Preserving the Tastes of Summer

Eat fresh from the garden all winter with these quick tips for preserving your produce.

September 8, 2011

Sure, you want to put up some of your harvest so you can enjoy it all winter long. But you don’t want to spend the last of the summer indoors, laboring in the kitchen. The solution? Freeze and dry your bounty. Both methods are easier (and cooler) than canning. Here’s the scoop, crop by crop.

Tomatoes

Before freezing, remove the tomato skins. Immerse your fresh tomatoes in boiling water until the skins crack, then plunge the fruits into very cold water for another minute. Take them out, peel off the skin, and pack them whole or quartered in plastic freezer containers.

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A faster method is to freeze whole, unpeeled tomatoes. When you’re ready to use them, put the frozen bag under hot water briefly, until you can remove the tomatoes. Then stick the tomatoes under the hot water for a few more seconds to loosen the skin, which will easily peel off.

Dehydration removes all that messy water and leaves you with pure tomato flavor. And almost any kind of tomato—even cherry types—dries into a sweet, chewy chip. Some people say that meaty paste tomatoes work best for drying, but others prefer to dry the big, sweet beefsteak types.

Cut slices about 1⁄2 inch thick (cut cherry tomatoes in half) and set the slices on the dehydrator trays. Don’t let the pieces touch. Most machines will dry them in about 4 hours, but many people let them go overnight (they’re done when the pieces are leathery and flat). You can store them in tightly lidded jars or put them in bags in the freezer. After drying, a bushel of tomatoes takes up very little space. (To keep the dehydrator from heating up your house, run it outdoors in a sheltered area.)

Corn
To get a taste of summer sweetness in the middle of winter, freeze some of your corn. First, blanch the ears by boiling them for 3 to 4 minutes. Plunge the blanched ears into cold water. After the ears have cooled, scrape the kernels off the cob. Put meal-size portions of the cut kernels into plastic freezer bags. You can eat the corn lightly steamed, right out of the freezer (don't defrost it before cooking it). If you prefer your winter corn on the cob, blanch the fresh ears for 6 minutes, then freeze the whole ears. When you're ready to serve them, just steam the frozen ears for another 6 minutes.

Peppers
Peppers (both hot and sweet) freeze beautifully without blanching. Just chop or slice them, freeze the pieces on a cookie sheet until they’re solid, and then transfer the pieces to plastic freezer bags. When you’re cooking, just scoop out what you need.

Thin-fleshed peppers will dry outside, hung on a string or set on a screen lined with brown paper in an airy, shady spot, as long as your weather is still hot and dry. (Cover the peppers with cheesecloth to keep off insects.) Thick-fleshed peppers require a food dehydrator. Small, hot peppers will dry just fine whole, but larger, thicker peppers should be cut into 1⁄2-inch slices. They’re dry when the skin becomes papery or crackly when you touch it. Store them in jars with tight lids. Mix your dried peppers into winter chili, stir-fries, and other dishes in need of a little punch. Or grind some of the dried peppers (hot or sweet) in a blender or food processor. Use the flakes as a shake-on seasoning.

Beans
Prompt freezing will well preserve your homegrown beans’ vitamin content. The key to successful bean freezing is carefully timed blanching. First, bring your water to a rolling boil. Then add no more beans than the water will take and still remain boiling. After 3 minutes (not a moment more, or they’ll be limp when they come out of the freezer), remove the beans and immerse them in ice water. When they’re cool, blot dry and pack into meal-size portions in plastic freezer bags.

Peas
Like beans, peas should be frozen quickly after harvesting. Blanch shelled peas for 1 1⁄2 minutes and sugar snaps and snow peas for 2 1⁄2 minutes—not any longer, or they’ll be mushy when you cook them later. Cool them in ice water, blot them dry, and then store them in freezer bags. Don’t defrost them before cooking.

Shelled peas are easy to dry. Use dried peas in soups and stews. Forget about drying the edible-podded ones; they’ll lose their crispness and become chewy and pulpy.

Cucumbers
Freeze a few cukes at the end of the season to use later in chilled soups or for a cool summer drink. Peel the cukes, chop them into chunks, drop them into plastic bags and put the bags in the freezer. For a thick off-season slushie, puree the frozen cucumber chunks along with a splash of fruit juice, a few chunks of frozen melon, some honey, and a pinch of pineapple sage.

 

Carrots
If your region has mild winters, the best way to keep your carrots is to leave them in the garden under mulch until you’re ready to use them. In colder regions, pull up your carrots before a hard frost sets in and freeze them (sliced or diced) after 2 minutes of blanching. Besides using the carrots as a cooked vegetable, you can use them in muffins and cakes. For these baking uses, first grate the carrots, then give them a quick dip in boiling water. Freeze the grated carrots in recipe-size portions.

You can dry sliced carrots into chips. You can either eat the chips or grind them into flakes. The flakes add sweetness to stews and soups.

 

Onions
Firm, pungent storage onions will keep for months in a cool, dry basement, and even longer in a root cellar. But Vidalias and other sweet, mild onions don’t store well. To preserve their goodness, just chop them up and freeze them in plastic containers.

You can also dry 1⁄2-inch-thick onion slices in a dehydrator, then grind the dried slices into flakes or powder to use as a seasoning.

Broccoli
Freezing preserves broccoli’s taste, texture, and nutrients. Cut up the heads into small florets so the pieces blanch uniformly. Blanch cut-up florets and little side shoots only for a minute before freezing. Cool the blanched broccoli, then pack it into plastic bags and freeze.

 

Pumpkins
Many pumpkins will store until spring in an ordinary cool basement. You can also cook the pumpkins, then freeze the cooked flesh in plastic freezer bags. Cooking pumpkin is simple: Just cut it in half, remove the seeds, put the halves cut side down on a baking sheet, and bake at 350ºF for 20 to 40 minutes (it’s done when the skin begins to turn brown and you can easily push a fork through it).

Scoop the flesh out of the skin and either puree it or just mash it up with a fork. You can spice some of it with cinnamon, allspice, and apple juice concentrate before freezing. Then it will be ready to make into a pie later.) Pack the cooked pumpkin in plastic freezer bags in 1 or 2 cup quantities—that makes it easy to use in recipes later.

Summer Squash and Zucchini
Tender summer squash and zucchini get mushy in the freezer. So puree yellow and green summer squash in your blender or food processor, then freeze the puree to use in cakes, breads, and soups.

Dried zucchini chips are great with sandwiches or dips. Before drying, slice them into 1⁄4-inch-thick rounds and quick-blanch them (just a few seconds in boiling water). Then dry the rounds overnight in the dehydrator. They're ready when they snap in half when bent.

 

Eggplant
Coat slices of fresh cut eggplant with an egg-and-bread-crumb mixture, bake until almost tender, let them cool, and then freeze them in plastic bags. You can use these breaded slices as a kind of crust for pizza—top them with dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, and cheese and then bake until the eggplant is crisp and the cheese is melted.

Strawberries
Strawberries are highly perishable, so preserve them quickly when they’re at their peak. Let the berries freeze solid on a baking sheet, then move them into plastic bags. You can also crush, puree, and freeze them. Thaw, then pour this supersweet treat into punch or over desserts.

For chocolate-covered strawberries, slice a big batch of fresh strawberries, roll the slices in a powdered instant hot chocolate mix, then dry them overnight. Delicious!

 

Watermelon and Cantaloupe
Freeze chunks of watermelon or cantaloupe. For a thirst-quenching slushie, simply puree the frozen chunks. (If you’re using cantaloupe, you may want to add lemon juice or honey.) Or puree fresh watermelon, then freeze the puree in ice cube trays to add to cool drinks later on.

Better yet, cut the melon flesh into long, thin slivers and dry them. With the water evaporated, you get a fruit-leather-like sticky, chewy candy. But don't cut the slivers any thinner than 1⁄2 inch or so, or you won't get them unstuck from the dehydrator trays.

 

Raspberries
Ripe berries don’t last long, so put any excess into long-term storage when they’re fresh from the garden. Freeze unwashed berries on a baking sheet. When they’re firm, pack them into freezer containers to use later in desserts. Or simply fill the blender with berries, puree, and then freeze the puree in plastic containers. For a very special cake, add a pint of puree to chocolate cake batter.

Raspberries also dry very well. Just a few hours in the dehydrator and they're ready to put into tightly sealed jars or in a bag in the freezer.

 

Blueberries
Blueberries are a snap to freeze. Pick out any bruised or not quite ripe berries, remove the stems, and rinse gently with water. Put the best berries into a freezer container. They’re great on cereal, thawed or frozen, and excellent on ice cream.

 

Peaches and Nectarines
Sliced or halved peaches and nectarines are a snap to freeze. Remove the skin, dip the slices in ascorbic acid solution or citrus juice to preserve their color, and then freeze them in sweet syrup. The sugar acts as a preservative and helps them hold their texture. (But you can eliminate the sugar solution, if you'd prefer.)

Both fruits also dry well in the dehydrator. Just be sure to dip the cut pieces in citrus juice or honey first to preserve their color. Or puree either fruit with honey or pineapple, then dry the puree into a fruit leather using a special insert available for your dehydrator tray. Kids love it!