How to Preserve Food?

Five ways to reduce food waste.

Written by Diva Garg
Illustrated by Himanshi Parmar

As we come to the end of Autumn and the beginning of winter in the temperate zones in the Northern Hemisphere, we see farmers and food growers busier than ever. Autumn is the time for harvesting and preserving food for the long cold winter when there is a lack of food grown in many parts of the world. Markets, where food is available year-round, imported from different parts of the world, and refrigerated to store food temporarily, have disconnected us from traditional food preservation processes. Food preservation goes hand in hand with reducing food waste and living more connected with nature.

Sandor Katz, arguably the most well-known fermentation enthusiast, said his journey with fermentation began when he moved to the countryside and started growing his food. What he needed to become aware of while living in a city where produce was abundant year around was that nature is seasonal. When the cabbages are ripe, they all mature simultaneously, which would be the end of the cabbages for this season. Tired of eating cabbages day in and day out, he turned to an age-old food preservation practice. Fermentation to make sauerkraut; the rest, as they say, is history. He is at the helm of the resurgence of traditional food preservation techniques, writing books documenting fermentation styles from different parts of the world.

There are traces of traditional food preservation techniques in most, if not all, parts of the world. Where there is food, there are preservation needs with the resources available geographically. For example, sun drying is a widespread technique where there is plenty of strong sunshine, whereas salting is common near the sea.

Though there are traditional food storage methods, the advent of the refrigerator as we know it today, which Sandor loves to call "the fermentation slowing device," has quite suddenly minimized our preservation techniques to just cooling and storing. However, that is a short-term solution with limited space and high-energy consumption.

Essentially, food preservation can be:

  • A method to reduce food waste and elongate the life of produce.
  • A technique in some parts of the world to ensure enough sustenance through the winter when there was little to no food.
  • A way to preserve harvest so that you could eat it year around.
  • Reduce the bulk of food through moisture loss, so it takes less space to store.
  • Create something completely new and alter the taste profile of food.
  • As part of rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations, humans have fermented food longer than we've been writing words.
  • A way to introduce microorganisms into your gut biome (through fermentation)
  • Make food more digestible or palatable.

Food succumbs to decay when exposed to light, air, and moisture, creating an environment for bacteria to grow. Food preservation techniques create conditions that prevent or slow down the harmful bacteria from growing hence elongating the life of the food.

Five methods of preserving food and recipes!

There are numerous ways to preserve food. However, we have highlighted a few to get you started on the produce you grow or get from the market.

1. Dehydrating/Drying

Dehydration removes moisture from the food so that it doesn't promote bacteria or mold growth. Pulses, rice, tomatoes, and beans, are all dried as a way to preserve them. In the absence of moisture, keep the food in a clean and dry storage for a very long time.

Where the sun is potent and reliable, use it to dehydrate. However, in geographies with the little-to-no sun, especially at particular times of the year, we can turn to technology and innovation. Solar dehydrators magnify the sun's power and create an incubation environment for drying; a windowsill can do the same. Alternatively, you can use industrial dehydrators or an oven on low heat when there is no sun.

Of course, we should keep in mind our energy consumption and the fundamental reason we are preserving food, so finding a method that suits our geography is essential.

You can find a simple method to dehydrate tomatoes in this video or look at 3 ways to preserve your green tomatoes here.

2. Lacto-fermentation

Lacto-fermentation is the process of encouraging the growth of lactobacillus bacteria, which naturally occurs on any food and creates lactic acid by eating sugars in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment to preserve and change the taste of food.

Sauerkraut and kimchi are famous fermentation dishes from different cultures, but you can lacto-ferment anything!

The growth of harmful bacteria is discouraged under salty water conditions. Submerge vegetables in water that contain around 2-5% salt content and leave in a room temperature environment to ferment. The naturally occurring bacteria multiplies and creates reactions that transform the vegetable.

Lacto-fermentation has surged in popularity recently. Mainly because of science's current understanding of the direct relationship between the gut and the brain. Researchers have found that eating live fermented foods enriches our gut biome, improving our overall health.

To learn more about Lacto-fermentation and its benefits, you can read here, and some recipes to get you started can be found in this video.

3. Jamming/Chutney

Jamming & chutneys and canning involves cooking down raw food to reduce moisture and kill bacteria through the heating process. Then use sugar or vinegar (& oil) as preservatives before sealing it in an air-tight jar not to be opened until ready for consumption.

This technique is usually done with foods with high moisture content, like fruits or tomatoes. One can add any flavoring in the cooking process or leave it plain. Jams, preserves, and jellies are born from a need to preserve the bounty of fruits while they are in season. Fruits tend to decompose rapidly, so they must be eaten or preserved soon after harvested.

While fruits contain sugars, jams have a shorter shelf life without adding sugar, which acts as a preservative.

Read about how jams and jellies are a way to preserve culture in this lovely piece which also contains a rough recipe for guava jelly!

Here are other recipes to make delicious apple chutney and Indian (Hyderabadi) tomato chutney.

4. Achar (pickled food)

In India, a very popular method of preserving is to make achaar. While achaar translates to pickle, it is quite different from what western food cultures understand as pickles and is a world unto itself.

Achaar uses oil as a key preservative. Across India, achaars use various methods to preserve food. Some are cooked, some are dried first, and some are prepared and then 'cooked' by the sun's heat. It is called achaar in the Hindi-speaking regions of India, but different names across the country know this type of pickling.

Most Indian households would have a range of achars and chutneys to choose from to add a delicious condiment to the meal. For most, a meal is incomplete without it.

You can buy Usha's Pickle Digest, which has an exhaustive anthology of (1000!) achars and pickles to choose from to start your achaar-creating journey!

5. Vinegar

Due to vinegar's very acidic qualities, the low pH creates an inhabitable environment for bacteria to grow. Creating a brine (liquid solution) and submerging your vegetables in it is a popular and easy method to preserve food. Vinegar is also used in chutneys, pickles, and achars to help preserve.

You can make your vinegar using any fruit with a high concentration of sugar and a splash of vinegar mother ( found in any unpasteurized vinegar) or even with sugar and water. Over time it turns to alcohol and then vinegar. Making your vinegar is a form of fermentation.

The popular middle-eastern pickles use vinegar for preservation. Think of the chilies and the carrot that adds tartness to your falafel wrap! This method is easy and can be a space for creativity to add a range of complementary flavors. The flavor profile will always be sour.

This video shows one way to make Turkish pickles.

When deciding which food preservation techniques to use, consider a few factors:

  1. What are the resources you have easily at hand?
    • Is the sun strong enough to dehydrate? What products do you have in abundance and want to preserve, and what storage space do you have? These are some of the questions to ask yourself.
  2. What are you preserving for, and what is your end goal
  3. Look at your food and understand its properties and the best way to preserve it.
    • You wouldn't necessarily lacto-ferment something that will immediately lose structure and become mush-like leafy greens.
    • You wouldn't necessarily jam a vegetable that doesn't have its natural sugars.
  4. The preference of your flavor profile.
    • You may prefer sweetness to tartness; hence, you would jam and chutney over preserving in vinegar. Consider how the preservation technique would alter the taste and what you enjoy.

We hope this has been an insightful guide on food preservation and has inspired you to begin or continue your journey with reducing food waste and altering taste! It is a ground for experimentation, and besides the basic rules, it is a creative playground, so have fun and eat it too!