For most of human history, preservation was a survival mechanism. Fermenting and pickling, among the oldest forms of cooking we know, kept us from getting sick. Over millennia, we developed simple, almost instinctual techniques as varied as the cultures that span the globe. But in only a couple hundred years, technology has reduced the repertoire of most people to two—refrigeration and buying commercially processed foods. And in forgoing the time-consuming tasks we once used to maximize our harvest, we've abandoned two fundamentals of eating: nutrition and flavor.
Medical studies are now proving what our instincts said all along: Good bacteria and microbes are essential to our health. Preserving food by fermenting is the easiest way to get them into our bodies, since it allows bacteria to multiply and grow before entering our gut. And if you've ever tasted a perfect kimchi, you know it's got a funky, sour flavor unlike anything else.
So after generations of consuming industrialized food, let's reintroduce a practice as old as agriculture itself. No culinary training is necessary, and the results taste better than anything you can buy in a store. Sure, it takes some new equipment, patience, and discipline. Don't sweat the learning curve. Unlike our ancestors, we aren't preserving because we have to, but simply because we want to.
When You Should Can
No one wants to eat green beans for three weeks straight. Use boiling water to kill bacteria and vacuum-seal your excess harvest in a mason jar, and you won't have to—it'll stay good for up to a year.
Glass mason jars (The easiest to find are Ball or Kerr)
Jar lifter with rubber grips
Jar lids (sealing metal discs) and bands (the threaded metal rings that hold down the lids)
The extra fruits and vegetables from your garden are a great place to start. Avoid anything with bruises or mold, and try to preserve fruits and vegetables as soon as possible after they've been harvested. Depending on the produce, you'll usually get one quart canned for every three to four pounds of fresh produce.
What to Expect
➼ Time: The actual canning—sterilizing airtight containers in hot water—usually takes only about half an hour. But you'll want to set aside a whole afternoon to make time for food prep, and the fact that you have to process in batches, since most pots won't hold very many jars at once.
➼ Recipes: There is a canning bible, and it's called Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. It's been around in one form or another since 1909, so its recipes are time-tested. Most importantly, each recipe explains how to prepare a food before canning it, which might be as simple as heating whole fruit, but often requires a bit of cooking.
➼ Process: First—yes, canning actually means sealing food in jars. Go figure. Once you've got the food packed in, you can can it in two ways—either with a big pot of boiling water, or a pressure canner, which gets even hotter. High-acid foods, like fruits and salsa, are safe to process in a pot because the acidity does some of the work of killing bacteria.
That makes jellies and jams the easiest place to start. The two processes follow the same steps, though: Mason jars are warmed in the hot water and then packed, leaving a little bit of space to create a strong vacuum seal. The filled jar goes back into the hot water for as long as the recipe says. Then you sit and wait for the characteristic popping sound made as the jar cools and the vacuum secures the lid.
How Canning Works
1. Jar lids have a ring of a compound called Plastisol around the edge, in a trough that fits over the top of the jar. Plastisol is soft at high temperatures, but hardens at room temperature. As the heat of the canning process causes gases and the food to expand, creating higher pressure inside the jar than outside, air is able to vent out through the Plastisol.
2. Then, when the jar cools, the Plastisol hardens into a tight seal. By the time the jar has cooled to room temperature, so much air has vented that pressure inside the jar is lower than outside. This makes the properly sealed lid concave—if it's flat or bulging, it's not sealed. Test it by tapping the lid—a pinging sound means a proper seal.
When You Pickle
If you want to improve upon nature even more, submerging foods in an acidic environment not only preserves them up to three or four months, but also gives them a distinctive tangy flavor.
You can pickle just about anything, but if you're fermenting—a type of pickling—use produce with high water content, like root vegetables, cabbage, kale, or cucumbers. Fruits will ferment, but because yeast feast on their sugars, you may need a starter like kombucha or extra salt to prevent them from spoiling or becoming too alcoholic.
Glass, porcelain, or ceramic container
Stone, or other weight
How to Make the Classic Dill Pickle
4 lb. 4-inch pickling cucumbers
2 Tbsp dill seed or 4–5 heads fresh or dry dill weed
1/2 cup noniodized salt
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
8 cups water
1. Wash cucumbers and remove blossom ends, leaving ¼ inch of stem attached.
2. Place half the dill on the bottom of your container, then the cucumbers, then the remaining dill.
3. In a separate bowl, mix salt, vinegar, and water until salt dissolves.
4. Pour mixture over cucumbers, put a weight on top to keep them submerged, then tightly cover the container with cheesecloth.
5. Check the container several times a week and promptly remove surface scum or mold. Pickles that are soft, slimy, or excessively smelly should be discarded.
6. At room temperature, expect to allow three to four weeks of fermentation (choosing when to stop is a matter of taste). Lower temperatures slow the process; temperatures above 80 will make the pickles too soft. (With thanks to Benjamin Chapman and the NCHFP.)
What to Expect
➼ Time: Patience is key. You won't spend hours in the kitchen, but, depending on the method of pickling you choose, it can take anywhere from a day to weeks to achieve the perfect flavor. Feel free to eat your pickles as quickly as you want, though. ➼ Recipes: The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving also offers expert guidance on pickles. So do we: Try the classic dill pickle recipe, above.
➼ Process: Pickles are just produce on acid—either vinegar or fermentation's lactic acid. Adding vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices in a jar creates a quick pickle in as little as 24 hours. Fermentation takes longer because it has two stages. The salt in the vinegar mix draws water out of the cucumbers, forming a brine that makes it harder for harmful bacteria to grow. Then good lactobacilli bacteria already living on the cucumbers convert sugars into lactic acid, which preserves the produce and adds tanginess. A clean cloth or cheesecloth secured with a rubber band vents gases from fermentation and forms a barrier to mold and harmful bacteria. After a couple weeks in the jar, fermented pickles are ready.
Fermenting vs. Pickling
Pickling simply refers to the practice of preserving food in an acidic medium. Fermenting is a type of pickling, because the salty brine and lactobacilli create their own acidic environment. So while this recipe uses fermentation, you can pickle things (including cucumbers) simply by submerging them in vinegar and refrigerating them. They will still taste great, but won't include the cohort of healthy bacteria.
This story appears in the November 2016 issue of Seniorhelpline.