Vegetable gardens are in full flush now. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, onions and squash are producing abundantly — a lot more than you, your family, friends and neighbors can eat.
That means it’s time to preserve fruits and vegetables for the winter, when your garden will not be producing anything.
Kate McCarty, a food preservation aide with the University of Maine Extension based in Falmouth, said pickles and frozen fruit are the most popular items for preservation in Maine.
“Maine fruit is popular just because of its ease and abundance,” she said, “and pickles because they are relatively easy to preserve. Once people find a pickle recipe they like, they get really attached to it.”
Nancy and I put a lot of fruit into our freezer. This year it has been mostly raspberries, but some years we do a lot of blueberries as well. You simply have to make sure they are totally dry, put them in an airtight container and pop them in the freezer.
McCarty said that method also works well for strawberries, although we have never tried it that way — but will if we get a lot next year.
“They do freeze well whole for the most part,” she said. “You just wash them off, get them really dry. You have to take off the little green tops, which you don’t have to do with raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.”
In past years when we had excess strawberries, Nancy sliced them, added a little bit of sugar and froze them so they would be ready for winter shortcakes or other recipes.
McCarty said jams and jellies are always popular, and quite easy to do. The Extension has been recommending low-sugar jams and jellies in recent years, made with no artificial sweeteners but simply using no sugar with a commercial pectin. She also said that people can buy pectin formulated for use with maple syrup and honey.
Nancy makes jam and jelly on years when we have a lot of extra fruit, but she prefers not to stand by the stove during the heat of summer. She waits until the cooler temperatures of fall and clears some of the fruit out of the freezer and turns it into jam.
When people think of pickles, the first vegetable that comes to mind is cucumbers, but you can pickle a lot more vegetables than that.
“A lot of people do dilly beans, because they are easy and people grow a lot of beans,” McCarty said. “But you can do beets, beans, peppers, garlic, onions, carrots, a lot of vegetables.”
I asked about pickling zucchini and summer squash because, well, we have lots of those coming out of the garden right now.
“You can pickle summer squash instead of cucumbers, but the result might not be as crunchy as cucumbers,” she said. “Summer squash lends itself more to bread-and-butter type pickles.”
When I think of pickles, I think of hot-water-bath pickles. With those you put the vegetables with vinegar and spices in canning jars, seal them and boil then in a kettle for however long the recipe tells you to.
“They recommend using them up within a year, but if the jars were sealed properly and stay sealed, I think they would stay safe and good as long as you think you could still eat them,” McCarty said.
In addition to hot-water-bath pickles, there also are recipes for refrigerator pickles.
Refrigerator pickles are a lot easier, but they last for only three months.
Because tomatoes have so much acid in them, they also are safe to can with the hot-water-bath method, McCarty said. She said most people either do tomatoes packed in water or crushed tomatoes, because that is what is used in most recipes and what people would purchase in the store.
But if you want, you can create tomato sauce or even spaghetti sauce and can that.
If you are going to can other vegetables, McCarty said, you need to use a pressure canner to make sure the vegetables are safe — and almost no one does that anymore.
McCarty noted that root cellars are growing in popularity because people are beginning to realize that you do not need an old stone cellar with almost no heat.
“People are beginning to realize they can adapt areas they have in their own home,” she said.
For example, I use an insulated bulkhead to store potatoes — which we have a lot of — leeks and carrots. They like to be kept at temperatures just above freezing and in a fairly moist environment.
I have a place in one corner of the cellar that is cool but fairly dry, where I keep onions. The place for winter squash is about 50 degrees, and not too damp. And we will have a lot of winter squash this year.
If you want a chart for the ideal storage conditions for each vegetable, go to umaine.edu/publications/4135e/ for a pamphlet.
McCarty said she will be teaching a lot of classes on storing vegetables this fall, so if you want more information, attend one of her classes. Call 781-6099, email her at [email protected] or see if the adult education program in your town is offering a food-preservation workshop.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer who gardens in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: