Friday, April 3, 2015

Freezing Peppers and Tomatoes

It’s been a bit slow on the garden front lately, but it finally seems like our perpetual winter is coming to an end here in Western New York, so things will be picking up soon! I have a photo update prepared for this weekend of all the seedlings and small plants that are just waiting for warm enough weather to go outside, so be sure to check back in the next couple of days. 
Cayenne peppers after 7 months in the freezer
For today’s post I thought I would focus on my favorite method of preserving garden peppers and tomatoes: freezing. Freezing has some advantages over canning. First, it is extremely easy. Second, there are no worries about the acidity of the vegetables when they enter the freezer, whereas in canning you need to drop the acidity to a certain level in order to create an environment that is hostile to botulism. Third, your vegetables can go in raw, and in the case of peppers can remain pretty close to their original state when they come out months later for use.

DIY vacuum seal... Of course a vacuum sealer is even better (and easier)!
Let’s begin with peppers. First, wash your peppers and allow them to dry completely. This is important, because if they go into the freezer wet they will freeze together and make removal of just 1 difficult. Then, simply place the whole peppers in freezer bags, label with the name and date, and seal. Finally, open just enough of the bag to insert a straw and suck out the air through the straw to create a vacuum. The bag should collapse tightly onto the peppers. At this point they are ready to freeze.

You can certainly cut them up first to save space, but I prefer freezing them whole. The tough pepper skins are almost like a plastic bag and provide yet another layer of airtight protection that keeps freezer burn away. I followed this same procedure with some diced peppers and in a couple of months the bag was filled with ice crystals.
Poblano and Jimmy Nardello peppers defrosted and de-seeded
How long will they keep? Well, as of April 3rd we are still using peppers from last year’s garden that were harvested in September. I haven’t seen any noticeable loss of quality or spiciness (most of the peppers we have left are cayenne and poblano). As you can see in the photo above from a few weeks ago the peppers are still bright and firm. There is no reason to worry about freezing taking away the heat from chili peppers—our cayenne peppers are still extremely hot 7 months after freezing.

Poblano and Jimmy Nardello peppers just taken out of freezer (you can see them defrosting)
One final tip for peppers would be to cut them when they are still slightly frozen, as they will be more firm and easier to cut. Remember that freezing ruptures cell walls, so once the item defrosts it will be softer than it was originally. Since we use peppers primarily for cooking this is never evident in the final product.

You can do something similar for tomatoes. We simply blanched and skinned the tomatoes as you would normally. Then, we portioned the whole tomatoes and juice (don’t throw away the juice!) into airtight plastic containers of various sizes and set them in the freezer to make what essentially were giant tomato ice cubes. You can de-seed them as well, but I just put the tomato sauce in the blender if I want it smooth. Finally, we transferred these blocks of frozen tomato into freezer bags and sealed as described above. You can make the blocks any size you want; we tried to make them “meal sized” so that each block would be equivalent to a large can of whole tomatoes. I can’t say how long these would last, as we only had 5 dinners worth of frozen tomatoes and they were gone in January, but they were still fresh tasting and bright then!
Frozen tomato block after removal from freezer bag. Use any tomatoes you have: these are Blue Beauty, Roma, and Rutgers all mixed together
Of course freezing has its drawbacks too—namely the freezer space required for storing all these frozen veggies. You are also dependent on your power not going out for extended periods of time. However, if you have a chest freezer (or just a lot of freezer space) and don’t experience long power outages these drawbacks are easily overcome. The process becomes even easier and more effective with the purchase of a vacuum sealer.

Defrosted tomatoes... put them in the blender if you don't like whole seeds in your sauces
 Using these methods you can enjoy your garden’s bounty throughout the cold winter months. Almost anything can be frozen with good results, so this isn’t limited to tomatoes and peppers. We haven’t bought a pepper since our plants began producing last summer, and it looks like we will have plenty to last us until this year’s crop comes in. If you’re looking for an easy way to preserve your peppers and tomatoes, give this a try next harvest season.

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Until next time, happy gardening!

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