Winter Preservation Techniques for Chefs
Serving seasonal foods from nearby farms comes with all sorts of benefits, but there’s a drawback for restaurants located in a cold-weather region. To counter the ebb and flow of produce across growing seasons, more and more chefs these days are doing what home cooks and farmers have done for years: turning to sauce-making, freezing, pickling, and canning to preserve the peak of local spring, summer, and early fall harvests. Even fermenting—once shunned by local health departments—has become a regular go-to technique for chefs looking to retain a taste of those sunnier days.
Recognizing the need to preserve local supplies, farmers have started to sell their pickled, canned, sauced, and stored fruits, tomatoes, and fresh-picked produce to chefs during the offseason. For instance, Leaning Shed Farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan, has begun dehydrating its super-sweet onions and crushing them into powder for a shelf-stable spice.
But for DIY chefs willing to explore on-site preservation techniques, here’s a look at how some chefs are handling in-restaurant canning as well as fermenting.
For starters, know the rules: Some municipalities around the country require special licensing for restaurants to can foods on-site and then sell or serve to customers. Though most health departments will allow the use of canned goods in dishes, it also helps to have a documented HACCP plan in place. (The U.S. FDA has established the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, HACCP, as a management system to address food safety.)
Paul Virant, chef/owner of Vie and Vistro outside of Chicago and a partner of Perennial Virant in the city, took this route years ago after completing a class at the University of Wisconsin on food preservation. In addition to establishing a documented HACCP plan for his canning process, Chef Virant also had a microbiologist approve his recipes and then he registered them with the FDA.
Virant does most of the canning for his restaurants at the end of the summer harvest with fruits and vegetables from local farmers. He uses a large stockpot of boiling water to sterilize the jars and lids first, and then fills them with the produce. Among his favorites are eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers, which are canned for making into relishes. Modeled after the Italian antipasti, he’ll press the eggplant to release its liquid, then pack it in jars with oil, chilies, and garlic, later serving it as-is with cheeses and charcuterie for a platter.
For a smoked apple butter, Chef Virant will smoke the apples and cook them down, then can the produce, and later use the butter as the base for a gastrique, mayonnaise, or vinaigrette. The bar is also apt to steal the canned apples for a Kentucky bourbon smashed with calvados and lemon, shaken and served on ice with a twist and topping of wheat beer. Virant treats plums the same way, using a smoked plum butter for a glaze with smoked chicken or duck wings.
At Community Tavern in Chicago, executive chef/partner Joey Beato cans fruits at the peak of their harvest in the spring, summer, and early fall. A popular creation is his jam, made with blueberry nectarine and yuzu juice, with a little natural apple pectin added after about 35 minutes of cooking. To serve, he’ll spread the jam on sourdough bread for a Mango grilled cheese with sea salt and kale. Chef Beato says he prefers to use the pectin to prevent overcooking the delicate farm-fresh fruits.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Cole Ersel, the executive chef of Wolf Peach, turns to canning and fermenting to preserve fresh produce from his on-site garden. “The end of August through mid-October is definitely the hardest time of the year because we’re getting ready for winter, pickling and preserving our harvest, but it’s worth it,” he says.
Chef Ersel has filed an HACCP plan and submitted samples to the state for his canned tomatoes—after harvesting about 1,000 pounds from the garden. To can the tomatoes, he uses an extruder from Italy, pushing the tomatoes through to release the skins and seeds, then giving them a light cook with some basil and a touch of garlic before packing them in hot washed jars rinsed with vinegar for extra sterility. He uses the sauce primarily for his Margarita pizza, and the canned supply lasts throughout the entire winter and well into the spring.
Fermenting has perhaps received more scrutiny than canning, but some health departments have warmed up to the idea when the preparation area is clean and recipes are well documented. At Perennial Virant and Vie, Chef Virant will ferment carrots in a saltwater brine at room temperature for two weeks, using them as a side dish or charcuterie accompaniment. He seasons them with fresh thyme and often glazes with a bit of the fermenting brine and a touch of honey.
At Community Tavern, Chef Beato ferments savoy cabbage harvested in the early fall for kimchi, massaging the produce with salt and sugar (a cup each per 10 pounds). He then presses it down, which allows the juices to be released, and ferments at about 59 to 69 degrees Fahrenheit. After about two weeks, he adds a purée of fish sauce, red chili paste, black sesame seeds, and ginger, and then jars and refrigerates the finished condiment. He also uses plain fermented savoy cabbage in a dish that is tossed with fried almonds and homemade San Marzano tomato sauce, served atop whole roasted fish with charred scallion and brown butter relish.
At Wolf Peach, Chef Ersel uses the green cabbage harvest in early fall to make sauerkraut, shredding the cabbage and packing it in 5-gallon buckets with salt (about 3 percent) and a bottle of distilled water. The distilled water helps add enough moisture to the ferment to prevent the cabbage from drying out and from developing unhealthy bacteria. After naturally fermenting the kraut, he cooks it to sterilize it, before packing it away in Cryovac bags for cold storage. Throughout the winter, he uses the kraut in pierogies stuffed with mashed potatoes and goat cheese, or with sausages.
Apples for All Seasons
Few fruits or vegetables, and especially those coming from smaller, sustainable farms, can stay fresh through winter. But apples have a unique chemical makeup that can make them actually improve with age. Farmers once used root cellars to store their apples in cool and slightly humid conditions, but now many turn to controlled-atmosphere facilities. Once reserved for large-scale commercially produced apples, increasing numbers of smaller regional farmers are now able to turn to local co-ops and other partnerships to store apples in central cooling facilities. These facilities are generally set at around 34 degrees Fahrenheit, with low oxygen and high humidity levels, which prevent one bad apple from literally spoiling the bunch since apples spread ethylene as they “perspire.”
“Apples are the most economical produce on the shelf because they can be available for extended periods,” says Mark Nicholson, a third-generation co-owner of Red Jacket Orchards in the Finger Lakes region of New York. One of the heirloom varieties Red Jacket grows is the New Town Pippen, nicknamed during Colonial times as the “Christmas Apple” because, although it’s harvested in the fall, its starches turn to sugar producing a sweeter, deeper flavor over time. Other varieties that store well through the winter are Fuji, Gala, and Honeycrisp.