Freezing Pumpkin Pie to Beat the Holiday Rush

Love it or hate it, there is no dessert that screams “Thanksgiving” louder than pumpkin pie! Whether you’re making your pumpkin pie in advance or dealing with leftover pie, pumpkin pie can be successfully frozen to beat the holiday rush or saved for future use.

Due to its high-fat crust and creamy filling, pumpkin pie of all kinds—homemade, store-bought, whole or slices–freeze well and can be frozen ready-to-bake or baked. The same is true of sweet potato pie. The secret to success with freezing pumpkin pie is careful wrapping, quick freezing, and thawing in the refrigerator.

The pumpkin pie custard (filling) can be frozen in the pie crust or alone. For a quick ‘how to’ on a homemade ready-to-bake pumpkin pie, see Freezing a Pumpkin Pie.   It is also possible to freeze just the filling; to do so, prepare the recipe and freeze the custard in an air-tight container or zip-top freezer storage bag.  When ready to use the filling, thaw in the refrigerator. Once the custard is thawed, pour into a pie shell and bake per the recipe directions. Make-ahead fillings due well for about five days in the freezer.-

Baked pies or slices should be cooled completely before wrapping and placing in the freezer.  Heat creates steam so if steam gets trapped beneath the wrapping, the result is a soggy pie.  If you’re baking a pumpkin pie to freeze whole, use a disposable aluminum pie pan.  Aluminum pans are thin and allow the pie to freeze quickly preventing ice crystal formation on the surface of the pie.  Tightly wrap the pie or pieces in plastic and aluminum foil to prevent freezer burn and odor absorption from other items in the freezer.  For best results, the pie should not be frozen longer than a month. Pumpkin pie that stays in the freezer longer than a month does not go bad or cause concern for food borne illness, but its taste and texture may start to degrade.

When ready to use, remove the pie from the freezer, strip the wrapping, and let it thaw in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.  Thawing at room temperature causes condensation on the pie resulting in a soggy pie crust.  Once thawed, the pie is ready to pop into the oven.  It may take a bit longer for the pie to bake if the custard mixture is still quite cold.

A pumpkin pie is done when it reaches 175°F in the center.  Short of a temperature probe, insert a small knife or skewer into the center and if it comes out clean, the pie is done.  Downside is that the insertion point leaves a spot in the beautiful custard top.  Another option is to gently nudge the outer edges which should be firm yet the center will be soft and slightly jiggly.

Once out of the oven, set the pie on a cooling rack and allow it to cool completely before slicing.  Custard pies continue to cook as they cool. Because pumpkin pie is a custard made with milk and eggs, it should be refrigerated within two hours of cooling where it can be stored for 3 to 4 days.  Fortunately, pumpkin pie is delicious served cold, right out of the fridge.  If the pie has any blemishes, remember that whipped cream makes everything better!

Note:  Commercially produced pumpkin pies often have shelf-stable preservatives, so read the instructions for how long it will stay good at room temperature and in the refrigerator—but do refrigerate a store-bought pumpkin pie after it has been cut.  

So whether you’re in baking mode, using pumpkins from the patch, or on a bake-and-freeze-now-eat-later mission for Thanksgiving, freezing pumpkin pie is an option to consider.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Meet the Flours – Wheat Flours

Preheat your ovens and grease your baking pans! The holiday baking season is upon us.  Most baking requires the use of flour.  Did you know that your flour choice can make a big difference in what you bake?

Once upon a time, the typical American pantry included a single canister of all-purpose flour which was used for all baking and cooking needs. Today, consumers have many choices.  Supermarket shelves host a variety of wheat and non-wheat options reflecting increased consumer interest in health, culinary skills, and ethnic cuisines. 

Flour is defined as the finely-ground, sifted meal of grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and vegetables.  While the term is broad, it is important to note that each kind of flour offers a different nutrition profile and its baking qualities will vary.  In this blog, flours made from wheat will be explored with a future blog demystifying non-wheat options.

All-purpose, unbleached all-purpose, bread, cake, pastry, whole wheat, white whole wheat, self-rising, instant (Wondra), high-fiber (Flourish), gluten (Vital Wheat Gluten) and semolina are just some of the current wheat flour offerings at the supermarket.  Each flour has its own distinct qualities ranging from the variety and genetics of wheat used, protein content, and how finely it’s ground.  Each factor affects the way it acts once made into a batter or dough. To determine which type of wheat is the best match for a recipe, it’s important to understand how the variety, color, and protein content (hardness) affects the flours that they produce.

Here’s a breakdown of the differences to help the home baker determine which sack of flour to reach for.

Wheat Varieties.  American farmers grow wheat varieties that are grouped into six major classes–hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, hard white, soft white, and durum. The first five account for 95% of wheat used in baking and cooking with the remaining 5% in the durum category.  Winter wheat has a relatively low protein content (10-12%) while spring wheat yields a higher protein content (12-14%).  Wheat varieties are commonly blended to create the desired protein content of a particular product.  The color of wheat—red or white—refers to the color of the bran and affects the taste and appearance of baked goods. Red wheat contains tannins that provide a more robust flavor and a reddish color. White wheat yields a milder flavor and a light color. The difference in the two is only relevant to whole grain flours which contain the bran; taste and appearance is not affected by refined flours where the bran is removed during processing. 

Wheat Hardness. Wheat flours contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten, when mixed with water, forms an elastic framework which allows batter or dough to stretch and expand when a leavening agent is added, producing a gas, causing baked products to rise.  The various types of wheat flours contain different amounts of gluten based on the hardness of the wheat, the most crucial factor in selecting a wheat flour. Hard wheat has a higher protein and gluten content (11-15%) than soft wheat (5-9%), meaning hard wheat has more capacity for gluten development than soft wheat. For this reason, hard wheat is best suited for doughs that require a strong gluten network and produce an open, chewy crumb, while soft wheat, with its lower gluten strength is more suitable for more delicate pastries and cakes with a tight and tender crumb. Further, the time of harvest affects the protein content.  Winter wheat has a relatively low protein content (10-12%). Spring wheat has a higher protein content (12-14%), and is often ground to make bread flour or is blended with winter wheat to produce an all-purpose flour. Different brands are blended in slightly different ways [1] so it is not a given that the protein content of one label is the same as the next. Further, most labels do not include the gluten forming content; an exception is King Arthur.

Type of Wheat FlourProtein ContentDescription and Uses
All-Purpose  Unbleached All-Purpose9-12%Refined blend of high-gluten hard wheat and low-gluten soft wheat. Milled with only the endosperm— not bran or germ. Used for baking, thickening and breading. Usually sold pre-sifted. Some fortified with calcium and vitamins A or D. Bleached and unbleached all-purpose flours can be used interchangeably.
Bread12-14%Refined flour made from hard wheat and a small amount of barley flour. Very high gluten content. Used for bread making. Bread and all-purpose flour can be used interchangeably in a 1-to-1 ratio with different texture outcomes.
“00”12-13%Finely ground Italian flour used for pizza doughs; similar to bread flour but finer
Cake
Pastry
7-8%
8-9%
Fine-textured refined flour made from soft wheat. High in starch. Used for tender cakes and pastries.
Self-Rising8.5%All-purpose flour with added salt and baking soda. Convenience product not generally used for yeast breads. Leavening action of baking soda can diminish if stored too long.
Whole Wheat
White Whole Wheat
11-15%Whole-wheat flour is made from hard red spring or winter wheat, which has a nutty, hearty taste. White whole-wheat flour is made from hard white spring or winter wheat, which has the exact same nutritional value of whole-wheat flour, but because of the variety used, has a milder flavor and paler color. Either provide more fiber and nutrients when used in place of or mixed with all-purpose flour. Makes a heavier, heartier bread and baked good. Have a shorter shelf-life than all-purpose flour. 
Instant (Wondra)10.5%Instant flour is a low-protein, finely ground wheat flour that has been pre-cooked and dried. While other flours can seize up and clump when heated or stirred into liquid and must be cooked to get rid of its raw taste, instant flour instantly dissolves in liquids and won’t form lumps.  Great for gravies and sauces.  Should not be used for baking.
High Fiber (Flourish)N/A        All-purpose flour rich in prebiotic fiber to support digestive and immune health. A non-GMO flour made from high amylose wheat provides five times more fiber than traditional all-purpose flour with fewer net carbs.  Has the same look, taste and texture of all-purpose flour. Water adjustment may be necessary in some recipes. Performs very well across a wide range of baking applications.

Gluten
(Vital Wheat Gluten)
6 5-80%The natural gluten protein found in wheat with most starch removed. A small amount added to yeast bread recipes improves the texture and elasticity of the dough. Also a staple used as a binding agent for meat dishes and meat substitutes (seitan).
Semolina13%Generally coarsely-milled, refined hard durum wheat flour. Used for pasta, couscous, gnocchi and puddings.

Wheat Flour Substitutes. One should always use the type of flour a recipe calls for to insure the best baking outcome.  Substitutions can be made when a given ingredient is not available.  Here are some common substitutions from the UNL [2]:

Type of FlourAmountSubstitute
All-Purpose Flour1 cup½ cup whole wheat flour plus ½ cup all-purpose flour
Cake Flour
Pastry Flour
1 cup
1 cup
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1:1 ratio for all-purpose for pie crust and similar pastries
Self-Rising Flour1 cup1 cup minus 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour plus 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt

Wheat Flour Safety.  Wheat flour is a raw food. During growth, it is exposed a variety of harmful bacteria like Salmonella, and E. coli. The Food and Drug Administration advises that one never eat or taste raw flour, dough, or batter.  Cooking or baking is the only way to be sure that foods made with flour are safe by heating the flour high enough to kill harmful bacteria.

Sources:
Choose the Right Flour When Baking, Brenda Aufdenkamp, UNL Food, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Flour Power: Learn about Different Kinds of Flours, Roberta Larson Duyff, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Flour Protein Content by Type and Brand, philpom, Kumdoguru.com
Flour Q&A, JoEllyn Argabright, K-State Research and Extension, Rawlins County
Types of Flour:  A Guide, Kristina Razon, Serious Eats.com


Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Success with Caramel

Nothing says ‘fall’ more than the smell and taste of caramel—caramel corn, caramel sauce, caramel apples, caramel candy, caramel rolls . . . .

The ingredients for nearly any kind of caramel are a combination of sugar, cream, butter, and often corn syrup. Other ingredients can be added for flavor.  The brown color comes from a reaction between the sugar and the protein in the cream known as the Mailard reaction, named after the French scientist who discovered it.  The only difference in the kind of caramel one is making is the recipe for the desired outcome.  For example, caramel sauce is not suitable for caramel apples and the caramel for apples is not suitable for caramel corn. 

All caramel recipes start by caramelizing the sugar.  Caramelization is what happens to pure sugar when it reaches 338⁰F; at this temperature, it melts and starts to turn brown.  While sugar caramelizes, it can also crystalize.  Sugar is a crystal in its natural state and has an affinity to return to that form whenever given a chance.  Even when melted, sugar molecules like to form into groups or crystals.  All they need is a party starter like an undissolved sugar crystal on the side of pan as a nucleus to draw other molecules of sugar towards it, re-forming crystals.  Because of this, attention to details when making caramel is important but doesn’t need to be intimidating. 

8 Tips for Successfully Making any Form of Caramel

1) First and foremost, follow the recipes exactly using the exact ingredients and proportions.  Sugar is usually white or brown; don’t interchange unless the recipe suggests so.  When a recipes requires heavy cream, this means cream with approximately 36% milk fat.  Other recipes may use whipping cream, light cream, evaporated milk or a milk alternative.  Butter may be either salted or unsalted; by using unsalted, one is better able to control the salt if a “salted caramel” is desired.  Crystallization is an issue with caramel. Sugar is sucrose; sucrose molecules like to pile up on one another resulting in grainy caramel. The most common precaution to prevent crystallization in recipes for caramel is to add an invert sugar to make it hard for the sucrose to congregate. Corn syrup is an invert sugar and acts as an “interfering agent” in candy or candy-like recipes. It contains long chains of glucose molecules that tend to keep the sucrose molecules in the candy syrup from crystallizing. Honey is also an invert sugar and can be substituted for corn syrup. Adding an acid like lemon juice is another way to prevent sucrose from crystallizing. The cream and butter also act as “interfering agents” as the milk proteins in both help to prevent crystal formation.  Ingredients such as vanilla, flavorings, salt, and nuts (or baking soda for caramel corn) are all added at the end.

2) Don’t step away from the stove. Caramel is quick to burn and very easy to ruin in only a matter of seconds. Have all ingredients ready and accessible. Multitasking is not advised.  

3) When required, use an accurate candy thermometer.  A candy thermometer is a foolproof way to make sure the hot sugar reaches the right temperature for the desired outcome without fear of burning it. The candy thermometer should not touch the bottom of the pan.

4) Unless stated otherwise, medium heat is best.  Resist the urge to increase the temperature to quicken the process as this can result in a scorched flavor and grainy texture.  Patience is key.

5) Use a thick, heavy bottom pot to maintain an even heat and consistent temperature throughout the cooking process.

6)  Stir at a consistent speed when the recipe says to stir and stop stirring when the recipe says otherwise.  Initial stirring is necessary to dissolve the crystal structure of the sugar.  When the mixture reaches a point where stirring is no longer required, stop as additional stirring or other agitation is one of the many factors that can encourage the fructose and glucose molecules in the syrup to rejoin and form sucrose crystals.

7) Use a wet pastry brush to remove or wipe down any sugar crystals that may be clinging to the side of the cooking pan to prevent a “seed crystal” of sugar from falling into the sugar mixture and encouraging recrystallization.

8) Have everything ready to go prior to starting the caramel—containers to put the sauce in; apples washed, destemmed, and stick added; greased pan for candy; popcorn popped, etc.  (Caramel for caramel apples can be held in a slow cooker on low after preparing on the stove as instructed to give time for dipping.  Give it a gentle stir every 10 minutes to ensure the butter doesn’t separate.)

Last, but not the least, any caramel product made with dairy (cream, etc) must be refrigerated to prevent spoilage or food related illnesses.  Additionally, caramel apples should be refrigerated to prevent Listeria contamination.  “caramel has a low amount of water and apples are acidic so neither are normally breeding grounds for Listeria, but piercing an apple with a dipping stick causes a bit of apple juice to leak out and become trapped under a layer of caramel. This creates an environment that aids the growth of Listeria already present on the apple’s surface.  Listeria growth occurs more quickly when a caramel apple is stored at room temperature compared to refrigeration. Caramel apples should stay fresh up to one week if refrigerated.” [1]

Air and humidity are caramel foes; air dries it out and humidity causes it to become sticky so storing in air-tight containers is advised. Caramel sauce will keep in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks but will harden slightly.  Simply warm the caramel sauce in the microwave to make it smooth again.  It can also be frozen for up to three months in an airtight plastic storage container.  When ready to drizzle it again, remove it from the freezer, allow it to thaw at room temperature and warm if necessary.  Caramel candy can also be stored in the freezer for up to one year as long as the individual candies are properly wrapped to prevent drying out.  Allow at least one hour for thawing before enjoying.  

Are you ready to try making something caramel?  Just writing this blog has made me drool!

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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DIY Fruit Leather, You’ll Like It

Fruit leather, better known as ‘fruit roll-ups’ can be made with nearly any fresh fruit for a healthy snack or dessert that any ‘kid’ will love!

Growing your own vegetables and fruits is rewarding until the plants produce too much.  Such is the case for me this year with strawberries and raspberries.  While I love eating them fresh, preparing them in as many ways as I can think of, juicing, freezing, and making jams, there comes a time when too much is too much and something new has to be tried.  When I reached my limit this year, I turned to making fruit leathers (dehydrating fruit pulp and juice to preserve them) rather than let my harvest spoil and end up in the compost pile.  In addition, the finished fruit roll-ups are a convenient, portable, light-weight treat I could share with my kids and grandkids near and far.

Fruit leather gets the name “leather” from the fact that when pureed fruit is dried, it is shiny and has the texture of leather. Fruit leather is one of the easiest ways you can use leftover fruits or take advantage of abundant fruit crops to create tasty and healthy snacks for your family without preservatives, MSG, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and salt found in many store-bought varieties; if using your own fruit, it is also a cost saver.  Only fresh fruit is needed; sugar or sweetener is not generally needed as most fruit is sweet enough on its own.  A touch of honey can be added if the fruit is too tart.  Diabetics can eat fruit leathers as part of their diets when no sugar has been added using a regular fruit exchange for keeping track of dietary sugars.  Aspartame should not be used as it loses its sweetness in the drying process.

Besides fresh fruit, a blender or food processor is needed to puree the fruit completely.  Drying can be done in a food dehydrator or oven.  A dehydrator is preferred as it is a quicker and more energy efficient process.  Dehydrating is an easy and relatively unintimidating way to preserve any harvest for storage or to create tasty snacks year round. DIY fruit leathers are also an easy project for ‘kids in the kitchen.’

When properly dried, the fruit puree, now leather, should have a pliable texture.  It is then cut into strips and rolled but can also be cut into fun shapes.  Fruit leathers, usually aimed at children to make eating fruit fun, are nutritious, high-energy snacks for anyone.  They are portable, making them convenient additions to school lunchboxes or back packs and travel easily for camping and hiking; they are also easy to mail.  For more detailed information on making fruit leathers, check out Fruit Preservation:  Making Fruit Leathers, by North Dakota Extension Service.  Also from that site, there is a download version (upper left green button), Making Fruit Leathers, for additional information, recipes, and printing.

Here’s some additional tips that I learned while making several batches of fruit leathers:

  • Spread out the mixture to about 1/8 inch with no thin spots or holes; if possible, make it thicker on the edges as it dries from the outside first.
  • A sharp sissors or pizza cutter can be used to cut the leather into strips.
  • While plastic wrap or parchment paper can be used to line trays or baking sheets, an investment in the flexible, reusable dehydrator sheets is well worth the cost for anyone making fruit leathers repeatedly. The dried fruit leather peels off easily and cleaning up consists of rinsing the dehydrator sheets with warm soapy water and then placing them back into the dehydrator to dry. They can also be used on for baking.
  • Use wax paper, plastic wrap, or parchment paper to ‘roll them up’ and keep them separated.  Parchment paper seems to work the best.  Tie or tape to close.
  • If the puree mixture is too thin add some banana or a tablespoon of ground chia or flax seed to help thicken.
  • Spices or flavorings can be added to the puree.  Use them sparingly because flavors intensify with drying.  Start with 1/16 to 1/8 tsp.
  • Use applesauce as an extender if the blend is too thick. It also helps reduce tartness.
  • Dry fruits at 130-140F in the dehydrator for 6-8 hours, and in the oven on the lowest temp with the door propped open with a wooden spoon. Check both after about 4 hours and continue to check frequently thereafter to make sure the leather does not over dry.
  • Allow the leather to sit for a short time before cutting and rolling.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Preserve Pumpkin and Squash Safely

Pumpkins offer far more than a door-stop at Halloween. Fall is the prime time to find and use sugar or pie pumpkins along with some winter squash varieties for cooking, baking, and preserving. The pumpkin puree purchased in a can at the store is actually made from a squash that’s less a “pumpkin” and more of a butternut squash in both flavor and texture.  It turns out, if you truly want the best pumpkin puree, don’t use an actual pumpkin.  The best “pumpkin” flavor comes from firm-fleshed winter squash varieties like Kabocha, Red Kuri, Butternut, New England Cheese Pumpkin, and pie/sugar pumpkin.  Avoid large jack-o-lantern varieties which are bred for size rather than flavor.

However, think safety when preparing or preserving pumpkins or squash. Pumpkins/winter squash are low acid vegetables and require special attention to preparation and processing. Use excellent sanitation in handling the fresh pumpkin/squash flesh.  Do not let cut or cooked pumpkin/squash sit out at room temperature for more than 2 hours during preparation or prior to preserving. 

Freezing Pumpkins and Winter Squash

Freezing is the easiest way to preserve pumpkin and winter squash and yields the best quality product. Select full-colored mature pumpkin/squash with fine texture (not stringy or dry). Simply wash the pumpkin/squash, remove the seeds and cut it into cooking-sized pieces.  Pumpkin/squash can be cooked in boiling water or pressure cooker, steamed, or baked in the oven with or without the rind removed.  Cook, steam or bake the pumpkin/squash until it is soft, remove the pulp from the rind and mash for baking; cubes can also be frozen if desired. Cool the pumpkin/squash as quickly as possible.  Package the puree in freezer containers sized for future use (2 cups of puree equals one can of pumpkin) leaving headspace and freeze. Remember to thaw the pumpkin in the refrigerator when ready to use. 

What if the pumpkin/squash is too hard to get a knife through? Smaller whole pumpkins/squash can be prepared in the oven or pressure cooker with no cutting required. Poke the vegetable with a knife to create steam vents. Bake or cook until tender; remove seeds and flesh, mash or puree. Another option is to use the microwave to soften the vegetable.  Begin by poking some steam holes in the vegetable.  Microwave for a few minutes until there is some give when pushed on.  Cool briefly, cut in half, remove seeds, and microwave, cut side down, until tender.  Lastly, the oven is an option.  Place the vegetable on a baking sheet and roast until there is some give when poked. Remove from the oven, cool briefly, cut in half, scoop out the seeds, and continue baking cut side down until tender.  Once the vegetable is tender, cool briefly to handle safely.  Scrap out the flesh, mash or puree.

Canning Pumpkins and Winter Squash

If you prefer to preserve pumpkin/squash for shelf storage, it must be canned with pressure and only safely canned in cubes. Canning pumpkin butter* or mashed or pureed pumpkin/squash is NOT recommended. To pressure can cubed pumpkin/squash, first wash the pumpkin/squash and remove its seeds. Next, cut the pumpkin/squash into 1-inch wide slices, then peel and cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes. Blanch the cubes in boiling water for 2 minutes. Fill the canning jars with the cubes, and cover them with the hot cooking liquid leaving 1 inch of headspace.   Process at 11 pounds of pressure with a dial-gauge canner.  For altitudes below 2000 feet, process pints for 55 minutes and quarts for 90 minutes.  For a weighted gauge canner, process at 10 pounds of pressure at altitudes below 1000 feet and at 15 pounds of pressure above 1000 feet.  Process pints for 55 minutes and quarts for 90 minutes.

Canned pumpkin/squash can be used for side dishes, casseroles and soups.  It can also be used for pies and baking by pureeing at the time of use; however, it does not work as well for pie as frozen.

Skip the grocery-store can of pumpkin puree and instead make your own. It will be perfect for all your fall baking and cooking needs.

* Pumpkin Preserves.  Gelled preserves rely on the natural acidity present in most fruits for safe food preservation. Most fruits have natural acids so resulting jams or jellies can be safely canned in a boiling water bath process. Pumpkin, however, is a low acid vegetable and cannot be safely canned in the boiling water bath process. A jam or sweetened preserve would have to have enough sugar and/or added acid to be treated safely without concerns about botulism. A certain acidity level is also required to cause the pectin molecule to form a gel structure. At the present time, the USDA nor National Center for Home Food Preservation have any tested recipes to recommend for safely canning pumpkin preserves (jams, jellies, conserves, or pumpkin butter) and storing them at room temperature.  These pumpkin products must be stored in the refrigerator or freezer and treated the same as fresh pumpkin.
Source: National Center for Home Food Preservation. 2015. “Home-Preserving Pumpkins.” https://nchfp.uga.edu/tips/fall/pumpkins.html.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Preventing Crystals in Grape Jelly, Jam, Syrup, and Juice

After you’ve gone to the trouble of foraging wild grapes or picking domestic grapes, juicing them, straining the juice, and making and processing juice, syrup, or jelly/jam, the last thing you want to find are crunchy bits in the jelly or syrup or a hard crystal formation at the bottom of a jar of juice. 

These crunch bits are crystals, usually of three types.
1) Tartrate Crystals – the naturally occurring components of grape juice
2) Sugar Crystals – improper cooking of the jelly or jam when the sugar is added.
3) Evaporation Crystals – loss of liquid

What are Tartrate Crystals?

Grape juice differs from many other fruit juices in that it contains naturally occurring amounts of both potassium and tartaric acid. At temperatures below 40F, these substances bind together to form crystals of potassium bitartrate better known as tartrate crystals. The crystals are benign or harmless so they pose no food safety risk but they are certainly unwanted encounters in juice, syrup or jellies.   Tartrate crystals can also form in grape jam.  In the wine industry, they are known as wine diamonds.

Preventing Tartrate Crystals

Regardless of the grape variety, color, or how the grapes were acquired, the problem is easy to solve with time and a fine strainer.

After juicing and straining the juice, allow the juice to sit undisturbed in covered containers for 24 – 48 hours in the refrigerator. My personal experience is that 48 hours is better than 24 hours if one has the time as crystals have continued to form in my juices after 24 hours. After the wait, slowly pour the juice through a jelly bag, cheesecloth, or very fine strainer into a clean container.  Be very careful as you reach the bottom as that is where you will find the tartrate crystals; they will appear as a rough, cracked substance on the bottom of the container.  Most of the crystals will be stuck to the container, but some may still be afloat.   

Once the tartrate crystals have been filtered out, the juice is ready to turn into jelly, syrup, or juice without the unwanted tartrate crystals. Recipes for jelly, jam, syrup, and juice can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation. The juice can also be frozen to be used later for making jelly.

What are Sugar Crystals?

Sugar is a crystal in its natural state and has an affinity to return to that form.  Even when dissolved in liquid as they are in jams and jellies, sugar molecules like to form into groups or crystals.  All they need is a party starter like an undissolved sugar crystal as a nucleus to draw other molecules of sugar towards it, re-forming crystals. Sugar crystals are not unique to grape sweet spreads. When making a sweet spread product or syrup regardless of fruit, it is important that the sugar is completely dissolved with no traces of crystals.

Preventing Sugar Crystals

Crystals throughout the jelly may be caused by too much sugar in the jelly mixture or cooking the mixture too little, too slowly, or too long. Learn how to prevent them from this Penn State Extension video.  Sweet spreads exhibiting sugar crystals are safe to eat.

Evaporation Crystals

Speckled crystals that form at the top of a sweet spread and scatter downward come when the product has been opened and allowed to stand; these crystals are caused by evaporation of liquid. This is more likely to happen with poorly capped, refrigerated jam or jelly.  White, fluffy mold on the surface of a jelly or jam is a sign of spoilage and should be discarded.

Crystallization due to evaporation can sometimes be reversed by gently reheating. Too much heat will cause the product to break down and not reset. The jar can be placed in hot water or carefully microwaving enough to melt the crystals. If melting is successful, a fresh or clean jar should be used.  Adding a small amount of lemon juice or corn syrup may also fix it.  In all cases, it is a temporary fix and the product usually goes back to crystallizing shortly.  A tight fitting lid is the best prevention. 

With just a little patience and careful preparation, crystals of all types can be prevented in grape products.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Recursos y Recetas para la Conservación Segura de Alimentos en Español

La conservación segura de alimentos comienza con recetas y recursos confiables y comprobados. El uso de prácticas y recetas de fuentes no comprobadas puede provocar enfermedades transmitidas por los alimentos. No se deben utilizar métodos de enlatado antiguos o recetas de familiares, amigos, vecinos o de sitios web de Internet que no hayan sido comprobados. Se pueden encontrar recetas seguras en el National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP). K-State Research and Extension han traducido recetas del NCHFP al español. Siguiendo los enlaces que se proporcionan, se puede encontrar información confiable sobre enlatado y una amplia variedad de recetas para conservar los alimentos de manera segura utilizando las prácticas actuales de conservación de alimentos.

Kansas State University Publications in Spanish

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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September is National Sewing Month

September is National Sewing Month!  “Sew” it “seams” we should take time to honor the history of sewing and celebrate those who enjoy this art form or craft.  National Sewing Month was first celebrated in 1982 after President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation “in recognition of the importance of home sewing to our Nation.” 

While sewing might imply the use of a sewing machine, it encompasses the many ways of stitching with thread and needle—garments, home décor, embroidery, needlepoint, cross-stitch, quilting, and all other forms of drawing a thread and needle through a medium. Sewing is a hobby enjoyed by millions of people from all walks of life throughout the world.

The art of sewing dates back to 25,000 B.C.E. when sewing was used to make clothing and shelter. Early materials consisted mostly of hides from animals and plant leaves. Thin strips of animal hide or long fibers drawn from plants made the first threads with bone and ivory being the first forms of needles.  Thomas Saint is credited with the invention of the sewing machine in 1750 followed by Isaac Singer’s prototype in 1851 that was to become the basis for the mechanization of sewing and the standard for the modern sewing machines we have today.  Prior to the 19th century, sewing was done by hand which allowed for perfecting skills as well as developing techniques for creative and decorative stitching.

Sewing has long been a favorite hobby of mine beginning with creations made with fabric scraps, thread, and needle for my dolls.  After my great-grandmother taught me to use her treadle machine, I turned out creations in mass.  As a 4-H member I enjoyed learning to use my mother’s electric machine and a pattern to fashion clothing for myself.  Each year was a new project with new skills.  That love of creating with fabric and a desire to understand fibers and fabrics led to my eventual college major.  While I never worked in the textile industry as I once envisioned, the skills and knowledge have given me a hobby and creative outlet that I still enjoy today.  And by joining with friends in guilds, I have learned and enjoyed many other forms of stitchery that have furthered by love of sewing. 

My deep love of thread and needle did not take root in my children; however, they were each fascinated enough to learn the skill of sewing with a machine to sufficiently take care of themselves.  Now I am sewing with my grandchildren who are intrigued with the creative process as they learn new skills.

While we may recognize the creative form of self-expression that sewing provides in the month of September, it is enjoyed all year.  During this month, there is a long list of retailers, bloggers, organizations, and others that promote “sewing” in an attempt to renew interest, share ideas, inspire, and teach.  If one was ever inclined to pick up thread and needle and try some form of sewing, the time to start is now. Creating quilts, clothing and other masterpieces not only develop new skills, but personal satisfaction, too. Sewing is a pleasurable activity to enjoy solo or with friends.  Happy sewing!

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Sweet Fruit Spreads – The Science of Successful Gelling

Sweet fruit spreads or jellied fruit products—jams, jellies, preserves, and marmalades—are usually cooked mixtures of fruit juice or fruit that form a thick, clear, slightly sticky substance known as a gel. When gelling works, the end result is a jelly characterized by a translucent color that quivers with a texture so tender that it may be cut easily with a spoon, and yet so firm that the angles produced by cutting retain their shape; OR a crushed fruit jam, preserve, or marmalade that is bright in color and spreads easily on breads or pastries.  And when it doesn’t work, the end result is usually a product that is runny like syrup or one that is tough and stiff. 

The key to creating a gel is a delicate chemistry or a balance of fruit, pectin, acid, and sugar along with the right temperature to get the product to set properly or arrive at a gelled state. When the “chemist in the kitchen” gets these factors correct, a hydrocolloid forms, or a web-like structure that holds the fruit and sugar in place evenly within the liquid. Here’s a look at the key elements of sweet spread chemistry.

Pectin, the thickener

After fruit, the most crucial ingredient in all sweet spreads is pectin.  Pectin is a naturally occurring soluble gelatinous polysaccharide that is present in ripe fruits.  Pectin is made up of large molecules that have a negative charge. The molecules have the potential to form a gel network when the molecules move together to trap and immobilize the sweetened fruit juice or fruit within it. Pectin is also water-loving, or hydrophilic, so it naturally wants to stick to water molecules.

Jams and jellies can be made using two methods: no added pectin and added pectin. Some fruit such as tart apples, blackberries, and cranberries are high-pectin fruits meaning they have sufficient pectin to gel on their own. Fruits like peaches and apricots, are low-pectin and don’t have enough pectin to gel on their own so need a supplement like a commercial pectin product.  There are also special pectin products for low-sugar and freezer sweet spreads.  Regardless of fruit, pectin levels are highest when the fruit is mature but still slightly under ripe. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a list of pectin (and acid) content of fruits.

Commercial pectin is marketed in liquid and powder form. The two types cannot be interchanged so recipes must be prepared with the specified pectin product. Following the manufacturer’s instructions is imperative. Many people prefer to use commercial pectin because it can be used with any fruit, the cooking time is shorter and more standardized, and the yield is higher for a given amount of fruit. 

Acid, the neutralizer

Acid is the second essential component of any fruit preserve. Without acidity, pectin molecules repel one another just like the same ends of magnets. The positive ions on the acid molecules neutralize the charge allowing the pectin molecules to move together forming a gel network.

Fruits that are high in both pectin and acid will gel on their own, while those with lower acid levels will not. To compensate for low-acid fruits, lemon juice is added with bottle lemon juice being the best source due to a consistent pH level.  Commercial pectin products contain acids that help ensure gelling.

Sugar, the water grabber

The third essential component is sugar.  Without sugar, pectin molecules prefer to bind with water molecules rather than with one another.  Because sugar is hygroscopic (readily attracts water), it ties up the water forcing the pectin molecules to connect with one another to form the gel network. Cane or beet sugars are best for jams and jellies. Light corn syrup or light, mild honey can be used to replace part, but not all, of the sugar. or best results, use tested recipes that specify honey or syrup. Artificial sweeteners cannot be substituted for sugar in regular recipes because the sugar is needed for gel formation. Sugar also acts as a preservative.

Temperature, the evaporator

Temperature plays a big part in getting the three essential components to work together to create a gel.  When using a commercial pectin product, following the directions carefully will insure that the proper temperature has been reached to create a gel. 

When a spread is prepared with no added pectin, temperature is critical.  The pectin in fruit becomes water soluble when it is heated.  Heating fruit juice or fruit with sugar to a rolling boil causes water to evaporate and the sugar to reach an appropriate concentration. The ratio of sugar to water is measured through temperature and is known as the gelling point. At the gelling point, enough water has evaporated to strengthen the pectin network enough to slow the movement of water to form a spreadable gel. Arriving at the gelling point quickly is best to retain the fruit’s best flavor, color, and the pectin’s thickening power.  Pectin will begin to break down and lose its ability to gel if cooked beyond the gelling point.  Evaporation can be sped up by using a wide pan to expose more surface of the product.

There are three methods of testing for the gelling point in sweet spreads made without added pectin—temperature test, spoon or sheet test, and freezer test.[1]  Of these, the temperature test is the most dependable but altitude must be considered.  The gelling point is 220°F or 8°F above the boiling point of water at sea level. For each 1000 feet of altitude above sea level, subtract 2 degrees F. For instance, at 1,000 feet of altitude, the jelly is done at 218°F; at 2,000 feet, 216°F, etc. 

Chemical Equation, the directions

When making sweet spreads every ingredient and processing step is critical. Following tested recipes, using fruit at the right maturity level, and getting the balance of pectin, acid, and sugar correct can affect the quality and safety of the spread. Making double batches or reducing the amount of sugar in the recipe may interfere with gel formation. Regardless of whether a recipe is made with added pectin or no added pectin, all cooked spreads must be processed in a water bath canner with the processing time adjusted for altitude.   

Despite best efforts to do everything right, sometimes problems do occur.  When things go awry, consider the problem and troubleshoot using one of these resources:
Troubleshooting Jelly and Jam Problems,
Causes and Possible Solutions for Problems with Jellied Fruit Products, 
or watch the 
Troubleshooting Jams & Jellies video.
However, before doing anything, let the product sit for at least 12 hours after processing to allow time to set up. Some sweet spreads can take up to two weeks to completely set so if used soon after making, it may be softer than it will be later.

Should there be need to remake a sweet spread due to a soft gel, carefully read and follow directions in Remaking Soft Jams and Jellies by Washington State University Extension.  Should the product be too stiff, the National Center for Home Food Preservation offers suggestions on how to remedy the product sufficiently to provide a mixture that may spread more easily.

Regardless of whether the product turns out perfectly or otherwise, a sweet spread that has been processed as recommended in a boiling water canner and has a solidly sealed vacuum lid, is safe to eat and can be stored at room temperature like other sweet spreads with good quality expected for a year.[2] (The quality loss may be quicker in light-colored and/or reduced-sugar products and it may be desirable to use these within 6-8 months.)

Understanding the functions of the ingredients and the science of gelling can truly help the “kitchen chemist” successfully make sweet spreads.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Potentially Deadly Canning Mistakes

Home canning is an excellent way to preserve garden produce and share it with family and friends, but it can be risky—or even deadly—if not done correctly and safely.  The potential culprit is botulism. 

Although it’s a rare occurrence, botulism is a serious illness caused by a bacterium toxin, Clostridium botulinum, that attacks the body’s nerves. It can cause difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, and even death.  Clostridium botulinum is commonly found in soil, on raw fruits and vegetables, on meat and fish, and many other foods and surfaces. Improperly home-canned, preserved, or fermented foods can provide the right conditions for the bacteria to make the toxin.  One cannot see, smell or taste the toxin, yet if ingested, even a small amount can be deadly. 

To avoid concerns about botulism, steer clear of these canning mistakes [1].

Making Up Your Own Recipe
Use only up-to-date, scientifically tested recipes approved by the USDA and follow directions exactly.  Good sources are The Complete Canning Guide, the National Center for Home Food Preservation, So Easy to Preserve, and land-grant university publications.    Without scientific testing, there is no way to know how long the product needs to be processed to be safe.

Adding Extra Starch, Flour or Other Thickeners
Starches slow the rate of heat penetration into the product and can result in under processing.  Clear Jel® is recommended as a thickener for canned pie fillings. If a product is not as thick as desired going into the jar, it can be thickened at the time of use.

Adding Extra Onions, Chilies, Peppers, or Other Vegetables to Salsas or Sauces
Tested recipes specify the quantity of vegetables allowed to keep the salsa or sauce within the safe pH range.  Most vegetables are low-acid and adding extra vegetables will dilute the acidity and result in an unsafe product.  While it is dangerous to add more vegetables to salsa and sauce recipes, fewer may be used for a milder flavor.  Extra ingredients can be added at the time of use.

Canning by Electric Pressure Cooker, Oven, Open Kettle, Microwave, or Dishwasher
Boiling water bath or pressure are the only approved canning methods. Any other method should be avoided as foods will be under processed and unsafe. Heat is conducted by air in an oven which is less efficient than water or steam. As a result product temperature never exceeds the boiling point; jar breakage is also a possibility. Open-kettle canning, placing hot food in jars and sealing with no further heat treatment, has been considered an unsafe home canning practice since the 1980’s due to insufficient heat to destroy bacteria [2]. Microwaved food reaches 212°F but heating is not uniform; in additon, there is a danger of jar explosion within the microwave oven or as food is being removed [2]. The water temperature of the dishwasher’s cleaning and rinsing cyles is far below that required to kill harmful microorganisms. While electric pressure cookers use pressure for cooking, they do not meet the appliance standards for home pressure canning, even if marketed as safe for pressure canning. Washington State Extension explains all the reasons why electric pressure cookers should not be used for home canning in Canning in Electric Pressure Cookers.

Not Making Altitude Adjustments
The temperature at which water boils is affected by barometric pressure which is reduced with elevation or altitude. When water doesn’t reach the normal boiling temperature, undesired pathogens may survive the canning process. These pathogens could multiply in the canned food and cause sickness.  Processing times and temperatures for recipes in most canning resources are based on canning at an elevation of 1,000 feet above sea level or lower.  When canning at a higher elevation, one must add more pounds of pressure for pressure canning and more processing time for water bath canning.  See charts prepared by South Dakota State University Extension for altitude adjustments.

Not Venting the Pressure Canner
Trapped air inside a pressure canner lowers the temperature obtained for a given pressure and results in under processing.  To be safe, the USDA recommends that all pressure canners be vented 10 minutes before they are pressurized.

To vent a canner, leave the vent pipe (steam vent) uncovered (or manually open the petcock on some older models) after you fill the canner and lock the canner lid in place. Heat the canner on high until the water boils and generates steam that can be seen escaping through the open vent pipe or petcock. When a visible funnel-shape of steam is continuously escaping the canner, set a timer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes of continuous steam, you can close the petcock or place the counterweight or weighted gauge over the vent pipe to begin pressurizing the canner. [3]

Failure to Acidify Canned Tomatoes
Because the pH of tomatoes is an unknown, the USDA recommends that bottled lemon juice be used to lower the pH of the product to be unquestionably safe.

Rushing the Pressure Canner Cool-Down Time
The natural cool-down of the canner is part of the tested processing time.  Hurrying this process will result in under-processed food and siphoning of liquid from the jars.  It may also cause jar breakage.

Allowing “Hot Pack” Foods to Cool in Jars before Processing
Processing times are based on the food being hot at the beginning of the processing.  Foods not starting hot could be under processed. Further, the rule, “hot foods hot and cold foods cold” applies; when foods are held between 40 and 140°F, bacteria can grow rapidly.

Processing Low-Acid Foods in a Water Bath
Canning low-acid foods requires special care. This includes red meats, fish, poultry and all vegetables (except for acidified tomatoes). Low-acid foods can support the production of the deadly botulism toxin if these foods are not processed properly in a pressure canner. A pressure canner heats food to high temperatures (240-250 degrees F or higher) and destroys the spores that produce the botulism toxin. A boiling water bath canner, which can be used for canning pickles or fruit, heats food to boiling temperature (212 F), which is not high enough to ensure safety for canning vegetables and other low-acid foods.[4]

Home canning is perfectly safe but needs to be done correctly.  If you are new to canning (or need a refresher), check out Safe Home Canning Basics, by Minnesota University Extension to learn about preventing botulism and other key issues to be aware of when preserving food by home canning.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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