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Canning it: Preserving with alcohol

May 25, 2011 |  2:56 pm

Cherries in Vodka
Preserving food is not just about canning tomatoes and making nectarine jam. The LA County Master Food Preservers are trained as volunteer educators to answer questions about preservation and fermentation; and that includes working with and making alcohol -- such as brewing beer, making cordials and using alcohol as a preservative. Unfortunately for those of you who want to distill at home, that's still illegal. No matter how much you want to build a still, the federal government says no.  Alcohol is fun to brew, though, and is a fantastic preserving agent, since at 80 proof/40% alcohol by volume no bacteria can survive in it.

Peaches in brandy are a classic and delicious marvel of food preservation. We love plums in whiskey and citrus in vodka--though that may really be more about the vodka than the citrus. And if you have a surfeit of vanilla pods, what better way to preserve them than in a big bottle of inexpensive rum -- creating vanilla extract. The flavor doesn’t dissipate, it never spoils and you can use it for years if stored properly.

All you have to do is slice the beans –- about four per liter -– lengthwise, add to the alcohol, shake and store in a cool, dark place for a few months. When the brew is nice and dark, you can use it as is and also strain out the beans, let them dry a bit and use them for baking, though they won’t be as potent.

It’s also beyond simple to make boozy cherries that you can later eat over ice cream or dip in chocolate. We like to start with the deep, red Bings that are in season right now. Wash a few cups' worth and place in a wide-mouth jar. You don’t even have to take the stems off. Pour in enough alcohol (rum, brandy, whiskey or unflavored vodka) to cover, put on the lid, shake a few times, and wait. As with the vanilla extract, it just needs to sit in a cool, dark place for at least a few weeks before you use them. They can last up to six or seven years for sure.  That’s what preserved food is all about.
You can make an endless variety of cordials by adding sugar -- depending on how sweet you want it, but a cup per 750 milliliters is good -- with fruit, herbs, vegetables or spices submerged in a plain spirit too. Delicate produce like tomatoes, edible flowers, basil or cilantro only need to steep a few days;  but lemongrass, strawberries, cinnamon sticks or ginger can rest for months, maturing into an amazing beverage.

When you are ready to eat or drink any preserved/fermented food or beverage, just please remember to do so responsibly.

Los Angeles Master Food Preservers are trained and certified by the University of California Cooperative Extension in food preservation. They are volunteers who provide information and technical assistance to home preservationists in L.A. County. The Master Food Preservers can be found on Facebook.


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Photo credit: Rachael Narins