For the average urbanite, preserving food can seem difficult and old-fashioned, the realm of bonnet-wearing, miso-making grandmas.
The reality is it’s much simpler and more useful than people expect. Here are two methods those looking to save a bit of cash, reduce food waste and give themselves a buffer in times of crisis can do almost immediately, without buying any complicated equipment or standing over a hot stove for hours.
The easiest gateway to food preservation for busy urban cooks is freezing, a relatively foolproof method that is also a great use of resources, as most people already have a half-empty freezer.
When freezing, it pays to think carefully about household needs: For example, if Mediterranean dishes and quick pasta dinners are a common go-to meal, then freezing a few liters of basic tomato sauce will save you both time and money in the long run. Buying “imperfect” produce from wholesalers, vegetable shops and direct from farmers so that you can freeze it is thrifty — often half to a third of the normal price — and is a good way to enjoy nutritious produce out of season.
Many vegetables can be quickly peeled and chopped, blanched, shocked with ice water, dried with a clean towel and then put on trays, cutting boards or even freezer-safe plates in a single layer to freeze for a couple hours. (Root vegetables do very well; watery vegetables like tomatoes or cucumbers less so.) After, transfer the veggies to a freezer-safe container, such as a BPA-free plastic tub, sturdy glass container or large Ziploc bag. Be sure to let food cool completely before putting it in the freezer (condensation can cause freezer burn) and label the container with the date.
To help frozen food last longer and avoid freezer burn, remove as much air as possible from the container by pushing down on the lid a bit and keep it in the coldest part of the freezer, right at the back. Place a sheet of cardboard on top of the lid to help prevent thermal shocks, which allows frozen food to keep for up to 12 months, as long as the temperature is set at or below zero degrees Celsius. When it’s time to thaw, throw the container in the fridge to defrost and use within three to four days. Once you’ve thawed meat or fish it’s generally not considered safe to refreeze it, and while you could refreeze vegetables, they’d get so mushy you wouldn’t want to.
Those ready to step it up a notch can turn to refrigerator pickles. Unlike canning, where you have to be hypervigilant about sterilization to prevent botulism, this style of pickling requires almost no special equipment and less attention to detail around acidity and salt content.
The humble refrigerator pickle is an ideal way to preserve veggies that are cheap in season, but go up in price as soon as the seasons change. Cucumbers are commonly pickled, but it’s possible to pickle almost any vegetable.
Unlike pressurized canning, where one must abide by strict safety rules about spices and pH levels, these non-shelf-stable pickles allow for a little more creativity. Adding a few spoonfuls of mustard seed, combining types of vinegar (as long as they are all 5 percent acidity or higher), adding unusual spices or combining different veggies give wing to explorations of flavor. For best results, use an established ratio — a basic brine is equal parts vinegar and water with several teaspoons of salt; simply search “refrigerator pickle recipe” online to remove the guesswork.
While it may be tempting to reuse glass jars that once held sauce, mayonnaise or other foods, to be on the safe side, get some new jars (wide-mouthed jars from reputable brands like Ball, Kilner and Cellarmate are available on Rakuten or Amazon, or at kitchen good stores in Kappabashi). Make sure the jars are spotlessly clean and, like freezing, allow the pickle brine to cool completely before putting them away to help these pickles last up to three months in the fridge.