Do you have limited (or no) freezer space? If you're looking for alternative ways to store your meats, fruits, or favorite fall vegetables, canning preserving and dehydrating food are great solutions.
These types of preservation have been used for hundreds of years, and are still widely used today to safely store produce over those cold winter months. These tips will help introduce you to the world of canning preserving and dehydrating food off the grid.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Hot Water Bath Canning
Hot water bath canning is the simplest canning technique to learn and you'll find many easy ways to get started canning. You need a stockpot, canning rack, canning jars (I like Ball mason jars), lids and bands. Don’t borrow or reuse old bands. You need to use new ones every time to ensure a proper seal.
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There are many useful canning, preserving, and dehydrating food how-to and recipe books that will teach you the techniques, times, and measurements needed for the different products you want to preserve. My mom's favorite is the Bernardin/Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.
And remember, if you’re using a wood cookstove to boil the water for this method, the pot needs to reach boiling temperature. So keep that fire hot.
The hot water bath canning technique is perfect for a beginner to get started with an easy project, like learning how to make applesauce. Or preserving some tomatoes with sauces, jams, or others. After your initial investment in the water bath canner and rack, this method will become one of your favorite, cheap, and effective ways to preserve fruits and veggies every year.
Tip: Not quite ready for canning? Try making pickled vegetables with a great refrigerator pickle recipe!
To preserve low-acid foods, such as vegetables, or any meats, try pressure canning instead of hot water canning. The temperature in a pressure canner gets up as high as 240 degrees Fahrenheit. This kills the potential risk of dangerous bacteria like botulism that can develop in low-acid foods and meats.
However, these bacteria cannot develop in acid. That's why the standard hot water bath canning method is acceptable for highly-acidic fruits, but not low-acidity foods. So if you were to try canning fresh fish, for example, you'd use a pressure canner.
Most pressure canners require extremely consistent heat to build pressure and maintain a high temperature throughout the process. Because of this, the heat source needs to be constantly adjusted. And that is easier to do with a propane or gas burner than a wood stove.
Dehydrating Food to Preserve It
Dehydrating not only preserves food, but also shrinks it down. This helps when you don't have a ton of room, for example when you're trying to store your harvest without a root cellar.
Dehydrating your produce can be done in a few different ways. The most straightforward method uses a dehydrator, a small electric kitchen appliance. There are a variety of different options available, with different sizes, capabilities, and electrical requirements.
Dehydrating slowly removes moisture from the food at a relatively low temperature over a long period of time. Because of this, dehydrators have a pretty minimal electrical draw. In fact, most solar systems have the capacity to easily run dehydrators.
Refer to this handy post and chart from Food Hydrator Time for a breakdown of the most popular models and the power usage for each one.
Dehydrating food requires patience. So whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of increasing the temperature to try and make your food dry out faster.
By doing so, you will end up creating a hardened skin around the outside of the produce. This traps moisture inside, and really decreases its shelf life.
No matter what food you’re dehydrating, always follow a guidebook or recipe to ensure you have the dehydrator set to the right temperature, humidity, and time. Generally, you want to dehydrate your foods by at least 95%. It's also important to know the foods you shouldn't dehydrate.
If you can’t use an electrical dehydrator, there’s always the original solar method.
Collapsible solar dehydrators are available through Amazon or most outdoor stores. They come with multiple racks, a hook to hang outdoors, and protective netting to keep critters and insects away.
The netting is designed to allow maximum airflow across your produce. So be sure to hang it in an area with lots of direct sunlight and a slight breeze.
The key to drying out your food successfully is to slice your meat or produce into thin, uniform strips before placing them on the trays.
Herbs, spices, and greens are already thin enough. Just lay them out without slicing. And remember to leave a bit of space between pieces on the trays so the food doesn’t overlap and trap moisture.
Canning Preserving and Dehydrating Food Takes Practice and Patience
There are so many options for preserving your harvest every autumn. These methods have been around for centuries. They're easy to learn and start right away.
Investing in canning or dehydrating recipe books will give you lots of ideas on different combinations and techniques.
Or grab a great free resource like this USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning available as a downloadable PDF from the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Also, make sure you buy or organize all of your equipment and supplies needed beforehand. That way you’re ready to go once the harvest comes in. Happy preserving!