Farm Horizons, June 2012

Carrying on the tradition of preserving the season’s harvest

By Linda Scherer

Making grape jelly is for the birds when Bernie (Stifter) Libor of Winsted preserves the abundance of grapes she picks from grapevines in her backyard.

It’s just one of many reasons Libor carries on the tradition of canning and preserving foods, a process she learned from her mother years ago. Besides canning grape jelly for the orioles, Libor also cans meat, fruits, vegetables, and sauces.

Becky Bravinder, co-owner of Dan and Becky’s Market (selling organic and natural foods) in Cokato, also learned to can and preserve food from her mother.

“It’s important to pass that knowledge on. It’s easy to get involved in doing it yourself and you forget to make it multigenerational,” Bravinder said. “We (Dan and Becky) are finding there are a lot of young people who are just craving this connection.”

Both women enjoy gardening and believe growing the food and preserving it go hand in hand.

“Soil and good health are inseparable,” Bravinder said. “If you don’t like to garden, you better find somebody who does and wants to get rid of the extra produce because if you don’t have healthy food to preserve, it’s pointless.”

Canning, freezing, drying, and lacto-fermentation were the methods shared by Libor and Bravinder to preserve their food. From the list of vegetables, fruits, berries, and meats the two women have preserved, it appears that just about anything can be kept for several months – even years – if the proper process is followed.

Canning principles

Although the canning process dates back to the 18th century, the same principles still apply.

Heat sufficient to destroy microorganisms is applied to foods packed into jars sealed air-tight, and then submerged in water. By heating the food contained in a home canning jar, closed with a two-piece vacuum sealing cap, it interrupts the normal spoilage and decaying cycle of food, according to the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving.

When heat is applied at the correct temperature and held there for the time designated by a specific tested home canning recipe, it destroys potentially harmful microorganisms. At the same time, it drives air from the jar.

Upon cooling, the lid seals onto the jar. The vacuum that has formed prevents other microorganisms from entering, contaminating the food. Correct processing methods and times adequately destroy normal levels of heat resistant microorganisms, according to the Ball Blue Book. The amount of time needed for processing is different for each food, depending on the food’s acidity, density, and ability to transfer heat.

Canning was a way of life when Libor grew up on the family farm by Sherman Station. Her parents, Frank and Dora Stifter, had eight children, and had several large gardens that grew enough food to feed the family during the winter.

“We canned everything, because we didn’t have a freezer. We didn’t have electricity until I was 8 or 9 years old,” Libor said. Because Libor was the oldest girl, she helped her mother a lot.

Libor recalled shelves in the basement that went up to the ceiling, with several shelves about 10 feet long. The fruit jars could be stored four deep, on maybe six shelves, and the shelves were filled by the time winter arrived.

Once the weather turned colder, Libor said they would have a butchering bee. Family and neighbors would butcher two beef cows, and about six pigs. At night, after the meat had cooled, the same group that had butchered in the morning would return to cut up all of the meat and put it in a “smoke house,” where the meat would freeze.

“For the next two weeks, we would be canning,” Libor said. “I still can beef once in awhile because it’s so dang good. You chunk it up or cut it up, pack it in a jar pretty tight in nice size pieces, put salt and some pepper on it. Not too much salt because you can always add more.”

For all of Libor’s canning she uses new lids to make sure they have a good seal.

She still likes to can dill pickles. She uses a recipe she discovered on her own one year when she canned several jars of dill pickles using different recipes, marking each jar so she knew where the recipe came from.

The recipe she discovered to be the best, she still uses to this day. In fact, her pickles are so good she ended up canning 600 quarts of pickles one year for friends and family, plus 50 quarts for herself.

In addition to canning pickles, Libor also cans several kinds of tomato sauces, tomato juice, and tomato soup.

To show how long food can be stored and still remain edible, Libor said the year her husband, Lawrence, died, 12 years ago, he made 40 quarts of pickle relish.

“It had been 8 or 9 years since he had died, and I still had that relish and it was just as good as the day it was made,” Libor said.

Libor also freezes to preserve her harvest.

“I used to cook all of the jams – strawberries, raspberries, everything. Now I do the freezer jam because I think it’s better and more flavorful.”

She also freezes corn, peas, and cut up rhubarb. Some things that should not be frozen since they lose crispness and texture, according to the Ball Blue Book, are salad greens, green onions, cucumbers, celery, tomatoes, and radishes.

A time-saving idea Libor gave for soup makers is to take several containers with tight lids. As the vegetables are harvested from the garden, wash and clean them, then divide them up evenly between the individual containers.

By the end of the growing season each container will have enough peas, beans, corn, and kohlrabies for one kettle of soup. Libor would top the ingredients off with some chopped up fresh tomato and parsley.

When she made her soup, she would cook her soup bone, carrots, and potatoes, and add one container of vegetables into the kettle of soup, saving additional time in preparing the vegetables separately.

Bravinder also dries and uses lacto-fermentation to preserve foods

“Drying food is another old process but technology has refined it somewhat,” Bravinder said. “Minnesota can often be too humid to dry out on screens like I had a friend who would do in Arizona. There are dryers that you can buy to dry small amounts.”

Bravinder recently had some mushrooms in her Cokato market that weren’t selling so she brought them home, placed them on a tray in her oven, lowered the temperature to 100 degrees with a fan. When they were dried, she put them in a glass jar with a cover.

“They [dried mushrooms] taste the same because usually I will throw them into soups or something like that,” Bravinder said.

Oven drying is a good choice for small quantities because the energy cost of operating a gas or an electric oven are high compared to the cost of operating an electric food dehydrator, and a conventional oven only heats food, but does not carry away moisture.

Commercial or homemade electric dehydrators provide the most reliable and consistent results, often without pre-treatment, because of the controlled temperature and air flow, according to the Ball Blue Book. Food dehydrated by this method dries quickly and evenly. The quality of the finished produce can be excellent. Food can be dried 24 hours a day, summer or winter, rain or shine.

Properly dried produce will weigh much less and take up less volume than fresh produce. An example would be fresh apples weighing 10 pounds. After they are peeled, cored, and dried, they are reduced to about one and one-half pounds.

Before drying, most vegetables and some fruits benefit from pre-treatment techniques such as blanching and dipping because it slows down the action of enzymes (chemical substances that cause fruits and vegetables to mature and ripen), according to the Ball Blue Book.

Another method Bravinder uses to preserve foods is called lacto-fermentation, which she said she is just learning to do now.

“That is the old sauerkraut the old-timers made in crocks. Salt is part of what does the preserving, and then the crock is covered,” Bravinder said. “It can be stored anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. You can do pickles and carrots and green beans. Just about anything,” Bravinder said.

Vegetables can be preserved simply with salt, water, and spices – no boiling water. The fermentation process creates lactic acid, nature’s preservative.

“I made carrots with dill and garlic last year,” Bravinder said. “Once I have made them, and they have set out and made the lactic acid, then I put them in an older refrigerator downstairs. They don’t really need to be kept at 40 degrees, but you don’t want them to get warmer than 50 degrees, so the old cellars that people used to have were perfect places to keep sauerkrauts and whatever else they were making.”

Bravinder has raspberries and wild grapes, and just planted currants on the farm with which she makes lacto-fermented drinks.

“I just like to sit down and relax with glass of it,” Bravinder said. “The one I am making now is with a tea and sugar. At the end, I will throw in some frozen raspberries the last two days it’s being made.”

For her recipes, Bravinder does a lot of reading old cookbooks which tell about the traditional ways of making different foods all around the world.

In addition to drying and lacto-fermentation, Bravinder does a lot of freezing. Frozen strawberries are easy to do, according to Bravinder. Rinse them and throw them on a cookie sheet and freeze them individually. Once they are frozen, just scrape them off the pan and put them in a Ziploc bag. Whenever you want, take out as many strawberries as needed. Rhubarb, too. Chop it up and place it on a pan, freeze it and put it in an airtight bag.

Canning is something Bravinder enjoys, but has done less of since she and Dan opened the market.

“I just like doing it [canning], and my most favorite thing in the world is afterwards when you have the jars all lined up with different colors. It’s the prettiest thing in the world – it’s just so satisfying,” Bravinder said.

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