Strawberries are so delicious and plentiful here in North Carolina right now that it seems hard to believe in a few short weeks they will be gone. Once you have fresh, local berries, it is hard to buy imported berries at the grocery store. They do not have the soft texture and robust flavor that locally picked berries have, and their carbon footprint is often pretty horrible. And Ka-ching! They can be very expensive. So my mission is not only to eat local, but to put up what we can so in November, we will have local fruit and vegetables without any fuss!
With a little planning and a little work, you can store away fresh fruit and vegetables at the peak of season so you aren’t tempted by those inferior berries (or tomatoes or corn or peas) later in the year. Here are three easy ways to save your strawberries! These techniques work for other berries as well.
Dehydrate them–You can do this in the oven if you don’t have a dehydrator. This is not difficult, but does take time and patience.
Freeze them–Wash, dry and hull strawberries. Cut them in half and put them on a parchment-lined baking sheet(s). Pop the baking sheet(s) in the freezer for about 90 minutes. Then, load the frozen strawberry halves into freezer bags and store in the freezer. You can also just pop the berries in freezer bags and skip the baking sheet technique, but in my experience, you end up with a frozen blob of berries that are all stuck together. When you freeze the berries individually, you can just use what you need instead of defrosting the whole bag.
Can them–Making jam is very, very easy and you don’t need a lot of equipment. You can make freezer jam (there are many recipes online), but beware! Freezer jam uses a LOT of sugar. I find it is too sweet for me to eat and, to me, the sugar actually dulls the flavor of the berries. But that’s me–you do what you want.
I know canning can seem intimidating. My own first attempts to make strawberry jam were not as successful as later batches, but we had fun learning. Most mistakes can still be useful–jam that doesn’t gel (or “set”) can be called “ice cream/pancake topping” or used to fill a layer cake or used in muffin mix to make fruit muffins. So, no big loss, just a new marketing strategy 🙂
Here are some tips I’ve learned if you are interested in making fruit jam or canning vegetables:
- Invest in a modest amount of equipment. Having the right equipment will make your job easier and quicker. You do NOT need an $100.00 “water bath canner” or a $265 hammered copper jam pan from a high end kitchen store (seriously, Williams Sonoma?). You DO need a large pot, a canning rack to fit in the pot, a jar lifter to safely remove your jars from hot water and canning jars with lids and rings. Can you use your kitchen tongs to move your jars instead of a jar lifter? Yes and no. Take it from me, that accidentally dropping a jar back into a pot of hot water is not pleasant. Buy the jar lifter. Canning kits are available that include everything except the jars at places like Wal-Mart for under $30, and will provide you with years of use. If you really want the fancy copper jam pan, then by all means, get it, but that is for you, not the jam 🙂
- Use only tested, FDA-approved recipes. This part is not funny. Successful canning means having the right balance of produce and acid, that is heated to the proper temperature to keep bacteria from growing. You cannot make up your own canning recipes without risking the health of anyone eating what you produce. Using tested recipes (and following those recipes) ensures that all your hard work will result in something that is not only delicious and healthy, but is safe to eat. My absolute favorite food preservation book is Put ‘Em Up! by Sherri Brooks Vinton. She has a new book out this spring that is just for fruit and I need to get a copy. The original is wonderful! Chock full of creative, tested recipes for fruits and vegetables, the book includes tips for drying and freezing foods as well as canning. One of the things I love is that her jam recipes are low sugar, which I prefer. Some jam recipes will outright shock you with the amount of sugar they require.
- Buy fruit at the peak of season. If your strawberries don’t taste good to you out of the bucket, they won’t taste good to you in a jam either.
- Buy organic or pesticide-free fruit when possible. I know, I know, it’s expensive. But, when you’re concentrating fruit down into a jam (or dehydrating it), you are also concentrating any pesticides or toxins on your fruit as well. And that is not a good thing, especially if you are pregnant or if you have little folks eating your jam. If you can’t find organic or pesticide-free fruit, make sure you are washing it well to remove as much surface toxins as you can.
- Have fun! I’ve found that yes, canning requires some work and some hot days in the kitchen. But, it is also a lot of fun and pretty cool, too. In the past year, we haven’t purchased any grocery store jam, salsa, barbecue sauce, pickles or tomato sauce–we just shop from our own pantry!