For Daniel Gasteiger, the holiday season begins in May when the rhubarb and strawberries ripen. That's when he starts putting foods aside for the many people on his gift list.
The process continues with cherries, tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, apples, melons and a variety of successive garden crops.
"If you don't deal with them when they're fresh, you're not preserving them," said Gasteiger, author of "Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too." "Then they can sit on a shelf until wrapped as presents for neighbors, teachers and others."
Hot sour cherry jam is poured directly from the cook pot into a jelly jar in Lewisburg, Penn. For Gasteiger, the holiday season begins in May when the rhubarb and strawberries ripen. The process continues with cherries, tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, apples, melons and a variety of successive garden crops.
Hear the word "preserving" and people generally think canning or freezing, said Gasteiger, of Lewisburg, Pa. But there also is dehydrating, sugaring, fermenting, quick pickling, smoking, salting and cold storage.
"The way we go about it hasn't changed much over the years, but the technology is better," he said.
All food preservation techniques delay or stop spoilage while sealing in flavor and nutritional value. Yet each does something different. In some cases, new foods are even created raisins from dried grapes, for example.
On the Net
National Center for Home Food Preservation:
Here is a sampling of the most common methods and how they compare:
Canning: Preserves fruits and vegetables, jams and jellies, pickles, relishes and meats so they can be stored for months without refrigeration. Canning cooks food, however, changing its makeup and flavor.
Freezing: Leaves you with fresher flavors but transforms textures.
"Produce tends to become mushy," Gasteiger said.
Dehydrating: Gives fresh foods remarkable longevity, with vegetables rehydrating especially well for cooking.
"Having a dedicated dehy-
drator can reduce the amount
of produce you waste," he
said. Think bananas, or those
fruit and vegetable remnants
that ripen so quickly in the
Fermenting: Submerging vegetables in saltwater brine produces lactic acid, which is a food preservative. But: "Vegetables soften and develop a tangy flavor that some people don't care for," Gasteiger said.
Cold storage: Root crops, including potatoes, carrots, yams, beets and turnips, have tremendous staying power under the right conditions. They will remain fresh for months in a dark, dry environment. Potatoes prefer a place maintained at around 55 F. Carrots, beets, rutabagas and cabbage keep longest when cooled to 34 F, Gasteiger said.
You don't need a garden if you want to put up fresh, flavorful foods year around. Shop the sales. Seek out farmers' markets and roadside stands. Buy in bulk. Patronize U-Pick operations and orchards.
"Picking your own makes for great family outings, and prices generally are about a third of what they'd be if someone did it for you," Gasteiger said.
Interest in home canning products has risen 35 percent over the past three years, said Lauren Devine-Hager, a product research and test-kitchen analyst with Jarden Home Brands, which manufactures the classic Ball home canning Mason jars.
"The face of canning is changing," she said. "It's not driven by grandmothers in rural settings anymore. It's becoming especially popular among women (ages) 27 to 45 in urban and suburban areas. They want to enjoy it all year long."
Few crafts offer as much payback as food preservation. It saves money, encourages creativity and puts a quality product on the family table, Gasteiger said. Small batches of preserves done up in decorative jars and wrapped in ribbons make tasteful and inexpensive holiday gifts.
"There's also an ecological component," Gasteiger said. "I'm gradually replacing my lawn with edibles."