Growing a backyard kitchen garden is full of ups and downs: an eggplant bush that flowered but never set fruit. In another row, an overabundant tomato crop. Weeks later, you’re neck-deep in butternut squash.
If you grow zucchini, you know what I mean. There was a span this summer that saw the squash roasted, grilled, sautéed; baked into loaves, muffins, fritters; packed into baskets to share with friends; and even cooked down into a viral “zapple” crisp recipe that purportedly tastes exactly like apple crisp. (My verdict was a resounding meh.)
The bountiful harvest season is quickly fading, but you don’t have to give up those garden-fresh flavors this winter.
Canning and other food preservation methods are certainly not new, but are seeing a resurgence in recent years, both as interest in sustainability grows and because of the pandemic, which disrupted supply chains.
“People had more time at home to do those kinds of things and also food supply chains broke down in many cases,” said Kate Fullam, executive director of the East End Food Institute, an organization that supports, promotes and advocates for local food and local producers. “Canning and preserving can give you a shelf-stable product to help stock up your pantry.”
The institute runs a food processing program that focuses on working with farms to create products out of their surplus. “We’re focused on working with local farms to turn their produce into products not only so farms can be more viable, but to create more opportunities for them to sell local products,” Fullam said. The effort targets farm stands, markets and tasting rooms, of course, but also the menus of local institutions like schools, food pantries and senior centers — all with the goal of creating a more resilient local food system.
“It’s a good skill for people to have at home, to preserve what’s in their garden or from their farm share, or even if they’re buying a bigger volume from a farm stand” to process, Fullam said.
Plus, in January, when summer and golden fall days are a distant memory, it’s a small luxury to pull out local tomatoes or butternut squash for a soup on a snowy day.
The East End Food Institute has often teamed up with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County on workshops for beginners that cover the basics of home canning, freezing and drying.
The extension has been hosting workshops on food preservation for more than a decade and offers them in English, Spanish and Turkish.
We recently connected with Fullam along with Juana Huertas and Marta Blanco, community nutrition educators at Cornell Cooperative Extension, for this guide to preserving the fall bounty, from late- season tomatoes to root vegetables, fruit and herbs.
Perhaps you associate this pastime with your grandmother, evoking nostalgic memories of making jam every summer. Perhaps the process, which can seem complicated and time consuming, intimidates you. But have no fear! Starting with a small batch can help you get your feet wet.
Each workshop begins with an overview of the scientific process, with an emphasis on safety, from sterilizing equipment and jars to which method of canning to use to prevent things like botulism.
Water-bath canning, which is more beginner-friendly, is ideal for higher-acid foods like tomatoes, while pressure canning is used for foods with lower acidity, like green beans.
“When you bring something to a high temperature, you’re going to be destroying those microorganisms to prevent food from getting damaged, food poisoning and food-borne illness,” Blanco explained. It’s also important to use recipes from reliable sources. “One thing we always recommend is don’t improvise,” said Huertas, explaining that canning is not like cooking.
With normal recipes, you may decide to add a bit more salt or sugar or another ingredient, based on your preferences. “You could mess up the environment of the procedure, which can jeopardize the quality, texture, flavor but also the enzymatic activity, which could end up getting you sick,” Blanco said.
The extension keeps a guide of evidence-based recipes that are tested, tried and true and Blanco also recommends seeking tips from trusted brands like Ball.
If you’re reusing jars, it’s also important to ensure they aren’t chipped or cracked around the rim in order to create a proper seal. Rings can be reused, lids cannot. After processing, listen for the “pop” sound that signals an airtight seal.
“It reduces food waste and also preserves the nutritional quality of the food,” Blanco said, explaining why the skill is important to have. “And I like the fact that people learn about food safety in a different way.”
Freezing & drying
If you simply don’t have time to process your produce, freezing is a perfectly convenient way to prolong the taste of fall.
Tomatoes are typically associated with canning, but those very ripe, last-of-the-season tomatoes on your counter can actually be washed, dried and placed in your freezer whole with the calyx removed in a pinch.
Fall vegetables like pumpkin and butternut squash are perfect matches for the freezer, too — though they’ll require a bit more prep work. Fullam recommends peeling and dicing the squash and freezing it in bags. Alternatively, you can cut in half, roast in the oven, remove seeds, puree and let cool before storing in bags. This is a great method for soups or, one of Fullam’s favorite uses, adding the puree to macaroni and cheese to add some nutritional value.
Don’t let your herbs die, either! You can keep them alive in pots indoors or harvest and freeze. Huertas recommends laying the herbs out flat on a baking tray and freezing them briefly before placing them in bags to make handling easier when you just need a bit for a recipe.
They’re just as flavorful, though not as visually pleasing so this method is recommended to use to add flavor to soups, stews and sauces rather than garnishing.
Herbs can also be frozen in an ice cube tray either by filling with olive oil or making a compound butter with softened butter and herbs that’s perfect to use on grilled meat, breads, on vegetables or starting a soup.
Fullam also recommends making and freezing pesto with an abundance of fall greens and herbs like arugula and kale. “You can freeze it in an eight-ounce container or a lot of people like to put pesto in an ice cube tray for smaller servings to thaw out,” she said.
Whether you choose canning, freezing, or simply want to enjoy it now, growing and shopping local is the surest way to know where your food is coming from — and a creative pastime to support local farmers and could become a yearly tradition.
Here are two recipes to try:
Kale pistachio pesto
- 16 oz Kale chopped & cleaned
- 12 oz Extra virgin olive oil
- 5 oz Parmesan cheese grated
- 4 oz Raw pistachios chopped
- 3 cloves Garlic chopped
- 3 tbsp Lemon juice
- 2 tbsp Salt
- 1 tsp Pepper
Raw pack whole or halved tomatoes
- 5 lbs Tomatoes
- Bottle Lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp Salt