Creating A Winter Pantry

A winter pantry is one strategy for developing resilience.

Let me start by saying that I welcome the season of low light and early darkness, even the cold temperatures and white sprinkles of joy. My body is exhausted from the season of high light, hot temperatures, and daily physical work of growing food and herbs. I hesitate to use the word gardening; a word that suggests a relaxed style of admiring plants, pulling occasional weeds, deadheading flowers, cutting a bouquet for inside your home, and then perhaps taking a rest until another day.

The decision to grow, harvest, and process fruits and vegetables for my homestead is a part-time job – with weeks where it is a full-time job. It requires commitment, dedication, problem-solving, creativity, an optimistic attitude, a strong body, and sweat.

My vegetable and herb gardens are my workplaces for 7 months of each year. Changing to a homestead lifestyle resulted in a significant reduction of income and expenses as well as a change in my definition of currency. Growing food and medicinal herbs are now part of my income stream (with the added benefit of no taxes!). I use the word currency to describe the varied benefits of homestead living. Food and medicine are two kinds of currency that I include in my overall analysis of annual income and wealth.

Another kind of currency or benefit is my location in an agricultural region full of orchards, wheat fields, pastured meat ranches, and small farms. While many people live in agricultural regions, my area has a dedicated group of citizens who are building and supporting a sustainable local food economy. What I don’t grow, I can buy regionally. There are at least ten reasons to buy locally.

The global food supply system is responsible for the empty shelves in grocery stores. You won’t find empty shelves at farmer’s markets though you will have to learn to live with seasonal access and cooking.

Food Storage

My winter pantry is a savings account in which I have deposited food and herbal remedies. It is a feeling of security, a sense of pride, and a high-five to myself each time I pull out something to eat, drink, heal, nourish, or cook. (Captive dinner guests must abide by my declarations of what came from my garden as I serve a meal.) As my preservation knowledge expanded, so did my winter pantry. I have a tall kitchen cabinet filled with Mason jars of fruits and vegetables that have been canned and dehydrated. A no-longer-used bedroom has become a root cellar or more accurately, a larder: heat is turned off in the room, and boxes of winter squashes, apples, onions, and garlic are stored there for a few months while I continue to process them at a less frantic pace.

Canning as preservation for homestead pantry.
Canning as preservation for homestead pantry.
Photo by Ray Shrewsberry on Unsplash

My freezers are in a nearby outbuilding and are filled to capacity. The smaller chest freezer is filled with fruit that I grew, foraged, harvested, and purchased: cherries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, huckleberries, and elderberries. The larger freezer is filled with Mason jars of ready-to-eat vegetable and legume soups, pesto cubes, flattened plastic bags of roasted tomatoes/onions/garlic, frozen vegetables, purred pumpkin & winter squash, locally raised meat, and Alaskan salmon. There are a few bags of whole tomatoes that are evidence of both the season’s bounty and my end-of-season exhaustion. And numerous containers of unlabeled leftovers that I swear I will recognize and remember…and seldom do. These are my mystery lunches throughout the winter.

Using freezers to store food is a risky proposition: if a major event disrupts electricity (which happened 10 years ago when an ice storm damaged our region resulting in no electricity for five days in January), I could possibly lose most of my food. Canning and dehydrating are better solutions, and I am reluctantly canning a bit more but for me, it is a lot of work during the hot days of  August & September.

Still Room

My interest in using herbs medicinally and nutritionally eventually took over another bedroom: herbs & spices that I have grown and purchased are stuffed onto shelves. I recycle jars and bottles and store them here. Called a still room in European medieval estates, this part of my winter pantry is used to make herbal tea blends, tinctures, drinking shrubs, culinary seasoning blends, and healing balms and lotions. 

Healing balms for both home and gifts
Healing balms for both home and gifts
Photo: SK

My weekly winter meal planning begins with a survey of my pantry and freezers. I shop once a week, picking up dairy items, locally produced eggs, bread from a wood-fired bakery, and occasional fresh vegetables that my frozen garden can no longer produce. My holiday meals have been simplified and don’t look much different from other hearty winter meals. By spring, my winter pantry is nearly empty but my body is rested and recharged to begin the growing cycle again. 

Start Small

You don’t need to be a gardener to develop a winter pantry. Buying in-season fruits and vegetables from your local growers at farmstands, farmers’ markets, and grocery stores can be preserved and stored for winter use. Focusing on one fruit or vegetable is an easy way to create a winter pantry. I do this with apples each year: since I don’t grow apple trees, I head up the Mount Hood fruit loop, a stunningly beautiful drive in the fall, and buy an assortment of apple varieties from several orchards. Once home they become applesauce, apple butter, and dried slices.

Slow cooker apple butter
Slow cooker apple butter. Photo: SK

Another example of a focused effort: I invest a lot of space, time, and energy in growing lots of tomatoes because I realized that I eat a lot of tomatoes throughout the year. Each year, I slow roast and freeze many pounds of tomatoes with onions and garlic, can pints of jalapeno salsa (from Ball Blue Book), can pints of pizza sauce, freeze pints of tomato soup concentrate, and dry a half-gallon for use in soups, stews and pasta dishes.

Garden tomatoes for roasting, sauce, ketchup, salsa, drying, and of course, eating fresh. An excellent vegetable investment for the garden.
Garden tomatoes for roasting, sauces, ketchup, salsa, soup, drying, and of course, eating fresh. An excellent vegetable investment for the garden. PHOTO: SK

The same strategy applies to making herbal remedies. You don’t have to study herbalism for years to make use of handcrafted herbal products: identify the most commonly used over-the-counter products you use and see if you can replace them with herbal products.

Winter larders and pantries were common – necessary – until the last half of the 20th century. I still participate in that big grocery store system and appreciate the occasional convenience it provides. But my goal is to be prepared to handle whatever is thrown my way, from a week with no electricity to a deadly pandemic. The sense of security and pride are bonuses!

As our food supply became mechanized, global, and unseasonal, we surrendered a part of our individual and communal resilience to corporate profits.

Sue Kusch
Purple cabbage
Purple cabbage PHOTO: SK

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