When you start an edible garden, and learn how to grow an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruit, and herbs, it’s a natural progression to start learning about food preserving and storage. That’s how I got started into preserving the harvest in 2009.

We started growing more and more of our own food, and I quickly realised that if I wanted to make the most of our lovely home grown fruit, veges, herbs and even eggs, I would need to find ways to handle the gluts.

Being able to preserve food has also helped us handle the challenge our dietary requirements of being Gluten Free and Low FODMAP. Such as, I can bottle my own sauces, salsas, relish and stock, and freeze low FODMAP curry pastes, without garlic and onion.

From starting with a Fowlers Vacola simple preserving unit, I have now tried and use all the common methods. I store pumpkins on the back patio table, or in a basket near the kitchen. I freeze vegetables and herbs, as it is quick and easy. I regularly use my dehydrator, for herbs, fruit, fruit leathers, ‘raw’ crackers and vege chips, and jerky. I do a lot of boiling water bath bottling, for high acid ingredients/ items, like pickled vegetables, relish and sauce, salsa etc. I use my pressure canner to bottle stock. I also lacto-ferment food like sauerkraut, kimchi and sour pickles.

So, to help you learn a bit more about food preserving, and to get you started, I have addressed some FAQ in the following Dirt to Dinner Beginners Guide to Food Preserving. It can help you understand some essential information, and decide where you should start! Come on and get started on your journey…

What is Food Preservation and Storage?

Food preservation includes a bunch of methods of processing fresh produce which destroy food micro-organisms (molds, yeasts, bacterias) and enzymes, which would break down and decay food, and can cause foodborne illness. Correct techniques create conditions which allow for safe and nutritious storage of food, to be consumed at a later stage.

There are many food preserving methods, with the commonly used ones being:

Other methods to preserve food include salting, sugaring, using alcohol, making dairy products, smoking, charcuterie, and sott’olio, and more.

What are the benefits to preserving and storing food? What are the challenges?

The benefits to preserving your own food at home include:

  • Make the most of your homegrown harvests, a great way to handle gluts, and extend the season, being able to enjoy your good food at a later date
  • Make the most of in season produce, when it is at its peak, and often cheaper
  • Know what it is in your food, and have more affordable chemical-free foods
  • Cater to food allergies and dietary requirements
  • Reduce waste by using up your garden abundance, as well as items that need using up, and in some cases, leftovers
  • Save time by creating sauces, relishes, pesto and other items that can quickly added to meals as a flavour base, or to enhance them
  • You can swap, share and barter with your preserves too!

The challenges you may face when preserving your own food can be:

  • Initial cost and set up
  • Time to learn the skills, troubleshoot, as well as the time to prep and process your food
  • Using what you preserve
  • Concerns about safety
  • Finding somewhere to store it all
How can we get started with preserving food?

Whilst it can seem overwhelming to know where to start, here are 5 simple steps to consider:

1. Pick a method

This depends on your budget, the time you have, the space/ storage you have, and even what you grow, or what produce you have available. Read about the commonly used methods below, to get an idea of the what you can preserve, the difficulty level, time requirements, and equipment requirements.

A big factor is what type of preserved food you are most likely to eat (including if you need to cater for allergies/ intolerances). If you never eat dried apricots, but you love Apricot Chicken, then consider learning how to bottle your own jars of apricot chutney to use as a meal-base! If you want to start making your own breakfast cereal, trail mix and kids snacks, then having dried fruit might make sense.

Of course, there is no reason why you can’t learn all the preserving methods, I just think it is a good idea to start and practice with one method to become more skilled and confident, before moving on to learn others!

2. Find, buy or borrow the equipment

What do you need for the method you have chosen (see next section)? Do you have a friend who you can borrow from? Are there local classifieds where you can source second hand items cheaply? Do you have suitable things in your house already?

3. Borrow or buy a book

Check out my favourite preserving books, and website recommendations below in References and Resources section. Maybe check out your local library, or ask a friend. Also refer to recipes in the instruction manual (download one or contact the company if your item came without one), which often have recipes too.

4. Pick a recipe

Choose a simple recipe from a reliable source of tested recipes, and make it a few times, before moving on to another recipe which uses the same method. See my References and Resources section below for recommendations on reliable sources.

5. ASK QUESTIONS & GET SUPPORT

Join the Growing Home Community, so you have likeminded, experienced people to ask your questions that you just can’t find answers to in books or by Googling (AND so you can show off your successes too!)

Learning the various methods to preserve food, does take time, and commitment to gain new skills and knowledge. You can start with dehydrating or boiling water bathing of high acid produce, which are easier to learn and more ‘fool-proof’. When you feel confident, or have time, move on to learning another preserving method. Once you practice and get more efficient at each method, it won’t take as long each time you do a batch.
 
What are the commonly used methods for preserving food?

Let us consider for the most commonly used methods:

  • What can I… ? – what type of food can you preserve using this method
  • Difficulty level – how hard is it to learn, and how much effort/ steps are required to undertake the method for each batch
  • Time requirement – how long does it take to prepare and process each batch
  • Equipment required – basic equipment you may need for this method to get set up, and to purchase on an ongoing basis
  • Consider – some other questions to help you determine what methods will suit you

STORING

Storing food is a way to keep some Summer harvests for a longer period through Autumn and Winter, by allowing them to ‘cure’ (dry, and harden their outer shell) or for garlic and onions, allow the leaves to dry and then braid them together. Then keep them in dry, cool conditions where you can see them and check them.

What can I store? Pumpkins, ‘hard shell’ squash (spaghetti vegetable, squash delicate), apples, carrots, potatoes, garlic

Difficulty level: easy

Time requirement: quick

Equipment required: various; root cellars may not be possible for you, but you may have a patio or verandah that is cold in Winter (but not frozen) to leave the pumpkins or squash on (or get more serious like this method) or an area in your pantry; you could look into sandbags

Consider: Do you have an appropriate area to store harvests?


FREEZING

Freezing food is the most basic and easy method, reducing the temperature to a point where food spoiling/ foodborne illness microbes cannot survive. Most people have a freezer, and containers, and may already be doing this method. It may include learning techniques (like how to blanch), learning about how long you can freeze produce for, how to safely defrost and use your frozen produce.

What can I freeze? You can freeze vegetables, fruits, ‘freezer jam’, tomato passata, meat, dairy, stock, meals and even eggs

Difficulty level: easy

Time requirement: quick

Equipment required: freezer, freezer proof containers, ice cube trays (reserved for food only), chalk paint pen or removable label method, baking paper, pot/ salt water to blanch (some items)

Consider: How much space do you have in your current freezer? Are you willing to invest in a chest/ deep freezer? Do you like the texture/ taste of frozen vegetables? Do you get frequent power outages in your area, or are you off-grid?


DEHYDRATING

Dehydrating is fairly straightforward, removing moisture so that food spoiling/ foodborne illness microbes cannot survive. Whilst you can use an oven on very low, or even set up an outdoor drying area, buying an electric dehydrator is a worthwhile consideration.

What can I dehydrate? You can dehydrate fruit for snacks and breakfast cereal, herbs for cooking and even make your own herb seasoning mixes, you can make ‘raw’ crackers and vege chips for snacks. You can dry tomatoes, then grind them into powder to use as a meal enhancer. More advanced techniques include making fruit leathers, powdered stock, and jerky.

Difficulty level: easy

Time requirement: quick to prep, several hours up to 24 hours to process

Equipment required: oven/ dehydrator/ outside racks, trays/ fruit leather trays/ herb trays, plastic or glass containers to store dried products. I use a Fowlers Vacola dehydrator, and have done for many years, but you can buy other brands, including the expensive Excalibur

Consider: Will you prefer to be home whilst your dehydrator is running? Can you run it over night? Will the noise be an issue?


BOTTLING (Boiling water bath)

Learn more with my Beginners Guide to Boiling Water Bath Preserving. Bottling (also known as ‘canning’ although tin cans are not used, glass jars or bottles with proper lids are) is for high acid produce/ foods, and requires some equipment and involves a few more steps, including ‘boiling water bath’ processing. This method is where you fill clean jars with high acid contents (such as tomato relish, pickled zucchini, jam), seal with a preserving lid, and submerge under water, and bring to boiling point for a required amount of time. The high acid contents, the heat and removal of oxygen from the jars destroys and inhibits food spoiling/ foodborne illness microbes, and the vacuum seal prevents contamination and air entry.

It can be an affordable way to get started, if you use ‘reclaimed’ jars, with new screw/ twist on pop-top lids, a big stock pot you already own or get one secondhand, and tongs you already have.

What can I bottle? high acid produce, like many fruits (to use in desserts, sauces and baking), relish, chutneys, salsas, passata, pasta sauce, and other sauces (to use as condiments, or as meal-bases or flavour enhancers in casseroles, stews, risotto, pizza sauce etc), and pickled vegetables, jams, conserves and compotes.

Difficulty level: easy to moderate

Time requirement: moderate prep, and process times 10 to 20 minutes, plus time to sit overnight

Equipment required:

  • large stock pot (tall enough for the filled jars to be submerged whilst the water is boiling) and you can add a rack/ trivet (or tea towel) to put in bottom of stockpot OR a purpose-built boiling water canner
  • food preserving jars, such as the Ball Mason jars with lid and screw band (you can buy them online or at Big W) OR recycled jars (you can reuse jars from products you have bought, like relish or pasta sauce, but they must be in good condition and have ‘pop top’ metal lids. The ‘pop top’ shows you have achieved a vacuum seal after water bath processing)
  • jar lifter/ tongs (I highly recommend the Ball Secure Grip Jar Lifter tongs, found at Big W or online).
  • food funnels (plastic, metal, or collapsible, I use one like this)
  • timer, clean tea towels/ oven mitts (silicone), labels.

Note, it is recommended that you use new items each time you use the jars, such as new lid inserts for Ball Mason type jars (you can reuse the screw bands and the jars), or new pop top lids for reclaimed jars (jars you have kept from buying bottled food).

Consider: Do you have somewhere to store the equipment in between uses, and a dark, cool pantry or cupboard, with even temperature range, to store all your bottles of preserves?


BOTTLING (FOWLERS VACOLA METHOD)

Learn more in my Beginners Guide to Fowlers Vacola Bottling. Fowlers Vacola is an Australian company started in 1915, who still make preserving units and equipment for high acid bottling (they also make dehydrators). This method is where you place the filled and sealed, clipped jars in the Fowlers Vacola preserving unit, and submerge them under water, and slowly brings the temperature of the water up to where pasteurization can occur, but without damaging nutrients or flavour. Pasteurization can occur between 72° C and 96° C (the higher the temp the shorter time required), and with this method, if the water starts to boil, the unit is turned off for the remaining time. It isn’t a complicated method, but does require using their equipment (as that is what the research was tested on).

You can often buy second hand jars and equipment, such as at garage sales, local classifieds, op shops or maybe a relative has some, and then buy new rubber rings and accessories from their website, or other stores. (Note, some ‘vintage’ jar sizes may not have lids, clips or rings available to buy new to fit them). Or you can buy all new jars, accessories and equipment (some sized jars may not be available). Check this complete list on Fowlers Vacola Bottle Size & Accessory Guide.

What can I bottle? high acid produce, like many fruits (to use in desserts, sauces and baking), relish, chutneys, salsas, passata, pasta sauce, and other sauces (to use as condiments, or as meal-bases or flavour enhancers in casseroles, stews, risotto, pizza sauce etc), and pickled vegetables, jams, conserves and compotes.

Difficulty level: easy to moderate

Time requirement: moderate prep, processing time 60 to 70 minutes

Equipment required: Fowlers Vacola electric or stove top unit, Fowlers Vacola food preserving jars/ lids/ rubber rings/ clips, jar lifter/ tongs, timer, food funnels, clean tea towels/ oven mitts (silicone), Labels

Common Jar Sizes and Accessories

The accessories (lids, clips and rubber rings) sizes are available in Size 2, 3 and 4 (they are based on the number of inches diameter of the jar mouths). There are also sauce bottles available, and green plastic Snap On lids, bottle openers etc.

No. 14 (350mls) – No. 3 accessories

No. 20 (600mls) – No. 3 accessories

No. 27 (900mls) – No. 3 accessories

No. 31 (1000mls) – No. 4 accessories

No. 36 (1250mls) – No. 4 accessories

Note, it is recommended that you use new rubber rings for Fowlers Vacola each time you preserve in the jars (you can reuse the clips and lids, and jars, of course).

Consider: Do I have space to store the equipment between uses, and the bottles of food? Do we have fruit trees and love to see jars of preserved fruit lined up in the pantry? Is boiling water bath bottling quicker and easier for us?


LACTOFERMENTING

Lactofermenting is a traditional preserving technique used before the invention of electricity, in many cultures around the world. You may have heard of sauerkraut, sour pickles, or kimchi. By adding salt (brine) to vegetables and submerging the food under brine, the food spoiling/ foodborne illness microbes are destroyed and kept at bay, whilst the Lactic Acid bacterias (naturally present on veges) grow and preserve the food in an acidic environment, with live cultures providing ‘gut health’ benefits. A misconception related to the term ‘lacto’ but please note that lacto-fermenting does not have to involve dairy.

It can be tricky at the start, as you may wonder if your ‘ferments’ are doing the right thing, and you are bound to have a few failures too, where the bubbling never occurs, or obvious mould grows. (There are other types of fermented or ‘cultured food’, of course, using different microbes, such as sourdough, vinegars, beer and wine, kefirs and kombuchas, cured meats etc).

What can I lactoferment? vegetables (like cucumbers, cabbage, carrot, beans, garlic), salsas, sauces and other condiments, dairy (yoghurt and cheese)

Difficulty level: moderate to hard, can certainly become easier as you learn

Time requirement: moderate to prep, a couple of days to weeks to ferment

Equipment required: Suitable container or crock, or jars with a one-way valve, such as Pickl-It jars (available in Australia here), Dunk’R’s or glass weights to keep food submerged, Non-iodised salt, Non-chlorinated water, Whey or Starter Culture (if you choose to use it)

Consider: Do I have space on my kitchen bench for jars of ferments for weeks at a time, and then room in my fridge (or a suitable cool place) to store them once finished fermenting (processing fermented food in a boiling water bath kills off the good microbes)? Do I like soured and cultured foods? (Maybe buy some jars of sauerkraut to try before you start!) Do I mind the kitchen smelling like fermenting foods?


Bottling (PRESSURE CANNING)

Pressure Canning is the ‘next step’ from bottling, when you want to start preserving low acid foods (again, tin cans are not used, preserving glass jars or bottles with proper lids are used, and what tested pressure canning recipes are based on). Low acid items, such as meat, meat products, vegetables, meals and stock, require a temperature of 116 degrees Celsius (240’F) to be obtained throughout the contents of the jar for the required time, to ensure C.Botulinum spores are destroyed. (These temperatures cannot be reached with ‘boiling water bathing’ or Fowlers Vacola processing methods). The heat under pressure, and removal of oxygen from the jars, destroys and inhibits food spoiling/ foodborne illness microbes, and the vacuum seal prevents contamination and air entry.

It is a method that would be best for people who have gained confidence and skills from boiling water bath bottling, but you can always buy a pressure canner and use the big pot part for boiling water bath bottling, before starting to actually pressure can.

What can I pressure can? Meat, meat products, soup, vegetables, meals and stock, salsa and sauces, low acid fruit. Note Some items have not been tested (or have been shown not to be safe to pressure can), including dairy, nuts and oil, certain dense foods like mashed pumpkin, zucchini, or products thickened with flour. These cannot be boiling water bathed either (consider freezing them instead).

Difficulty level: moderate to hard

Time requirement: moderate prep, processing times vary but can equal hours by the time you vent the canner, bring it to pressure, maintain pressure for 20 up to 90 minutes, allow to cool and jars to sit on kitchen bench overnight

Equipment required: A pressure canner, which has racks, dial gauge or weighted gauge, Food preserving jars with lids/ rings, Jar lifters/ tongs, Timer, Food funnels, Clean teatowels/ oven mits, Labels

Consider: Do I have a ceramic top stove? (they are not recommended for use with pressure canners) Do I like the texture/ taste of tinned vegetables (its the same kind of finished product)? Do we have space to store the equipment between uses, and the bottled foods?

How can I safely preserve food at home?

Incorrect food preserving & storage techniques, whether commercial or done at home, can lead to food borne illnesses (food poisoning), which can harm your health, and even cause death. Whilst some people may only become slightly ill from consuming contaminated foods, for other vulnerable people it could be serious or deadly, including pregnant women, the elderly, babies and children, and those who are immune compromised.

So to ensure we can preserve safely, let’s understand how food spoilage and food borne illness can occur. There are many microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts, moulds), as well as chemicals like enzymes, which can cause food spoilage. There are also microorganisms which can cause foodborne illness, such as certain bacterias. They generally thrive in conditions which have oxygen, moisture, pH above 4.6 (more alkaline), and temperature between 5 and 60 degrees Celsius.

Some microorganisms can cause food spoilage, which makes food less nutritious and less desirable to eat. Food spoilage can indicate that conditions may have become favourable for microorganisms which cause foodborne illness, but not always.

Some microorganisms can produce toxins that can cause foodborne illness, but are not always detectable by smell, sight or taste, and food spoilage isn’t always present. These include Clostridium botulinum, Escherichia coli, Campylobacter jejuni, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella spp. and others. As you may be aware, these can affect food produced commercially and sold in supermarkets, delis, restaurants and fundraising BBQs, they are not just the concern of the home preserver!

The aim of food preserving is to destroy these food spoiling and foodborne illness microorganisms, by creating and maintaining conditions they cannot survive in, such as:

  • altering the pH by making it more acidic (below 4.6)
  • removal of moisture
  • very high temperatures, or very low temperatures
  • anaerobic (little to no oxygen)

How does food preservation work? | Beginners Guide to Food Preserving and Storage | Growing Home

One of the most serious foodborne illness microorganisms is Clostridium botulinum, a soil-borne bacteria which produces toxins that can cause botulism, a potentially fatal paralytic illness. Unlike many other food microorganisms which die without oxygen, C.Botulinum produces spores which survive in anaerobic (low to no oxygen) conditions. The spores are activated and toxins are produced in moist, low-acid, oxygen free environments, at an ambient temperature. Cases of botulism have occurred from ingesting incorrectly processed, low acid, home bottled/canned food.

So to ensure C.Botulinum spores cannot survive or grow when preserving, we need to use high acid foods/ environments (pH less than 4.6), or for low acid foods, we need to bottle/can using a pressure canner to achieve 116’C. If dehydrating, dry to fully dry & crisp, or acidify before drying (with lemon juice or vinegar). If using the sott’olio method, acidify low acid foods, before submerging under oil, and then store below 4’C. Read more regarding safety for this method here, CSIRO Vegetable Preservation.

Remember that whilst a potentially serious illness, and we should be aware of the risks and take appropriate actions, cases of botulism in Australia are rare.

Six Steps to Safer Preserving | Beginners Guide to Food Preserving and Storage | Growing Home

To understand the science and fundamentals of food preserving, you can start with this handy tutorial by the National Centre for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) or check out the Ball Complete Guide to Home Preserving (see if your local library has it). As you practice and learn the safe techniques, you will feel more confident and enjoy preserving your own food.


Please also consider if you need to adjust your processing times, or pressure, depending on the altitude you live at. If you live more than 305m (1,000 feet) above sea level, the temperature at which water boils gets lower (i.e. your boiling water may not indicate 100’C has been reached). For example, Canberra is 577m above sea level, which is approximately 1893ft. Use these charts to make adjustments for your times or pressure.


How can we understand pH in relation to food preserving?

An important aspect of food preserving science to understand, is the pH of food. Simply put, high acid foods are safer to preserve, as most food spoiling and foodborne illness microorganisms do not survive in high acid environments. Low acid foods, however, can harbor serious foodborne illness microorganisms, and that is why low acid foods require extra attention.

pH is a measure of acidity or alkalinity of water soluble substances, represented numerically on a scale that goes from 1 to 14, with 1 being acidic (sour), 7 is neutral, up to 14 being alkaline (bitter). The tricky part is that ‘highly’ acidic means a ‘lower’ pH number. (And of course, the higher the pH number, the less acidic).

Foods naturally high in acid, or where a highly acidic environment has been created (pH lower than 4.6), can inhibit the survival and growth of food spoiling microorganisms and their spores (including C.Botulinum) when preserving food.

In regards to bottling (or ‘canning’) foods in glass jars, high acid foods can be processed safely in jars by the ‘boiling water bath’ process (following correct methods and recipes) as temperatures of 100’C will kill the varieties of microorganisms found in high-acid foods. They can also be processed in a Fowlers Vacola preserving unit, as well as dehydrating, freezing and fermenting.

Low acid foods being bottled, must be processed in a pressure canner, to achieve and maintain the correct temperature of 116 degrees Celsius (to destroy C.Botulinum spores). If dehydrating low acid foods, they must be dried to complete dryness at the correct dehydrating temperatures, or they can be acidified (by being dipped in vinegar or lemon juice).

The pH is based on all the ingredients in a jar or product, so whilst you have a zesty, acidic tomato salsa made from tomatoes, lime juice and spices, if you add low acid capsicum, chillies and corn, you may have altered the pH level to be ‘low acid’ and therefore not be acidic enough to safely process in a boiling water bath. The salsa would require pressure canning.

Unless you have pH testing equipment, and skills/ knowledge, to be able to precisely test your preserves, the best advice is to use recipes that have been tested by food preserving experts, and stick to the ingredients, volumes and processing times listed.

Understanding pH in Food Preserving | Beginners Guide to Food Preserving and Storage | Growing Home

Source: pH Foods List

Why are the methods my (grandma/ grandpa, mother, uncle, neighbour) used, not considered safe?

Some methods which people use to preserve food at home, may not be considered safe by modern food safety authorities (such as National Centre for Home Food Preservation, USA) who have conducted research and testing in the last 20 to 30 years. Unsafe methods include the ‘open kettle method’ and inversion techniques, using sealing wax or preserving cellophane seals, and bottling/ canning ‘low acid’ foods in a Fowlers Vacola or boiling water bath.

The ‘open kettle’ method is a technique, which involves putting hot contents into hot jars, and putting the lid on (or use wax/ cellophane as the sealant), without any further processing. Some people also turn their jars upside down at that point, called inversion method . Often a vacuum seal is obtained as the jars cool down, but the temperatures obtained in open kettle canning are not high enough to destroy all spoilage and food poisoning organisms that may be in the food. Also, microorganisms can enter the food when it is transferred from the pot/ kettle to the jar, and cause spoilage.

What it comes down to is this, people will weigh the risks and consequences for themselves and their families, and they make the decision to preserve foods using whatever method they want. Whilst I do not agree with the reasoning that ‘but I’ve never gotten sick doing it like this’ or ‘my grandma always did it that way’ is proof that your method is safe, it isn’t up to me to dictate what you choose or do. I can only refer you to the methods which are deemed safe by food safety authorities.

To me, open kettle is a harder method to do, as it requires you to sterilise your jars and lids, maintain that sterility, as well as making sure your preserves stay above 80 degrees Celsius whilst filling. By ‘boiling water bathing’ your filled and sealed jars, it is like a safety net. If you inadvertently contaminated the equipment or product, or didn’t follow super strict hygiene at any point along the way, the final act of boiling water bathing (or Fowler Vacola pasteurising) covers that by destroying any microorganisms, creating a vacuum seal, and preventing any contamination issues.

In terms of doing low acid items (vegetables, stock, meat, meals) in boiling water bathing, all food safety and preserving authorities state that is unsafe. You must do low acid preserving in a proper pressure canner (not a pressure cooker) because it reaches the higher temperatures required.

References + Resources

There are so many more resources available these days compared to when I started preserving and storing food in 2009. These are a selection I recommend and refer to (note, some may require conversion from imperial to metric, or vica versa).

WEBSITES

BOOKS

If you have questions about preserving, join the Growing Home Community, a closed group hosted on Facebook, with people who have experience with preserving.

Also, check out my free preserving labels to download and print. Then get started today, you won’t regret it!


PRESERVING RECIPES