As soon as I get used to the towering stacks of fragrant peaches and plump berries at the farmers’ market, the summer season comes to an end, and they’re gone. It always seems to go by in the blink of an eye.
A few pieces of equipment make it possible to cheat the laws of nature and preserve peak-season summer produce so it can be enjoyed long after the growing season is over. Nothing fights off my winter blues more than savoring flavorful peaches during those cold, gray months.
If the word preserving conjures images of toiling over Mason jars in a sweltering kitchen, don’t fret. There are plenty of ways to safely preserve food that are less labor intensive than home canning or fermenting. Whether you want to turn berries into fruit leather, dry slices of apples and mangoes, or freeze a bumper crop of tomatoes, here’s the best gear for preserving food at home, no matter your skill level.
If you want to make fruit leathers, dry berries to plop in your morning cereal, or ensure that the herbs from your garden don’t go to waste, you’ll want a dehydrator. Although you can use your oven in a pinch, it can be hard to keep it at the sub-200-degree Fahrenheit temperatures necessary for drying. A dehydrator, which pushes hot air at a controlled temperature through several trays of food, is more efficient and consistent.
Keep in mind that although the actual dehydrating process is mostly hands-off, preparing food for drying can be hard work, since you’ll need to clean, peel and slice a mountain of produce to get a decent yield. Dehydrators are also bulky, so they’re not ideal for small kitchens.
However, avid gardeners, hunters or anyone who regularly buys fresh produce in bulk at farm stands will benefit from the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator (about $110), which holds eight trays of food. In our tests it dried everything evenly without needing to be monitored or rearranged to achieve even drying.
We also recommend the Samson Silent 6-Tray Dehydrator (about $115), which automatically shuts off and can accommodate larger items like flowers. However, this model requires you to shuffle the trays midway through drying.
A Vacuum Sealer
Vacuum-sealing is one of the fastest and easiest ways to store fruit and vegetables at peak ripeness, whether you’re refrigerating or freezing. It can also help dried fruit and nuts stay fresh longer in the pantry. The seal removes most of the oxygen around the food, slowing deterioration caused by aerobic bacterial growth. It also protects produce from freezer burn, so that those berries, peaches and nectarines still taste fresh when baked in a pie months later.
It’s best to freeze moist fruit and produce on baking sheets before vacuum-sealing, to prevent any liquid from being sucked into the vacuum chamber, which can damage the machine.
The Anova Precision Vacuum Sealer ANVS01-US00 (about $80) is one of the quietest models I’ve tested, and it creates secure seals that can withstand months in the freezer. The Anova’s narrow shape also makes it easy to store in a drawer, which is especially convenient in my tiny kitchen.
As we noted above, the best way to freeze produce, such as whole peeled tomatoes, peach slices, bananas, berries or peas, is to spread it out in a single layer on a baking sheet. After it’s frozen, you can vacuum-seal or bag the ingredients loose, so they don’t end up as a solid brick in your freezer. If you plan to freeze produce with a high water content, it’s best to first line the baking sheets with parchment paper, to prevent sticking.
I’ve been using the sturdy Nordic Ware Natural Aluminum Commercial Baker’s Half Sheet (about $12) in my kitchen for years. It’s also available in quarter-sheet and eighth-sheet sizes, which I find handy for small-scale baking or freezing tasks.
A Wide Pan
Unless you regularly make preserves, there’s no need to spend a fortune on a deluxe jam pan (a wide pan designed to encourage evaporation when cooking jams and jellies). Any large pan that’s a couple of inches deep — like the Tramontina Gourmet 3-Quart Deep Saute Pan (about $65) — can be used for making jam.
I’ve been cooking with Tramontina cookware in the Wirecutter test kitchen for over four years, and its fully clad tri-ply construction evenly distributes heat, making the pan less prone to hot spots. The deep saute pan is a versatile piece of cookware that can be used for a lot more than making jam. It’s great for everything from braising to shallow pan-frying.
Pro tip: When you’re making preserves that have thicker consistencies, like apple butter, a splatter screen will help keep your stovetop clean and prevent your arms and face from getting sprayed with hot fruit while you’re stirring.
To safely can jam, fruit and vegetables at home using a water-bath canner (a lidded pot that’s large enough to cover jars by at least one inch of boiling water), you’ll need to pick up some Mason jars. They come in a variety of sizes, and their three-part construction — a glass jar, a lid with a sealing compound, and a screw band — is designed to safely preserve food.
Though canning food is often time-consuming, it’s rewarding because it allows you to customize flavors to your liking. If you’re new to home canning, or you need a refresher, refer to the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website before you begin, to avoid the risk of food-borne illness.
If you’re not planning to do water-bath canning, Mason jars can still be used for countertop fermenting or making your own liqueurs, like limoncello.
A blender may not seem like an obvious piece of equipment for preserving, but it’s the only tool that can make silky smooth purées for fruit leather or fruit butters. It’s also handy for other purées like pesto, which you can pour into ice cube trays and freeze. The cubes can be bagged or vacuum-sealed, then used for individual portions later.
The best blender we’ve tested is the Vitamix 5200, which is a favorite in many professional kitchens and juice bars. At about $440, the Vitamix is expensive, but its powerful motor purées thick mixtures that most blenders can’t handle, and it’s backed by an impressive seven-year warranty. A cheaper option, like the KitchenAid 5-Speed Diamond Blender, isn’t as powerful but will get the job done.
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