Chefs are using canning and fermenting to preserve seasonal harvests.
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.