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Preserving summer flavors and a fading art

Betty Hightower is an exceptional cook who not only makes fine jams and jellies, but she’s also helped preserve the art of home food preservation by sharing her recipe and techniques with others.

So many vegetables, so little time.

That’s the story this time of year when we have an abundance of delicious summer fruits and vegetables — often more than we can possibly eat or give away — but, like summer itself, know that time is running on out them. They’ll be gone in the blink of a firefly. Of course there is a way to save the flavors and nutrients of summer. Put some away for later. Even primitive humans preserved their food supplies (caching food in ice or soil, for example), and while we have made great strides in food preservation (Ball jars, pressure canners, etc.) there’s some concern that, thanks to our busy, processed-food, non-agrarian way of life, we’re losing those time-honored home food preservation skills and knowledge.

The good news is that home food preservation may be declining, but it’s not yet a lost art. In fact, there’s been a resurgence of interest in learning home preservation techniques among consumers who are increasingly interested in using locally grown, less processed foods.

I’ve done a bit of canning, freezing and jelly making myself through the years, but because I’ve usually been helped by practiced, patient mentors (most recently by jelly-maker extraordinaire Betty Hightower), I’m far from an expert on the subject. So I sought a little guidance on the art and science of home food preservation from another friend, Food Safety and Quality Regional Extension Agent Patti West.

Patti is one of several Alabama Cooperative Extension System agents who teach folks like me how to safely (emphasis on safely) put up tasty, nutritious food. She and her Extension cohorts are the modern face of one of Extension’s oldest public services — home canning demonstrations.

According to Patti, preserving food at home will not necessarily save money — it requires an investment in equipment, supplies and time — but it is an effective (and can be fun) way to preserve the bounty of summer, or any season’s harvest for that matter.

According to Patti, it should all start with quality product picked at its peak of ripeness and freshness. “As horticulturists will tell you, it is best to pick produce early in the morning,” she says. “That’s because as the day gets hotter, the produce loses moisture.”

Process produce soon after picking

Once it’s picked, though, times a-wastin’. “Produce doesn’t get any better after it’s picked. It’s at its peak then and you want to process it as soon as you can,” Patti says, and six to 12 hours after harvest is ideal. Wash the produce thoroughly, trim away any blemishes or damaged areas and avoid using fruits or vegetables that are diseased, badly bruised or moldy.

Patti also recommends having all equipment and supplies purchased and ready to use before starting. “You don’t want to have to stop in the middle and run to the store for something.” So what is the best food preservation method? Nutritionally, “fresh is best, frozen is second best and canned is third,” Patti says.

The other vitally important detail in food preservation is food safety, with botulism being the primary concern, though other contaminants such as e coli and Salmonella can pose threats. Safe food preservation techniques vary depending on the type of produce you’re preserving, but avoiding food poisoning is easy. “You just need to follow a tested recipe and process it for the required amount of time,” she says.

Obviously there’s much more to learn about food preservation than will fit in this column, but luckily there are easy ways to get that information. County Extension offices are a great place to start and personnel there can even help groups arrange a program led by Patti or one of her fellow experts. Another exceptional resource is the National Center for Home Food Preservation in Georgia (, where you can find loads of information and the fabulous and free, step-by-step online food preservation guide, USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning.

Regardless of whether you dive headlong into canning and fermenting or simply freeze a few quarts of fruit or veggies, you can take pleasure in knowing you’re preserving the flavors of summer and an ancient art.

JACKSON, KATIE Gardening 2013

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at