Preserve The Season and "Put Up" Some Peaches
The news coming out of the peach farms around the South is that we should expect to pay more this year for a basket of our favorite summer fruit. If you know anything about growing peach trees, you know that these are high-maintenance fruit trees and all the stars have to be aligned just right for the farmer to have a good harvest. Unfortunately, the unusually warm winter and early spring we experienced earlier this year caused the fruit trees to begin to bud early, then a freeze in March killed those buds. Many producers across our region have lost an estimated 80% of their crop. Supply is down, demand is high, and farmers still need to recoup their costs. It doesn't take an economics major to understand that this causes prices to go up. In order not to waste money or food, there are several ways to get the most out of the peaches you grow or buy. Bake them up into delicious breads and muffins—perfect for breakfast, brunch or an afternoon treat, tempt your family's taste buds with a juicy peach cobbler, the ultimate Southern summer dessert, or try your hand at preserving peaches.
"Puttin' up" peaches is another way to make the most out of this summer fruit. Not too long ago, farmers had to can fruits and vegetables in the warm weather months if they wanted to feed their family during the impending cold winter. Today, we choose to can peaches and make jams and jellies for different reasons. Some like the ability to control the ingredients that go into a food item. Others enjoy getting the most from their own gardens or local curb markets. And still others relish the nostalgia and wistfulness that comes from recreating moments from our childhood summers. Whatever the reasons, a canning revival is bubbling across the South and the new generation of food preservers is hungry for information: how can I freeze peaches? Can I make peach preserves? What is a water bath?
Freezing peaches is one of the easiest ways to preserve this favorite summertime fruit. For best results, peel and slice your peaches prior to freezing. Here's how: Using the tip of a pairing knife, cut a small X through the skin of the bottom of the peach, but don't cut too deeply into the flesh. Place peaches in a pot of boiling water for 10-15 seconds. Remove from boiling water and immediately place peaches into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Once cool enough to handle, use a pairing knife to catch the corner of skin at the base of the X and peel towards the stem. Once peeled, cut the peach in half and remove the pit. Slice each half into wedges and place in a bowl. Toss the juice of 1 lemon for every 8-10 peaches (to help prevent browning) and ½ teaspoon of sugar for each peach (to help release juices). Measure the peaches as you scoop them into freezer-safe storage bags, and eliminate any excess air from the bag to prevent freezer burn. Write the measurement and date on the outside of the bag. Place all the freezer bags flat on a baking sheet and then place in the freezer. Once peaches are frozen, you can remove the baking sheet and stack the bags in the freezer until you need them.
Canning peaches, while a little more labor and time intensive, is a creative way to either preserve whole peaches or cook jams and jellies for future use. You will need a few items to get started, such as proper canning jars with screw lids and bands, and a water bath canner, complete with a rack, canning funnels, and jar-lifter. This one from amazon.com, at $49.49, has everything you need to get started. When canning peaches, or any food, find a recipe from a reputable source, and don't be tempted to make up your own. Canning is the process of preserving food for stable, room temperature, shelf storage. It is more in line with chemistry than it is with cooking. The amount of salt, sugar, and other ingredients in a recipe are in direct proportion to each other - not just for taste, but for food stability and safety. The place to be creative and make up new recipes is when you eat your canned goods.
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If you don't want to go to the trouble of a water-bath, try your hand at freezer jams. Just as delicious, freezer jams and jellies are just another way to preserve the fresh taste of summer fruits.