Tag Archives: preserve food for winter

How to put up local food for winter

Image: A picture of shelves full of glass jars with metal lids, filled with preserved natural food such as cherries, apricots, olives and tomatoes.

One of the best ways we can reduce our resource footprint is to cut down on food miles. By learning how to preserve local food ready to eat in winter, we can end up with a pantry full of cheap food that is tasty beyond anything you can buy in the supermarket. You also avoid producing heaps of waste, another plus for our planet.

It’s actually not that hard nor time consuming. I can fill these shelves with a few hours a month from November to February, and then in March I spend a few days on the tomatoes. The hardest bit is doing it for the first time – collecting your jars and preserving equipment, and figuring out where and when to get the best local surplus food.

Although it may seem strange to think about winter when the weather is just warming up, now is the time to get organised to make sure you can eat local food all next year. Start with cherries and apricots in November and December, and finish with tomatoes in March or olives in June.

I’ve written about how to do this in more detail here.

How to put up local food for winter

How to put up local food for winter

This photo shows the shelves in my shed – all stocked up with local food for winter.  It looks vast – it IS vast – but what amazes me is that it’s actually not a phenomenal amount of work to do this.  The first year it was – it took a lot of focus and energy.  But this is my third time and I’ve definitely streamlined things.

Why do I do this?

  • It’s a cheap way of eating really good food.  I buy in most of this food at “seconds” price, from farmers I meet at the local farmer’s market.  Because I’m buying at the peak of season and relieving them of their less attractive fruit, it’s cheap. The food in the photo above cost me about $350, and I have calculated that at commercial organic-shop prices, this would be worth about $3,000.
  • The taste is incredible.  My home-bottled tomatoes simply don’t compare to cans from a shop.  My friends invite me to dinner and ask me to bring a jar of tomatoes.  The fruit, too, is wonderful.
  • Every bottle I produce is something that wasn’t brought to me on a truck from far away – food miles are down, and so are the associated environmental costs.
  • It’s food security, and if we did hit a crisis, we wouldn’t go hungry.  This might sound ludicrous, but when Brisbane flooded last year, there were a lot of hungry people.  The shops were cleaned out fast, and there was no way of restocking them until the water receded.  For people evacuating, stuck for hours and hours on the exit freeways, there was no way of getting food.  To be able to grab armloads of stuff from the pantry and shove it in the boot would have been fantastic.  It’s not just Brisbane – there are many cities in America where it’s been days or weeks after a disaster, before more food could be brought in.
  • Our rubbish bin is nearly empty as a result.
  • I also like being part of hundreds of generations of women who have put up food for winter.  Until the last couple of generations, that’s what we humans did.  All summer, we had to prepare for winter, in terms of food, clothing, shoes and firewood.
  • It’s really not THAT hard, nor THAT much work.  And it feels great.

What’s involved?

  • In November or December I buy about 8kg cherry seconds and and 12kg apricot seconds from the farmer’s market.  It’s helpful if you order them in advance, but sometimes I just luck out on the day.  Plums are ready at this time of year – you might find a good tree to pick from.  If I can get enough, I buy an extra 3kg of apricots to dry in my dehydrator.  For each batch I process, it takes about an hour and a half to wash the fruit and get it into the bottles.  Then they are boiled (it can take an hour to get to the boil, then needs another hour boiling), and after that I remove jars, label them and put them away.  It’s only about two hours of active work, but I do need to be home for a three hour chunk.  And if you do the apricots and cherries at the same time, it’s more economical, time-wise.
  • In January or February, I buy grapes to dry into sultanas.  About 8kg fits into my dehydrator, and it takes me a couple of hours to wash and destem them all.
  • In February or March I bottle 12kg peach seconds, (a few hours, like the apricots), and then I do the tomatoes.  Our family of three eats about 70kg bottled tomatoes in a year (we are tomato lovers).  This translates to roughly two days of work, and is the biggie in our preserving calender.  It’s also a challenge because our tomato farmer doesn’t tend to give us much notice, so when the tomatoes turn up, we have to drop everything to process them.  Or if everything can’t be dropped, preserve around our daily commitments.  The tomatoes are hard work, exhausting, but once they are done, the preserving year is over for me.

The above makes up the mainstay of my shelves.  In addition to this, we do little bits of preserving here and there.  We were given a box of old apples, which we turned into apple cider, vinegar, and a few jars of apple sauce.  We have a cucumber glut in the garden now and then, and Paula turns them into bread and butter cucumbers.  When we do the tomatoes, we also make chutney or tomato ketchup, depending on what we’ve still got left from last year.  In winter I also pick a large mason jar of olives from a local tree, and cure these.

How to bottle/can food:

  • Collect jars.  I inherited some Fowlers jars and an old vacola from my great grandmother.  If I was starting over, I would simply reuse jars with metal lids.  The Fowler’s method requires purchase of new lids and rings, which are pretty expensive.  Jars with metal lids can be salvaged for free.  Ask your friends to start saving them for you.
  • Wash the jars.  You don’t need to sterilise them.  Just make sure they are clean.
  • Wash the fruit and remove stems.  If you can be bothered, remove stones from stone fruit, but if you can’t, they bottle fine as is.  Since I have limited storage space, I like to get as much fruit as possible into a jar.  I can do this by stewing the fruit first, which reduces its volume considerably.  So I halve or quarter the fruit, stew it until soft (I don’t add water – I let it stew in its own juice for best flavour), and then spoon it into jars.  The cherries I simply destem, pack tightly into jars, and then add a tablespoon of honey and a squeeze of lemon juice to each jar, to make them taste good.  I top up with water.  Leave an inch of headroom at the top of the jars – this is necessary so that they can seal well.
  • Put the lids on jars, tightly.  If using Fowler jars, put rubber rings on jars before you fill them with fruit.  Add lids and clips afterwards.
  • Put the jars into a large pot, and fill to one inch below the jar lids with water.  The jars all need to be the same height for this to work.
  • Bring the pot to the boil (this can take an hour if the pot is large, the water is cold and the fruit inside the jars are cold, and it can be really quick if you put jars of hot stewed fruit straight into the pot).  There are complicated methods of calculating exactly how long you should boil your fruit for, depending on jar size and where you live.  I simply boil them for 45 minutes to an hour, and start timing once the water reaches a rolling boil.
  • Remove from the pot (be careful not to burn yourself!), allow to cool, and label the jars with their contents and the date preserved.  Double check at this point that all the jars have sealed.  It’s common for one jar in a batch to have a dodgy seal.  Eat it up soon, or try to work out why it didn’t seal and try again.  Maybe the lid is damaged and you need another lid, or there’s a chip in the jar?  If so, recycle the dodgy equipment and get it out of your kitchen.

To complete our pantry, we also have a stack of food-grade 20 litre buckets in the shed:

How to put up local food for winter 2

We have a bucket of local honey, a drum of local olive oil, a bucket of sea salt, and a few buckets of local wheat.  We’ve also got some rapadura sugar but when that runs out I won’t replace it, since we are doing well only using honey, which is local.  If I liked dry beans I’d also have a bucket of them, but they are a taste I’m still trying to acquire.  By buying 20kg sacks/buckets of the above foods, we get them vastly cheaper than in shop-sized packets.  The trick to managing the buckets well is to buy more when the previous bucket is down to half.  Then you always have food security and you never run out.  Because we have everything in such enormous quantities, the feeling of stinginess around food has left me.  I feel fine to add generous lashings of olive oil to our food, use as much honey as we want, and use salt medicinally and for preserving as well as in baking.

Between the jars of preserves, and the above buckets, we can eat really, really well.  Add in some fruit and vegies from the garden (or the shop), the meat that’s in our freezer (from our home-reared chickens and from the farmer’s market), eggs from our chooks, and a regular delivery of milk and cream from a local farmer, and we have an entire diet.  Since these ingredients are the cheapest and most nutritious I can source, we make an effort to eat within this framework, and only buy occasional packets of other dry goods, out of season produce, processed products etc.

Having preserved/stored all this good, cheap food, you need to make sure you use it.  The first two years, I created a ration calender for winter: I calculated how many jars I had, and how to spread them over the winter.  In a typical week I’d bring in a bottle of cherries or plums, a bottle of apricots or peaches, two jars of tomatoes, and a small jar of chutney.  Paula, who does the cooking, serves the fruit inside pancakes, in baked custards, on top of porridge, or simply with cream.  The tomatoes are used in pasta sauce, stews and casseroles.

By grinding the wheat, we can make wholemeal bread, pasta, pancakes, crackers, sweet biscuits and pastry.  We sweeten absolutely everything with honey, instead of sugar.

If you embark on this journey, keep detailed notes.  Write down how much you bought, what varieties and when, how many jars it made, how many jars you ate in a year, and so on.  By doing this I’ve been able to streamline everything.  For instance, I know that 12kg of stone fruit fills 12 no.27 jars, and my Vacola fits exactly 12 jars when full.  This saves me having one extra jar of fruit that didn’t fit in the vacola, or having to run it with empty space in it, which is less efficient, fuel-wise.  You’ll soon discover what your family likes to eat, and can save your energy for the preserves you like the most.

Putting Food Away For Winter

Putting Food Away For Winter

Six months ago I drew this picture in my diary – somehow for me, when I draw my dreams, it seems to really increase the chances of them coming true. I think the drawing reminds me of what I need to do to follow the path towards my goals. Despite having never preserved food before, my project for this summer has been to learn to “put away food for winter”, like my great grandmother did. Why would I do this, when there’s abundant food available in the shops all year round? Because this way I can spend my money ethically, to support local farmers, rather than giving it to big corporations and increasing their power. Also because this way my food is all local, and far less resource intensive than a can of tomatoes from Italy, or out of season vegies from Queensland that came here on a truck. The single biggest thing you can do for the environment is change the way you eat, to eat food that is produced locally and sustainably.

Anyway, you can see in the photo the results of my project. I think I’ve finished for the season. I do have another box of jars that could be used but it seems I’ve missed the peaches, there’ll be apples at the farmer’s market all winter, and there’s nothing else to preserve. Next year … I’ll do more.

The top two shelves are all fruit. Nectarines and plums from our trees, apricots, cherries and peaches from the farmer’s market.

The next shelf has food I dried myself. Dried nectarines (we just tried some and I think we’ve discovered why you can’t buy dried nectarines.. they’re nothing special. Oh well – next year I’ll bottle them), dried apricots, sultanas, dried tomatoes in macadamia oil, dried apples, and dried zucchini from when we had a glut. There’s also kombucha to drink in the bottles at the back, and honey from my aunt and uncle’s bees.

The next shelf has condiments. Mulberry sauce from the tree around the corner (we’ll use this to make icecream, and to put on pancakes, and to add to stewed apples or apple pie to change the flavour), strawberry jam, a humungous jar of pickled gherkins from my garden, several batches of bread and butter cucumbers from the garden, nectarine chutney, tomato chutney and zucchini relish.

The bottom shelf is tomatoes. I bought 60kg of them from a local farmer and frantically bottled them before they all went off.

I don’t know if this will be enough to get us through winter. Jesse and I plan, as a homeschool activity, to sit down with a count of each item, and a calender that shows each week from May to December, and then we’ll allocate “rations”. Once a week I’ll bring in the allocated rations, and give them to Paula for cooking. I imagine a week’s rations might be something like this: a jar of fruit, a jar of tomatoes, a small handful of dried fruit, and a condiment. It’s not much, but supplemented with local in-season vegies from my garden and the farmer’s market, it might be enough. I hope so!

Was it really hard to do this? Would I do it again? It wasn’t hard – it’s more that it was a bit inconvenient. For example, the day the fruit trees decided to be ready was never an open free day in our calender that was perfect for bottling. It always had to be done around the gamut of life. I tried to keep Saturdays after the farmer’s market free, ready to process all the food we buy, but on the same day that I had ordered boxes of peach seconds and grapes for sultanas, it turned out to be my niece’s birthday party. It’s very hard to make time and keep it free for preserving, especially when you’re as inexperienced as I am and so not as good at anticipating when/how much time will be needed. On the other hand, it’s pretty peaceful work, and easy and calm to sit down in an evening to a box of peaches that need pitting or grapes that need to be picked from their stems. I found it much easier to do batches of small jars of apricots and cherries, and sterilise them on the stove, than the big batches of plums and nectarines that I did in the vacola. But the big batches will form the staple of our eating. If only, somehow, next year, I can time things to allow the time to be free when I need it, then I can relax and enjoy the process. I’ll definitely do this again next year. It was very satisfying and I feel really good about the ethics behind it all too. I suppose I’ll know more after a winter of eating, whether it was worthwhile or not.

Food Preserving Update

This is my second year of putting up food for winter. It was SO MUCH easier this time, than last time. I was able to streamline my preserving tasks.
Our fruit lasted well through the winter last time – it was a treat. We discovered we liked better the fruit I bought at the farmer’s market (peaches, apricots and cherries) than the plums I scavenged from local trees (very sour – needed heaps of honey to make edible). Since for now we can afford to, this year I just focussed on those three fruits. I also bottled the nectarines from our tree. Three simple fruit-bottling sessions (I did nectarines and apricots at the same time) felt very easy and manageable.

We LOVED the tomatoes last year – couldn’t get enough of them, fought over them, were begged to bring them to dinner…. This year instead of buying 60kg, I bought 100kg. Ok, it was probably a bit too much. We did 100 jars. Now we should have two every week, three every other week, and some left over for early summer. Preserving them all when I had a lot else on was very tiring and challenging. But we did it and I’m glad. Paula also made a batch of tomato chutney and a batch of tomato ketchup. YUM. We love the ketchup – a new addition to our reportoire.

I dried some apricots but not enough of them. I ended up buying some apricots for a friend, the farmer ran out, and the next market the apricots had finished. Bummer. Next year I’ll try to ensure I can order well enough in advance. I wanted to do sultanas but there were no grapes this year – not on my vine nor at the farmer’s market. Humidity killed em.

Last year the dried zucchinis were great, but this year we didn’t have a glut. I was trying out a garden idea that I would get more zucchinis from one plant if I just put in one per square meter. Since I only have one square meter to devote to zucchinis, I only put in one plant. Result: barely enough zucchinis. Next year I’m whacking three plants into the one meter, like I usually do.

We didn’t make so many condiments this year. We really couldn’t get through them all, though they were handy to have as gifts. Also this year I didn’t have so many gluts – I managed my growing better, overall, to grow the right amount for us and more variety, so that was good. Just one batch of cucumber pickles as well as the tomato chutney.

This now feels integrated with how we live. Eating from the pantry shelves is fantastic – convenient, delicious, cheap… In fact I saw a jar of bottled fruit at the farmer’s market recently. It was so expensive that I couldn’t help myself from counting up the commercial value of all the fruit on my pantry shelves. By their prices I reckon I have $3000 sitting there in fruit alone. And I probably paid $550 to get it. Most of that was the tomatoes. I was perfectly happy with the workload – it felt minor compared to the results we get. Except maybe for the tomatoes, which I found hard. Maybe I need to get some help next year. Maybe 80kg not 100kg? I’ll see how long it takes us to get through those jars.