The way we eat has a profound effect on how eco-friendly, ethical, and sustainable our lives can be. Choosing and using seasonal produce is key. But this isn’t just about the perfect seasonal recipes – it’s also about preserving the harvest to enjoy later in the year. Choosing sustainable ways to preserve our food is crucial for a greener and more sustainable way of life.
In this article, we’ll take a look at using traditional food preservation methods for making the most of seasonal produce. Whether we grow our own, or buy ethically from local food producers, these age-old techniques can help us transition to a better future for ourselves, our families, and the planet.
Why Eating Local, Seasonal Produce Is So Important
Firstly, let’s take a moment to look at the importance of eating local, seasonal produce.
At present, the way most of us eat contributes to systems that harm both people and the planet. Our reliance on supermarket produce from around the globe, and the related expectation that we can have any fruits and vegetables whenever we want them, is a big problem.
Choosing local, seasonal produce reduces demand for out-of-season produce, further supports additional local produce, and local farming in your area. This in turn can lead to less transportation (with its associated pollution and greenhouse gas emissions), less refrigeration, fewer hothouses, and less irradiation of produce.
Much of the produce eaten by Europeans originates in the ‘Sea of Plastic‘ – the greenhouses of Almeria, Spain. Around 3.5 million tons of fruits and vegetables are produced there annually, from more than 31,000 hectares (78,000 acres) of greenhouses. When you buy out-of-season fresh produce in the UK, this is often where it will come from. But the repercussions are not only environmental: migrants are exploited here in order for people in the UK and other European countries to eat fresh produce year-round.
📌 Eat seasonally – ideally sourcing food directly from local, organic producers – and you can play a role in halting both the exploitation of people, and the excess consumption of non-renewable resources.
👉 For more information on what is in season every month in the UK, check out this link.
Why We Should Preserve More Food at Home
Of course, choosing to eat fresh, local, seasonal produce can limit the range of crops available to you throughout the year. But learning to preserve seasonal crops in various eco-friendly ways can ensure a healthy diversity in your diet.
Preserving local, seasonal produce can ensure you get the vitamins and nutrients you need, without having to turn to heavily-processed foods.
By preserving food at home, you can:
- Ensure a healthy diet year-round, while sticking to local, seasonal ingredients.
- Enjoy foods with greater nutritional value, that often taste better too. 🥦
- Save money (by buying fresh wholefoods rather than more expensive processed and packaged goods, or paying a premium for food grown abroad or with large amounts of energy).
- Avoid harmful toxins associated with industrial food preservation.
- Learn new skills to help you boost your resilience and live more sustainably in future.
- Reduce food waste by making the most of all the food you buy or grow.
From personal experience, I would add that using traditional preservation techniques can also be interesting, satisfying, and a lot of fun. Similarly, bottling, or making jams and other preserves can be great ways to slow down and relax, by helping you learn to live in the moment and appreciate the simple pleasures in life.
Traditional Food Preservation Methods
The most widespread way of preserving food at home is through refrigeration or freezing – but this is only as eco-friendly as the energy that’s used. These are only green preservation methods in a household that runs exclusively on renewable sources of power.
If, on the other hand, you rely on fossil fuels (or when freezer space runs out), investigate other, older, more traditional methods. These techniques can also save money, since they require little or no energy. 👇
To keep things simple, let’s focus on the preservation of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other plant-based foods. Traditional preservation of these kinds of fresh products can go a long way towards helping build a sustainable lifestyle.
Pantry or Larder Storage
Before refrigeration, food preservation in the UK centred around a space found in almost every home – a pantry, or larder. Older homes often still include these spaces: cool areas where perishable items can be stored at low temperature. But over the 20th Century, this concept of a walk-in pantry was lost, with most modern homes having little or no provision for cool food storage.
Retrofitting old homes for modern sustainability often revolves around insulation and glazing, or the installation of renewable energy generation systems. But arguably just as important is building space for food storage and preservation back in.
My husband and I are currently renovating an old stone barn, to be our forever home. The design includes a walk-in pantry, one of the elements I’m most excited about. An airy, cool space on the north-east corner, off the kitchen, its internal walls are insulated so the space will be unheated, and outside of the building envelope. With stone walls, and a stone floor will keep it cool, I will use it to store most of the food I grow or source locally.
Of course, I appreciate that it’s not always possible to design from scratch, but even in a small flat it’s possible to build pantry-provision back in. Most people keep food in simple kitchen cupboards – but by insulating a cupboard, returning to our ancestors’ techniques, food can be stored for longer, and more effectively.
Other options include storing fresh, seasonal produce in a garage space or unheated spare room. ✔️
Some fresh, harvested vegetables can be stored in your home for quite a while. For example, root crops can be stored in boxes of damp sand, pumpkins and squash on shelves in a cool, dark location, and onion and garlic can be braided and hung out of direct light somewhere with plenty of ventilation and a low, steady temperature.
How long fresh produce can be stored in your home depends on the fruits and vegetables in question; some will last much longer than others. As well as providing the right storage conditions, it’s important to use up damaged or sub-par items first, as these will not last as long in storage.
Another option for increasing vegetables’ ‘shelf life’ is a root cellar – another traditional preservation technique. If you have a garden, it may be possible to create a DIY root cellar for longer-term root-crop storage.
Traditionally, the best way of keeping root crops and other vegetables was in a cool underground storage area. The soil around a root cellar will tend to keep produce frost-free in winter, yet cool during the summer months, and humidity can be kept to suitable levels for the safe storage of a number of harvests. 🥕
At its simplest, an underground root cellar is a box inserted into the ground. At its most sophisticated, it can be a full walk-in underground room. There are plenty of options to consider.
In warmer and less humid climates, food can simply be sun-dried. In the UK, however, solar dehydration can often take too long, with items rotting before they dry out enough for longer-term storage if left out in the open. That said, the process can be sped up by making or buying a solar dehydrator: a glass- or plastic-covered container with insulation to help retain the heat.
Alternatively, electrical dehydrators can remove the water content of foods efficiently and with relative speed.
However, in the UK, the most common drying method involves using your oven. Fruits or vegetables are sliced, spread out on trays, and put into the oven on a low heat overnight, or for a number of hours. (You may be able to achieve the same effect with a solid-fuel stove, by placing fruits, vegetables, or herbs close to this heat-source.)
Also in the UK, there is a strong tradition of partial dehydration, when fruit (often, though not always, combined with sugar; see below) is stewed, then dehydrated in the oven to form chewy strips known as ‘fruit leathers’ – a DIY version of the fruit roll-ups that children often enjoy (but actually containing fruit).
Jams and Jellies: Sugar Preserves
Sugar-based preserves have been common since the days of the British Empire, when international trade first brought sugars from hotter climes to our shores in vast quantities. (The appalling impacts of the Empire on not only the way we eat, but on people and environments around the globe are fascinating and frightening – and certainly something to explore in more depth.)
There are a huge range of traditional jams, marmalades, and jellies that can be made using local, seasonal produce. And though it is most common to include sugar, it is possible to use local, organically-sourced honey instead – especially when other steps like boiling or canning (see below) are taken to preserve the food.
Sugar is also used to preserve food in other ways, since it draws water from microbes, dehydrating and killing them, helping to keep food safe from microbial spoilage 1. Sugars (cane sugar, honey, agave syrup, etc) can also be used to make syrups to surround fruits, or used in crystallised form for dry storage of ginger, angelica, or candied citrus peel.
Pickling and Vinegar Preserves
Much like cane sugar, many traditional pickled foods came to the UK through Empire trade routes. Chemical pickling involves placing foods into a pickling agent like brine (salting food being another ancient preservation method), vinegars, alcohol, and vegetable oil. Heating or boiling is often also involved in creating preserves of this kind.
Cucumbers, peppers, onions, etc, are all commonly preserved in this way. Mixed-vegetable piccalillis are another example of this approach to food preservation, while vinegar also plays a role in the preservation of a wide range of chutneys and other preserves commonly made in the UK.
In fermentation pickling, bacteria in the liquid produces organic acids which act as preservation agents; sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) and kimchi are two common examples of this technique. Kombucha is also made through a process of fermentation.
Creating beers, ciders, wines, and spirits through fermenting techniques is another interesting way to make the most of fresh produce for use later in the year, or in years to come.
Home Bottling and Canning
Home bottling, or home canning, is a more modern and technological way to prevent food waste by stopping food from spoiling. Fruits and vegetables are packed into glass jars; heating the jars then creates a vacuum seal, killing organisms that would cause spoilage by removing the oxygen.
In the UK, traditional home bottling usually involves ‘open kettle’ processing, where jams and other preserves are placed into sterilised jars. The scientific consensus is that this technique which involve further processing of the bottles is the best and safest way to preserve food; food safety is paramount when preserving food at home.
Strictly speaking, home bottling refers to storing foods in glass bottles, and canning to tin cans. However, in the US, canning refers to bottling. Though cans are typically used in commercial production, glass jars are more common in home food preservation.
Bottling or canning goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who discovered that excluding air was key to keeping foods edible, but it was only in 1809 that the bottling process was perfected. Winning a prize offered by Napoleon, who needed to supply his armies, Nicolas Appert developed the process of sealing food in glass jars. This was adapted a year later by Englishman Peter Durand, who used metal cans. The reason for the lack of spoilage was unknown, however, until Louis Pasteur (who gave his name to pasteurisation) demonstrated the role of microbes in the process, around 50 years later.
Home bottling or canning can be an effective way to preserve fruits, vegetables, and other foods at home, but it is crucial to do it correctly, using the specific techniques appropriate for specific foods.
Types of Bottling and Canning
Depending on what produce is being preserved, modern methods for canning or bottling include:
- Oven dry pack bottling
- Oven wet pack bottling
- Slow water bath bottling
- Fast water bath bottling
- Pressure bottling/pressure canning (using a special high-pressure canner akin to a pressure cooker).
In the US, Mason jars are often used, while Ball, Kilner, and Weck jars are also commonly used around the world.
📌 There is a lot to learn about effective and safe home-bottling or -canning. And if you plan to use these techniques to preserve seasonal produce, it is vitally important to always consult a reliable source for best practice, timings, and recipes. Otherwise, botulinum toxin and other pathogens may become a concern; educate yourself properly before taking the plunge.
Resources for Preserving Food at Home
Good resources for information on safe and scientific home preservation, and helpful information for getting started include:
I’d also like to share my own seasonal food preservation tips:
Food Preservation in the Spring
In the past, home-growers would encounter the ‘hungry gap’: the period after crops stored before the winter were beginning to run out or spoil, but before the new season’s crops could be harvested.
With modern freezers and refrigeration, and innovations in growing such as polytunnels (which allow year-round growing in the UK), there is no longer a true hungry gap. Nevertheless, if you are reliant on traditional growing and preservation methods, this may still be a leaner period.
Foraging can help supplement a home-grown diet at this time, while the previous year’s preserves may also become important. After the traditional hungry gap period, the first harvests of spring will begin to arrive, and whether you grow your own, or buy local, seasonal produce, you may be able to preserve these fresh flavours in a range of ways.
I tend to freeze broad beans and other spring vegetable crops, but these low-acidity foods are also suitable for pressure-canning. The same goes for spring greens, but these can also be dried. I also pickle baby onions and a range of other crops at this time of year.
Food Preservation in Summer
For me, summer is all about preserving the season’s fresh fruits and berries; there may also be gluts of certain seasonal vegetables to deal with. Preservation of forest-garden fruits begins in June, when I make gooseberry jams and preserves. Strawberries also rippen around this time; though most are eaten fresh, I also use some for jams or syrups, and dry others for use in breakfast cereals, etc.
In June, I bottle a range of vegetable-garden produce, and make various pestos from fresh greens, which can be frozen for later use.
Where I live, July is the time to harvest the first raspberries; this goes on until early autumn, and will be also used in jams. Redcurrants, golden currants, blackcurrants, and plenty other more unusual berries will also be ready around this time.
In July, I also hang harvested onions and garlic up to dry in my pantry, and begin to make piccalilli, pickles, and other vegetable preserves from cauliflower and other brassicas, green beans, and courgettes,
In August or early September my plum trees give up their yield, which I make into jam and chutney, and dry some into prunes, as well as using them fresh in a wide range of ways. I also dry grapes from my polytunnel into home-made raisins.
And there are plenty of tomatoes to deal with, as well as other produce to can as we leave summer behind and make our way into the autumn months.
Food Preservation in Autumn
This is a busy time for preserving seasonal fruit; several apple trees with enormous yields keep me very busy making apple butter, jams, and chutneys through September and October. I also dry some apples for use over winter, can apple juice, and make apple cider and apple cider vinegar. Additionally, paper-wrapped fresh apples kept in my cold-store pantry will last for a few months.
Berry-harvesting also continues, with blackberries and other fruits making further jams and other preserves, while elderberries from the garden are made into wine.
Plenty of other produce also ends up in the pantry during the autumn months – from maincrop potatoes, to root vegetables and a wide variety of canned produce. At this time of year, I also bring plenty of herbs indoors to dry for winter use, and cure squash and pumpkins before storing them indoors. Beans and other pulses are also dried for use over the winter.
Food Preservation in Winter
Winter is generally the time when we use up the produce preserved during the rest of the year; during the coldest part of the year, you really appreciate the fresh flavours of spring, summer, and autumn.
But even in winter, we continue to harvest and preserve additional fresh garden produce. Vegetables like parsnips, brassicas, and leeks – at their best after being exposed to a frost – are preserved in the ground until needed. I also harvest things like rose hips for jellies after the first frost. And the polytunnel continues to provide fresh produce for use in recipes alongside preserved produce, which will see us through until spring.
I hope that the above has inspired you to start preserving some seasonal produce yourself; it is certainly rewarding and enjoyable to do.
1. Msagati, T. (2012). The Chemistry of Food Additives and Preservatives