Should Food Be Stored Outdoors in Winter or in the Snow?

With cold winter temperatures, one might be tempted to store food outdoors or in the snow.  This may also be true if one experiences a power outage due to a winter storm.  While storing food outside or in the snow may work in a pinch, long term storage is not advised. 

Although it may seem like a good idea to use our giant outdoor “walk-in freezer” to store food, there are two main reasons why the cold or snow may not necessarily protect it safely.  For one, the outside temperature can vary by the hour even if snow is falling thereby not protecting refrigerated or frozen food properly. Further, frozen food can thaw when exposed to the sun’s rays even when the temperature is very cold.  Food may become too warm and foodborne bacteria could grow. Secondly, perishable items could be exposed to unsanitary conditions or to animals which may harbor bacteria or disease.  (Food that comes in contact with animals should never be consumed.)

Should the reason to take food outdoors or put in the snow be due to a power outage, the USDA suggests taking advantage of the cold weather to make ice by filling buckets or cans with water to freeze outdoors. The ice can be used to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator or coolers. If one needs to temporarily store food outdoors, check the outdoor temperature and monitor the temperature and state of the food frequently. Food should also be stored in impermeable covered plastic containers and placed in a location that won’t be disturbed.

Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs should be stored at or below 40ºF and frozen food at or below 0ºF. While this is hard to maintain during power outages, the USDA says keeping your fridge and freezer doors closed as much as possible can help your food stay at the necessary temperature for up to four hours and longer in a cold room. If the doors stay closed, a full freezer can maintain temperature for up to 48 hours.

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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Celebrating Spaghetti

January 4 is an unofficial holiday—it’s National Spaghetti Day—a day to celebrate the pasta that is commonly served with sauce, meat balls and Parmesan cheese.  American are great spaghetti lovers.  More than 1.3 million pounds of spaghetti are sold each year in American grocery stores.  If those packages were lined up, they would circle the Earth’s equator nine times.

Pasta is thought to have originated in ancient China being brought to Italy by Marco Polo during the 13th century.  The pasta form known as spaghetti has origins in Italy and Sicily.  “Spaghetto” in Italian means a thin string.  Prior to the industrial revolution, spaghetti was a luxury in Italy. Thomas Jefferson is credited with popularizing macaroni in America but it was the Italian immigrants that brought spaghetti to America.  Originally, 18 inches (50 cm) long, it is most commonly available in 12 inch (30cm) lengths today.

While there are numerous companies that manufacture spaghetti, the oldest pasta company and the biggest pasta factory in the world is Barilla located in Parma, Italy. Though the company manufactures 150 different pasta shapes, spaghetti remains the simplest pasta shape to produce and the Barilla factories produces miles and miles of the stuff every day. Nearly all Barilla pasta sold in the United States is made in Barilla plants located in Ames, IA and Avon, NY. To maintain consistency and quality, the recipe, wheat blend, and machines used in the Ames and Avon plants are the same as used in the Parma factory.

As part of the pasta family, spaghetti, is a fat-free, low sodium food made from hard wheat. More nutrition can easily be added to a meal by using whole grain pasta options.  Gluten-free pasta is also an option to those who cannot tolerate gluten. A plate of spaghetti and meatballs is the epitome of comfort food, but spaghetti is the perfect backdrop for all sorts of toppings and applications such as soups, stir frys, casseroles, and salads.

What is a serving of spaghetti?

When it comes to preparing spaghetti, knowing how much dry spaghetti is needed per serving is always a question. According to the USDA, the proper pasta portion is 2 ounces (56g) of dry pasta per person.  Because 2 ounces (56 g) of pasta is determined by the shape of the pasta, Barilla has charts to help determine the right portion of pasta to use.   For long shapes—spaghetti, angel hair, linguine, vermicelli, and fettuccine, you can measure the right amount using a scale OR use a dime (approximately ½-inch diameter) for thin shapes or a quarter (approximately 1-inch diameter) for thicker shapes. Once a bunch of long pasta equals the diameter of the coin, you should have the recommended 2 ounce serving which will yield approximately 1 cup of cooked pasta.  A pound of pasta is about right for 8 people with the recommended 2 ounces dry per person.

Tips for cooking and serving spaghetti perfectly

  • Salt your water.  Salt raises the temperature of the water so the pasta cooks a bit faster and adds flavor.
  • Use plenty of water and keep it boiling.  4-6 quarts water per pound of pasta is recommended.  Bring the water to a boil before adding pasta and return to a boil after adding pasta Using plenty of water helps prevent sticking and reduces the time it takes for the water to return to a boil when the pasta is added.  Keep the water at a rolling boil during cooking and do not cover.
  • Stir the pasta.  Stirring occasionally encourages even cooking and prevents the strands from sticking together.
  • Cook to al dente or firm to the bite.   Al dente is usually reached within 8-10 minutes of putting the spaghetti into the boiling water.  For recipes with extra cooking time, undercook the pasta by 1/3 of the cooking time.
  • Drain and reserve some pasta water for thinning the sauce if needed. 
  • Plate with a twist and drizzle.  Whether served in a sauce or alone, the key to plating spaghetti is to gently grab a serving of spaghetti with a tongs and give it a twist as it is placed on the plate causing the noodles to twist on themselves and pile upward.  Garnish, if desired, with a drizzle of olive oil and a little grated parmesan cheese.

Here’s to spaghetti and National Spaghetti Day!  Celebrate with a favorite spaghetti dish for dinner or head to your favorite Italian restaurant for a spaghetti entre.  Be sure to post your spaghetti pictures on social media using #NationalSpaghettiDay. Oh, and did you know that you should not break spaghetti? Length is needed to keep the Italian tradition of twirling spaghetti on a fork!

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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Prime Rib – “king” of Holiday Meats

Prime rib is perhaps the “king” of holiday meats. A prime rib roast makes an incredible presentation when it premiers with a well-browned crust encasing a tender, succulent, flavorful, and juicy rosy-pink center. Making your own prime rib may be a little bit scary. After all, it’s an expensive cut of meat; as such, you want it to be absolutely perfect. So what’s the best way to cook it?

Prime rib is not a cut of meat; rather, it is the name given to the preparation of a beef rib roast or ribeye roast. At the market, one would purchase a beef rib roast, ribeye roast, or standing rib roast to make prime rib. Regardless of name, it comes from the 6th through 12th ribs of a beef animal, sandwiched between the chuck and the short loin. Since this muscle is not well used, it yields a tender and deeply marbled roast with outstanding flavor.  The roast is usually covered by a fat cap that varies in thickness which also contributes to flavor and moistness.  

Preferred Doneness Temperature, Not Time Chart


Many people look for a chart that will tell them how long to cook their prime rib by pound. Because prime rib is not an evenly thick or shaped roast, timed cooking per pound is flawed. The best way to cook a rib roast (prime rib) is by temperature, not by time. Therefore, a digital meat thermometer is your best friend and most accurate, foolproof way to gauge the doneness or temperature of meat. To get an accurate reading, insert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the meat.  Use the chart below to determine the preferred doneness temperature.  Because meat continues to cook after it is removed from heat, the pull from heat temperature should be 5-7⁰F (3-4⁰C) below the preferred temperature to allow for carryover cooking. As the meat rests, some of the heat energy from the outer layers transfers to the center, causing the center to continue to rise in temperature.

Preferred DonenessDegrees FDegrees C
Rare120-129⁰F49-54⁰C
Medium Rare130-134⁰F55-59⁰C
Medium135-144⁰F58-62⁰C
Medium Well145-154⁰F63-67⁰C
Well155-164⁰F68-73⁰C

Methods


While there are recipes and methods for grilling, slow cooking, and pressure cooking a rib roast, the best way to cook prime rib, or a ribeye roast, is by roasting it in the oven, fat side up, to the desired doneness.  Methods for oven roasting vary.  After reviewing numerous recipes for oven-roasted prime rib, it appears there are three different approaches—traditional, reverse-seared, or the 500⁰F/no peek methods.  Which is the best?  See the chart below to compare. (⁰F to ⁰C conversions in footnotes)

StepTraditional MethodReverse-Sear Method500⁰F/No-Peek Method*
1.Season 1-4 days in advanceSeason 1-4 days in advanceSeason 1-4 days in advance
2.Bring roast to room temperatureBring roast to room temperatureBring roast to room temperature
3.Preheat oven to 400-500⁰F (450⁰F most popular)Place roast in pre-heated low-temperature oven (200-275⁰F)Preheat oven to 500⁰F.
4.Sear for 15-20 min (450⁰F oven) in ovenRoast to desired doneness minus carryover cookingSear/roast 5-6 min/lb in oven
5.Reduce heat to 250-325⁰F (325⁰F most popular)Remove from oven, tent and let rest for 20 min.Turn oven off and leave door closed for 2 hrs.
6.Roast to desired temperature, approx. 13-15 min/lb (325⁰F) minus carryover cookingSet oven temperature to max, 500-550⁰FCheck temperature for desired temperature.  If appropriate, remove, slice, and enjoy
7.Remove from oven, tent, and restBrown meat 6-10 min until exterior is browned and crispIf under done, heat oven to 325⁰F and roast until desired temperature is reached
8.Slice and enjoySlice and enjoyIf additional heat and time required, remove from heat at desired temperature, tent and rest.  Slice and enjoy  
ProsTried and true methodEven cooking from edge to centerPredictable serving time
ConsUnpredictable serving timeUnpredictable serving timeOnly works if oven holds heat well

*Other names:  foolproof prime rib, no peek method, 500 degree method, closed oven method, oven off method. 

The Take-Away

  • Seasoning is optional.  Some do, some do not.  Seasoning can be simply salt and cracked pepper or with the addition of garlic or fresh herbs.
  • Most recipes allow the roast to come to room temperature beforehand. This helps the meat cook more evenly throughout. Depending on the size of the roast, allow 1-2 hours. 
  • Bone in or out? Most agree that if the bone is removed, it should still be tied back in for move even roasting.  Removing the bone makes it easier to slice.
  • Tying the roast is important.  When the string is removed after cooking, the roast will hold its shape for a more attractive presentation. Tying also aids in more even cooking. There are numerous online videos that show how such as this one: Prime Rib Prep and Butchers Knot – YouTube.
  • Sear or not to sear?  For some, searing is an important part of roasting a prime rib. Searing kills any possible surface bacteria and provides a Mallard-effect browned and crisp crust. It is also thought that searing helps to hold in the juices but some studies show that searing is not necessary for moistness when the meat is cooked low and slow.  Searing can be done either in a hot oven or a skillet. 
  • A meat thermometer is imperative; a digital thermometer with a probe can be placed in the meat prior to roasting to monitor temperature throughout the roasting process without opening the oven.
  • Most recipes suggest a well-marbled prime rib is at its best when it’s cooked to a minimum of medium rare and no more than medium.  This temperature range allows the fat to soften and render sufficiently to deliver flavor and juiciness. The pink color of the meat and/or juice may concern some fearing that it is blood.  To the contrary, it is not blood.  Rather it is oxymyoglobin, the redness in meat exposed to oxygen that has not yet had a chance to break down with light cooking. There is little to no blood present in commercially packaged beef.  Preferred doneness is an individual choice, however.
  • Remove the roast from the heat 5-7⁰F (3-4 ⁰C) before the preferred doneness to allow for carryover cooking.  Tenting helps to ensure temperature rise and hold heat for serving.  Meats roasted at low temperatures (250°F or lower) have very little carryover cooking because they tend to cook more evenly from edge to center. There is no carryover cooking when a roast is finished by blasting it in a 500°F+ oven for a few minutes to brown and crisp the exterior.
  • Resting or letting prime rib sit at room temperature for around 20-30 minutes before slicing gives the roast time to reabsorb the juices. Slicing into the meat right away will cause the juices to run out onto the cutting board.
  • Traditional and Reverse-Sear Methods appear to be the most successful for consumers.  500⁰F/No Peek method works well when the oven holds the heat; otherwise additional time is needed to get the roast to the preferred temperature.
  • As long as the roast has been handled properly prior to roasting, food safety is not an issue with any of the methods.

Preparing prime rib need not be scary.  Arm yourself with a meat thermometer and monitor it carefully; prime rib is more forgiving than you’d expect.  For additional tips, see Cooking Prime Rib.  Starter recipes can be found at Beef—It’s What’s for Dinner.

____________________________

Degrees FDegrees C
200-275⁰F93-135⁰C
250-325⁰F121-163⁰C
325⁰F163⁰C
400-500⁰F204-260⁰C
450⁰F232⁰C
500⁰F260⁰C
500-550⁰F260-288⁰C

Resources:

A Guide to Prime Rib, Cook’s Illustrated, cooksillustrated.com

All About the Prime Rib, Beef-It’s What’s for Dinner, beefitswhatsfordinner.com

Best Prime Rib, Americas Test Kitchen, americastestkitchen.com

Cooking Prime Rib, Recipe Tips, recipe tips.com 

Houser, Dr. Terry, Associate Professor, Smithfield Foods Chair in Meat Science Extension, Department of Animal Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Iowa State University

How to Cook Prime Rib Perfectly, the Temperature You Need, ThermoBlog, thermoworks.com

Oven Roasting Guidelines for Beef, Nebraska Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources, UNL Food

Prime Rib—Its What’s for Christmas Dinner, Texas A&M AgrlLife Extension

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 – Alternative Flours

Holiday baking is in full swing.  For most baking, flour is a requirement.  An assortment of wheat flours and alternative flours line our supermarket shelves.  For most baking, all-purpose wheat flour is a good choice.  Why then, do we have so many choices? If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last few years, artisanal baking trends, baking blogs, and tv shows have pushed consumers to open their minds to options beyond using traditional wheat flour. With the popularity of clean living, functional food, ancient grains, and grain- or gluten-free lifestyles, we’re getting better at expanding our horizons when it comes to flours and using them to bake successfully.

In a previous blog, wheat flours for baking were discussed as well as the protein content of the various wheat flours and how they affect baked products.  Gluten is the protein most often associated with wheat flour making dough elastic and stretchy and trapping gas within baked goods to provide a light and airy structure. Baking with alternative flours that are gluten free or low in gluten can be challenging. This blog will focus on demystifying some of the various alternative flours and how to best use them with wheat flours, alone, or blended with other gluten-free flours for baking.

The variety of alternative flours ground from various grains, nuts, seeds, roots, vegetables and even fruits available to today is expanding and ever changing. While alternative flours are a must for those with gluten allergies, they are also a great option for adding nutrients to many recipes. Depending on need for a lower-calorie, higher protein or nutrition, resistant starch, gluten-free, or easily digested flour, there is an alternative flour to meet nearly anyone’s needs. Alternative flours are of three types—1) grained-based, containing gluten; 2) grain-based, containing no gluten; 3) nut-, seed-, root-, vegetable- or fruit-based, containing no gluten. 

Grain-based, Gluten Flours

In this group we find rye, barley, spelt,  khorasan,  emmereinkorn, and triticale, Like wheat, these grain flours are commercially-available as whole flours (containing the grain’s endosperm, germ and bran) or as refined flours (endosperm only).  While these grain-based flours contain protein and the gluten protein, they are low in gluten.  To be successful in baking, they need the help of wheat flour or other ingredients to give them structure.  They add nutrition, flavor, and interesting textures to baked goods when used. 

Rye flour is likely the most used of these gluten-containing alternative flours; it is sold in both medium and dark varieties.  Rye adds a nutty flavor to baked goods as well as enhancing the flavor of chocolate, ginger, caramel, brown butter, cinnamon, and other similar ingredients.  Rye’s chemistry is different than that of wheat, most notably in that it can retain much more moisture for a longer amount of time due to its complex sugar (pentosans) and enzyme (amylases) composition. When rye is added to baked goods, those products stay fresh longer than those made with all-purpose flour. [1]  Most commonly, barley is used as an add-in ingredient in a baked good for fiber.  Spelt contains enough gluten to be substituted for wheat flours yet some people who have an intolerance or allergy to wheat, find that they can tolerate spelt.  Khorasan and emmer are ancient grains. Einkorn is similar to durum wheat and turns baked products yellow due to its high carotene content. Triticale flour is a cross between durum, rye, and red winter wheat and must be used with a high-gluten wheat flour.

Gain-based, Gluten-free Flours

It’s important to note that a gluten-free grain doesn’t mean that it is gluten-free.  Flours or food products can still have trace amounts of gluten when made in a facility where equipment is shared with gluten grains.  This can be problematic with those affected by gluten intolerance or celiac so it is important to know and trust the source of gluten-free products. 

Most of the gluten-free flours do not do well on their own so are often blended for best flavor and texture in baked products.  There are a variety of 1:1 gluten-free flours (cup-for-cup swap of wheat flour to gluten-free flour in any traditional recipe) on the market.  Each company has a slightly different blend but usually contain some combination of rice flour, potato starch, sorghum flour, tapioca flour, and millet flour. There are also numerous DIY recipes for those who like to make their own.  Gluten-free flours need binding agents such as xanthan gum, arrowroot powder, eggs, or flax added to the mix to provide structure similar to gluten.  If you purchase a commercial flour blend, read the ingredient list to see if xanthan or guar gum has been added; if so, there is no need to add more. If xanthan is not in the mix, ½-1 teaspoon per cup of flour should be added.  For additional information and tips on gluten-free baking, please refer to Gluten Free Baking by Colorado State University Extension. For best success with first-time, gluten-free baking, it is recommended to use recipes using flours of interest.

Table of Grained-based Gluten-free Flours

Grain-based Gluten-free Flour  CharacteristicsHow to Use in Baking (Substituting or Replacing Wheat Flour or 1:1 Gluten-free Baking Flour)1 cup Wheat Flour Conversion
AmaranthHigh in protein, lysine, fiber, and iron
Provide structure and binding Pleasant flavor  
Replace up to ¼ of the flour in most recipes; can be used alone for biscuits and cookies; use ½ c/loaf in combination with wheat flour for bread1 cup
BuckwheatGluten-free despite name; technically a seed used as a grain (pseudo grain)
Rich in B-vitamins, magnesium, fiber, antioxidants
Strong flavor
Replace ¼ of flour. Best used in pancakes, yeast breads, cookies, muffins, scones, biscuits in combination with neutral flours1 cup
CornSweet, earthy flavor when baked
May be yellow, white, or blue
Versatile flour
Milled from flour corn (corn meal or masa harina is not the same)
Can be used alone for spoon breads, chess pie, corn cake; substitute no more than 1 part corn flour to 4 parts flour1 cup
MilletColor similar to cornmeal
Delicate sweet, nut-like flavor
Similar protein structure to wheat
Can be substituted 1:1 for flour; best used in combination with other flours for breads and muffins1 cup
OatSweet, toasty, nutty flavor
Good source of protein
Lightens, adds ‘chew’ to baked products Ability to absorb liquid helps keep baked goods moist  
Combine with other flours to achieve desired results1 1/3 cup
QuinoaGood source of protein, folate, copper, iron, and fiber
Mild, slightly nutty flavor
Substitute ½ flour or completely replace in cookie and cake recipes; blend with other flours for best flavor; use in pasta  1 cup
RiceWhite and brown varieties
Brown contains rice bran and germ; has a nuttier flavor
Absorbs liquid producing sticky doughs
Commonly used in Asian cooking
Use 1 part rice flour to 4 parts flour;
combine with other flours to achieve desired results
7/8 cup
SorghumSweet nutty flavor
High in nutrition
Add 15% to 25% to flour mixes to add flavor to breads, cakes, and cookies1 cup
TeffLeads all grains in calcium
High in resistant starch
Mild to earthy flavor
Substitute ¼ of the flour in any recipe  7/8 cup

Nut-, Seed-, Root-, Vegetable- or Fruit-based Gluten-free Flours   

Flours made from nuts, seeds, roots, vegetables and fruits provide interesting tastes, textures, and nutritional compositions to food made with them. While they can be used on their own or in combination with other flours, they are often times used as add-ins for taste or texture or to improve nutrition, digestion, or keeping qualities.  Like gluten-free grain flours, binders are needed in baking.  The table below is only a listing of the most common flours in this group as there are many and new ones continually come onto the scene. 

Table of Nut-, Seed-, Root-, Vegetable-, Fruit-based Gluten-free Flours

Nut-, Vegetable-, Fruit, Root-based Flours  CharacteristicsHow to Use in Baking (Substituting or Replacing Wheat Flour or 1:1 Gluten-free Baking Flour)1 cup Wheat Flour Conversion
AlmondMade from blanched almonds; slightly gritty
Low carbohydrate content
Good source of protein, Vitamin E, healthy fats, and fiber
Use in combination with other flours for texture and flavor; works well in cakes, cookies, sweet breadsN/A
BananaMade from green, unripe bananas
High level of resistant starch
Does not taste like bananas
Readily absorbs liquid; results in heavier baked goods
Versatile for baking and thickening.  Use 2 teaspoons baking powder per cup flour to get baked goods to rise.¾ cup
CassavaDerived from the root of the cassava or yucca plant; processing removes cyanide
High in carbohydrates, manganese, Vitamin C
Most similar to wheat flour of all gluten-free flours; never eat raw
Mild, neutral flavor; not gritty
Easy to digest; reduces insulin need
1:1 substitute with all flours; best used in combination with wheat flour for yeast breadsN/A
ChickpeaAlso known as garbanzo bean flour
Good source of protein and fiber
Use in combination with other flours for texture and flavor; works well in dense cakes, biscuits, brownies and quick unleavened breads7/8 cup
CoconutRich in manganese, protein, fiber, fat
Dried coconut meat; byproduct of coconut milk Slightly gritty
Highly absorbent
Naturally sweet coconut flavor
Can replace up to 20% of flour in most recipes; requires the addition of an equivalent amount of liquid. Every ¼ cup coconut flour requires one egg for structure and moisture.¼ cup
PotatoGround from dehydrated potatoes
Neutral flavor
Attracts and holds water; aids in producing moist yeast bread and rolls
Use in combination with other flours; for optimal results with wheat flour:  substitute up to 25% for baked goods, 15% for yeast leavened products; to avoid clumping, mix with sugar5/8 cup
Soy/SoyaDerived from soybeans Slightly sweet, musty flavor Improve shelf life of baked goods1 part soy/soya to 4 parts flour; increases browning so reduce oven temperature 25⁰F¾ cup
TapiocaStarchy extract of the cassava root
Starchy, slightly sweet flavor Excellent thickener
Use ¼ to ½ cup per recipe to sweeten breads made with rice and millet flour; great thickener for pie fillings1 cup
Other NutPecan, Walnut, Hazelnut, Filbert, and ChestnutSimilar to Almond 
Other VeggieFava, GarFava, Lentil, Bean, PeaSimilar to Chickpea 

Sources:
Beyond the Standard Flour, Laura Anderson, Michigan State University Extension, https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/beyond_the_standard_flour
GF Baking Tips & Hints, https://theheritagecook.com/gluten-free-3/gluten-free-baking-tips-and-hints/
Types of Flour Used in Baking, Sarah Bastin, University of Kentucky, https://fcs-hes.ca.uky.edu/sites/fcs-hes.ca.uky.edu/files/12ssc_typesflourpub.pdf
Gluten Free Baking, F. Watson, M. Stone, and M. Bunning, Colorado State University Extension, https://foodsmartcolorado.colostate.edu/recipes/cooking-and-baking/gluten-free-baking/
Baker Pedia, https://bakerpedia.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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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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