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How to freeze garden produce
by Frann Leach
When you grow your own vegetables there will be times when you have too much to eat right away, so you basically have three choices: give it away, put it on the compost heap, or find a means of storing it in good condition. Freezing sounds like the perfect solution, but it's not just a matter of sticking it in the freezer.
All about blanching in the kitchen
Blanching (in kitchen terms) is really just another word for scalding... a quick immersion in boiling water. It's not, as some people think, to 'kill bugs' or 'tenderise' vegetables. If you freeze your garden vegetables unblanched you're very unlikely to be running any health risks.
So why bother to blanch? Because all crops contain chemical substances called enzymes that even function under sub-zero conditions. Enzymes won't poison you (in fact, there are similar ones in the human digestive system). They do a kind of 'breaking down' job on food and if they're not removed or deactivated they will, in time, affect both the colour and the flavour of your vegetables.
All commercially available frozen vegetables that you buy have been blanched. And though not all processing methods used by commercial companies are necessarily worth copying, this one most definitely is. Given the savings that could be achieved, it's surprising that the frozen food companies haven't found a way to cut out the whole blanching process. But their own tests have shown that, unblanched, the peas, spinach, sprouts etc. that we all buy in such quantities simply wouldn't look as good or taste as fresh.
So if you want your vegetables to taste and look as good halfway through the winter as they did when you picked them, you need to blanch. And it's worth learning how to do it properly, because sloppy blanching results in sloppy vegetables. You need the right equipment and to use it pretty carefully.
Another plus-point: it's been proved that frozen vegetables which have been blanched retain more vitamin C than those that haven't.
- A set of kitchen scales for weighing your vegetables, so that you don't try and do too many at once (you probably won't need this after the first time, so try and borrow these, rather than buying them especially, if you don't already have some).
- A really big saucepan, or a pressure cooker (without the lid), or a preserving pan, or an electric deep-fat fryer cleaned out and filled with water instead of oil. Whatever you choose, it needs to be big enough to hold 3-4 litres (6-8 pints) of boiling water.
- A net, basket or strainer for immersing the vegetables in the boiling water. Could be a chip-pan basket, a simple muslin bag, or a nylon wine-straining bag.
- A watch with a built in stopwatch or timer function. It's important that blanching and cooling times are adhered to as closely as possible.
- A plentiful supply of really cold water. For example, a big batch of ice cubes and a big basin of cold water. You can add more ice cubes as they melt to keep the water really cold.
- A colander or sieve to drain the vegetables as quickly as possible after cooling.
- A chart of blanching times like the one here.
How to blanch your vegetables
- Put the phone off the hook and tell your family you are going to need to be undisturbed until you have finished what you are doing. Timings are vital. Just like a soft boiled egg, an extra 30 seconds or minute will ruin the final result.
- Pick vegetables as young as possible and either prepare and blanch straight away or pack in a polythene bag in the refrigerator until you are ready to deal with them (hopefully the same day).
- Wash and clean your vegetables, then prepare as shown in the chart (if it's not listed, choose the type of vegetable nearest to the one you are freezing, and go by that, adjusting for size difference if necessary).
- Bring the water to a good fast boil.
- Weigh out half a kilo or one pound of your chosen vegetable and lower it into the boiling water in your strainer. Wait till the water comes back to the boil, then start timing straight away.
Watch the timing carefully. Don't let the temptation to 'just get on with something else' distract you from what you are doing, or you will end up with mushy vegetables.
- As soon as the time is up, take the vegetables out of the hot water and plunge straight into the cold water. Leave them there for the same length of time you blanched them for. If you don't cool properly, the vegetables will carry on cooking, with the same disappointing results.
- Remove from the water and put into your colander or other drainer and leave to drain thoroughly. When they have stopped dripping, you can choose to open freeze or pack in portions. Open freezing is the best method. To do this, just spread the vegetables on shallow trays (try not to let them touch each other) and put into the fast freeze section of your freezer. When completely frozen, pack into polythene bags, label and put into the regular vegetable section.
NOTE: There's no need to change the water for every batch. You can do 6-7 consecutive batches of veg in the same water (bringing it back up to the boil each time, of course) and in fact this helps to retain the vitamin C content of the vegetables.
|PREPARATION, BLANCHING AND COOLING OF VEGETABLES
Note: very young/very freshly picked vegetables may need very slightly less blanching time
|Vegetable||Preparation||Blanching and Cooling time (same for both)|
|Asparagus||Choose stems all the same thickness. Cut length to fit container. Do not tie in bunches.||Thin stalks - 2 minutes. Medium stalks - 3 minutes. Thick stalks - 4 minutes|
|Aubergines||Wash, cut into 1cm (½") slices.||4 minutes|
|Beans (French or Runner)||Leave small French beans whole. Runner beans should have strings removed, ends cut off. Cut into 2.5-5 cm (1-2") lengths (best for flavour) or slice if preferred.||Whole beans and bigger pieces - 2 minutes. Sliced - 1 minute|
|Beans (Broad)||Choose small, young beans. Pod.||3 minutes|
|Broccoli||Trim to even lengths with compact heads and cut off any tough stalks.||Thin stalks - 3 minutes. Thicker - 4 minutes|
|Brussels sprouts||Trim off outer leaves to achieve small tight sprouts evenly sized.||3 minutes|
|Carrots||Leave small young carrots whole, slice or dice larger ones.||Small or whole - 5 minutes. Diced or sliced - 3 minutes.|
|Cauliflower||Separate into small sprigs (florets). Wash well.||3 minutes|
|Celeriac||Wash, trim, scrape. Slice fairly thinly.||6 minutes|
|Corn on the cob||Remove husks and silk||4 to 6 minutes according to size|
|Courgettes||Cut into 2.5 cm (1^q ) thick slices||3 minutes|
|Leeks||Remove outer leaves. Trim ends. Wash well. Cut into 2.5 cm (1") slices.||2 minutes|
|Mushrooms||Wash and dry well. Do not blanch in water - instead sauté in butter, cool, drain, then freeze|
|Onions||Peel, slice or chop.||1 minute|
|Parsnips||Choose small young ones. Scrape, wash, slice or dice.||2 minutes|
|Peas||Only very young tender ones should be used. Sort carefully.||1 minute|
|Potatoes, New||Scrape.||4 minutes|
|Potatoes, Chips||Peel, cut into chips. Use oil to deep fry for 2 minutes. Cool on kitchen paper. Open freeze.|
|Spinach||Use young tender leaves or remove tough midrib of older leaves. Wash well.||2 minutes|
|Swede||Remove peel, cut into cubes.||3 minutes|
|Turnips||Remove peel, cut into cubes.||3 minutes|
2. Soft fruit
However much you may long for home grown strawberries and cream at Christmas, the fact is you will either have to make do with the supermarket offering or go without, because strawberries don't freeze successfully except as puree.
The problem is they have a very high water content; the cell walls inside the fruit collapse when ice crystals form, turning them into strawberry-flavoured mush. This is fine for sauces, jam and the like, but not much good if what you're dreaming of is more Wimbledon than Robinsons.
If you have too many strawberries to eat (heaven forbid!), you can pick them every few days, while they're still small and firm (but they need to be perfectly ripe). Don't wash them, just wipe off any earth with a damp cloth or kitchen towel and open freeze, transferring to a large resealable polythene bag when they become solid. Bear in mind when you come to use them that, although they may still look like strawberries, what they actually are is little individual portions of strawberry puree.
Raspberries and loganberries
Raspberries are a much better candidate for freezing, in fact the freezer fruit. They keep their flavour and last until the new crop comes in the following season. Open freeze the good ones, Any damaged ones can be frozen as puree (if sweetening, use about 1 part sugar to four parts raspberries by weight). Loganberries, too, freeze well this way.
Worth growing to freeze, because the labour-intensive job of picking makes them unprofitable fruit for most commercial growers, so they're usually pricy at the greengrocer's. If you intend to make jam from them later, then blanch the fruit for 2 minutes in boiling water, plunge in cold water for a further 2 minutes, before freezing - this prevents the skins from toughening in the jam making.
You can also open freeze them in bunches—the stalks break off much more easily after freezing. Then bag and seal as for strawberries.
Cherries are great to freeze for later use in ice cream sauces and pies, particularly if cooked before freezing. Simmer gently for about 15 minutes in syrup (450g sugar to a litre of water or 9 oz to 1 pint), using 500ml of syrup to 1kg (1 pint to 2 lbs) of fruit (including stones). If you have time, pit them (remove the stones) before freezing, unless you like the slightly almondy flavour they give to the fruit. There used to be a special tool for stoning cherries; if you haven't got Granny's old one lying about, cut fruit in half and use the U-shaped end of a large (clean) hairpin to hoick them out. You can also open freeze and bag the fruit as for strawberries if you want to use it later for making jam.
Not often seen in the shops for similar reasons to currants, goosegogs as my mum called them, are better cooked before freezing. Top and tail them, then prepare in the same way as for cherries. Mind you, since cooked gooseberries often end up being used as puree for sauces and traditional gooseberry fool, unless you particularly want them whole for some recipe, it's probably easier to freeze as a puree.