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Freezing the Harvest (Part 2)

In my last entry I wrote about some things you should consider when buying a freezer to save this year’s harvest, and some accessories you should think about getting to go along with the freezer. But once you have the freezer – now what?

Frozen Assets.

Sure, there’s the inevitable trip to Costco, and the quarter of beef you promised to split with your coworker. Once that’s out of the way, here are some tips on how to actually save the beans, broccoli and strawberries you’ve grown and bought at the farmers’ market this summer.

Containers
As I said in the previous entry, air is one of enemies of frozen foods. If you stick a raw steak in the freezer and leave it there, you’ll have a nicely freezer-burned steak in no time. This is because freezer air is dry, and freezer burn is basically an area of food that’s become dried out. (Ever hear of freeze drying?) To prevent freezer burn from happening, you want to keep air away from the food.

There are two main types of freezer containers: bags and containers. However, there are pros and cons to all the various containers.

Ziptop freezer bags are relatively cheap, and can be very versatile. One downside to consider, though, is that they can be prone to leaking when the food is being defrosted. Another option is vacuum bags. This requires you to have a vacuum sealer and bags, which are an added expense (and the sealer is another gadget to store when you’re not using it). However, after having had our vacuum sealer for a year, I can confidently say that I love it and can’t imagine freezing anything for long-term storage without it.

Any plastic container can be used as a freezer container. Heavy-duty containers provide the best value for your money. Lightweight containers will crack and break over time. We have a set of Ball freezer jars that are great – when the lids fit. The lids were made to such tight tolerances that they don’t all fit the jars. I’m on the lookout for a better choice for freezer jars.

Preparing the food
Now that you have containers, you just have to freeze your food, right? Well, mostly. Some foods, such as ripe berries, can be cleaned and frozen without any further processing. However, other foods require blanching before you put them up.

Blanching cooks food just long enough to stop the chemical processes that start breaking food down as soon as it’s picked. PickYourOwn.org has a ton of great guides on how to blanch, cook and otherwise prepare fruits and vegetables for freezing. (If you choose to do canning, he also has lots of canning recipes for you to try.)

Experiment a bit to find out what must be blanched and what doesn’t. For example, I shredded a bunch of our larger zucchini last year for use in zucchini breads and cakes. I didn’t blanch any of it, and it’s still fine. Blanching preserves the crispness of a vegetable, and since that isn’t important when making zucchini cake, I skipped the step.

Other stuff
After preparing the food, package it up in your containers. Make sure to leave enough headspace in each of your containers to allow the frozen food to expand. This is more important if you’re using containers than bags; unless you’ve totally stuffed a bag to capacity, it’ll likely have a bit of room for expansion.

Finally, label with the name of the produce and date. It might still be obvious in a year that it’s sweet corn in that freezer bag, but when you have ten bags of sweet corn you want to make sure you’re eating the oldest bag first. I’ve also started adding the name of the vendor when I freeze produce from the farmers’ market. That way, when I find something particularly yummy, it’ll be easier to remember next year who I bought it from.

Got any additional tips? Share them in the comments!

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Freezing the Harvest (Part 1)

It’s mid-summer, and that means fresh fruit and veggies! Even with our small garden, we usually end up with more produce than we can eat ourselves. Add in our trips to the farmers’ markets, and there’s a veritable cornucopia of locally-produced food that must be eaten or saved now. We don’t (yet) have a pressure canner, and not all produce is safe to be canned using a water bath. Therefore, the only safe method available to us for preserving all of the harvest for winter is freezing.

Frozen assets.

Freezing is not the most energy-efficient method for saving produce, of course, but it is quick, doesn’t heat up your house much (compared to canning), and it’s easy. However, learn from my mistakes! There are some preparations you should make before embarking on your freezing adventure.

Freezer choice
My biggest mistake was overestimating the size of our fridge’s freezer. Sure, when it was empty, the little freezer on top of our fridge looked huge. But even when I utilized all of my best Tetris skills in packing it, I was disappointed in the small volume that the little thing could hold.

Additionally, our refrigerator’s freezer had an automatic defrost cycle. Frozen food has two enemies – air and temperature variations – and exposure to either causes freezer burn in frozen foods. The automatic defrost cycle in our fridge’s freezer made it a poor choice for long-term food storage, since the freezer warms itself up slightly to defrost itself. So, to address the size problem and temperature fluctuations, we bought a chest freezer.

Chest freezers come in two main styles: chest and upright. Chest freezers tend to hold more and are more energy efficient than upright freezers. Upright freezers, on the other hand, have shelves like a refrigerator, so it’s easier to find things. Which you choose is up to you and how you think you’ll use the freezer. You’ll also need to decide whether you want a freezer that will automatically defrost itself, or one that must be manually defrosted every so often. (I suggest getting a manual defrost freezer, due to the problems with automatic defrost I explained above.)

Finally, you’ll need to select a size. If you plan on freezing a lot of produce and/or meat at one time, or if you have a large family, you might want to consider getting a larger freezer. If you live in an apartment and floor space is limited, you should consider a smaller freezer.

There are lots of resources out there to help you choose a freezer. I suggest grabbing an issue of Consumer Reports that features freezer reviews – check your local library for back issues. Once you’ve decided on the style and size you want, find out what’s available in your area before making your purchase.

Power
A freezer won’t work without electricity, as some of our friends in the Chicago area found out last weekend when a windstorm ripped through the area and knocked out their power for two days. An item on my fabled “List o’ Things To Do” is researching small, portable generators to power our freezer if our hydro goes out. Fortunately (knock wood) we haven’t yet suffered the same misfortune as our friends, but it might just be a matter of time. Losing an entire year’s meat and veggies to a power outage would hurt.

You should seriously look into getting a generator if your house experiences power outages frequently, or if you plan on keeping a small freezer at the cottage (where the hydro might be a bit spotty). Do some research before buying a generator, though, since there are several different kinds to consider.

Also, regardless of your power situation, think about getting a freezer alarm such as the one sold by Lee Valley. The alarm will warn you if the temperature in your freezer rises too much, and will hopefully give you time to either fix the problem or find someplace else to store your food.

In my next entry I’ll go over what types of containers you’ll need for storing your food, and how to prepare the produce for freezing.

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