By the time an apple gets to a supermarket, it’s likely been months since it left the orchard.
Along its journey,that piece of fruit is treated with chemicals and then stored away before getting transported to the produce section and, eventually, someone’s table.
That perspective, from Eddie Hong at All Seasons Apple Orchard in Woodstock, is ripe with conviction that fresh produce not only tastes better, but is better for the consumer.
“Those huge commercial farms take their fruit and store it in a giant cooler and pump it full of [carbon dioxide] gas so the fruit will stop producing natural ethylene, which ripens it,” says Hong, whose family owns All Seasons Apple Orchard. “[The commercial farms’ goal is] to stop the ripening so the apples last throughout the year.”
An apple’s colorful look in the store isn’t an accurate reflection of its flavor, Hong says.
“Those apples were probably picked seven to eight months sooner, and they’ve been sitting in storage,” he says. “That’s why our apples taste better, because they’ve been grown in the sun and the heat.”
When fruit is first picked, the sugar content is a lot higher, says Bruce Spangenberg, instructor of horticulture at McHenry County College.
Those who grow their own produce, therefore, have the advantage of timed access, he says.
“The big thing when you grow fruit yourself is you can pick it at the optimum time,” Spangenberg says.
“You harvest it when it’s ripe versus at the store when it’s been harvested, stored and transported.”
En route, the fruit’s composition will lose flavor.
“Things change internally over time with the ripening process,” he says.
Pick the Best
Hong says local canners process apples from his family’s orchards in order to have fresh, safe fruit all year long.
All Seasons also sells canned goods. In addition to applesauce and apple butter, preserves from various berries are sold at the orchard.
From Hong’s perspective, the best harvests are all about timing.
“Certain varieties of apples ripen earlier than others,” he says. “Fuji, Honeycrisps and Golden Delicious are very hearty and store extremely well.”
Those apples can stay fresh up to five months if picked right, Hong says.
“When you pick an apple, make sure the stem is still in it,” he says. “That lets the moisture within the apple stay there, so the apple stays fresh.”
Once picked, apples are best stored in a perforated plastic bag and refrigerated, he says.
For gardeners who plan to preserve their own home-grown foods, understanding the different types of fruits — and vegetables — is key for a gardener’s selection process. Spangenberg says gardeners can keep the food chain safer for consumption with a couple of simple choices.
“Certain crops are more likely to get insects,” Spangenberg notes, adding chemicals aren’t the only solution to ridding a private garden of pests. “You can use things like row covers, creating a barrier so the insects can’t get on the crops.”
Another wise move is to plant seeds that carry a resistance to certain diseases.
“For example, with tomatoes, there are a couple of diseases from the soil,” he says. “But some of the varieties have ‘VF’ after the name, which stands for a resistance to that disease.”
Can and Preserve for Freshness
Stades Farm and Market in McHenry is another local grower whose harvests fill dozens of canning jars each year, according to manager Gail Hubert.
In her 11 years with the farm, she’s talked with many canners about fresh produce since the farm grows tomatoes, corn, strawberries, soybeans, pumpkins and more. She says her primary resource for canning methods is the Ball Blue Book of Canning.
Ball, a maker of canning jars and other supplies, also provides instructions online at www.freshpreserving.com.
In just a few steps, beginners can preserve fresh foods and store them up to one year for safe, flavorful eating, according to the website.
Waterbath canning, a method of submerging foods in sealed glass jars in boiling water, is used for tomatoes, salsa, pickles, jellies, jams, fruits — including whole fruit, sauces, chutneys, pie fillings, etc. — and other high-acid foods.
Here’s how it works:
1. Wash canning jars and keep them warm to prevent breakage with temperature change.
2. Fill the jars with food according to the desired recipe, taking care to leave space between the food and the rim of the jar so the food can expand with heat.
3. Remove air bubbles by pressing food against the sides of the jar with a non-metallic spatula.
4. Wipe away food from rims of jars.
5. Place a new lid on the jar and then twist the band onto the jar, only so it is moderately tight. (Overtightness will be problematic because the air inside the jars must be able to escape during the process.)
6. Set the filled jars into a stock pot with enough simmering water to cover the jars, resting upright on a canning rack on the bottom of the pot. (Jars should be covered by 1 inch of water.)
7. Cover the pot and heat to a steady boil.
8. Continue to boil the jars for five minutes (in altitudes up to 3,000 feet).
9. Turn off the heat and let the jars stand in the water for five minutes.
10. Remove the jars from water and cool upright on a wire rack or towel on a countertop for 12 hours.
11. Once the lid is cooled, press on the center to test the seal. If the lid flexes, the canning process was not effective and the food was not properly sealed.
Instructions from www.freshpreserving.com
For those who don’t can home- or locally-grown produce, it’s a good idea to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in their appropriate seasons, Hong says.
“Lots of times at the grocery store, people don’t realize it’s kind of strange that they’re buying apples in the off season,” he says. “They have to wonder how they got there.”