How to Preserve Food

Three Methods:Refrigerating and Freezing FoodDrying Foods in Different WaysCanning and Preserving

There are many ways to preserve food, though many of us are only familiar with refrigeration or freezing. To truly take advantage of the myriad ways humans have developed to preserve food, you can explore a variety of drying, canning, and fermenting processes that are appropriate for fruits, vegetables, and meats. Most can be done at home with a minimum of new kitchen gadgets.

Method 1
Refrigerating and Freezing Food

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    Refrigerate your food. Keeping food cold prevents many bacteria from forming. This is the method that we are all familiar with and have used. Refrigeration is good for food that you will be eating fairly soon -- typically within 3-5 days for meats, fruits, and vegetables, a week or so for dairy products, and months for condiments. If you have questions about whether the food is still good, err on the side of caution and do not eat. If you want a more specific set of times for how long food can last in the refrigerator, download the food safety app from the U.S. government’s Food and Drug Administration below.[1]
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    Place most food in airtight containers. This applies specifically to leftovers and other foods that haven’t been packaged at the store. This way it will maintain its freshness in the refrigerator. Keep meats in the packages they came in from the store until you use them.[2]
    • Do not store fruits with vegetables -- fruits can give off high levels of ethylene, which causes fruit and vegetables to ripen. Stone fruits (peaches, plums, avocados, etc.) should be allowed to ripen on the counter, but berries and citrus should be refrigerated.
    • For vegetables, remove any ties or rubber bands before refrigerating. Pack vegetables loosely in the refrigerator -- it’s best not to let them touch.[3]
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    Organize your refrigerator. The top of the fridge has the most consistent temperature and is best suited for leftovers and other items that do not need to be cooked. The door is the warmest part of the refrigerator, and best for drinks and condiments. Fruits and vegetables are best in the crisper drawers in the bottom, where you can separate fruits from vegetables and keep them both cold and moist. The bottom shelves are the coldest and work best for raw meat and eggs.[4]
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    Freeze foods for longer term storage. Don’t pack your freezer tight with food -- you need to let the cold air circulate between all of the items in your freezer to work properly. Freezing foods can allow them to last significantly longer, sometimes from six months to a year.
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    Package your food properly for freezing. Even though it’s tempting to toss food into freezer bags, vacuum packing is by far the better option. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, try to at least get as much air out of the bags as you can before sealing. Label everything in your freezer with the contents and date with a marker and freezer-friendly masking tape (it will be specially marked).[5]
    • Do not freeze glass containers.
    • Do not fill containers to the top with leftovers before freezing (it will expand).
    • Do not put hot food into the freezer -- let it cool first so the freezer doesn’t have to do so much work and bring up the temperature of the entire appliance.
    • Do not thaw and re-freeze food. It will start to degrade quickly.

Method 2
Drying Foods in Different Ways

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    Try dehydrating your food. By dehydrating your food, you take all of the liquids out. Once fully dehydrated, it’s very difficult for bacteria to form, creating a food that can last for weeks or months without refrigeration. The content of the food, including fiber content and calories, stays the same with dehydrating (except for a loss of Vitamin C in some foods because of its solubility).[6] With a food dehydrator, available at some grocery stores and at many places online, you can preserve fruits, vegetables, and meats.
    • If you don’t want to buy a dehydrator, you can also get the same effect from a low-temperature oven. Use the oven on the lowest possible setting, place your food on a non-stick pan, and use a small fan to keep the air circulating and prevent any moisture buildup.[7] The process takes all of the liquid out of the foods, preserving it in a new, chewier form.
    • Once dehydrated, you can store these foods without refrigeration for weeks. Dehydrating is particularly good for backpacking trips or other times when you need to carry your food with you.[8]
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    Smoke meats. Smoked meats have been a way for people to preserve food for thousands of years. The kinds of wood for the fire and the spices you put on the meat itself can create an array of delicious flavors on the meat. There are two kinds of smoking – hot and cold. The differences are as follows:
    • When you smoke meat using the “hot” method, you are cooking it at a low temperature (150 degrees Fahrenheit and up) for a long time.
    • The “cold” method, on the other hand, is at less than 100 °F (37.8 °C) and is not really meant to cook the meat at all, but rather to seal the meat enough so that bacteria cannot grow in it. This method works particularly well if you’re planning to cook the meat at some other point in the future.[9]
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    Cure meats. Like smoking, curing is a process that has been around for thousands of years. The process involves using salt to leach the water out of meat, essentially dehydrating it. There are two main ways of curing meats:[10]
    • Dry curing involves rubbing the meat with salt and sodium nitrite and other spices of your choosing. The meat is then typically hung to dry. For safety, it’s best to purchase a prepared mixture of salt and nitrate -- the amount should be about 1 teaspoon per 5 pounds of meat, but follow any directions on the mix that dictate amounts.[11]
    • Wet curing or brining also uses salt, but in a liquid solution. Meat is placed into a “brine” made of water, salt, sodium nitrite, and other spices to cure. The typical mixture is about 1 ¼ cups of kosher salt per gallon of water.[12]

Method 3
Canning and Preserving

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    Can foods using a water-bath method. Canning preserves the food in an air-free environment. Without air, there is no way for bacteria to form, allowing canned foods to have a shelf life of 1-5 years. Most fruits and acidic vegetables will be canned in a water bath. This method of canning, good for high-acid foods, involves placing food in sterilized canning jars, putting lids on them, and then lowering them into water that comes to a boil. Be sure to follow a recipe, or consult the website cited below for an array of canning ideas, recipes, and videos.[13] Using this method, you can preserve:
    • Jams and jellies
    • Fruit pieces – peaches, apples, pears, pineapple, plums, etc.
    • Salsas
    • Tomatoes
    • Chutneys
    • Pickles
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    Try canning with the pressure canning method. This is the way you will need to can meats and most vegetables, all of which are low-acid. Keep in mind that if you are putting a high-acid and a low-acid food together to be canned, you must also use this method. Like the water-bath method, pressure canning requires you to fill sterilized jars with the food you want to can, cover with the appropriate lids and then placing them into a pressure canner with boiling water in it. You will then lock the pressure canner lid into place and vent it, allowing it to create steam for 10 minutes. As was the case with the water-bath method, be sure to use a recipe.[14] This method is best for:
    • Vegetables – corn, green beans,
    • Soups and stews
    • Stock – both vegetable and meat
    • Meat
    • Poultry
    • Fish
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    Pickle your food. Pickling refers to multiple processes – usually involving fermentation and canning though it might be only one or the other. The usual pickling process is for cucumber pickles involves canning them in a vinegar brine. This process can also be used for an array of other fruits and vegetables, including:[15]
    • Okra
    • Peppers
    • Ginger
    • Green beans
    • Brussels sprouts
    • Cauliflower
    • Eggplant
    • Watermelon rinds
    • Lemons
    • Pineapple
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    Try the wild pickling or fermenting process. Ferment cucumbers or cabbage to make pickles and sauerkraut. Both classic pickles and sauerkraut are made through a fermentation process, typically lasting three weeks. The vegetable is salted and put into a pickling crock. The water comes out of the vegetable as it ferments, creating a new flavor. Even though the cucumbers are also called “pickles,” like those canned in vinegar brine, they are actually fermented to preserve them.[16]

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Categories: Food Preservation Techniques