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This post is meant to be a starter guide and overview for those that are just getting started with food preservation or those that want to explore other methods. I have attempted to link to relevant articles from the Backdoor Survival archive so that you can find more detailed information on the methods that interest you the most.
Drying food is one of my favorite ways to preserve it. We dry a lot of Shiitake and oyster mushrooms that we grow.
Drying has the following advantages.
- Easy to fit into a busy work day
- Allows you to store a lot of food in a small space
- Can be done using the sun and good airflow or using an inexpensive dehydrator
- No major learning curve
Ok, vacuum sealing is one of those methods that can be used as a preservation method itself, but it also improves other methods.
Vacuum sealing with a moisture absorber helps dried foods have a much longer shelf life, and it improves how long frozen foods last and the quality of flavor.
I recommend getting a good vacuum sealer the first time. I bought a Foodsaver Gamesaver years ago, and it lasted just a few years, but I think this is because we used it to seal a lot of salty pork products. We were living a bit rough in a camper and didn’t take care of things as well as we could of at times.
Check out my post on Food Sealers for some very inexpensive to higher-end options.
My goal is to get the Weston sealer with a dual pump. It is commercial grade, and I have learned the hard way that you are better off getting a really good machine first. Cheap sealers take longer to seal, so it takes a lot longer to get a job done. This can really add up over time and may even discourage you from putting back as much food.
I love freeze dried food but actually, freeze drying it at home all by yourself is still not cost effective at the moment. I wrote about Harvest Right Freeze dryers quite some time ago, and as of now, I am not aware of any other freeze dryer brand available to the general public at this time. There are commercial freeze dryers out there, but they cost way more than most anyone would want to pay.
Remember that the size of freeze dryer you get is a major factor on how much freeze-dried food you can put back. There is a definite cap as to how much you can get at off your freeze dryer regardless of how on top of it you are. I hope that one day these are more affordable and accessible to us all because the quality you get is amazing and you can fit so much food in such a small space.
Of course, freeze-dried food requires some extra water to prepare, and you might want to drink a little extra depending on how much you consume.
I started out canning many years ago, and while I like it in some ways, it is something that I don’t do a lot of because I find it hot and time-consuming. You also have to consider that lids and jars cost money and they are prone to breakage and damage. Over time, pressure canning takes its toll on jars. If you break a jar of meat pressure canning, then you have lost 1-3 lbs of meat that is pure waste.
Jam and jelly make up most of the canning that I do. While I used to do pickles and sauerkraut, I don’t do that either because the canning process kills any of the great natural fermentation bacteria and benefits you get.
I find it kind of hard to pressure can on propane or gas stoves too. I know that this sounds like a big rant against canning, but I think that a lot of people that are busy need to realize how much time it takes and the costs and risks. There is no doubt that you can put back a lot of great food this way but it takes a lot of work, and you have to invest in a good canner or two on top of the jars and lids.
Here is a link to our post on pressure canners for some choices in a wide price range. I just have a few basic Presto aluminum canners. If you are serious about canning, stainless steel is definitely better but more expensive.
During good times with a working grid, it is hard to beat having a good chest freezer. You can get a small chest freezer used for very little, but a small new one is under $180. Make sure to get one that is a reasonable size for your situation. Since freezers are inexpensive, you can always sell a small one and buy a larger one later. The cost per year to run a freezer is quite low too since basically, all the new freezers are Energy Star Rated.
Frozen foods that are vacuum sealed last as long as two years versus freezer paper that seems to cost more and only keep food protected for six months to a year.
I like having a freezer because it allows me to take advantage of buying good meat when it is discounted or if I want to buy a 1/4 a beef and get a great deal from a local farmer. I have to say that if you are buying meat in the trays at the grocery store, it will last much longer if you vacuum seal it. I sometimes throw it in the freezer as is but only if I plan on using it over a month or two. A freezer can actually save you a lot of money on your food bill.
You can also freeze berries in the summer and spring and make jam or jelly in the Fall or Winter if you have more time then. My mother in law used to do that all the time when she was working long hours at the hospital.
Also, this allows for you to accumulate enough harvest to make it worth it to do jelly. We have blueberries that come in over a fairly long season so we do this so we can do big batches and make better use of our time. There is a lot of work to do in the vineyard while the blueberries are coming in.
A variety of methods is often the key
I think that most people will find that they need to combine many different food preservations for best results.
Food Preservation Starter Kit
Here is a way to explore some different methods.
If you want to try:
Fermentation container like a crock or a Crazy Korean container.
I strongly recommend the Nesco Dehydrator because it is very affordable and we have used ours for over a year, and it has been a joy to use and allowed us to put back a lot of food. The accessories are easy to get. You can get a jerky gun kit or liners to make fruit roll-ups or dry high liquid content stuff like tomato puree.
If you want to try canning, you should start with water bath canning, not pressure canning. You should buy a canner and then buy an accessory kit, so you have a pleasant experience and are not fumbling for tools.
I know a lot of people rent or just have limited space, so I found this small freezer that will still allow you to take advantage of sales and putting back some fruit to can or just enjoy frozen.
Start off with a mid-priced machine if you are not sure. The cheaper ones are really not the best to use, and I don’t want you to be turned off merely by a defective machine and get turned against vacuum sealing.
As I said before, there are no cheap options for freeze dryers so I will just share the mid-sized freeze dryer here. There are payment plans available if you really want one. Some people can share them, but I would be careful with that type of arrangement.
Speeding up the process of food preservation
Be very careful using these. It is very easy to wrack you knuckles over one of these and cut yourself badly but people really like these generally.
I plan on getting one of these for my stand mixer. They may have these for other mixers as well but I know that the Kitchenaid is a very popular kitchen appliance.
There are many different attachments for a food mill that can help to manually process food. It can be tiring, but it is far better than hand chopping.
Take your time when learning a new skill
Some people make food preservation look so easy, but that is just because they have done it a lot. You will make it look easy too one day if you stick with it but in the beginning, set aside time to learn where you are not rushed with a ton of other activities. It is too easy to make mistakes when distracted and learning food preservation techniques.
Hot boiling water, sticky hot sauces, and jars and pressure canners that must be watched are all safety concerns when it comes to food preservation. If you have smaller kids, you have to watch out for them a little more because they can be quite curious about what is going on in the kitchen.
Sharp knives and food processing equipment poses cutting hazards so make sure to take care of these tasks when you are more at your best. Injuries happen when you are tired, rushed, or frustrated. We had a pig fall once because we did not stop and get the right tool to tighten a cable while hanging and gutting a hog. Matt was sore for days due to that. I was so glad he was not hurt worse. Very scary because this was half a hog and that means 200 lbs of weight coming down unexpectedly.
Consider if some foods are worth it to put back
I live in an area that produces a lot of tomatoes but it is actually cheaper for me to buy organic store brand tomato sauce than to buy the nonorganic local tomatoes and can them myself. It is just not worth it timewise and financially when I have to buy tomatoes, jars, lids, propane and take hours to prepare and process. I have considered drying tomatoes using my dehydrator or making dried tomato flakes.
Meat is worth it to preserve, especially if you raise your own or hunt.
Just consider everything you have to put into something and then see what you can buy a comparable product for. If you can’t buy a comparable product, then that alone may make it worth it to you.
The length of time that food lasts depends on what you preserve and the method you use. Canned and frozen foods do not have the shelf life of dried and vacuum sealed foods for example. Setting up a rotation schedule of the more perishable items is a good idea so that you get the most out of your preps and food budget.
Start out with something simple like drying fruit or mushrooms or making a batch of jam or jelly. You can make jam or jelly from store bought juice or fruit if you want to practice, but you will get better results and a lower cost if you buy fruit that is in season.
Dried banana slices are really good and easy to do do with a dehydrator.
Salting, curing, and smoking
Matt and I have done a lot of smoking and curing over the years, especially when we raised pastured pork while building our house. It is worth it to do, but it takes a lot of time. I wrote an article on curing and smoking that goes into greater detail. You can start out curing meat by just buying a pork belly and curing it in your refrigerator.
My corned beef article is an easy way to get started on your St. Patricks day feast.
There is a ton of evidence that suggests it is very good for you to eat live fermented foods. This is also a great way to use up some veggies that you are not going to get around to eating fresh.
There are so many cool fermentation containers out there. Check out my posts on fermentation crocks for more information on choosing the right crock or our beginning fermentation article.
Keep it simple the first time you do a food preservation project
Choose basic recipes for first-time food preservation projects and don’t alter the recipe a lot. I will say that some fermented and pickled recipes have a lot more salt than is necessary. You have to be careful with altering though due to food safety concerns.
The National Center For Home Food Preservation has a ton of great recipes and very specific instructions to ensure that you preserve your food safely.
Drying meat or making jerky
You don’t just dry meat in a dehydrator; it has to be allowed to cure for a specific time. Follow the jerky and dried meat instructions for your dehydrator precisely to avoid illness. There is little to worry about if you just follow the instructions and if you don’t take short cuts.
Other dehydrators probably have their versions. Do keep in mind that drying meat requires using curing salts that contain nitrates and nitrite. Some people claim that celery seed is a natural way to cure meat but it contains nitrites too, they are just from a natural source. People need to realize that they are not eliminating nitrates entirely.
People did dry meat without curing, but they still salted it plenty. It is best to treat it properly though because you do not want food poisoning or to lose all your investment due to spoilage.
What is your favorite method of food preservation? Do you have any tips to share? Is there another method that I am not aware of that you like to use? Do you have any experience freeze drying food? Has it been worthwhile for you?
Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected].