Kasey Christian, M.Ed.
National Center for Home Food Preservation
Did you know that okra is also in the same family as cotton, cacao, and hibiscus (Malvaceae or Mallow)? One difference, however, is that it is high in soluble fiber, even though that comes from the mucilage that some people think of as too slimy. Perhaps you have noticed the hibiscus-like flowers that grow from the tall, upright okra plant. Usually just 5 to 6 days after flowering, the young seed pods are harvested for eating, plucked when they are 2½ to 3½ inches long. (Quick tip: If you’re an okra grower, try harvesting these tender pods two to three times a week to increase the yield.)
Originating from Africa, okra now grows widely throughout the hot, southern portion of the United States, peaking in July and August. It is considered a warm, seasonal vegetable but is available year-round in the U.S. as an import.
Once you’ve had enough fresh southern-style fried okra, and already added it to your favorite gumbo recipe, preserve those precious pods by freezing, drying, pickling, or canning them. Handle okra pods carefully, as they will turn brown or black if bruised. Discard any bruised pods when selecting for preserving. If you have sensitive skin, then you may also want to wear cotton gloves while handling okra to protect your hands from the small spines on the plants and pods, which can cause an allergic reaction in some individuals.
Okra is a low-acid food for canning purposes, so it must be canned with a pressure canner to ensure the safety of the final product. Using a proper pressure canning process and the recommended process times, okra can be canned by itself or with tomatoes. For step-by-step instructions for pressure canning in general, read the publication Preserving Food: Using Pressure Canners by the University of Georgia.
Directions for Canning Okra call for tender young pods to be washed and ends trimmed, then left whole or cut into 1-inch pieces. Okra should only be canned as a hot pack, with pre-heating the pods. Even though the instructions indicate the cooking liquid can be used for covering the pieces in the jars, you might prefer to have fresh boiling water to use in filling over the pieces in the jars. This helps reduce the mucilage and keep the liquid in the jars clearer after canning.
For Canning Tomatoes with Okra, only a pressure process is available. Be sure to follow the instructions for the ratio of okra to tomatoes to be used.
Well known throughout the southern states, Pickled Okra makes a great, tangy snack. As with pickled products in general, Pickled Dilled Okra contains enough vinegar in proportion to solid food that the previously low-acid food becomes acidified. Unlike okra by itself, which is a low-acid food, properly acidified foods like pickled okra can be safely processed in a boiling water canner.
Freezing Okra is simple, but the best quality frozen okra will result from smoother rather than more ridged varieties because the smooth types do not split as easily. Follow the blanching instructions for the size of your pods to optimize quality in storage. Also quickly cool and drain pods, then pack, seal and freeze quickly as instructed. There is also an option for preparing okra to be frozen before freezing.
Drying Okra is also a simple process, so long as you have a food dehydrator or an oven that registers 140°F. No blanching is required, and the provided directions described how to prepare the okra.
Preserving okra might be a creative process, but it’s most important to think “safety”. Follow tested recommendations for preserving okra. Creating your own canning procedures and recipes could result in a hazardous product, since the pH of raw okra is above 4.6.
When pickling, use commercially prepared vinegar with 5% acetic acid to be sure to achieve adequate acidification. Do not alter vinegar, food, or water proportions in a recipe or use vinegar with unknown acidity. Use only recipes with tested proportions of ingredients. There must be a minimum, uniform level of acid throughout the mixed product to prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria.
And finally, remember to use your preserved foods while they are still of good quality, and enjoy!
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