The beginner's guide to preserving summer produce.
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
Want to save money and boost nutrition? Try preserving fresh fruits and vegetables from your garden or the farmers market to use year-round -- no water bath or pressure cooker required! The trick: Let your freezer do the work.
And don't worry; we won't get too complicated here. This is a beginner's course to preserving food. Only the absolutely easiest ways to freeze and preserve fruits, vegetables, and herbs will be discussed! If you have a handful of freezer plastic bags, a mixing spoon, a refrigerator, and microwave or stove, you have everything you need to get started.
Here are some tips, techniques, and recipes to help you get started freezing fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
Dry Pack Freezing Technique for Fruit
The dry pack freezing method involves freezing individual slices or pieces of fruit on a cookie sheet. Just spread out the pieces of fruit on a cookie sheet or jellyroll plan (line the pan with wax paper if you like) and place in the freezer. When the pieces are solidly frozen, remove them with a spatula or large spoon and pack in plastic freezer bags or freezer containers.
Berries are great candidates for freezing. Here are three steps to freezing raspberries or blackberries:
- Gently wash the berries and remove any damaged pieces of fruit. Drain.
- Spread berries on a tray or cookie sheet (lined with wax paper, if desired) and place in the freezer until each piece is frozen.
- Pack frozen fruit in containers or freezer bags. Seal well and keep in the freezer until needed.
You can also freeze apple slices to use for apple pie. Just wash the apples in cold water, cut them into quarters and remove the core. Cut the quarters into slices, and use the dry pack freezing technique described above.
And believe it or not, the same method works for whole tomatoes. After Florida resident Tarrant Figlio, a message board moderator for WebMD, planted too many tomato plants last summer, she discovered a nifty way to preserve them for winter.
She washed her extra tomatoes, put them whole on cookie sheets, and then froze them. Once they were frozen, she put them in freezer bags. To use them, she just rinsed them under warm water to remove the skins.
"I didn't have the time or enery to can them all, plus was a little nervous about the acidity safety issue," Figlio says. "I used them mostly in recipes that call for cooked/canned tomatoes ... not fresh; because the texture gets mushy once they are thawed."
For freezing vegetables, you'll use a similar technique, but apply a little heat first. Carol Ann Burtness, MEd, with the Minnesota Extension Office, says her favorite preserving tip is to briefly blanch the vegetables, drain them, spread them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and place it in the freezer.
"After vegetables are frozen solid (2-3 hours), transfer vegetables to a freezer-safe plastic bag and keep them in the freezer until needed," she says.
The blanching step inactivates enzymes in fresh produce that can cause changes in color, nutrient content, and flavor when frozen. It also helps destroy microorganisms on the surface of the vegetables, according to the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
To blanch vegetables for freezing, follow these steps:
- Use about 1 gallon of water for each pound of vegetables.
- Bring water to rolling boil.
- Submerge a wire basket containing the vegetables into the boiling water.
- Boil briefly (depending on the vegetable, about 1 to 2 minutes)
- Lift the basket and cool vegetables immediately in ice water (to prevent further cooking) then drain the vegetables thoroughly.
- Follow the steps for the dry pack freezing technique above.
Some microwaves offer directions in their manuals on blanching vegetables. Refer to your manual for times and directions because the power levels vary among different brands and types of microwave ovens.
And don't forget: when you're ready to use your frozen vegetables, cook them only until just tender. (Your cooking time will usually be about half as long as if the vegetables were fresh.) This way, the color will be brighter and the texture firmer.
Freezer Jams and Preserves
When it comes to uncooked freezer jams, it's all about the berries! According to the University of Minnesota Extension Service, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries work best in uncooked freezer jam recipes. Uncooked jams can be safely stored in the refrigerator for several weeks or up to a year in the freezer. (Check out the recipe for Strawberry Orange Freezer Jam below.)
If you want to cut down on sugar in your jam or fruit preserves, you can buy packages of pectin made especially for "less sugar" or "no sugar" recipes (they work for freezer recipes as well as cooked ones). Sure-Jell and Ball Fruit Jell are the two brands available in most supermarkets. Inside each box is an instruction sheet. Don't lose this; it's your go-to guide for making your less-sugar jam.
You'll also need some freezer jars. Many companies that make glass jars for canning also make plastic jars for freezing. Ball, for example, sells a five-pack of 8-ounce plastic freezer jars. Ideally, you want containers that have a screw top so the top won't pop off when the mixture freezes and expands. Rubbermaid sells a "twist & seal" plastic container three-pack, with each container holding about 1 1/2 cups of jam or sauce.
Fruits other than berries may require a bit of cooking for turning them into jam. You can either buy the "less sugar" or "no sugar" pectin described above, or, if you've got time, you can boil the fruit pulp for a longer period of time and eventually it will thicken into a fruit butter or preserve. Apple butter is often made this way. (Check out the recipe for 1-Hour Apple Pie Apple Butter below.)
And how do you cook yourself a batch of fruit jam in the winter months? Simple -- use the fruit you froze last summer. Just partially thaw the fruit in the refrigerator, until a few ice crystals still remain. But, because fruit tends to collapse during thawing, use the measurement of the fruit before it was frozen (you could label your bag with this measurement before freezing.) Three cups of unfrozen fruit might measure as 2 cups after partial thawing.
Basil is one of the most popular herbs with home gardeners, in part because it grows so quickly. There's nothing better than fresh basil, if you ask me, but dried and frozen basil will get you through the winter months. One of the best ways to preserve your fresh basil is to chop it up and make green ice cubes. Here's how you make them:
- Chop up fresh basil leaves using a knife or pulse briefly in a food processor.
- Pack the chopped basil into ice cube tray compartments and top with a mixture of lemon juice and water (1 tablespoon lemon juice to 1/2 cup of water). The antioxidants in the lemon juice help keep the leaves from turning brown.
- Once the basil cubes are frozen, remove from the trays and store in plastic freezer bags.
Freezer Tomato Sauce
Homemade tomato sauce tastes great on pasta, pizza, and meat dishes, and is a great way to preserve all those extra tomatoes from your garden. Health-wise, it's best to cook tomato sauce or tomato puree for a short while and add some olive oil to the mixture, because these steps enhances your body's ability to absorb the healthy phytochemicals from the tomatoes. You can choose to cook your homemade spaghetti or marinara sauce before or after you freeze it. (See the Blender Marinara Sauce recipe below.)
Freezer Recipes for Preserving Fruits and Vegetables
Ready to start freezing? Check out these three recipes featuring fresh fruits and vegetables.
Strawberry Orange Freezer Jam
4 cups crushed strawberries (about 8 cups sliced strawberries)
1 tablespoon finely chopped orange zest (peel from 1 large orange)
Orange segments from 1 orange
2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 box less-sugar jam package (such as Sure Jell No Sugar Needed)
- In large mixing bowl, combine crushed strawberries, orange zest, and sugar. Let mixture stand for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Dissolve the less-sugar jam powder in 1 cup of cold water in a small or medium saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil; boil for one minute.
- Stir the hot pectin mixture into the berry mixture and stir vigorously for two minutes.
- Pour the jam into clean freezer containers or jars, leaving one-half inch at the top of the container (the jam with expand as it freezes). Cover the containers and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours or until jam has set. Keep in freezer until ready to use.
- To use the jam, thaw jar or container in the refrigerator overnight. Stir the jam before using.
Yield: Makes at least 6 1-cup containers of jam
Nutrition Information: Per 1/8 cup serving: 45 calories, 0.2 g protein, 12 g carbohydrate, 0.1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0.6 g fiber, 10 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 2%.
1-Hour Apple Pie Apple Butter
14 cup peeled and cored apple slices, about 10 large green apples (3.5 pounds)
3/4 cup apple cider (or apple juice)
2 tablespoons apple brandy or liqueur such as amaretto
2 teaspoons apple pie spice
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
- In large, heavy-bottomed nonstick saucepan, combine apple slices, apple cider, brandy or liqueur, apple pie spice, sugar, and lemon juice. Begin heating mixture over medium-high heat. Cover saucepan and cook, stirring often with a large wooden spoon, until apples are broken down to applesauce-like consistency (about 30 minutes).
- Use a potato masher or the back of a large spoon to mash any large pieces of apple if necessary. Remove cover and reduce heat to LOW (or SIMMER if your stove runs hot). Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until applesauce turns into apple butter (very thick and dark), about 30 more minutes.
- Remove saucepan from heat and let mixture cool about 15 minutes. Spoon apple butter into small, clean, airtight containers. It will keep for up to one month in the refrigerator or up to six months in the freezer. If you use 1-cup containers, you'll fill about three to four containers.
Yield: Makes about 3 cups of apple butter (24 servings of 2 tablespoons each)
Nutrition Information: Per serving: 80 calories, 0.2 g protein, 20 g carbohydrate, 0.2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2.2 g fiber, 1 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 2%.
Blender Marinara Sauce for Your Freezer
3/4 cup chopped yellow or sweet onion
4 cups chopped vine-ripened fresh tomatoes (can use Roma tomatoes)
1 teaspoon dried basil leaves (or 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil)
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons minced or chopped garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (or more to taste)
- Heat a large nonstick saucepan over medium heat; coat generously with olive oil or canola cooking spray. Saute onions and garlic in the saucepan, stirring frequently, until lightly browned (about four minutes). Set pan aside.
- In blender bowl, combine tomatoes, basil, oregano, tomato paste, olive oil, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper by pulsing briefly (there should still be small lumps). Stir in the onion/garlic mixture.
- Let tomato sauce cool 20-30 minutes, then pour into a quart- or gallon-size sealable plastic freezer bag (or a 1-quart plastic freezer container).
- When ready to serve, let it thaw in the microwave or overnight in the refrigerator, then place it in a medium, nonstick saucepan. Cook over low heat, uncovered, long enough to blend the flavors (about 15 minutes). Serve with pasta or other dishes.
Yield: Makes about 3 cups of sauce or 4 servings (if 3/4-cup each)
Nutrition Information: Per serving: 97 calories, 2.5 g protein, 13.5 g carbohydrate, 3.5 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 33%.
Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2008 Elaine Magee
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for WebMD and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.
Published July 2008.
Carol Ann Burtness, MEd, extension educator-food science, Minnesota Regional Extension Office. Tarrant Figlio, WebMD message board moderator.
University of Minnesota Extension Service web site: "Basil; Making Freezer Jam; Freezing Fruits and Vegetables."
University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service web site: "Preserving Food: Freezing Fruit."