Preserving the Berry Bounty of Alaska
By LeAnn Edmondson, HomesteadDreamer.com[dropcap]A[/dropcap]laska boasts quite the assortment of wild, edible berries all over the state. Down here in the southeastern part, you tend to find mostly salmonberries, huckleberries, and blueberries. There are reportedly also thimbleberries on certain islands. In the northern areas, you can find high and low bush cranberries (also called moose berry), gooseberries, and currants. Don’t forget rosehips and cloudberries! Of course, there are even more I haven’t mentioned. Berries were and are a very important food in our great state throughout history. Particularly in the long winters, dried berries helped to sweeten teas and other food but also provided antioxidants, vitamin C, and other beneficial nutrients that people in the interior tend to lack in sufficient amounts.
So, what can you do with all of that bounty? There are literally thousands of gallons worth of berries out there, free for the taking! Imagine never buying blueberries again. How about never buying jams or jellies again because you make your own (which is incredibly easy and takes no special equipment), or having some tasty frozen berries mixed with oatmeal in the middle of winter? There are multiple ways to preserve the berry bounty of Alaska. Here are just a few suggestions with some tips and tricks included for freezing and vacuum sealing your harvest.Preserving the Berry Bounty of Alaska Jams and Jellies. As stated above, making your own jams and jellies is very easy to do and does not require a pressure canner or any other specialized equipment. All you really need is a large pot to water bath can the jars filled with your homemade goodness in, let cool (and wait for the ping of the lid sealing!), date and store. Adding in cinnamon, vanilla, or other spices helps give a larger variety, too. These work well with and without adding sugar or pectin. Dehydrating. Dehydrating berries is extremely easy and can be done in an oven, if no dehydrator is available. You just have to set the oven to the lowest possible setting and leave the door cracked open. These can be put into granola mixes, given as winter treats, steeped with teas, used in and on desserts, mixed in oatmeal or yogurt or ice cream….the list goes on forever! Fruit Leather. One of the ways we use up our surplus of berries and other fruit is to make fruit leather. Again, it is very easy to make and can be done in the oven on cookie sheets. Dehydrators can also be used (that is how we do it). They are almost as sweet as candy and I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like it. Wine or Mead. Mmmmm...blueberry mead. The main difference between mead and wine is the use of sugar or honey. There is a huge debate about what makes mead versus wine but no matter what you call it, it tastes amazing and can pack a punch. It can also be made into a liqueur for a special treat during the holidays (or gifted, too!). Syrup. Just like making jams and jellies, syrup is very easy to make and uses basically the same process, just for less time with little to no pectin added. These also make great gifts throughout the winter. Freezing, Dehydrating and Vacuum Sealing Tips Whether you are freezing or dehydrating, there are some tips and tricks we have learned over the years to make the processing easier overall, it also affords you the ability to actually measure out what you need. Freezing. If you plan on freezing your berries, one of the best tricks we have learned is to first lay them out in a single layer on cookie sheets. Make sure there is a decent amount of space between the berries themselves. Yes, it may seem tedious at first but you will thank yourself when you go to use them later. If you just rinse or soak them before stuffing them into a freezer bag, you may find yourself frustrated later on. Unless you intend on using a certain bag of berries for jams and jellies, trust me on the single layer freezing method. It just makes life easier overall. Dehydrating. Dehydrating berries is easy and a great way to preserve a LOT of berries in a small space. Your biggest challenge may be keeping hands off of them long enough to actually store away! Some berries are more difficult to get to dehydrate nicely. Those with thicker skins are usually the culprits but there is a trick! Simply poke a little hole in each one with a safety pin or sewing needle and your time will be cut down. It is not ‘needed,’ but it can help. Vacuum Sealing. I have vacuum sealed gallons of berries, not to mention untold pounds of venison and fish (and beef, chicken, etc). So, it is pretty safe to say I have learned a thing or two when it comes to making sure you get it right the first time. If you are sealing frozen berries, it works best when you have frozen them like suggested above. You end up getting more berries in the bag and lessen your risk of it not sealing properly due to moisture. Unless you did a pre-freeze on a lump of berries, they will be too wet at the bottom of the bag that will get sucked up and interfere with the seal line. If you are sealing dehydrated berries, be sure to keep a very close eye on it when the air is being removed from the bag. If you allow the bag to get fully vacuumed, you run the risk of sharp edges poking through the bag. That tends to defeat the purpose of sealing them up so, if you are able, stop the vacuum just before it gets ‘too’ tight. CAUTION: Never eat any white berries in Alaska. All white berries are poisonous! Also, be sure of the type of berry you are picking and plan on consuming. There are several berries out there that look like huckleberries but are in fact poisonous. It helps to bring a book to help identify or someone who has experience and can point you in the right direction. It is always best to bring them home and be sure than risking getting sick! To learn more about what kinds of edible berries are in your part of Alaska, the Cooperative Extension site has a dedicated section!