it keeps individual pieces loose, allowing you to pour only what you need from a package. After the vegetables are blanched, cooled, and drained, spread them out in a single layer on the trays and freeze. Leave in the freezer just long enough to freeze firm. For larger fruits--such as pears, peaches, and nectarines--peel, pit, and slice the fruit and then freeze the individual slices on trays.
It's easy to find inexpensive vacuum sealers for home use, but you can still do a pretty good job without one. Go low-tech: use a simple drinking straw to suck out any remaining air from plastic baggies. Worked for me.
Finally, just because you've stocked your freezer full doesn't mean you should just sit back and admire your handywork. Eat it! As a rule of thumb, aim to eat everything within six to ten months. Besides, if you let too much time go by, the fresh, local stuff will be showing back up in the markets once again.