Eat great food all winter long with these tips for canning and preserving, and make ahead meals to freeze.
Most gardeners would agree that the garden is an excellent teacher. A few years ago, my own garden spurred a personal revelation: the importance of developing and maintaining my own winter larder.
A few years ago, I’d recently begun the adventure of trying to grow a significant portion of my own food, and I was spending hours in my yard tending a variety of crops, from beans, beets and onions to berries, tomatoes and cucumbers. By midsummer I had piles of produce. It seemed never-ending, and I loved the sense of fulfillment and self-sufficiency growing my own food gave me. Unfortunately, that sense of accomplishment started to give way as the months passed and I began losing pounds of produce to forgetfulness and rot. I literally could not eat it fast enough. I couldn’t give it away fast enough. So, I began looking into ways to preserve my bounty that didn’t require hours over the stove canning. I needed diverse, reliable methods that would allow versatility in my cooking. After some research, I discovered the time-honored tradition of stocking a larder.
A larder, in general, is a room or space used to store food — typically a pantry. My idea of a modern-day larder is a bit more metaphorical. Rather than a specific place, I refer to my larder as my array of preserved foods — in the pantry, the fridge and the freezer. I’ve devised a system to stock and maintain my larder using a variety of preservation methods, including canning, freezing, pickling, root cellaring and drying. But no matter the techniques and contents of your larder, the only really important requirement is that it provides access to fresh, healthy, ready-to-go food all year. My larder enables me to spend less on groceries, simplify meal preparation and eat healthier food. Once I established a routine, it also proved exceptionally easy to keep going. Here’s how I do it.
Most of us are familiar with canned items, whether from the store or homemade. While these goods can last for years, many of us don’t have unlimited storage space to keep dozens upon dozens of glass jars. I have fairly limited space in my pantry and on my countertops, so I prefer to use that space for bulk items, as well as alliums, potatoes and winter squash. Bulk items — such as grains, beans, pastas, nuts, flours and sugars — take up the majority of my pantry space. Stocking large quantities of these items is an essential component of my larder as it allows me to quickly make dinners and to dedicate my fridge and freezer space to preserved meats and vegetables. As you develop your own larder and schedule, you may find yourself making bread products at least once a week. Keeping baking supplies in bulk quantities is crucial to this step.
On my countertop, as well as hidden in woven baskets in other parts of my house, I keep onions, garlic, a variety of potatoes and winter squashes. These kinds of perishables do well long-term stored in cool places out of sunlight. Some people prefer to store them in cabinets, but I like to keep them within sight for two reasons: First, I am more likely to use them when I’m reminded of them on a daily basis; and second, it helps me spot those that are starting to go bad — preventing rot from destroying an entire harvest. If you’ve ever had a five-pound bag of potatoes decay in the back of your cabinet, you know how gross and sad this experience is.
While at first the refrigerator might not seem like an optimum storage method when it comes to longevity, if you use it for the specific purposes of refrigerator pickling and storing hard fruit, it can be quite rewarding. When it comes to the storage of hard fruits, such as apples and pears, I suggest keeping them in the crisper drawer. Not only will you be able to fit in far more than you would anticipate, but I have successfully stored these two fruits for upwards of six months. They’ve lasted so long for me in this capacity that over the years I’ve been able to make pies, crisps and sweet breads with an autumn harvest well into the next spring.
Refrigerator pickling is intended to assist in the longevity of vegetables without the use of a canner or fermentation. By storing produce in an acidic, spiced brine, you can keep it from going rancid for up to three months while simultaneously marinating it with your favorite flavors (sweet, spicy, savory or that familiar “pickled” taste). This may not seem like a big deal, but it is an irreplaceable component to my larder as it allows me to store pounds of soft squash, peppers, green beans, cauliflower, carrots and cucumbers, keeping them fresh for months.
The deep freezer is my biggest larder storage method. Not only does it provide the most space for long-term storage in my home, but it also requires little to no extra steps when it comes to health safety. If you were to open up my freezer right now, you would find five “levels” of food:
BREAD PRODUCTS: I frequently make and freeze loaves of bread. Some are sweet, others savory, but most are simple, crusty loaves that heat up beautifully on a moment’s notice.
RAW AND COOKED MEAT: Meat is one of the most common freezer items, and having a variety of types and cuts comes in handy after a long day. For raw meat, I keep specialty sausages, ground beef, whole chickens and venison. Cooked meats are typically leftovers and include cubed ham, shredded chicken or turkey, pulled pork, and bone for making broths and soups. Maintaining a larder can increase your purchasing power when it comes to buying sustainably raised meats. Just a few deas: Check local farms (or Eat Wild) for opportunities to purchase whole or half animals, which you might want to split with friends or neighbors; buy several whole chickens, ducks or turkeys from a farm — freeze a few raw and roast a few to shred and freeze in single-use packets; consider investing in a supply of sustainably
caught, flash-frozen seafood from Vital Choice or another sustainable seafood retailer.
READYMADE MEALS: This is a great way to prevent waste and eat healthy when you’re in a rush. It’s incredibly easy to store extra soups, stews, stir-fries, chilies, granola and so much more. I like to store these items in individual serving sizes — perfect for an office lunch — or in larger serving sizes appropriate for a group meal. When I don’t want to cook on a random Tuesday night, I can heat up a batch of homemade chili rather than a frozen pizza.
VEGETABLES AND FRUITS: Most vegetables freeze well in some form, and I freeze cooked and raw vegetables following the recommended
prep method (such as blanched or raw) for optimal texture and taste. (Read our Guide to Freezing Food) I freeze green beans, steamed greens, caramelized onions, shredded potatoes, cubed butternut squash and pumpkin, just to name a few. I also freeze fruits in several forms, most often jams, jellies, fruit butters, pie fillings or dried. I also freeze fresh, whole berries and overripe bananas (peeled). My neighbor freezes pounds of diced strawberries and cantaloupe to use in smoothies in the winter. Keep in mind that frozen raw fruit becomes grainy when thawed (even when using raspberries in a tart, for example, I’ve been sensitive to this change in texture). Plan to use frozen fruits in sauces, baked goods and smoothies. Freeze fruits in a single layer on baking sheets before transferring to a freezer bag or container.
BASE INGREDIENTS: An entire shelf of my freezer is dedicated to what I call “base ingredients,” which include vegetable stock and soup, pasta and pizza sauces, cooked beans, and puréed winter squash and sweet potato.
I save space for miscellaneous items such as dried herbs, homemade popsicles and ice cream, but these “five levels” are the main components of my freezer larder.
When it comes to starting your larder, I’d offer two pieces of advice: Take your time, and make affordability your top focus. If we make this a “just get it done” task, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and start spending too much money on produce and products. But by making affordability a main focus, we inevitably end up buying produce that is in season, which means a better end product as well as a greater understanding of and connection with our food cycles.
Look to a wide array of sources for food to stock your larder. Of course it’s useful, even necessary as I discovered, for storing homegrown garden produce. You might also consider trading with other garden friends to increase the diversity in your larder. Farms that offer “u-pick” or “seconds” — imperfect crops sold at a discount—or cheap prices on end-of-season produce make great options, as well. And of course you can mine your local grocery store and farmers markets for sales and deals, as well.
When it comes to optimizing food storage, there are only two hard-and-fast rules. No. 1: Make sure you always follow proper health-safety precautions. For example, not all meats last for the same amount of time in the freezer, and it’s important to know how long an item will keep. That leads to the second rule: Always label items with the name and date, no matter where you are storing them. If you’ve looked into how long the item should last, you might go ahead and add an “eat by” date to labels, as well. Not following recommended storage precautions can lead to some nasty foodborne illnesses, and you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to forget what grain is in which container and how long ago you put that loaf of bread in the freezer once your larder is even halfway full. Along with food safety, proper labeling cuts back on waste. There is something incredibly sad about pulling out a longforgotten loaf of banana bread only to throw it away because of freezer burn.
I try to keep a larder schedule going all year. To do this, I focus on what my household goes through quickest and make those weekly. For me, this often translates into three loaves of crusty, no-knead bread; a large batch of granola; five quart-sized bags of raw, chopped vegetables; a dozen breakfast muffins; homemade popsicles; and at least one container of dried fruit. Then I add items such as cooked meats, premade entrées or side dishes, simmered beans, and specialty breads (challah, biscuits, dinner rolls) on a biweekly or monthly basis. Finally, I always allow time to incorporate preserving seasonal goods, prioritizing them over other items because of their limited accessibility.
Never do I complete all of these tasks in a single day; instead I break them up, working them into my personal schedule until I have a nice, manageable flow going.
Need a simple starter goal for purchasing produce in bulk? Find at least two ways you can preserve that item before bringing home more than five pounds of it. Here are some ideas:
APPLES: Keep some in the fridge crisper. Use another part to make a batch of apple butter, applesauce, chutney or pie filling to freeze or can. Dry the rest to eat as snacks and use in oatmeal, breads and muffins.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH: Keep a few whole squashes on the countertop. Peel and cube the remaining squash: Freeze a few pounds raw; cook and purée the rest, then cool and freeze.
GREEN BEANS: Make a batch of refrigerator pickles. Blanch and freeze a few pounds, then use the rest in a veggie stew. Be sure to freeze leftovers for quick dinners later on.
SWEET POTATOES: Keep as many as you can in baskets on your countertop. Peel and cube the remainder: Freeze a few pounds raw; cook and purée the rest, then cool and freeze.
When it comes to cooking in preparation for stocking your larder, always keep it simple. You will save yourself frustration and heartache if you focus on quick and easily replicated recipes rather than intricate and highly specialized ones. Even better, find customizable recipes and methods that you can use with a wide range of ingredients (such as noknead breads, granolas or fruit butters).
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