Preserving Produce To Perfection
One of the best rewards of gardening is the bounty of fresh vegetables that you can use to create salads and sauces soon after the goodies are harvested. But what’s a great gardener to do when there is too much of a good thing?
Tomatoes, herbs, peppers, carrots, potatoes and fruit keep coming and coming and coming faster than they can be used. There are several methods to make the bounty last longer.
Charleston local Pahola Saud swears by some produce-preserving practices she uses in her home.
For flavor-adders and garnish-givers like cilantro and parsley, Saud places the unwashed herb bunch root-side-down into a mason jar with 5 to 7 centimeters of water. Then she loosely places a plastic bag on the top.
“It keeps my herbs fresh for up to a month, sometimes a bit more if I’m good about changing water and clipping off bad leaves,” she said.
A “good” water change will happen every four to five days. When Saud is ready to use some, she’ll pluck a few sprigs out and wash them, returning the jar set up to the fridge. “Best trick ever,” said Saud.
For fruit, Saud will give them a wash with a 1 to 4 vinegar and water mixture. She soaks smaller fruit with delicate skins, like berries, in a bowl for two to five minutes, then rinses them off with water. She cleans larger fruit such as apples and peaches using a spray bottle of the same mixture, giving them a good spritz and a rinse before consuming. Produce with peelable outer layers, such as bananas, oranges and avocados, can get a water rinse before peeling. Firm produce can be brushed with a clean, soft bristle to remove residue from pores; delicate produce can be cleaned with water pressure and finger friction to remove grit.
If you wait to wash all produce until just before consuming, be sure to brush off any dirt or debris and wipe clean with a paper towel and keep items in storage containers or bags to prevent the spread of pathogenic microorganisms to other items in the refrigerator. Waiting to wash is a worthy approach for preventing produce that’s sensitive to moisture from molding and rotting.
After cleaning, Saud dries the fruit and stores them in their container or in an airtight one of her own, along with a paper towel that will absorb excess moisture. If they seem dehydrated after a long stay in the fridge, Saud will soak them in water before eating.
“My best tip for lettuce is, once again, either a water soak or a vinegar rinse. I separate all the leaves – I typically buy romaine hearts – give them a wash and store them in an airtight container lined at the bottom with a paper towel.”
This works for other leafy greens, too, such as spinach and kale. You may also choose to remove some rough outer leaves. Do you want to prolong the produce beyond the harvest season?
“There are several methods to safely store your produce, such as freezing, canning, pickling and dehydrating,” said Terasa Lott, state coordinator of the South Carolina Master Gardener Program.
“Vegetable gardening can be a rewarding experience, and, by preserving your harvest, you can enjoy that fresh-from-the-garden taste year-round,” she said.
“Canning is a great way to extend the joy of eating homegrown produce throughout the year,” said Madison Parker, 4-H youth development agent with Clemson University.
If you are planning to grow your own produce, consider saving some seeds.
“Growing food in a home garden is such a rewarding experience,” said Parker.
Most seeds can be collected from mature fruit. After being cleaned and placed to air dry on wax paper for several days out of direct sunlight, they can be stored away for next year’s planting.
Lott shared some words of advice: “It’s best to stick to self-pollinating vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, beans and peas, as the outcomes are more predictable. If you’re growing a hybrid tomato, you’ll probably want to skip saving those seeds since the offspring won’t necessarily have the desirable characteristics of the parent. Unless you enjoy experimenting, it’s probably wise to skip saving seeds from vine crops as they can cross pollinate with members of the same species. Depending on what you’re growing as well as what’s growing nearby, you could end up with a strange combination such as an acorn squash-zucchini hybrid.”
Rather than jumping into a full-tilt garden, Saud mentioned many of her friends have taken the approach of potted plants for growing food, flavor and household flare.
“I have been looking at growing cilantro, parsley and mint – I’m just trying to figure out where to put the pots where the cats can’t get to them,” Lott said.
After all, whether your plants are growing outside or in house, the chances of a produce predator are never zero. Nevertheless, no matter how you grow your own produce, you’ll be sure to enjoy the freshness of good food with these tips and tricks.
For more information on all things plant health and preservation, Clemson Extension’s Home & Garden Information Center, at hgic.clemson.edu, has a multitude of fact sheets on gardening, food safety and nutrition. In addition to web-based resources, extension agents are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 888-656-9988 or [email protected].
By Molly Sherman