The garden has frozen over and your table sits heavy with food. Some food begins to wilt while others shine bright orange in the autumn light. Congratulations: your garden was a success! Now to learn how to store vegetables so they don’t go bad before you can eat them.
There are many food preservation examples that you can follow for winter food storage and specifically for how to store vegetables.
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Freezing: Food preservation methods that involves freezing generally requires blanching. However, some vegetables can be stashed directly in a freezer bag. For instance, tree fruits and berries can be sliced or stored whole. Nightshades, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and tomatillos go directly into freezer bags. Green vegetables such as snap beans, peas, and leaf vegetables need to flash-cooked to stop the enzymatic processes and lock in flavor. Learn how to store vegetables via blanching then keep in airtight freezer-safe containers.
Drying and Curing: Age-old curing methods involve hanging vegetables in a warm, arid place until either the outside layers or the entire vegetable are dry. Be sure your curing area has good airflow and is protected from direct sunlight. Open racks, in a basement or garage, work well if you don’t have a dedicated storage room.
Dehydrating: Though a forced-air dehydrator speeds up the process, dehydrating can be done in the oven or outside during the hottest summer days. Herbs only need a temperature of ninety-five degrees while most vegetables need 135. For fruits that can brown easily, such as pears and apples, soak first in a solution of water and citric acid.
Root Cellaring: Once cured, certain vegetables can last up to a year in a dry, ventilated location that averages 50 to 60 degrees. If you don’t have a root cellar, consider a basement or a dark closet with a cool tile floor. Monitor the temperature. Temperatures below fifty degrees can damage a live crop, such as sweet potatoes, and starches within onions can turn to sugars. If it rises above seventy degrees, many of your vegetables will either sprout or decompose.
Water Bath Canning: Canning via water bath requires less of a financial and educational commitment than pressure canning. However, observe rules for safe water bath canning and remember that this method is only for high-acid foods.
Pressure Canning: Most foods that cannot be water bath canned are safe to process in a pressure canner. Exceptions are thick mixtures such as pumpkin butter and refried beans, which do not allow the heat to fully penetrate even when under high pressure.
Each type of vegetable has a few methods which work best to maintain texture and nutrition for the longest period of time. To learn how to store vegetables from your garden, first, identify the type of vegetable.
The allium family includes onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives. While the green tops have limited storage options, the bulb is easy to preserve.
Root Cellaring: After pulling from the ground, shake off excess dirt. Leave the roots on to help moderate drying. Tie the tops together and hang, or arrange in a single layer on a drying rack. The papery skin will tighten around the bulb and the neck will wither. When you can no longer feel moisture in the neck, trim that and the roots. A well-stored allium can last up to a year.
Dehydrating: The bulbs and green tops can be dehydrated. This is one of the best methods for chives and leeks, which do not cure well. Wash and shake off excess moisture. Cut leeks lengthwise to expose layers then rinse out any dirt. Slice thinly and place it in a single layer on a dehydrator tray. Heat at 135 degrees for a few hours to overnight, until the vegetable has become dry and papery. To make onion or garlic powder, run the dried product through a blender until very fine. Store in airtight containers.
Freezing: Frozen alliums thaw out floppy, which is fine for soups and casseroles. Alliums do not need to be blanched. To avoid freezer burn, add a little liquid of your choice. Chopped chives, frozen in ice cube trays with beef broth, make a handy addition to soups.
This large family of vegetables includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, turnips, radishes, and kohlrabi. They can be preserved, but the options are limited.
Freezing: Brassicas must all be blanched to avoid a bitter thawed product. Store in airtight freezer bags.
Refrigeration: Radishes can last a week or longer in your crisper and turnips can be good for up to two weeks. Store loose and dry, outside of a plastic bag. Remove the green tops from root crops because they can leach out moisture.
Canning: Unless they are pickled, all brassicas must be pressure-canned, but the method might result in a mushy vegetable. Pickles can last years in a properly sealed mason jar. Due to the extremely high acidity of the vinegar, almost any vegetable can be safely pickled but do not add lime or any other crisping agents other than the salt required in the recipe.
Did you grow sweet corn, field corn, flint corn, or popcorn? It matters.
Freezing: Sweet corn may be frozen but it must first be blanched. Either freeze the entire cob or cut off the kernels and fill a freezer-safe container. Store for up to a year, though the quality is best within the first six months.
Drying: Field, flint, and popcorn are best dried while on the plant. When the husks get papery, stop watering your corn. Leave the ears on the stalk as long as the weather stays dry and the wildlife cooperate. Or gently pull the ears from the stalk, peel back the husks, and either hang them or set on a drying rack. After a few weeks, shell the corn and store in an airtight container. Pop or grind only what you need to maintain the best flavor.
Canning: Corn cannot be water bath canned unless it’s part of a relish or chutney. Corn in water must be pressure-canned.
You have two options for cucumbers: pickle them or eat them soon.
Refrigeration: Cucumbers sold at the supermarket are covered in edible wax because the fruits easily dehydrate through their skins. Slow dehydration by keeping cucumbers in a plastic bag. Eat within a week for best quality.
Pickling: The cucumber is the most popular pickling vegetable. Use brining or vinegar techniques and store your pickles in the refrigerator for a few weeks or in sealed mason jars for several years.
Traditionally dried, herbs actually keep better flavor if they are frozen.
Freezing: To avoid bitter herbs, freeze in a small amount of liquid. Mince the herbs and pack them into ice cube trays. Fill with a liquid such as water, broth, juice, or oil. Press plastic wrap across the top to ensure all herbs are submerged. Freeze then pop out of trays to store in a freezer-safe container. Cubes may be removed a few at a time to thaw for sauces or drop into soups.
Dehydrating: Wash the herbs then shake off excess water. Arrange in a single layer on a food dehydrator tray. Only the lowest heat setting is necessary for herbs. Do not over-dry. After moisture is removed, store in an airtight container away from direct light.
Depending on the specific green, you may wish to dry versus freeze.
Dehydrating: Wash and shake excess water from greens such as kale. Arrange in a single layer in a food dehydrator and allow to run at a low setting for a few hours to overnight. Store in an airtight container.
Freezing: Spinach, collard greens, and Swiss chard are better frozen, but they must first be blanched. Squeeze out excess moisture before packing into freezer-safe bags. Press all air out of the bags before sealing.
Canning: Pressure-can leafy greens or use them in a relish called chow chow. Remember that very low-acid foods such as leafy greens can be susceptible to botulism if they are not properly prepared.
Nightshades are tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and tomatillos. For potatoes, follow the directions for root vegetables.
Freezing: Nightshades do not need to be blanched. Just wash, remove stems and seeds if desired, and place in a freezer bag. The vegetables will thaw out floppy, so it helps to cut them in the shape you intend to use before freezing. Press out air then seal.
Drying: To dry small chili peppers, either use a dehydrator or run a needle and thread through the stems then hang the string in a dust-free location. Tomatoes should be dried in a dehydrator or on an open-air drying rack. Eggplant and tomatillos don’t fare well when dried.
Canning: All nightshades are too alkaline to be water bath canned without additional acid. Only a little lemon juice is necessary for tomatoes, but peppers and eggplant must be pickled. Extra acid is unnecessary if you’re pressure canning.
Peas and Beans
Are you preserving fresh snap beans and snow peas? Or are you drying them for soups?
Freezing: Blanch snap/wax beans and peas both inside the pod or shelled. Store in airtight containers.
Canning: All peas and beans must be pressure canned unless you are pickling them. Dried beans, such as pintos, may be cooked then pressure canned as long as they are in water or broth. It is not safe to pressure can refried beans.
Drying: Allow pods to mature and dry on the plant. Gently remove the entire pod before wet winter weather begins and finish curing inside. Remove peas and beans from the shell and store in a cool, dry place.
Knowing how to grow carrots and other root vegetables requires also knowing how to store vegetables and their surplus. Though your potatoes, carrots, and turnips come from different vegetable families, they store similarly.
Root Cellaring: Potatoes should cure for a week in a warm, dry, dark location before they enter storage. Separate all root vegetables by type, since the natural gasses emitted by one may shorten the life of another. Keep in the dark, at an optimal temperature of fifty degrees. Carrots, beets, and parsnips can be stored in containers of damp sawdust but potatoes must remain dry and well ventilated.
In the Ground: As long as your dirt doesn’t freeze, you can keep potatoes, carrots, and parsnips in the garden all winter. Mulch heavily with straw or leaves to keep the ground warm enough. Dig up as you need them.
Canning: All root vegetables must be pressure canned unless they are pickled.
True to their name, summer squash such as zucchini and patty pan only stay fresh within days after picking. Aside from refrigeration, you can preserve them a few ways.
Dehydrating: Slice squash thinly. Arrange in a single layer and dehydrate at 135 degrees overnight. Eat as dry chips or rehydrate to use in gratins.
Freezing: Though shredded zucchini does not need to be blanched, slices should be boiled three minutes then cooled before going into freezer bags. After thawing, drain off excess liquid before using for recipes.
Canning: If they are not pickled, squash should be pressure canned. Expect them to get mushy. Zucchini and summer squash can replace cucumbers pound for pound in a vinegar-based pickling recipe.
Pumpkins, butternut, Hubbard, acorn, and many other varieties fall within the winter squash category. Though a frost sweetens the flesh, it greatly reduces storage life. Harvest before temperatures drop below 40 degrees.
Root Cellaring: All winter squash varieties store in the same way: in a cool, dry location such as a basement. First, cure all but acorn squash for a couple weeks. Place acorn directly into storage and eat soon. Acorn squash can store for a month this way while butternut and Hubbard can stay fresh up to six months.
Freezing: Roast squash first. Separate seeds from flesh and scoop out of shells. Store in freezer bags. Use in soups, curries, or any recipe which requires pureed pumpkin.
Canning: It is unsafe to can pumpkin butter or thick, pureed squash. If you wish to can your squash, make pickles from the pumpkin. Or create a thin, soupy liquid using the squash and either broth or water.
Knowing how to store vegetables keeps the season going longer, bringing the garden to the table even after the snows fall.