Most gardeners don’t grow an abundance of fruit or berries to last all summer. There can be many reasons for this ranging from lack of space, the wrong climate, or simply wanting to dedicate portions of your garden to other plants. Though certain varieties of raspberries and strawberries can produce fruit through the summer, procuring enough fruit for winter consumption generally means using an additional source such as farmer’s markets, fruit stands, and U-pick farms.
Buying flats of berries or bushels of fruit is an easy solution to this problem. Fresh fruit is delicious and easy to eat as snacks or in side dishes with meals. Even grilling fruit is a nice addition to a meal. But trying to get through all that fruit before it starts to spoil may be a challenge. Here are a few ways to process this summer bounty to last.
Even a small freezer of just a few cubic feet of storage can hold a lot of fruit. This is an easy solution to processing quantities of berries and peaches, though there is still some work involved.
Berries such as blueberries should be rinsed, cleaned of stems and debris, and allowed to dry before being placed in freezer-quality bags. Allowing for this excess moisture to dry will prevent excessive frost buildup during your freezing process. Strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries should have the leaf-like bracts cut off before placing the berries on a cookie sheet for freezing. While bags can be used, freezing your berries on the sheet pan will prevent clumping, and once they're fully frozen they can be stored in bags long term. Another good idea is measuring out the berries into cup amounts before placing them in the bags, which works well when recipes call for specific amounts. I generally portion my bags in two or four cup amounts.
Peaches are another fruit that freeze well, though for the best results you'll generally want to remove their skins and make sure they're de-pitted. To make slipping the skins simpler, add the peaches to hot water for a minute or so before removing them and plunging them into ice cold water. The skins should peel off easily and the peaches can be halved or sliced with the pits removed before being added to freezer bags. Again, measuring out specific quantities first will help later when pulling bags from the freezer for recipes.
If you’re a fan of fruit leather or dried fruit, having a dehydrator is an excellent way to process fruit. Apples, cherries, peaches, pears, apricots, and even melons do well dried. Drying time will depend upon the thickness of the fruit and the water content. Follow recommended times or feel free to experiment. One friend of mine purposely dries her apples to the point that they have the texture of crispy 'apple chips' rather than the semi-moist feel of traditional dried fruit.
After the fruit or leather is dried, seal it up in air tight jars or containers. Fruit leather can be cut up and made into individual rolls. These can then be wrapped in plastic wrap for easy access. While some recipes call for adding lemon juice to fruits like apples before placing them in the dehydrator, that's really a matter of taste and preference, so experiment to determine what you like.
This process will transport many gardeners back in time to when canning was a summer ritual. Making preserves, jellies or jams, pickling vegetables, or putting up fruit in syrup was a way to save this summer bounty. Although it is tough to see a lot of fruit go into a few containers, canning is a safe way to add longevity to the fruit or vegetables. One needs a bit more equipment and time for this process, but the rewards are worth it. Once you get truly adept at canning, your hard work could even earn you a county fair blue ribbon!
If you’re into fruit-flavored spirits, then maybe this is for you. Rum, vodka, gin, and bourbon to name a few, are all excellent spirits for infusing fresh fruit, herbs, or even combinations of both. Larger fruit should be chopped, but berries can be added to alcohol whole. Generally, a 1:1 ratio of fruit to alcohol will be sufficient, while dried herbs might be better at a 1:2 ratio of herbs to alcohol, otherwise your flavors might gets too intense. Simply add the desired amounts to clean Mason jars, cap, shake, and store in a cool, dark place. Shake daily until the infusion seems complete. Infusion times vary tremendously from a couple of days to weeks depending upon the ingredients, but the good news is that it's easy to check on your progress. Because the jars are not heat-sealed, it’s easy to unscrew the lid and taste test the concoction. Once your taste buds give the thumbs up, strain the liquid through a cheesecloth into a fresh jar to remove the fruit and skins to get a colorful, yet clear liquid.
Summer’s bounty can provide an excellent source of fresh and local produce. Organic may be your preference, but any fruit, herbs, or vegetables should be washed to remove dirt, bugs, fertilizers, etc. Use clean and sanitized jars for canning or infusions, and durable containers for freezing. Cleanliness translates into a better product and longer storage, not to mention a lot more fun eating!
Local extension services and libraries often have great information and recipe resources for preserving food. Even for those with dietary restrictions, there are alternative sweeteners such as coconut sugar for adding to jams and jellies. Plus, the sky is the limit when creating concoctions to infuse alcohol or to blend together for jams and jellies. Experimentation may be a trial and error process, so make a small batch before adding that bushel of jalapenos!