Your shelves are brimming, your freezer is overloaded, and your tomatoes, berries, and greens are nearing their expiration date. What to do? This is the perfect time to try canning and other simple food preservation techniques—and they’re easier than you might think. Experiment with some of the following:
Water-bath canning is relatively simple, and unlike pressure canning, doesn't require special equipment. It should only be used for high-acid foods, like tomatoes—high-acid mixtures are more resistant to bacteria. If you're using low-acid vegetables like cucumber or green beans, use a brine to increase acidity. For shelf-stable methods, the pH level should be below 4.6; test the foods you're canning with a strip of pH paper to be sure. Use Mason or Ball jars and lids, not recycled jars, to ensure the best seal and avoid cracking during heating. Pint jars are better for beginners since the smaller quantities heat more evenly and thoroughly throughout.
Best for: tomatoes, brined vegetables (cauliflower, cucumber, carrots, turnips, radishes, green beans, beets).
How to: sterilize jars and lids by immersing them in boiling water for a few minutes, or run them through the dishwasher on the hottest setting. Line the bottom of a large, heavy pot with a clean dishtowel. Bring a second large pot of water to a boil. While water is boiling, prepare foods:
- For tomatoes: blanch first to remove skins, coarsely chop, add 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and cook for five minutes until softened. Pour tomatoes and juice into sterilized jars—use a funnel to prevent food from spilling on the threads and interfering with the seal—and leave about 1/2 inch of room at the top. Run a sterilized rubber spatula around the inside of jars to remove air bubbles and screw on lids.
- For pickled vegetables: combine equal parts vinegar and water (white wine vinegar, rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar are best) in a small pot to make a brine. Add salt and bring to a boil. Slice cucumbers and cut vegetables into 1/2-inch pieces and pack firmly into sterilized jars. Cover with hot brine, leaving 1/2 inch of room at the top, and screw on lids.
Stand filled and sealed jars in the towel-lined pot and fill the pot with boiling water, making sure water completely covers jars. Boil for 10 to 15 minutes, adding more boiling water if needed to keep jars submerged. Turn off heat and let stand for 10 minutes, then remove jars and let cool for 12 hours. After cooling, check the seals by pressing down on the center of each lid. If the lid pops up, it's not sealed; just store in the refrigerator.
If water-bath canning is too involved, and you have a little extra refrigerator space, try quick pickling. This method (also called refrigerator pickling) is fast and easy, and because it uses a brine to reduce pH, it's appropriate for a variety of vegetables. While quick-pickled foods aren't shelf-stable, this method can extend the life of many vegetables by days or weeks.
Best for: cucumbers, onions, cabbage, green beans, carrots, zucchini, radishes, beets.
How to: trim and cut vegetables and pack firmly into clean pint-sized jars, adding herbs, spices, garlic or peppercorns for flavoring, and leaving 1/2 inch of space from the top of the jar. Pour boiling brine over vegetables to cover completely and screw on lids. Let cool to room temperature, then store in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours before using. Keep refrigerated for up to a month.
Related: Canning Tips & Tricks
Jams, fruit spreads, preserves, and chutneys are the best way to extend the shelf life of fruits. Berries, peaches, oranges and other fruits can be canned using the water-bath method if limited refrigerator space is an issue. Or you can make simple refrigerator preserves. Adding sugar increases acidity, extending shelf life.
Best for: berries, apples, pears, peaches, cherries, apricots, oranges, plums.
How to: combine chopped fruits or mashed berries with unrefined cane sugar in a medium pot and cook till thickened; add spices like cinnamon, cardamom or vanilla for extra flavor. For savory apple or pear chutneys, use vinegar, ginger, garlic and spices. Use the water-bath canning method for shelf-stable preserves. For refrigerator preserves, pour hot preserves into clean pint jars, screw on lids and let cool before storing in the refrigerator. Most refrigerator preserves will last for three to six weeks after opening, depending on the acidity of the fruit or how much sugar you use in the mixture.
This is one of the best ways to preserve greens, herbs or hard fruits like apples and pears. It's best and easiest with a dehydrator; most are relatively inexpensive, and you can find small, simple versions for as little as $40. Or you can use an oven on the lowest setting, ideally below 180 degrees.
Best for: apples, pears, zucchini, broccoli, onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, eggplant, kale, collard greens, herbs.
How to: thinly slice foods with a sharp knife or a mandolin, arrange them in a single layer on dehydrator trays, and dry for 8 to 16 hours depending on the food. Or arrange on parchment-lined baking sheets and dehydrate in an oven on the lowest setting for 6 to 10 hours. Herbs can be air-dried; just tie them in a bundle with twine and hang them in a cool, dark location, away from direct sun to retain color and flavor.