Capture some of summer’s bounty and spread your seasonal abundance into the winter months. We explain just how easy it is to store, freeze and process your hard-won harvests
For many gardeners the tail end of summer is a time of great abundance, especially if you grow some of your own fruits and vegetables. The tomatoes will (at last!) be producing seductively aromatic globes of flavoursome goodness, while soft fruits such as raspberries will be joining the likes of plums and, in a few weeks, apples and pears in fruitful bounty. Maincrop root vegetables and spuds will be lifted round about now, courgettes will continue to run ahead with trugfuls of fruits and, if you happen to have a wigwam or two of runner beans, you’ll be wondering what on earth to do with them all!
It’s easy to feed the family fresh produce from the garden during the summer months. Crops come thick and fast with those long days and balmy temperatures; it’s easy to think that this time of plenty will never end. But all of this bounty presents its challenges – how many of us struggle for new recipes to use up the likes of beans and beetroot, for example?
Of course, this horn of plenty can’t last indefinitely. Part of the skill of growing your own is putting aside some of these summer yummies to enjoy in the depths of winter when there’s little coming from the garden or allotment. Freezing, drying and cold storage can help to even out the peaks and troughs and ensure a steadier supply of food. And what could be better than a store of preserved goodness to dip into as needed? Knowing how to store your harvested fruits and vegetables will give you extra flexibility while extending the enjoyment of your home-grown food year-round.
The freezer has dramatically improved storage prospects for the modern gardener. Just about any fruit or vegetable can be frozen for later use. Stored in carefully labelled bags, you will be able to set aside some of your summer produce to enjoy later on in the year when you’ll be craving those long, warm summer days. Frozen produce will store for a considerable period of time, making this one of the most versatile solutions to peak-season gluts.
The key to successful freezing is a process known as ‘blanching’. This is simply the vigorous boiling needed beforehand to prepare your produce. Blanching kills off enzyme activity thereby enabling produce to be stored for longer without the worry of it deteriorating. Blanching time depends on the type of vegetable – peas, for example, require just two minutes of rapid boiling, while sweetcorn cobs will need four. Vegetables are first prepared by cutting them into more manageable chunks. As a rule of thumb, expect to boil for about half the time it would take to fully cook your vegetable.
Once you have blanched your vegetables it’s important to immediately stop the cooking process by plunging your veg into ice-cold water. After drying, the prepped produce can be packed into labelled freezer bags or Tupperware containers ready for the freezer.
Peas and beans, particularly Borlotti beans and varieties of French bean, are ideal candidates for drying. Leave pods to turn pale on the plants before lifting them on a dry day and hanging them upside down somewhere with good airflow to dry further. Once the pods are completely crisp crack them open and spread the peas or beans on a tray for the next stage of drying. Only once the peas or beans are fully dried out can they then be decanted into airtight jars or tins for use throughout the winter.
Dried legumes are great in stews, casseroles and soups – simply soak them overnight then boil them rapidly for 10 minutes before adding them to your recipe. Herbs can also be lifted and dried upside down in brown paper bags until crisp then flaked into jars to use when fresh herbs are scarce.
Onions seem to come all at once, ripening en masse from late summer. The trick to extending your use of onions is to dry them thoroughly before weaving them into the famous onion string. To dry the onions, lift them out of the ground as soon as the leaves have turned yellow. Allow the bulbs to dry out for at least a week in the sun. Lift the bulbs off the soil surface if possible, using a rack or sheet of wire mesh raised up on blocks. If the weather is dire then move your onions into the greenhouse or shed to continue the drying process.
Only once they are fully dried out are they ready for stringing. Prepare the bulbs by cleaning off any remaining soil and trim the roots. Now take a piece of string and tie the ends together to form a loop. Suspend this from a hook and begin creating your onion string. Secure the first onion to anchor the string loop then work each onion into the loop, using the leaves to weave in and out of the string lines in a figure of eight. Work your way around the strings until you have at least 12 onions secured then trim off any excess leaves. Keep your onion strings in a cool, dry place and bring them into the kitchen as required. If you don’t fancy the effort of making your own onion strings, the bulbs will also store very well in net bags.
It’s important when storing onions, or indeed any vegetable or fruit, to use only the healthiest specimens. Do not store any that are bruised or you run the risk of attracting disease into your store. Always handle your crop with the utmost delicacy to minimise bruising.
Like onions, potatoes have a habit of arriving all at once. Larger maincrop varieties of potato are ready to lift in August or September and present the best opportunity for winter storage. They will offer a welcome supply of carbohydrate during the cold months.
To store maincrop potatoes you will need to wait until the foliage has turned yellow and is starting to die down before cutting it away. Leave your spuds in the soil for a further two weeks in order to toughen up the skin ready for storage then lift them out of the ground on a dry day. Leave your potatoes on the soil surface for a couple of hours to dry out then brush off excess soil. Now carefully place all pristine, disease-free tubers into hessian sacks and remove these to a dry, cool, but frost-free place such as a shed or garage.
It’s important to keep your spuds in the dark to stop them turning green (this can cause stomach upsets). Check on your potatoes regularly and remove any that have become soft or look like they are rotting. Many other root vegetables can be stored in sacks like this, ‘curing’ them first to harden the skin and maintaining a cool, dark environment for maximum length of store.
If you don’t have masses of root vegetables to store but still have a reasonable quantity then an alternative method to storing in sacks is to store your roots in boxes of dry sand. Old fruit boxes or wooden grocery crates are the ideal storage vessels. Simply place a layer of dry sand on the bottom of your box then lay a layer of vegetables such as carrots, parsnips or beetroots side-by-side in the box so they are not touching. Trim off any foliage before placing them into store then layer up the box with alternating layers of sand and roots until your reach the top, finishing with a capping layer of sand. Keep the box in a similarly cool, dark place and your roots will stay firm and in sound condition for at least three months and often longer.
Greater quantities of root veg can be stored within a clamp, along with such winter stalwarts as swede and celeriac. A clamp is a very effective method of storage and is built outside on the vegetable patch, freeing up valuable indoor storage space. It uses straw to insulate produce against frosts, keeping your crop in tip-top condition for when it’s needed.
Pick a spot for your clamp that doesn’t get boggy when it rains. To make your clamp begin by clearing away a 90-120cm (3-4ft) diameter patch of ground then dig a trench one spade’s width and depth around this to further aid drainage. Save the soil as this will be needed later on. Now place a 7cm (3in) layer of straw onto the bottom of the cleared site and then a layer of vegetables so that they are not touching. Add another layer of straw then more vegetables, building up the clamp into a cone shape. When you have reached the top, cover the entire structure with a 15cm (6in) layer of straw and fashion a tuft of straw for the top to act as a chimney to wick away any excess moisture. To finish the clamp off and keep it together, add a 5-7cm (2-3in) layer of soil around the straw and pat it tight, allowing the straw chimney to poke out of the top. Vegetables should keep for most of the winter like this.
Countless recipes abound for making jellies, jams, pickles and chutneys, all of which will capture that summer goodness for later enjoyment. One of the most useful chutneys to have in the cupboard is a flavour-packing tomato chutney. To make this, begin by simmering peeled and chopped tomatoes with very finely chopped onion. Reduce the bubbling mush to a thick pulp then pour in some vinegar and add a pinch of salt, paprika and some chilli powder according to taste. Allow the mixture to reduce further before adding a little more vinegar that’s already been sweetened with added sugar. Continue to simmer until the right consistency has been achieved then decant into sterilised jars and seal.
Locking away some of the season’s riches like this will boost you spirit during the dull, cold days of winter. And with a taste of summer at the ready you’ll at least be basking in your own little slice of sunshine.
Top storage tips
- Get storing: Make the effort to store as much as you can, as you’ll be grateful later on in the season.
- Quality produce: Never store anything that is bruised or damaged or you may attract disease.
- Keep it cool: Keep stored produce in a cool, dry and dark place, free from wide temperature fluctuations.
- Check regularly: Always check on stored produce and be sure to minimise opportunities for vermin.