Harvest time

Harvest time

While you may be following a time-honored tradition when you put up food at harvest time, freezing food is an option your great-grandmother never dreamed of. Although it seems straight-forward, freezing does have pitfalls that can diminish flavor and texture and compromise food safety. Fortunately, these problems are easy to avoid for a top-notch finished product.

"Harvest and freeze in the same day for the best quality," says Marilyn Moore, Ashland chef and food sanitation instructor at Rogue Community College.

Moore cautions that all utensils, containers and counters should be cleaned and sanitized.

"Please use a clean wash cloth to wash counters down, and use a bleach solution," says Moore. "And always bring clean, washed product to your cutting board."

An amazing number of vegetables can be frozen, including onions, mushrooms, melons, peppers, pureed avocado and potatoes. Success is in the details, and a lot of those finer points can be found in an Oregon extension service brochure that's available online at http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lane.

"I like to blanch my vegetables before freezing," says Moore. This kills surface bacteria, and in some cases is necessary to stop enzymatic action that can diminish quality.

Food to be frozen should be seasoned lightly, because freezing will enhance the seasoning's flavor, says Donna Crosiar, family food educator and home economist at the Lane County extension service.

Another important detail is to keep your freezer temperature at 0 degrees or lower. Containers suitable for freezing include food-grade plastic, freezer bags or glass containers, and "it's better if glass has straight sides," says Jackie Greer, president of the Jackson County Family Food Education Volunteers. All food expands when it freezes, so leave about an inch of empty space in the container.

For quality, it's extremely important to freeze your food in small quantities, says Greer. First, a large mass of food will not get cold enough in the center and may remain over 40 degrees — warm enough that bacteria can multiply. Second, food frozen in small quantities has a better consistency. The expansion of freezing breaks down cell walls, and the quicker the freezing, the smaller the amount of expansion.

Date and label what you freeze, Moore says. "That's a problem. People don't do it."

Although food is safe, quality is lost when cooked vegetables are kept longer than four months, she says.

Greer recommends against freezing more than you can eat in a year.

It is as important to thaw properly as it is to freeze properly — in the refrigerator for one or two days, says Moore. While you can microwave food to thaw it, the food should be immediately cooked and eaten.

Because proper food storage is an important public health issue, the extension center maintains services to answer questions. Local volunteers are contacted when you call the extension service at 776-7371. Greer suggests you call before you get in the middle of your project. The statewide hotline, 800-354-7319, fields between 6,000 and 8,000 calls a month in a good growing year, says Crosiar.

The food-line volunteers will answer questions about what to do when the freezer goes out, food safety and various types of food processing. With more than one line open, you have a good chance of getting an immediate response, she said.

Moore authored a handbook on food preparation called "Is It Safe to Eat in Your Kitchen?" because she was concerned about food-related illness. "I wanted to make a difference, and I could only do it through knowledge."

Extra steps pay off in quality and safety, says Moore.

"And I'm all about quality because I'm a chef."

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