Fort McCoy News Sept. 8, 2017

Harvest preservation: Life-skills class

teaches Families food-storing techniques

Public Affairs Staff

Learning how to preserve foods may seem intimidating at first, but presenter Sarah Hansen said it's just a matter of practice during her "Preserving the Harvest" class Aug. 22 at Fort McCoy's South Post Community Center.

Hansen opened the presentation by saying she is not a master canner and hasn't been certified by any organization. She said she's mostly a self-taught preserver, having grown up on a farm, where she helped her mother do some canning and freezing. She didn't do much on her own until she got married and had children.

"I got my canner from my mom and dad, and I just experimented. I followed the recipes in the book, and most of the time they worked," Hansen said. "I learned that following the directions all the way through really helped."

Sarah Hansen talks to Fort McCoy community members about food-preservation techniques and equipment Aug. 22 at the South Post Community Center at Fort McCoy.
Sarah Hansen talks to Fort McCoy community members about food-
preservation techniques and equipment Aug. 22 at the South Post
Community Center at Fort McCoy.

With 13 children, Hansen said preserving food became a good way to stretch their food budget and make sure little was wasted, "whether I get a fabulous deal at the grocery store or I harvest it out of my garden or somebody comes by and says they have all this extra (produce) from the garden."

Hansen said the first thing she does is evaluate how long she can keep produce fresh, whether it's in her refrigerator (if there's room) or in cold storage, such as a root cellar or similar room. In her house, it's a partly insulated room in her basement that stays about 45 degrees most of the year.

People can build similar rooms in unheated garages, Hansen said, by placing the room against an interior wall. If you don't have that option, whether you're renting or simply don't have the space, you can create extra cold storage by using a cooler in the garage or a shed. The cooler should keep the produce from freezing by sealing in the extra warmth.

Hansen said cold storage is a learning process and not to be too disappointed when you lose produce. Learning what keeps well in your space and for how long is part of the process, she said.

The tricky part is letting the produce breathe so the moisture doesn't cause mold or spoilage yet insulated enough not to freeze, she said. Giving food room to breathe is important in staving off spoilage, she said. The closer things are packed together, the more likely you are to lose the whole batch instead of only a few.

"Things are going to spoil," she said. "But if you're down there looking at it every four to five days … you can tell when something is going to turn, and you can pull it and decide what to do with it."

That's where other preservation techniques come in, Hansen said. If you have produce that will go bad before you can use it all or if something is getting too ripe in cold storage, you can preserve it in other ways.

One of her favorite methods of preserving extra food is dehydrating it, she said. Many people only thing of dehydrating fruits to eat as snacks, but Hansen dehydrates fruits, vegetables, potatoes, herbs, and even rice and pasta. Dehydrated vegetables and potatoes are great for soups and stews, she said, and they last forever.

Sarah Hansen talks to Fort McCoy community members about food-preservation techniques and equipment Aug. 22 at the South Post Community Center at Fort McCoy.
Sarah Hansen shows some of the foods she's preserved Aug. 22 at
the South Post Community Center at Fort McCoy

She also dehydrates cooked foods to take along on camping trips or for quick meals at home. Precooking rice and pasta then dehydrating it makes it like buying quick-cook varieties at the store, she said.

"I made dried meals for Jason (husband) and the boys when they went backpacking," she said. "I dried chorizo. And I dried rice, corn, and black beans, and I could even dry the salsa, and then you just add water to this thing."

"MREs," one of the attendees said.

"Exactly! But it tasted more like what I cook than what you can get at the store," Hansen said. "And I know exactly what was put in there."

Hansen said she doesn't bother using any anti-browning agents to keep her fruits and vegetables looking good. To her, it's simply an extra step and expense to worry about, and it doesn't affect the flavor or shelf life of the preserved foods. The dehydrated foods should be stored in a dry place. Storing them in a dark spot will prevent the food from further browning or losing color, but discoloration won't affect the flavor after it's dried.

Freezing is the next best option for her family, Hansen said, because freezer space is at a premium in her household. She usually plans what she'll put in the freezer and save, whereas drying can be used to save food that will go off soon.

The main thing to keep in mind about freezing is what freezer burn is and how it affects the food, she said. When food freezes, the water inside the cells expands and breaks the wall.

"All those interior parts are now exposed to air, and when it's exposed to air, it starts dehydrating. The moisture will come out of that damaged cell, and the damaged cell will be dried and kind of rubbery. And that's what freezer burn actually is," Hansen said.

So now that you know what it is, you can learn how to work with it, she said. Keeping foods as airtight as possible is one trick. Storing foods in liquid is another, particularly if you don't need to access individual pieces or portions. If you want to be able to take a few strawberries at a time out of a bag, they'll have to be frozen individually and won't last as long as a bag of strawberries in their own juices, which are protected from the outside air by the juice.

Sarah Hansen talks to Fort McCoy community members about food-preservation techniques and equipment Aug. 22 at the South Post Community Center at Fort McCoy.
Sarah Hansen shows a steamer canner Aug. 22 at the South Post
Community Center at Fort McCoy.

Canning also takes more planning than dehydrating because of the process involved, Hansen said.

The two main forms of canning are water-bath and pressure canning. Things that need to be cooked to a higher temperature, such as meats, should be pressure canned. For fruits and vegetables, the more acidic something is, the less time and heat it needs to be safe. Charts are available online or in canning books to help people figure out which canner to use.

Hansen said she no longer uses a water-bath canner. Instead, she uses a steam canner. In a water bath, cans must stay submerged in boiling water. Steam canners use only a few inches of water to create a seal.

Steam canners have not been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of the lack of research into safe preservation times. Hansen recommended reading the research from Utah State University, available online at, and making your own decision on whether it's safe.

Hansen brought her own equipment from home to show the class and stressed that while she has her preferences, different styles and brands will all work perfectly fine. She encouraged people to pick up used items at garage sales, especially while they were still deciding what works best for them.

She also included handouts to help participants figure out the costs of freezing and canning compared to purchasing those items and a chart to help them determine what form of canning should be used for a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Class attendees said they really enjoyed the presentation and learned a great deal.

"This was an excellent class. I have new canning equipment at home, but I was unsure of how to use it for the various vegetables and fruits that I harvest from my garden and orchard. … Now I feel that I can confidently use the equipment," said Sandra Ohler, Fort McCoy community member. "I also learned some new ways to preserve foods using a dehydrator and cold storage. I can't wait to get started."

"I loved the training, and I appreciate ACS offering it," said Romi Allen, Fort McCoy community member. "I want to grow a garden next year … so this training was perfect to get an idea of the different methods to preserve foods."

The class was hopefully the first of a series in life-skills classes, said Family Advocacy Program Manager Carrie Olson with Army Community Service. ACS staff members are working on arranging classes on other life-skills topics, such as sewing and cooking.

For more information on ACS classes and events, call 608-388-3505.