Getting to Know the National Center for Home Food Preservation

When AnswerLine clients have questions about food preservation, reference is often made to the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP). What is the National Center for Home Food Preservation?  What relationship does it have with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) when it comes to food preservation?

The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a publicly-funded center for research and education for home food preservation. The center is located in Athens, Georgia at the University of Georgia® and is hosted by the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. The NCHFP is your source for current research-based recommendations for most methods of home food preservation. The mission of NCHFP is to conduct and coordinate research to further develop knowledge in the field of food preservation and to share science-based recipes, techniques, and guidelines with educators and end-users to insure that foods preserved in the home are done so safely.

The Center was established in 2000 with funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture (NIFA-USDA) to address food safety concerns for those who practice and teach home food preservation and processing methods. The Cooperative Extension System (CES) and USDA have long been recognized as credible sources for science-based recommendations. For more background on the USDA work in food preservation and the founding of the NCHFP, see the webinar, Welcome to the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Dr. Elizabeth Andress, who was instrumental in founding NCHFP, became the first director in 1999. She served as director until her retirement in December 2021. During her tenure, the center researched home canning and preservation recipes and methods; published So Easy to Preserve; developed the NCHFP website; wrote current topic blogs; developed preservation curriculum and courses suitable for institutions, workshops or webinars; and revised and updated the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning (2015). The NCHFP webinar also discusses additional work done by the center.

NCHFP is now under new leadership. In November 2021, the University of Georgia announced Dr. Carla Schwan as the new director of the NCHFP, along with titles of Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in food safety and home food preservation. Dr. Schwan recently completed her Ph.D. and postdoctoral research at Kansas State University and began her appointment at NCHFP January 2, 2022. NCHFP has been a strong resource for home food preservation research and guidance and will continue to be there for consumers under Dr. Schwan’s leadership.

The resources provided by the NCHFP have become increasingly important in recent years. Due to consumer desire to have more control over their food and the impact of COVID-19, many consumers have turned to home gardening and food preservation at home. Both factors have led to demand for science-based information to educate consumers on safe methods to preserve food. 

Every consumer interested in food preservation should faithfully use the resources provided by NCHFP. If you are not familiar with the NCHFP, spend some time perusing the website or order So Easy to Preserve or USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning (2015). You’ll discover useful food preservation tips, find answers to food preservation questions, and be inspired to can, freeze, dry, pickle, jam and jelly at home safely!

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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Elevation? Does It Matter?

While residents of most midwestern states usually don’t think about their elevation, elevation affects all aspects of food preparation–cooking, baking, canning, jams and jellies, and candy making. As elevation rises, air pressure falls and water boils at lower temperatures making recipe adjustments necessary.

Pan of boiling water on stovetop
Boiling water at 1014 Ft of elevation

Elevation and Everyday Cooking and Baking

When it comes to everyday cooking and baking, there are few noticeable effects of elevation until one reaches 3,000 feet. Higher elevations present several challenges when preparing some foods. At higher elevations, leavened products using yeast, baking powder/soda, egg whites, or steam rise more rapidly, may collapse, and may not be fully cooked. Because water boils at a lower temperature at higher elevations, foods that are prepared by boiling or simmering will cook at a lower temperature, and it will take longer. High elevation areas are also prone to low humidity, which can cause the moisture in foods to evaporate more quickly during cooking. At elevations above 3,000 feet, preparation of food may require changes in time, temperature or recipe.  For those that find themselves at higher elevations, Colorado State University and New Mexico State University have excellent tips and guidelines for successful baking and cooking.

Elevation and Canning Safety

Because water boils at 212°F at sea level and decreases about 1°F for each 500-ft increase in elevation, adjustments must be made when canning foods at home to ensure home-canned foods are processed safely. The amount of time that jars are held at a certain temperature during canning is important to producing a safe product. Processing times for most recipes are based on elevations of 0-1,000 feet unless stated otherwise. When elevations are above 1,000 feet, extra time is added for food processed in a water-bath canner. For food processed in a pressure canner, extra pressure is added. Both adjustments are needed to get to their respective safe processing temperatures for high acid and low acid foods. 

USDA and National Center For Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) recipes include a table for proper processing based on elevation to insure sufficient time and temperature have been reached for a safe, shelf-stable product. In the table for Crushed Tomatoes from the USDA Compete Guide to Home Canning, 2015 edition, note that time is increased in 5 minute increments as elevation increases for boiling water canning and pounds of pressure is increased for pressure canning. (Crushed tomatoes are one example of a food that can be processed by either boiling-water bath or pressure.)

While time is adjusted for water-bath canning, pressure regulation differs by the type of pressure canning equipment used—dial- or weighted-gauge canner.

Elevation and Sugar Concentrations

Elevation is also a factor in candy making and the gelling of jams and jellies when pectin is not used. At higher altitudes, atmospheric pressure is less so water boils at lower temperatures and evaporates more quickly. Syrups become concentrated and reach the gel point at a lower temperature. The concentration of sugar required to form a gel is in the range of 60 to 65 percent which occurs at 217 and 220 degrees F, respectively, at sea level. As elevation increases, the gelling point decreases by 2 degrees per 1,000 feet. When elevation is not taken into consideration, overcooked jam is the result as too much water has boiled away leaving a sugar concentration that is too high, leaving a jam that is gummy, dark in color or tough. The same is true for candy making. For each 1,000 feet above sea level, reduce the temperature in the recipe by 2 degrees F to prevent overcooking. Colorado State University provides a High Elevation Candy Making (Sugar Solution) Adjustment chart for various kinds of candy mixtures.

Find and Know Your Elevation

Elevation matters in all aspects of food preparation. It is especially important for the safety of home canned products beginning at elevations above 1,000 feet. Before beginning the canning process or making sugar concentrations, find your elevation using one of these sources to insure proper processing of canned products and prevent overcooking of jams and candies:

  1. Visit a web page about your town or city.
  2. Use an online tool such as What is my elevation?
  3. Use a smartphone app such as My Elevation.
  4. Refer to an elevation map for your state showing approximate elevations such as this one by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach from the Preserve the Taste of Summer series.

To learn more about elevation, watch this YouTube video by UNL Extension Food & Fitness.

To learn more about safe water-bath or pressure canning practices, watch these videos produced by South Dakota State University:

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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Making Granola Bars a Healthy Treat

Crunchy, chewy, chocolatey, fruity granola bars are an American favorite breakfast staple and snack. In fact, granola bars are so popular they even have their own annual day of celebration in January. Often considered a healthy food (and they can be), the nutrition label may tell otherwise; most are little more than candy bars in disguise loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup, unhealthy fats, and short on fiber and protein. The satiety value is low—in a short time, hunger sets in again.granola bar

How can you enjoy your favorite snack without leaving you hungry or wanting more? Here are a couple of ideas to up the granola bar game:

  1. Look for a better bar. Check the ingredients and nutrition label. The ingredients are listed by weight, so the foods at the beginning of the list are the most prevalent in the recipe. Specifically, look for bars that include whole grains (oats) rather than enriched refined grains. Also, look for bars high in fiber (3-5 grams) and protein (5 grams), sweetened with fruit, honey, or natural syrups, and including nut butters, nuts, grains, seeds, and fruits to ensure the best nutrition possible. Granola bars are intended to be a snack, not a dessert, so pay specific attention to the amount and kind of added sugars. Lastly, avoid granola bars with hydrogenated oils and those where most of the total fat is saturated fat.
  2. Make or concoct your own. Homemade variations offer the option to choose healthier ingredients, use more whole grains and less sugar, and control the type of fats and add-ins. The cost is usually less than the store-bought versions. There are an abundance of recipes to choose from. Groovy Granola Bars from Oregon State University is an easy recipe to get you started. It is packed with fiber and protein and provides half of your daily value of Omega-3’s. Change it up with other dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and even a few dark chocolate chips.

Granola bars can be a healthy food. Check the ingredient list and nutrition information on the label to ensure they are a good source of fiber and protein, OR find a recipe that provides nutrition rather than just a sweet treat. Making your own granola gives you complete control over the ingredients to create something healthy and personally enjoyable!

Learn more about Buying and Making Healthy Granola Bars from PennState Pro Wellness.

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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2024 Income Tax Preparation and Filing Assistance

“. . . in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. . . .”
Benjamin Franklin, 1789.1

The IRS will kick off the new tax filing season on January 29, which means that taxpayers will have between that date and April 15 to file their returns.   For most Americans, filing deadlines for 2024 taxes are April 14 and October 15 for those filing an extension using Form 4868 and paying all taxes due by April 15.

Many Americans find tax rules and forms complex and confusing and may turn to professionals for help with preparation and filing.  IRS.gov has  tools to help consumers with information needed to file a complete and accurate return. The tools are easy-to-use and available anytime. There are also resources for FREE basic preparation and advice for those who qualify through volunteer organizations and the IRS.

Here is a list of tax preparation assistance resources:

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE).  IRS-certified volunteers provide preparation services to older Americans (age 60 or older), low- and moderate-income filers, people with disabilities and those with limited English language skills.  Generally, taxpayers must have an an adjusted gross income below $64,000 to qualify.  Call 800-906-9887 or check the IRS website to find a nearby VITA site using the Locator Tool.  Iowa residents may find VITA locations using the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance website provided by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach – Human Sciences. At selected sites, taxpayers can input and electronically fi­le their own tax return with the assistance of an IRS certified volunteer. Appointments may be necessary.

IRS Free File.  Taxpayers with income below $79,000 are eligible to file federal tax returns online through the IRS Free File.  To browse options and confirm eligibility, visit IRS Free File:  Do Your Taxes for Free.

IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs).  Help is also available at IRS offices that host a Taxpayer Assistance Center.  Check the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center site to find a location offering this service.

MilTax Filing Service.   Mil Tax from Military OneSource and the Department of Defense provide easy-to-use tax preparation and free e-filing software for federal income tax returns and up to three state income tax returns to all military members and some veterans, with no income limit. Tax pro consultants are available to provide 24/7 phone assistance at 800-342-9647.  For more information, check the Military OneSource website.

Do-It-Yourself Online Options.  Several tax software providers, H&R Block, TurboTax, TaxAct, and TaxSlayer offer free online filing tools for simple returns.  Check their individual websites to see if their offerings fit your needs. 

Minnesota residents can find resources available in both in Spanish and English at Free Tax Preparation Sites and Resources.

Before you GO (VITA and TCE Sites) –

  1. Call for an appointment or request an appointment online.
  2. Check on what to bring to the appointment. Use this list provided by the IRS to get started.
  3. Open a bank account if necessary. If you are without a bank account, visit the FDIC GetBanked website to find a bank where you can open an account (local or online) for paying taxes and/or for direct refund deposit.

Resources used in this blog in order of citation:

Updated Jan 2024, mg.

Source:
1 Sparks, Jared (1856). The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. X (1789-1790). Macmillan. p. 410.

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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What’s Under Your Kitchen Sink?

Is your ‘stash it’ place the cabinet under your kitchen sink? Too often it ends up being the place that this-that-and-the-other gets stuffed for lack of a better location or simply to get it out of sight. When this happens, it’s hard to keep this area tidy and ready for the unexpected leak.

Along with the maze of pipes that live under the kitchen sink, it’s always amazing what may be found in the ‘cave of castoffs’ scattered among the needed and regularly used dishwashing and kitchen cleaning supplies.

The best way to reorganize and reclaim this space is to take everything out. Once the cabinet is emptied, clean the cabinet to remove dust and crumbs. This is also a good time to note any water stains on the cabinet floor or suspicious signs with any of the pipes, water lines, or faucets inside the cabinet.  (Anything suspicious should be checked out to prevent a plumbing disaster.)

Before putting anything back in the cabinet, consider an absorbent mat for the bottom of the cabinet to absorb a bit of water from a dripping sponge or leaking from a pipe or a stored product. These mats protect the cabinetry and prevent the formation of mold. One may also want to consider purchasing clear plastic containers for organizing or protecting items or even installing tiered under-sink organizers to make use of the available vertical space or pull-out racks to keep items from getting lost in the back of the cabinet and bring them forward for easy access. Home improvement and container stores have any number of these items designed to work around the pipes and garbage disposal. The inside of the cabinet doors are an ideal place to mount a towel rack or racks made for storing everything from trash bags to paper towels and sponges.

With a clean and open space, let’s get started on reclaiming that space and make it work better for you using Store This, Not That tips from various organization experts. It starts with an inventory of the contents noting what should be in the cabinet, what should or could be stored elsewhere, and what should be discarded.

NOT THAT
(What not to store under the kitchen sink.)

Cleaning items. Unused, old, broken or no-long suitable cleaners, sponges, scrub brushes and other castoffs that have accumulated behind closed doors should be discarded. If they might have a life in another capacity, place them with the anticipated activity. If you like to keep worn nylon scrubbers and brushes around to wash garden produce or other outdoor items, move these items to the space where they would likely be used for this purpose.

Overstock, refills, or extra supplies. Quantity or bought-ahead, unopened products should go to another storage area. Perhaps a space in the basement or a storage closet is a great place to store bulk paper towels, dishwasher tablets, boxes of trash bags, and other like items. If you need a reminder of what is on hand, leave yourself sticky notes inside of the cabinet. Refill from the stash in the alternative space until the quantity is exhausted; add the item to your shopping list and repurchase.

Towels, rags, paper towels, paper bags. All of these items absorb water and odors. While absorbing water in the event of a leak may be a good thing, it will ruin them. These items are also prone to odor absorption from other stored items or the waste basket when combined with heat and humidity coming from the sink and/or dishwasher. If the only storage space available for these items is under the sink, they should be stored in closed plastic containers.

Metal items. With one exception*, tools, pots and pans, metal cookware, or anything else that is prone to rusting does not belong. This also includes small appliances and light bulbs. (*Exception will be discussed in Save This.)

Produce, food items, pet food/treats. Produce and dry foods may mold under the sink. 

Harsh chemicals, flammable products, insecticides. Bleach, insecticides, solvents, thinners, paints, polishes, and household cleaners have no place under the kitchen sink. These items need to be stored in the basement, garage, or utility area and away from small children. Occasionally the containers of these items spring a leak or emit fumes—all of which we do not want in our living areas and especially not in our kitchen. Further, often a dishwasher sits next to the sink cabinet; heat or an electrical spark and flammable fumes could cause a sudden explosion or fire.

STORE THIS
(What to store under the kitchen sink.)

Cleaning products. Keep the essentials such as vinegar, dish soap, dishwasher products, cleansers, scrubbers, sponges, brushes, kitchen gloves, and cleansing agents—all of the items needed daily to maintain a clean and healthy kitchen. (If young children are in the home, the doors to the cabinet should be secured with child-proof locks to prevent accidental poisoning from any of these products.) A pull-out rack or a lazy susan is a great way to corral these items and make them easy to access.

Small fire extinguisher. One should always have a serviceable fire extinguisher in the kitchen in the event of a grease fire. Under the sink within quick and easy reach is one of the best locations for it. Before storing, the viability date should be checked and replaced if out of date. Consider mounting the extinguisher to a side wall of the cabinet.

Garbage disposal tool*. The one and only tool that should be stored under the sink is the garbage disposal tool used for unjamming the garbage disposal. Inevitably this tool gets lost. Some disposals come with a pocket for storing the tool on the side of the disposal. If not, consider placing the tool in a ziplock bag and thumb tacking the bag to a cabinet wall making it easy to see and locate when a jam occurs.

Miscellaneous. Depending upon space, items such as a vase or two, trash bags, dish towels in plastic containers, small dust pan and brush, and bags for recycling (contained in some manner) may find a home under the sink.

By reclaiming and organizing under sink space, the kitchen is safer and more efficient. Maybe the space under other sinks in the home need a look, too?

Updated December 2023, mg.

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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Pressure Canner Load

Is there a minimum load limit or guidance on the number of jars one must have for pressure canning?

Guidance has been given by the USDA and National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) regarding the minimum physical size requirements to be considered a pressure canner: the device must be large enough to hold at least 4 quart jars standing upright on a rack with the lid secure for USDA and NCHFP published recipes and processes.  Pressure canners meeting the specifications come in various sizes with either a dial gauge or a weighted gauge.

A minimum load for a pressure canner has not been specified by the USDA or NCHFP.  In 2016, Ball canning issued guidance on a minimum pressure canner load stating, “To ensure proper pressure and temperature is achieved for safe processing, you must process at least 2 quart or 4 pint jars in the pressure canner at one time.”

At this time, the USDA, NCHFP, university extensions, and contacted pressure canner manufacturers have not endorsed or tested the Ball recommendation regarding the 2 quarts/4 pints load minimum for safety.  However, it may be a good practice.  The more jars there are in a pressure canner, the more space is filled and the quicker it will vent (and the less time the food in the jars will be subjected to heat).2  UCCE Master Food Preservers of El Dorado County (CA) have found that a very small canner load can be difficult to bring up to required pressure and risks the water in the canner running dry.  At any rate, canner load would have an effect on the warm-up and cool-down times, both of which are important to tested pressure canning processes.

When pressure canning a small batch, add jars of water (no lids necessary) to fill the canner space.  The added jars will also prevent jars with food content from tipping over.  Adding jars of water when water-bath or steam canning also helps with jars floating or tipping.

If you have canning questions, please do not hesitate to contact us by phone or e-mail. We are happy to help!

Sources:

1The All New Ball Book Of Canning And Preserving, 2016, page 274.

2Pressure Canner Minimum Loads, UCCE Master Food Preservers of El Dorado County, December 2023.

Updated January 2024, mg.

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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HAPPY HOLIDAYS! from AnswerLine 2023

As 2023 comes to a close, AnswerLine is completing 48 years of sharing family and consumer information. 

During the past year, it has been our pleasure to answer more than 17,000 calls, emails, Ask Extension, Facebook/Instagram, and blog questions; it has also been our privilege to interact with consumers, helping them solve problems, issues, and concerns that affect their daily lives with researched-based information. 

Our clients come from all walks of life. Some are friends we have never met; we hear from them frequently, and in doing so, we have learned something about each other. We love helping anyone with a question; NO question is silly or foolish. While there is great satisfaction in helping each individual find a solution that works for them, the greater satisfaction comes from client feedback, the friendships we have built over the years, and the personal growth we each experience as we expand our knowledge.

Presently, the AnswerLine team has a staff of six women with varying backgrounds in consumer science, consumer science education, business, food science, dietetics, extension and 4-H. While our specialty is answering home and family questions, we have a wealth of experts whom we can call upon for help with horticulture, entomology, wildlife, agriculture, and other related questions through the Iowa State University and Extension and Outreach network and the University of Minnesota Extension. We are also members of the North Central Food Safety Extension Network (NCFSEN) allowing us to reach out to food safety experts in surrounding states.

Between questions this year, we were challenged to find a safe, shelf-stable frosting recipe for 4-H fair exhibits and share our research with 4-H families, extension staff, and fair judges before the 2023 fairs. We also updated the Foods for Iowa 4-H Fairs – Quick Reference Guide (2023) and are currently working on updates to the 2024 guide based on current trends and food safety issues. We helped the ISU Food Safety team develop a Fermentation and Preserve the Taste of Summer workshop that rolled out to Iowans in late summer. Several YouTube videos were prepared and shared with the public. We were involved in a joint NCFSEN effort to develop and publish three recent publications: Oops! Remaking Jams and Jellies, Play It Safe! Safe Changes and Substitutions to Tested Canning Recipes, and Steam Can It Right.

The AnswerLine team looks forward to serving you in 2024! Contact us in one of three ways:
1)  Call us toll-free Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – noon and 1 – 4 p.m.
                  1-800-262-3804 (in Iowa)
                  1-800-854-1678 (in Minnesota)
                  1-800-735-2942 (Relay Iowa phone linkage for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals)
                  515-296-5883 (toll charges may apply)
2)  Email us anytime: answer@iastate.edu OR at Ask an ISU Extension Expert a Question
3) Comment on the Answerline blog, Facebook, or Instagram.

We wish all our AnswerLine clients and friends a happy and safe holiday season! 
Beth, Carol, Jennie, Marcia, Marlene, and Rachel

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Images source: Canva.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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Safe Food Gifts from the Heart

Jar with dry mix

Coming from the heart, homemade food gifts are thoughtful holiday (or anytime) gifts and a nice way to show people just how much they mean to you.

There are many homemade food gift options—fresh baked or prepared foods, jams and jellies, and dry mixes. It is important that food safety and shelf-stability be considered first and foremost when giving a gift of food. See Safe Homemade Food Gifts for more advice.

Dry mixes are very popular and allow for creativity and individualizing gifts. When properly prepared, mixes can be a safe gift to give. Choose a food-grade container and get started with recipes and ideas using these links:

Mix It Up to Expand Your Gift-giving Dollar With Food Mixes in a Jar
Beverage Mixes in a Jar
Gifts from the Family Kitchen
Maine Holiday Gifts from the Kitchen
Healthy Holiday Food Gifts That Kids Will Love Creating
Christmas Magic for Pennies

If the gift is a mix, be sure to include a recipe card providing instructions on how the recipient is to use or prepare the gift. 

Have fun making food gifts and be sure to follow all food safety guidelines. 

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Image source: Canva.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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Ingredients Affect How the Cookie Crumbles

Cookies are a favorite treat and especially so during the holidays.  Holiday cookie baking is a tradition for many families and a fun way to honor family heritage.  Whether making sugar cookies for Christmas, rugelach for Hanukkah, or benne/sesame cookies for Kwanzaa, the ingredients play a role in how “the cookie crumbles.”

Plate of cookies

Cookie baking is more chemistry than art and the ingredients used play an important role in the appearance, taste, texture, color, and flatness of the cookie. Here’s a look at the five traditional ingredients—sugar, fat, flour, leavening agents, and binding agents—used in cookie baking and the role they play.

SUGAR
Besides sweetening and tenderizing cookies, the type and amount of sugar plays a role in the flavor, texture, color, and spread of the cookie. Sugars give color to cookies as the sugar granules melt together caramelizing the bottom and edges and gradually spreading over the cookie. Sugar is hygroscopic meaning it attracts and absorbs the liquid in the dough, which slows down the development of gluten, a protein in flour that provides strength and elasticity to dough. 

Granulated white sugar contributes to the thinness, crispiness, and lighter color of a cookie. Being neutral in flavor and color, it allows the flavors or colors of other ingredients to come forward. With a neutral pH, interference with gluten development is less, allowing the dough to spread more before it sets during baking. When creamed with a solid fat, white sugar easily aerates the dough for puffier cookies.

Brown sugar contributes more tenderness, flavor, color, and rise to a cookie along with a denser and moister texture. The flavor, color, and moisture of brown sugar comes from the addition of molasses. Due to the molasses, it is slightly acidic. In the presence of baking soda or baking powder, the acid reacts with the sodium bicarbonate (alkaline) to produce carbon dioxide. Being more hygroscopic and acidic than white sugar, brown sugar is able to absorb more moisture and slow gluten development faster so the dough sets more quickly during baking.

Substituting one sugar for the other will not affect the sweetness, but will change the appearance and texture of the cookie.

FATS
Fat contributes flavor, tenderness, chewiness or crunchiness, and browning to cookies. Fat options include butter, margarine, shortening, or oil. When sugar is creamed into a solid fat, air pockets are created in the dough resulting in puffier cookies. Further, fats can inhibit or enhance gluten development. When solid fat coats gluten strands, gluten is inhibited and yields tenderness. Chewy cookies are the result of water in melted fat binding with gluten to strengthen structure.

Butter, in solid form, traps air during creaming which expands with heat producing a fluffier cookie. For best results, butter should be at room temperature for baking. Some recipes may specify the use of melted butter or browned butter; melted butter incorporates no air, leading to denser, flatter, and chewier cookies. When butter is browned, the water in butter evaporates resulting in a very dense, but flavor-rich cookie. (Butter is at least 80 percent fat and 16-18 percent water.)

Unsalted butter is the standard in baking unless otherwise specified. However, the amount of salt in salted butter is so small that it can be substituted for unsalted butter in most cookie recipes.

Margarine, made from vegetable oils, may contain more water and less fat than butter. It functions similarly to butter and produces a similar texture. However, cookies made with margarine may be thinner and spread more during baking. Depending upon the fat/water ratio, margarine may not be a direct substitute for butter; for best results, recipes specifically tested with margarine should be used.

Vegetable shortening is 100 percent hydrogenated vegetable oil, contains no water, and has a higher melting point than butter. Cookies made with shortening tend to rise higher, hold their shape during baking, and have a soft, fluffy texture. Cookies made with shortening may stay soft longer after baking because shortening returns to a semi-solid after baking.

Vegetable oil is 100 percent liquid fat. Cookies made with vegetable oils are denser and flatter as very little air can be incorporated. A neutral flavored vegetable oil should be used to retain the intended flavor of the cookies. 

FLOUR
Wheat flour contains gluten and provides structure by forming a web of gluten strands to catch air bubbles from creaming liquids and leavening agents. Sugar and fats, as mentioned earlier, help restrict gluten formation for a softer, more tender cookie. Generally, all-purpose flour is the flour of choice for cookie baking.

LEAVENTING (RISING) AGENTS
A leavening agent helps cookies rise while baking; the type used affects the texture and structure of cookies. The leavening agents most commonly used in cookies are either baking soda or baking powder.  While they both create rise during baking, they function very differently.

Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) requires an acidic ingredient such as vinegar, sour cream/milk, brown sugar, lemon juice, or chocolate to release carbon dioxide and leaven the dough. When baking soda and the acidic ingredient combine, there is a single reaction resulting in a denser cookie. Due to the single reaction, baked goods made with baking soda as the only leavening agent should be mixed quickly and baked immediately to get the most rise.

Baking powder is a chemical agent containing sodium bicarbonate and acids giving cookies more rise and a cakier texture. Baking powder is double acting, meaning it provides leavening first when it gets wet and second when it is heated. Because most of the reaction takes place in the second stage, the dough remains stable and does not have to be baked immediately.

It is quite common for both leavening agents to be used in a recipe, but it is a misconception that the two can be used interchangeably.

BINDING AGENT
Binding agents are the liquids in the recipe that hold the cookie dough together, such as eggs and milk which also add flavor, color, structure, moisture, and nutrition. The proteins in eggs, and to a lesser extent in milk, set with heat contributing to the final shape and texture of the cookie. The emulsified fat of the egg yolks contributes to tenderness while egg white contributes to cookie rise.

TIP
While not an ingredient, chilling the dough for 24 hours is one of the easiest ways to improve flavor and outcome. As the dough rests, the large molecules of flour and sugar breakdown and the fat hardens. As a result, cookies expand more slowly, hold their shape, have a richer butterscotch-like flavor, and brown more evenly. 

Each ingredient plays a key role in the recipe. Understanding their role and the contributions each make to a cookie is important to baking the best cookies ever or adjusting the ingredients to achieve the desired cookie. How Can I Get the Cookie Texture I Want? has suggestions for adjusting key ingredients to change the texture of any cookie recipe. To get a visual idea of how the various ingredients can affect the taste, texture, and appearance of your cookies, visit: The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies.

While ingredients are key players, they do not hold all the magical powers; the mixing process and baking temperature also affect the end result—topics for another time.

__________________________________

Sources:
6 Ingredients that Affect Your Cookies, Home Made Simple.com
How Ingredients Behave in a Cookie Recipe, Instructables. com
The Science of Cookies, Redpath.com
Cookie Ingredients:  The Way the Cookie Crumbles, Land O’Lakes Test Kitchen, LandOLakes.com
Here’s What Room Temperature Butter Really Means, Sally’s Baking Addiction.com
Cookie Science:  The Real Differences Between Brown and White Sugars, Serious Eats. com
How Can I Get the Cookie Texture I Want?, Dartmouth.edu
The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies, Handle the Heat.com
Image Source: Canva.com


 [mg1]

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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Chocolate – Shelf Life, Storage, and Bloom

Does chocolate go bad? That is a question with a long answer. The type, quality, and storage conditions of chocolate affect its shelf life. Let’s dig in and learn more about chocolate.

Chocolate bar and cocoa

SHELF LIFE

The shelf life of a food product is the period of time during which it will retain acceptable appearance, aroma, flavor and texture. Chocolate comes in various forms—cocoa, unsweetened, dark, semi-sweet, milk, ruby, white. Because each type of chocolate contains varying amounts of chocolate solids, cocoa butter and additives, the shelf life varies. 

Chocolate is derived from the chocolate liquor of cacao beans and is rich in flavanols, a type of flavonoid specifically found in cocoa and chocolate. Flavanols are a natural preservative, preventing chocolate from going bad in the way that other perishable foods spoil. Further, the risk of microbiological growth in chocolate is very low as the water activity (aw), the amount of free water in a product which promotes microbial growth in food, is low and ranges between 0.3 and 0.4.

Chocolate usually comes with a “best buy” date which is a reflection of best quality, not food safety.  While chocolate quality (texture, color, or flavor) may be affected after that date, it is safe to consume unless there are signs of spoilage—off odor, flavor, or appearance (mold).

Here’s a look at the various kinds of chocolate and shelf life of each:

Cocoa powder – Cocoa powder is the processed and ground product of the roasted cacao bean. The powder contains no fat or additives giving it a long or nearly indefinite shelf life. However, it may lose its potency. If properly stored, an unopened package of unsweetened cocoa powder has an indefinite shelf life.  Once opened, cocoa powder will retain its best quality if used within 3 years of opening, provided it is stored properly and packaging is tight. The same is true for “Dutched “or Dutch-process cocoa.

Unsweetened, bitter, or baking chocolate – Chocolates by any of these names are pure solid chocolate liquor containing 50-58 percent cocoa butter with no added sugar or milk. When stored properly, the cocoa butter in baking chocolate is very stable, as it has undergone tempering which stabilizes the cocoa butter. Thus, baking chocolate has a long shelf life but is at best quality for 2 years. 

Dark, semi-sweet and sweet chocolate – Chocolates in this group are dark chocolate and contain varying amounts of cocoa butter with the main difference being the amount of sugar and cocoa butter (15-70%) in each. The label may indicate a percent of cacao; the higher the cacao, the darker and more bitter the chocolate. Like baking chocolate, these chocolates, including chips, have a best-quality shelf life of at least 2 years. The higher the cacao percentage, the longer the chocolate tends to keep due to no- or less- milk and other perishable ingredients.

Milk chocolate – Milk chocolate contains at least 10 percent chocolate liquor plus milk solids and fats and sugar to give a sweet and creamy taste. For best quality, the shelf life is 1 year. The main reason milk chocolate has a shorter shelf life is because milk fat oxidizes and becomes rancid faster than cocoa butter.

Ruby chocolate – Made from ruby cacao beans, ruby chocolate has the most robust berry flavor in its first year but is safe to consume unless it molds. Ruby chocolate is sensitive to light, moisture, and heat causing fading and greying.

White chocolate – White chocolate consists of sugar, milk solids and fat, and 20 percent cocoa butter. Because it does not contain chocolate solids, it is not a true chocolate. Further, it does not contain the natural antioxidants of true chocolate, thereby making it prone to oxidation or rancidity when expose to light and air. As a result, white chocolate has a shelf life of about 6 months for best quality.

STORAGE

The shelf life of chocolate is dependent upon proper storage to preserve its flavor and appearance. These storage tips will insure the longevity of chocolate:

  • Store in an airtight container. Cocoa butter has an affinity to absorb odors and flavors of whatever is nearby. Further, an airtight container blocks out oxygen that causes chocolate to oxidize and lose flavor.
  • Store in a cool, dry environment. To maximize the shelf life of chocolate, store at room temperature between 65°F and 70°F and with a relative humidity of lower than 50-55 percent. Under these conditions, the cocoa butter and cocoa solids stay stable. 
  • Store in a dark location (pantry). Light, like oxygen, contributes to oxidation.
  • Refrain from storing in the refrigerator. Ideally, chocolate should not be refrigerated, as doing so may cause the chocolate to absorb odors from other foods and/or develop a moist surface when brought back to room temperature resulting in bloom. If refrigeration is necessary due to high temperature/high humidity, tightly wrap the chocolate to prevent both scenarios.
  • Freeze chocolate with care. Chocolate can be stored in the freezer for up to a year but does not significantly change the shelf life. Place the chocolate inside a covered, airtight container or a heavy-duty freezer bag to preserve flavor. Freezing chocolate may induce bloom due to temperature shock. Freezing is a good option for chocolate that will be used later for baking or melting.

BLOOM

Chocolate bloom describes chocolate that appears dusted or streaked with grey on the surface. Bloom does not affect either the taste or shelf life of chocolate nor does it render chocolate unsafe. Bloom only affects the aesthetic appeal of chocolate. Two types of bloom occur in chocolate: fat bloom or sugar bloom.

Fat bloom is a result of chocolate exposed to warm temperatures. Heat causes the cocoa butter to soften, separate, and rise to the surface leaving grey/white streaking. When running a finger gently over the surface, fat bloom feels smooth.

Sugar bloom is a result of exposure to humidity or moisture. The sugar particles in the chocolate absorb moisture. When the moisture evaporates, sugar crystals left on the surface leave a blotchy or dusty look and rough feel to the touch. Sugar bloom is most likely to occur with refrigerated chocolate.

Chocolate bloom is not reversible but it can be remedied by melting. By heating the chocolate, the fat or sugar goes back into the chocolate and when re-hardened, is without bloom. Melting works especially well with fat bloom; heating sugar bloom must be done with care as the chocolate may seize or change to a grainy form. Chocolate that has bloomed may also be used in baking.

Temperature shock can also cause bloom. If chocolate is to be frozen, place it in the refrigerator, unwrapped, for 24 hours prior to freezing. Wrap generously and freeze in an airtight container. At the time of use, thaw the wrapped, frozen chocolate in the refrigerator for 24 hours before bringing it to room temperature. Unwrap the chocolate after it reaches room temperature.

Chocolate is a shelf-stable product that does not become inedible or unsafe like other perishable foods.  It may lose potency over time. Proper storage and handling are the keys to the longevity of this delicious treat. 

Sources:

What is the Shelf Life of Chocolate (Products)?, Puratos
The Ultimate Shelf Life Guide, Still Tasty
Storing Chocolate for World Chocolate Day, University of Florida Extension, Sarasota County
Does Chocolate Go Bad?, WebstaurantStore
Death or Health by Chocolate? , University of Wyoming Extension
Does Chocolate Go Bad? , Southern Living

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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