Preserving food the old fashioned way

22 October 2012
I had an email from seagreen last week asking:

I am getting more and more interested in preserving. I've always done a bit, jams and such, as well as drying tomatoes and apples, but this year, thanks to your blog and the forum, I've been making salsa and pickles, using just vinegar, sugar and/or salt to preserve.

I don't have a water bath kit but read on the forum today that the water bath is the only way to preserve vegetables. I hope to do much more preserving of vegetables this year so I wonder if you could either advise me, or perhaps write on your blog, if it's necessary to preserve vegetables that way.

A water bath is one of many ways to preserve food. You can use salt, sugar or vinegar to preserve food and you can dry it. Most bacteria need moisture to survive, if you remove it, by drying the food, bacteria can't grow. Traditionally meat and fish have been dried to keep it going over long winters when people were unable to hunt due to the weather. There are instructions here on how to dry meat, fish and chickenand here. You can pressure can meat and fish but you can't water bath it.

You can also smoke meat, fish and chicken although this is similar to drying, it also adds its own unique flavour.  And for those who like to make things, here are instructions on how to make a smoker using a steel barrel.

If you're going to do a lot of preserving, it's wise to find a good modern book on the subject. You need to follow specific instructions using the correct processing times or amounts of vinegar and/or sugar for all your jars to be safely stored. In Australia you can use either British or Australian books, if you're in the USA or Canada, use local books - we do it differently here and in the UK. I rarely use my water bath if I'm making jam, relish or chutney and I like the River Cottage Handbook No 2 for recipes.

If you're looking to preserve vegetables, you can pressure can almost anything - that preserves food by sterilising it. If you're using a water bath, which never reaches the high temperatures of a pressure canner, you'll have to use only high acid vegetables, such as tomatoes, or fruits or vegetables with vinegar and/or sugar added. Again, read about doing this before you start; you have to have a good understanding of it before diving in.

You can also add flavour while preserving by making chutneys, relish, jams and sauces. Again each item you make has to have enough sugar or vinegar in it to act as a preservative if you intend to not water bath at the end. You follow a recognised recipe to know how much vinegar or sugar to add. Sugar and vinegar act as a preservative because bacteria cannot grow in that environment. If you make sauces, jams, relish etc, you must make sure they are added to hot, sterile jars with sterile lids, as soon as they've finished boiling on the stove. This gives the sauce, jam etc, a bacteria-free environment, and the sugar and vinegar added to the recipe, along with the boiling, will help preserve it.

Wine is one way to preserve a summer harvest of grapes and you can preserve lemons, oranges, passionfruit, pineapple juice as cordials that will keep because of the added sugar content. There is also the age old and various techniques of fermenting a huge range of foods. Sauerkraut and kimchee are the German and Korean traditional ways of preserving cabbage. See here for instructions on how to make them. If you're looking for good books on fermenting, I like Wild Fermentation and Nourishing Traditions.   Here is the Wild Fermentation recipe for sauerkraut.

Fruit and vegetables can both be dried for preserving using a dehydrator, slow oven or microwave, or out in the sun under wire gauze to keep the insects off. Click here for an article on how to dry vegetables without a dehydrator.

Cheese is so commonplace now we rarely think of it as a way of preserving milk. With the addition of beneficial bacteria, the removal of the fluid part of the milk and sometimes the addition of salt to the outside of the cheese, it can sit in a cool room for many months, developing flavour.  Milk can be made into kefir or yoghurt and both can be made into cheese.  See instructions for kefir here and kefir cheese here.

I wrote this post a while back about processing food in a water bath using equipment you've probably already got in your kitchen. If you want to try this method of food storage, it may be a good idea to test your skills and methods this way first and if you choose to, you can buy a water bath unit later on.

How do you go about storing small amounts of food or preserving vegetables without a water bath?


  1. This is an excellent post and one that I just stored away for future use. We have a huge 4 oven wood burning stove (Brunhilda) that we use through winter and who is slowly being allowed to cool after non stop use all through winter. Tasmania is very different to the mainland! Our growing season is much shorter and we have a very different range of foods that grow well here. I so envy mainlanders and what they can grow. We come from W.A. and again, it was like moving to another country coming to Tasmania but we are starting to get a handle on the changes. Cheers for another wonderful and most useful post :)

  2. I used to use the Vacola method which I am thinking of going back to. I do remember that some vegies had to be done twice and then had to be boiled for 10 mins before eating. This makes me nervous about using other methods. I am the worst blancher in the world. My stringless seem to develop strings in the process.
    JillN, Laidley

    1. Jill, are you water bathing beans?

    2. No, they're one of the vegetables I'm nervous about.

  3. Hi Rhonda some one told me on a website that you could not use jars and bottle you have kept you have to use new ones because of the lids is this right I have kept all my jars and bottles from spaghetti sauce and jams and things


    1. That's not right, Linda. There is a lot of misleading information on the internet. I've been using recycled jars for many years with no problems. You need to have glass jars with wide tops and metal lids. It will make the whole process a cheaper one for you and also help you with your recycling. I've explained it in the last link in my post.

  4. It's not really preserving per say but my father used to cut oranges into quarters and freeze them. Come summer we had an abundance of orange 'ice-blocks' for those hot days.

    I would love to preserve more and recently purchased the River Cottage Handbook (but annoying received the American edition- so frustrating!) but I think I shall have to do it with someone like my sister so we can split the spoils. I simply don't have enough room to store a whole lot of any one thing and I think sharing the job and payload would allow it to still be economical whilst providing a bit more variety.

    My Mum is visiting me tomorrow and is bringing me a jar of the lemon butter she made on the weekend. I can't wait!

  5. I love this post :-) a lot of the info on the net is generated from the US which has different methods to Australia/UK so it can be a bit confusing! Over winter I have collected a number of boxes of fowlers vaccola jars and I intend on preserving a lot of fruit this year. I live in Tasmania and we have apricot, apples, cherry, peach and nectarine trees on our little suburban block! I'll be also making jams which we use to flavour our homemade yoghurt :-) I'll probably buy in cartons of roma tomatoes this year to make roasted tomato passata from the River Cottage book - I did it last year and it was a sad day when we used the last of the jars!

    1. Good luck with your bottling, Claire.

  6. I preserve beetroot by putting it in the hot jars, with a boiling white malt vinegar and sugar mix...I do small amounts as it grows in the garden and I keep it in the fridge afterwards as there is only ever a few jars at a tiime...
    I also make Italian style eggplant by salting, boiling, drying in between each step and finally packing tightly in jars with olive oil covering them...these I keep in the cupboard...
    I am married to an Italian and we annually make around 150-200 bottles of 'sauce' by boiling the tomatoes first, and then re boiling them in the big 'tub' over gas after they are bottled and sealed, so you could say it is a 'giant' vacola unit, Italian style!
    I also blanch and freeze excess vegetables...I just did over two kilos of broad beans last night....
    I also make jam in the summer time and marmalade and I stew plums in sugar syrup and freeze these also....
    So I do a little bit of everything....I do have an old vacola unit that I picked up at auction with all I need to do the preserving but I just havnt had the excess fruit or the nerve to give it a go yet!

  7. Enchanted Moments, I do my bottling in a very similar way - a bit at a time, small amounts, store in the fridge and sometimes in the cupboard. It's only if we have a huge excess of something in the garden, or we buy a cheap box, that I look to other ways. I reckon there'd be some very good food being served at your table.

  8. The biggest problem I have had with recycling jars is the strength of the glass used for commercially processed foods. A friend gave me a bunch of lovely jars she had saved from mayonaise, and they worked up beautifully. But whe I went to lift them out of the canner, every jar had cracked right around the bottom, and the contents simply fell out, right there in the kettle! I was sick, but my chickens were over-joyed at 9 quarts of peaches for lunch:-)

  9. I now live in Canada and the things they insist are the "only safe way" were a bit mind boggling when I moved from England recently. I do now own a waterbath canner and a pressure canner and lots of jars and single use, two piece lids. They wore me down eventually! Before I had the waterbath canner, I did a few small batches of pints in my big stock pot with a tea towel in the bottom.

    I rarely do large batches of things and usually do pints as there is often just the two of us. The larger jars are just too much. I did eventually pressure can some "high risk" foods, it was much easier than I had anticipated.

    I am pleased to say that we now have a nice stockpile of canned food, which I visit often. I have also given away some items as gifts. I tend to waterbath even acidic foods as it is such a simple procees, provides an added layer of perceived security and even the coolest areas of our house get warm in the summer months. They only things I dont process this way are things picked in vinegar, which seem to go soggy if over processed.

    This year I discovered fermenting and have huge fun with lacto fermented foods ( and some disasters). I now make lacto fermented foods and drinks regularly and hope that consuming them has all the benefits claimed for them!

    Bitten by the bug as I am, I also found a steam juicer at the charity shop ( ops hop, thrift store). Oh boy, they're fun! No more dripping jelly bags for me :-).

    I love not having to rely on the freezer ( though I still freeze a lot of things). The regular power outages we have here now make me less nervous. I do need to make the canned stuff more earthquake proof though.

    1. I found storing the canned jars in their original boxes on the shelves is a good way to go in protecting them somewhat. At least they won't be rattling against one and another.

      I too have a steam juicer... boy do I love it for doing spaghetti sauces, tomato paste, catsup (saving the tomato water and canning also to cook rice and pasta in) and steam juicing chickens (saving the chicken water/broth and canning also). Whomever invented the steam juicer deserves a medal!

      Happy canning!

  10. You can also freeze low acid vegetables to preserve them. If you are using a freezer, remember it will use much less energy full than empty. Air takes the most energy to keep at such low temperatures. So don't let it be empty. You can fill plastic jugs with water and freeze that to keep it full if you have not enough food to freeze.

    I thought my son was buying something we would not use much when he got a dehydrator for preserving, but I love to use it. We put the dry things in mason jars to store.

  11. I've started dabbling a bit in fermentation, but my usual way of preserving is by freezing - that's not ideal, though, given the constraints on space and dependency on electricity. I grew up fearing the canning process and botulism. Nobody around me ever canned food, yet I remember hearing about the "dangers" of it. It's taken me some time to overcome this through educating myself more about it. Thanks for all the excellent info you've packed into this post!

  12. I made beetroot the other day....was most delish!

  13. Thanks for that info, Rhonda. I will give it a good read as I really want to be more knowledgeable in this area. I remember Mum had an old Fowler's Vacola outfit and I wonder where it went to. Unfortunately I wasn't interested in what she was doing at that time. Too late to ask her now though. What goes around comes around, doesn't it?

  14. I preserve my jams,pickles and chutneys, the same way as you Rhonda. Infact I didn't know there was a different way to do this until I started reading American blogs.

    I also freeze my fruit and vegetables. I have three freezers now as I have four allotments and it helps us to be as self sufficient in fruit and vegetables as possible.

    I also store my potatoes and apples etc ourside in ventilated frostfree, rodent safe boxes and I store my pumpkins and squashes in our romantic lol

  15. Thank you Rhonda and those who contributed. Some good information to copy and keep.

  16. I have my grandparents fowlers vacola set and lots of jars ppl have given or I've opshopped but I usually just use old jars from pasta sauce ( with the poppy lid do you know they have sealed ) and water bath in a stock pot that is the perfect size for a cake rack I have, as you don't want the jars sitting on the bottom. I also blanch and freeze veges

  17. Sorry wouldn't let me write more in last post. I bottle fruit and tomato sauces, but other veges I prefer frozen or pickled. I also have a dehydrator and love it, dried tomatoes, fruit leathers, mainly do veges and things in the short lead up to a hike. Want to dry doing some venison though

  18. Thanks for this great summary, Rhonda. We have got back into preserving in the last couple of years, and after a couple of disappointments we last year bought a Fowlers Vacola preserving kit (the smaller one). We discovered that Fowlers have significantly improved their method since I last used it - it is very simple and almost failsafe now. We also stick to the smaller jars as there are only two of us, and love running off batches of up to 8 jars at a time. I am also using my dehydrator more, using it for fruit and vegies. The garden is being gradually repopulated with more fruit trees and vegie patches, as I have recently retired and have more time to nurture them all. I'm looking forward to a productive summer here in Hobart!


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