3 Ways to Save Your Tower Garden Harvests
What if—in the dead of winter—you could enjoy the soothing scent of a sprig of lavender, or the satisfying sweetness of vine-ripened tomato sauce, or the searing spice of homegrown chilies? I’m not talking about growing indoors. (Though, that’s certainly a great idea!)
If you’re like me, by September you’re using your fresh Tower Garden produce daily. Maybe you’re even giving some of it away to friends and family. But those plants just… keep… growing. And growing so quickly, at that!
In fact, I relocated my basil, dill and several other plants from my indoor Tower Garden to my outdoor soil garden to slow them down. I couldn’t harvest them often enough to keep up with their rapid growth.
But, fellow gardener, there’s a better solution: food preservation.
In addition to preventing food waste, preserving your harvests will allow you to continue enjoying your Tower Garden harvests for months to come. Properly preserved, your harvests can last up to a year! And who wouldn’t want that?
So here are three simple ways to save your Tower Garden harvests.
Tower Tip: Regardless of what you’re preserving or how you’re preserving it, always be sure to select fresh, blemish-free produce at its peak. Overripe or diseased produce won’t store well.
Blanch, or briefly boil, your harvests to prevent spoilage.
Before we look at preservation techniques, we need to cover blanching, which is the process of briefly exposing produce to boiling water.
After you harvest, chemical compounds called enzymes immediately start impacting produce nutrients, color and flavor. If left alone, these enzymes ultimately cause food to spoil. But blanching destroys enzymes, thereby deactivating the decomposition process.
Here’s how to blanch:
- Clean and prepare your produce.
- Fill a cooking pot with water and bring it to a boil.
- Add the produce to the pot and blanch for 2–5 minutes (see note about timing below).
- Plunge produce in ice water. (This prevents it from actually cooking and helps preserve color and flavor.)
With blanching, timing is critical. Under-blanching simply stimulates enzymes. And over-blanching can rob produce of color, flavor and nutrients. So be sure to reference these crop-specific recommended blanching times.
Drying is the “go-to” preservation method for most herbs.
Drying Herbs and Other Produce
Though you can dry many fruits and vegetables, herbs are dried most often. Drying preserves food by removing about 80–95% of its moisture. (Unfortunately, moisture isn’t all that’s removed. Produce may lose more flavor and nutrients when dried rather than, say, frozen.)
When harvesting herbs to dry, pick them in the morning to preserve the greatest amount of essential oils (i.e., the stuff that makes herbs amazing). Also be sure to harvest before the plant goes to seed, if possible. Otherwise, the flavor may not be quite as good.
There are a few different ways to dry your harvests. For each method, you’ll know produce is finished drying when the following is true:
- Herbs easily crumble.
- Vegetables are brittle and light, easily snapping.
- Fruits have a leathery texture.
Drying on a Tray
If you have lots of produce to dry, trays offer the benefit of a large surface area. The best trays to use are those with non-galvanized screening, as this allows air to circulate from all sides. You can either place the trays in the sun outside (and cover with cheesecloth to keep bugs off) or in a dry place indoors (e.g., an attic or garage)—inside is preferable, as sunlight can destroy produce nutrients during the drying process.
As long as you have the space, hang drying is probably the simplest preservation method for herbs and leafy vegetables. Just gather the produce in small bunches and suspend them from a coat rack, attic rafters or any other reasonably dry place. You can also dry these bunches outside if the conditions are agreeable. (Hot, dry days are ideal.) But, again, sunlight may destroy some of the nutrients.
Drying in a Oven
This is one of the fastest drying methods, and as such, it retains much of a food’s nutrients and color. It’s also the best way to dry denser foods like tomatoes. To oven dry your harvests, line a baking sheet with parchment paper, spread the produce evenly on a single layer, and set your oven to its lowest setting (ideally 170˚F or less). After about an hour, turn each piece over. Repeat this process as necessary until dry.
In a hurry? Check out this tutorial for microwave-drying herbs.
Note: You can also use a dehydrator to dry your produce. If you do that, just follow the instructions that came with the unit.
Once your produce is dry, put it in a sterilized airtight container, and store it in a dark place or even a freezer. By the way—a helpful little tip—if you’re substituting your dried herbs for fresh, you should use 1/3 as much as the recipe calls for, as dried herbs are more potent than their fresh counterparts.
Freezing is arguably the best way to preserve produce nutrients, flavor and color.
Freezing Herbs, Vegetables and Fruits
Most herbs, vegetables and fruits can be frozen. But since freezing alters produce texture, you might want to use a different method for foods you would typically eat raw, such as lettuce, tomatoes or cucumbers.
That said, freezing is my favorite preservation method—it’s really easy. After blanching and allowing the produce to dry (this helps prevent ice buildup), just put it in a freezer bag, squeeze the air out to prevent freezer burn, and stick it in your freezer.
“Herb Cube” Method
Here’s another fun way (pictured above) to freeze herbs:
- Blend herbs in a food processor (or chop them up manually).
- Spoon herbs into an ice cube tray, filling each cube slot about 3/4 full.
- Top the remaining 1/4 of each cube slot with olive oil.
- Place the ice cube tray in your freezer.
- Once frozen, pop the herb cubes out of the tray, and store them in a freezer bag.
Then, next time a soup or sauce recipe calls for herbs, just drop a cube in.
Though it requires more work, canning is perfect for saving sauces, salsas, pickled produce and more.
Canning Fruits and Vegetables
I won’t lie to you. Canning is a labor-intensive preservation method. It’s for this reason I’ve only done it a couple times myself. But as I mentioned before—vine-ripened tomato sauce would be an incredible treat in the middle of January, right?
There are two ways to can food: by water bath and by pressure canner. You should use the water bath method for acidic foods, such as pickles and tomatoes, and the pressure canner method for low acid foods, like green beans. (Low acid foods are more susceptible to bacteria—that’s why you need the pressure canner.)
Note: The following canning tips were originally published on the Juice Plus+® blog.
Water Bath Method
Water bath canning is the best method for beginners. It doesn’t require any special equipment (although you can use it if you want) and is super simple. First, you will need:
- Water bath canner (or large stockpot with top)
- If you’re using a stockpot, you will also need something to put on the bottom of the pot to keep the jar from touching the bottom during the canning process (a dish towel, cooling rack or piece of board, for example)
- Canning jar with lid and ring (mason jars work perfectly)
- Rubber spatula
- Food to be canned and all ingredients included in canning recipe
It is important to sterilize your jars, lids and rings before canning and to keep them hot before you start to fill them with your produce. Once they’re clean and ready, you can begin canning.
- First, fill a pot with water and bring it to a boil. (Tip: Put your jar, lid and ring in the hot water at this time to keep them warm while you prep the food.)
- Turn the heat to medium once water is boiling.
- Prepare the food you wish to can according to your recipe, and fill the jar leaving the recommended space at the top.
- Take the spatula, and stir gently along the insides of the jar. (This will eliminate any air bubbles.)
- Clean the rim of the jar, and tightly place the lid and ring onto the jar.
- Place the jar in the water using your tongs. Make sure the jar is not touching the bottom of the pot and that there is at least two inches of water covering the jar. If you are canning multiple jars, make sure they are not touching.
- Cover the pot, and return to a boil.
- Leave the jar in the water as long as is called for by the recipe and your elevation. (Tip: Make sure to check that the water remains at a boil and that it covers the jar during the entire process.)
- After the jar has been in the water bath long enough, remove it with the tongs and set it on a heat-safe surface to cool.
- Once cool, check to make sure that there is a strong seal.
When the seal is strong, you’re good to go!
Pressure Canner Method
Canning with a pressure canner is a little more advanced than a water bath, and it, of course, requires a pressure canner. You will also need:
Canning jar with lid and ring (mason jars work perfectly)
- Rubber spatula
- Food to be canned and all ingredients included in canning recipe
The pressure canning process is very similar to that of the water bath method. Again, it is important to start with clean and warm jars, lids and rings.
- Once your jar is prepped and filled with the vegetables you want to preserve (don’t forget to eliminate the air bubbles with the spatula!), add 2–3 inches of hot water into your canner.
- Place the food-filled jar on the rack, and close the canner lid, making sure to leave weight off of the vent port.
- Heat the canner at the highest setting until you see steam flowing through the vent port.
- Allow the steam to flow for 10 minutes, and then place weight on the vent port.
- Let the canner pressurize over the next 3–5 minutes.
- Begin timing when the pressure gauge shows that the correct pressure amount has been reached.
- Leave the jar in the canner as long as is called for by the recipe and your elevation.
- When time is up, take canner off of the heat, and allow it to depressurize by letting it naturally cool down to room temperature.
- Once cooled, remove the canner lid carefully, and take out the jar using your tongs.
- Make sure the jar is sealed and cooled completely before storing.
You can also preserve herbs in oil, vinegar, butter and honey or as pesto.
Additional Food Preservation Resources
Did you know drying, freezing and canning aren’t the only ways to preserve produce? You have other interesting options—particularly for herbs—including herbal oil, vinegar, butter and honey. You can also make and freeze batches of pesto!
But let’s save that for another post, another time.
If you want even more preservation tips, try the National Center for Home Food Preservation or the University of Minnesota Extension. Both are excellent, thorough resources that I referenced when creating this post. And if you’re looking for canning recipes, this website should keep you busy.
Over to you: do you have a favorite food preservation method or pro technique? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments!
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