Music to home canners’ ears is the pop! pop! of the canning lids as they seal during the cooling period. Home food preservation can provide high quality food for tasty winter eating, as well as be a satisfying activity. However, be aware that the vegetable variety and its characteristics will influence the final results.
When you raise your own home produce, you can control the vegetable characteristics by picking the variety to raise. Some cultivars (specific types) of vegetables are better candidates for home preservation than others. Sometimes seed catalogs or packets will say that a particular type of vegetable is superior for home preservation. Unfortunately this is more the exception than the rule. Gardeners are forced to do their own experiments growing and preserving a small amount of several different cultivars. Over time, experience will tell you what works well and suits your individual taste.
What can make the difference between a jar of canned tomatoes that is full of slushy light pink tasteless mush and another that has bright red chunks and that magic tomato flavor? It’s the characteristics of the fruit that you started with. Often the best tomato eaten fresh makes a disappointing preserved product. So, what characteristics should gardeners look for in the vegetables they want to preserve?
The general firmness, texture and integrity of the home preserved product are determined by the strength of the cell walls, and the cohesion of the cell contents. Look for vegetable descriptions like firm, crisp and “holds its shape.” These vegetables have a lot of cellulose, pectin and lignin holding the tissues together. Harvesting the produce before it has time to get soft in the garden also enhances this quality. A barely ripe vegetable or sometimes an even “not quite” ripe vegetable will produce a more firm canned or frozen product.
The general flavor of vegetables is due to different amounts and types of sugars, starches and flavor compounds. These tend to concentrate in the fruits and the storage organs like roots and tubers that we use for food. Often “sweet” will be a characteristic listed for a particular type of vegetable. Other flavors are determined by many flavor and aroma chemical compounds that vary in amount and type depending on the vegetable. Flavors in garlic, onion and cabbage are determined by sulfur compounds. Besides sweet, there may be bitter, acidic tangy, rich, nutty or spicy. Good flavor and aroma in a home preserved product can be lacking if there are not enough flavor chemicals in a particular cultivar, or if they are cooked or washed away during the preservation process.
Another important characteristic of the vegetable is the color. The amount and type of pigment in the raw product will influence the color and eye appeal of the preserved product. Some colors fade, or the pigments wash away or degrade during the preservation process. Choosing a variety with the most concentrated, brightest color is a good place to begin when preserving an attractive product. The final color should look like something you would like to eat. A purple tomato produces a peculiar final product — just take my word for it!
Finally, the size or shape of the produce being processed must suit your needs. A cherry size tomato would require a lot of preparation for peeling and would make an odd looking canned product. A large firm tomato would be quick to peel and would easily cut into attractive and efficient pieces. But maybe you’d rather have tiny pieces or small globes — it’s a personal choice!
Vegetable varieties are constantly changing and new ones replace the old. Many of the older varieties were developed to be suitable for canning and will process well. There is little information on exactly which varieties make the best product. But by considering the characteristics of a fresh vegetable, you can get clues as to how well it will can, freeze or dry. By experimenting, eventually you will hit upon the perfect cultivar for your growing location and your personal home processing needs.
To learn more about home food preservation, University of Idaho extension offices can provide information on publications, workshops and classes.