Trusted Preservation Resources

To ensure that products preserved are safe, it is important to follow tested recipes and methods to prevent foodborne illnesses and in particular, Clostridium botulinum. Sadly, some trusted resources have fallen prey to those who are making and selling FAKE copies. Make sure that the resources you have are legitimate.

First and foremost, The National Center for Home Food Preservation website is your source for current research-based recommendations for most methods of home food preservation including “how-to” videos, publications, and links to other Extension sites.

The USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning 2015 is available online or in spiral-bound print copy. Print copy is only sold by Purdue Extension: The Education Store. There are NO other sources for an authentic print copy. Further, there is NO newer edition, only 2015.

So Easy to Preserve, 6th Edition is only available from the University of Georgia Extension Publications Store. Like the USDA guide, there are NO other sources for an authentic copy.

Ball® Blue Book Guide to Preserving, Editions 37 and 38, can be found with the canning supplies at various retailers. If purchasing online, be sure that you are getting an authentic copy. Counterfeit copies may look similar, but will have subtle changes. The Blue Books should exactly look like these. The 38th edition issued in 2024 is very similar to the 37th edition; the 38th edition incorporates new pH findings of fruit; in particular, the acidification of apples.

Other trusted sources can be found on the North Central Food Safety Extension Network (NCFSEN) website.

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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Canning Season Readiness – Time to Test Pressure Canner Dial Gauges and Check Out the Canner

A pressure canner is the only safe method for canning low acid foods—red meats, seafood, poultry, and low acid vegetables. Ensuring your pressure canner is working properly and in good condition is critical to producing unquestionably safe products every year.

Dial Gauges Must be Tested Annually for Accuracy

Two styles of pressure canners - one with gauge, other with weights
Two pressure canners, one with dial gauge (rear) and one with a weighted gauge (front). Canner in front shows a cutaway to inside the canner. Image source: USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, 2015.

Most of today’s pressure canners have either a dial gauge or weighted gauge for indicating and regulating the pressure. There is one exception; the All American brand has both a dial and weighted gauge. For canners having a dial gauge, safe canning begins with getting the gauge checked for accuracy yearly or before the start of the canning season. A dial gauge has movable parts which can go out of calibration. Gauges that read high cause under-processing and may result in unsafe food. Clostridium botulinum bacteria are the main reason why low-acid foods must be processed with the correct pressure and time to be safe.  Gauges with low readings may cause over-processing which is not a food safety issue, but rather a food quality issue. Pressure adjustments can be made if the gauge reads 2 pounds high or low. Gauges testing more than 2 pounds of difference should be replaced. The dial gauge should also be checked if any of the following conditions exist: cover has been submerged in water or dropped, gauge lens is broken or has fallen out, parts are rusty, pointer is not on “0”, or for any reason you believe the gauge may not be accurate. The dial should be replaced if it is cracked, rusted, or the glass is missing. Gauges on new canners and replacement gauges should be tested before use.

Weighted gauges do not require testing for accuracy because they cannot go out of calibration.

Dial Gauge Testing Services

There are several services that provide dial gauge testing. After testing is complete by a service, you will get a Canner Dial Gauge Testing Report or similar. It is a good idea to keep the reports for reference.

Local County Extension Office – Many County Extension Offices have the equipment and trained personnel for testing the National (National Pressure Cooker Company), Magic Seal (sold by Montgomery Ward), Maid of Honor (sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company), or Presto® brands. Check with your local office for availability or to find out about testing events in your area. AnswerLine (800-262-3804 or 515-296-5883) can help residents of Iowa and Minnesota find a location for testing in your area.

Presto – National Presto Industries will test dial gauges at no charge provided it is one of the following brands: National (National Pressure Cooker Company), Magic Seal (sold by Montgomery Ward), Maid of Honor (sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company), or Presto®. Check out the Care and Maintenance Guide at Go.Presto.com for information on how to send a gauge for testing.

Hardware Stores – Some hardware stores also offer this service. Call before you go.

All-American – For testing of All-American dial pressure gauges, contact Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry, 920-682-8627. The weight is more accurate than the gauge and customers should use the weights to attain the correct pressure. If the weight begins to rock at the desired pressure and the gauge is off by more than 2 psi the company recommends replacing the gauge. The gauge is primarily used as a reference to know when the unit is at 0 psi and can safely be removed and the canner opened.

Canner Manufacturers – For pressure canner brands not specified, contact the manufacturer of the unit.

Self-Test – If your pressure canner has a both a dial gauge and a weight, it can be tested at home. UCCE Master Food Preservers shares how.

In addition to getting dial gauges checked, there are a number of other items to check out to make sure that the canner is in good working order for canning season. If any of the following do not check out, they should be replaced or cleaned as needed.

Annual Pressure Canner Checklist

Handles*Secure.
Canning Rack*Jars must be off the bottom of the canner during processing to reduce stress on the glass. Rack
should be free of rust and strong enough to support weight of jars.
GasketThe intense heat of pressure canning may cause the gasket to shrink or crack allowing air and
steam to escape under or around the lid. Under normal conditions, the gasket should be replaced
every three years or sooner if steam or water is coming out around the lid or if a hissing sound is
detected. Wash the gasket to remove any food deposits or grease that may have accumulated on
the gasket. Also wash the gasket trough before replacing the gasket.
Pressure PlugThe pressure plug should be replaced at the same time that the gasket is replaced. Many gasket
replacements come with the pressure plug as well.
Vent TubeCorrosion of any sort, water deposits, food debris, etc., in the vent pipe can cause a build-up of
pressure inside the canner that is not registered on the dial or it can prevent the weight from jiggling.
Use a pipe cleaner to brush along the sides and clean away any deposit that my be there.
WeightsMost weighted gauge canners use a three-piece system–a center piece that fits onto the vent
pipe and two rings that slip over the center. Each piece measurers 5 pounds of pressure. If 15
pounds of pressure are needed, all three pieces are used together. For 10 pounds of pressure,
use the center piece and one ring. For 5 pounds of pressure, only the center piece is needed.
Another type of weighted gauge is a round disc that is turned to the appropriate poundage needed
and placed on the canner.
Manual*The manual that came with the canner is invaluable for learning more about the canner, model
number, etc. If the manual has become lost, the Pick Your Own website has a listing of canner
manuals to download. If the canner is several years old, there is a good chance that the
processing information in the manual is out of date. Should this be the case, replace the manual
with the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning (2015) (purchase or download).
*Also apply to a water bath canner.

Replacement Parts

Replacement parts are available at some hardware stores or stores that also sell food preservation equipment. Parts may also be purchased directly from some of the manufacturers. The Pressure Cooker Outlet has replacement parts for many makes and models of canners. Parts can also be found at Amazon.com. Be sure to know the canner model number and part number of the needed item (may be found in the canner manual). The model number can be found on the bottom of the canner, the handle, or the lid. 

Start the canning season off right. Get the gauge tested and make sure that your canner meets all check marks. 

Sources:

Reviewed and updated 4-2024, 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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Exploring Portable Burners and Other Options for Canning

Using a portable burner (hot plate) for canning is a “hot” topic. When consumers make a change in their range or cooktop from burners (gas or electric) to a smooth (glass) electric or radiant heat cooktop, the smooth cooktop may not work for canning. Many manufactures advise against it citing such issues as heat or weight cracking the cooktop, fusing the canner to the cooktop, or scratching. 

Consumers have valid concerns about damage to their cooktops when canning. The canner weight, the intense heat for long periods of time, and scratching all pose potential damage to a smooth cooktop. Further, electric ranges now have an automatic ‘on and off’ cycle to protect the cooktop from excessive heat which could result in under processing of the canned product posing a food safety risk. When the manufacturer recommends against using the cooktop for canning and installing a second electric coil or gas burner range is not feasible, it makes sense to consider a portable burner or another type of canner. However, portable burners are not all alike, and not all portable burners are appropriate for canning. The same is true for canners.

Portable Burners

As one ponders a portable unit, it is important to consider the kind of canning you wish to do—water bath, pressure, or both. Pressure canning is the only safe method recommended by the USDA for low-acid foods such as vegetables, meats and fish. Water bath canning is suitable for high-acid foods—pickles, most fruits, jams and jellies. The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) offers the following guidelines for selecting a portable burner for canning purposes:

Canner on portable burner
  • The unit should mimic a range burner as much as possible in size and heat intensity. One should be able to easily control the heat source to provide an even, consistent heat.
  • The burner must be level, sturdy, and secure. Look for enough height to allow air to flow under the burner, but not such that it will become unsteady or top heavy with a full, heavy canner resting on it.
  • Look for a burner diameter that is no more than 4 inches smaller than the diameter of your canner. In other words, the canner should not extend more than 2 inches from the burner on any side. For heating a typical 12-inch diameter canner, the burner should be about eight inches in diameter or the size of a large electric coil burner on a range top. (An electric range coil burner element has a diameter of 7.5 inches.)
  • For electric burners, the wattage should be about equal to that of a typical household range large burner, which is 1750W. The best portable electric heaters currently available run 1500W/120V. The BTUs of a gas burner should be 12,000 BTU or less.
  • The unit housing should hold up to the high heat under the canner for long heating periods, and not damage counter tops with reflected heat.

Portable Electric Burners

Most home or consumer units are too lightweight and have insufficient wattage to be used for canning.  Some commercial/restaurant quality units available closely meet the NCFHP recommendations; they are sturdy and provide 1500W/120V of energy. These UL-approved units come with either a cast-iron or a coil element. A cast iron element takes longer to heat but provides more strength than a coil element. 

Clemson University Extension offers two suggestions for portable burners. While no university testing has been done, canning groups have found commercial/restaurant units, such as those made by Cadco, Ltd (or similar), provide successful pressure and water bath canning results; these are single-burner units with cast iron elements. The manufacturer makes no recommendation for using the units for canning. 

Portable Gas Burners

The USDA or NCHFP does not recommend an outdoor gas grill for various reasons. However, a portable propane burner can be used outside as long as it is strong enough to support the weight of the canner, is used in a location away from wind, is well ventilated, can provide consistent even heat, and will not damage the canner. Some canner manufacturers advise against canning on any gas heat source. The high heat can damage pressure canners, especially those made of aluminum or stainless steel; using a portable gas unit may also void the canner warranty due to damage the heat may cause. Damage, warping, delaminating or fusing of the aluminum canner to the LP heat source, renders the canner non-functional. Further, NCHFP cautions that high BTU burners (over 12,000 BTUs) could produce so much heat that the recommended come-up time for canning may be altered to potentially produce an unsafe final product.  There are no recommendations for using a turkey fryer or a wok burner for canning; if used, consideration should be made of all the precautions mentioned.

Portable Induction Burners

An induction burner requires non-ridged, flat-bottomed cookware containing ferrous iron to work with the electromagnetic field below the surface of the unit. Since most brands of pressure canners are made of aluminum, they will not work on an induction burner. Water bath canners can be problematic, too. One manufacturer, Presto®, has introduced a canner with a stainless steel clad base that is suitable for pressure and water bath canning on gas, electric (coil and smooth-top), and induction cooking surfaces.  However, Presto® cautions that the canner may not work on all portable induction ranges; no specifics are given as to what makes a unit suitable. (See Presto® 23 quart induction pressure canner for more information.)

Other Canner Options

Digital canners. Digital canners like the Presto Precise®  is an option for both pressure canning and water bath canning. Per Presto® information, innovative sensors in the unit hold at the exact USDA processing times/temperature required for safe canning of low acid and high acid foods. Since Presto® did their own testing of the product, NCHFP cannot verify the company’s statements and recommends that consumers follow only the digital canner’s manual and not instructions from other sources.

NOTE: Electric programmable pressure cookers (EPPCs) or multi-cookers are NOT SUITABLE FOR CANNING. Pressure cookers and pressure canners are not interchangeable. EPPC units do not meet USDA guidelines for canning for various reasons (see Canning in Pressure Cookers).

Electric water bath canners. For those who only want to do water bath canning, an electric water bath canner may be an option. These are freestanding units specifically designed for ONLY water bath canning of high acid foods—fruit spreads, pickles, and most fruits. Heat sensors inside the canner maintain optimal temperatures for consistent canning results. The Ball® EasyCanner manufactured by Newell Brands is one such unit.

Steam or atmospheric canning. Steam canning is a method of preserving high-acid foods with a pH of 4.6 or below using steam. A steam canner can be used to replace a water bath canner if the processing time is 45 minutes or less. Using less water, steam provides the required temperature for safe processing with less energy. Steam Can It Right! Guidelines for Safely Using a Steam Canner for Home Food Preservation provides additional information about using a steam canner safely. Steam canning has only been tested with the “top hat” style steam canner.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and AnswerLine do not endorse or recommend any products mentioned in this blog. Reference to any commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporate name is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement, recommendation, or certification of any kind. Persons using such products assume responsibility for their use and should make their own assessment of the information and whether it is suitable for their intended use in accordance with current directions of the manufacturer.

For additional information on portable burners, please leave comments in the blog or reach out to AnswerLine.

Sources:

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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Staying on Top of Product Recalls


RECALL Image

A RECALL occurs when a manufacturer takes a product off the market because there is reason to believe that it may cause harm to consumers. There are recalls for all kinds of consumer products—children’s toys, automobiles, appliances, clothing, furniture, electronics, food and more. Keeping up with all the recalls can be daunting.

Several governmental agencies are responsible for protecting consumers and issuing recalls.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is responsible for protecting the public against unreasonable injuries and deaths associated with consumer products—everything from children’s toys to electronics and more. Recalls are posted on the CPSC website.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a division of the Department of Transportation (DOT), handles all moving vehicle issues. A recall is issued when either the manufacturer or NHTSA determines that a vehicle or equipment creates an unreasonable safety risk or fails to meet appropriate standards. Check for recalls on the NHTSA website. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), also a division of the DOT, assesses the risks associated with aviation.

Two agencies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), are responsible for food safety. The FDA is responsible for the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics while the USDA regulates beef, poultry, and processed egg products. Both issue food recalls when it is believed that a food item may cause consumers to become ill. Warnings are posted on their individual websites, but FoodSafety.gov is the go-to consumer website to learn about all food related recalls from both agencies. Bacterial contamination (listeria or salmonella), undeclared allergens, or foreign matter in the product are the most common reasons for food recall, removal from store shelves, and advising consumers to return or toss problematic food. Food Recalls & Alerts is an app that collects all FDA, USDA and pet food recalls and sends real-time alerts to your phone. The app is available at the Apple or Google Play stores.

Recalls from all of the different agencies can be found at Recalls.gov.

Recalls happen frequently, but it can be difficult to know when a recall affects your health or safety. For that reason, it is critical to know where to find recall information, take recalls seriously, and discontinue use of recalled products immediately, be it ice cream or tires.

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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Freezer Burn and Food Safety

Have you opened some frozen food to find it has a dry, grayish surface or lots of ice crystals clinging to the surface? This is freezer burn. Freezer burn is simply the result of air coming into contact with food, and while it may not look appetizing, it is usually safe to eat.

Package of food in the freezer
Frozen food

The phenomenon of freezer burn happens when tiny ice crystals on the food’s surface evaporate directly into vapor without first going through the liquid water phase – a process scientifically termed sublimation. This moisture loss or dehydration leaves the food’s surface layers dried out and discolored.

Freezer burn happens when food is not adequately wrapped to remove oxygen, which has a bleaching effect on the food surface. Food stored constantly at 0 °F will always be safe. Only the quality suffers with lengthy or inadequate freezer storage.

The bleaching and moisture loss effect of freezer burn may not make food unsafe to eat, but it certainly affects the taste, texture, and color. Severely freezer-burned food will have an off taste and smell that is especially noticeable. It’s best to toss any food that exhibits severe freezer burn as the quality does not merit the effort to save or prepare it. Products exhibiting mild freezer burn are usually fine to eat by cutting away the burned area either before or after cooking. Foods with a higher water content are more likely to get freezer burn.

A few simple precautions will help to avoid freezer burn and ensure frozen foods remain at peak condition at time of use and eliminate food waste. Here are some tips from the experts:

  • Use freezer-safe containers. Only use bags, jars, paper and containers that are labeled for freezer use. These products are designed to keep air out.
  • Remove as much air as possible. Air is the enemy of frozen food. Vacuum sealers do a wonderful job of removing air. However, squeezing the contents without smashing will also remove a lot of air.  Some people like to insert a straw into the corner of a zipper bag and pull air out before the final close. If using freezer containers, crumple a piece of waterproof paper on top of the food to help minimize headspace. This helps prevent freezer burn, ice crystal formation, and keeps food pieces from drying out.
  • Maintain the freezer temperature at zero degrees F or lower to help freeze food fast and stay frozen solid. Foods stored near or in freezer doors or at the top of a chest freezer should be eaten first as these areas are for short-term storage. Also avoid packing the freezer tightly; air must be able to flow freely around the food.
  • Let foods cool before packaging. The USDA recommends cooling food as rapidly as possible, either in the refrigerator or in an ice bath. Cold foods are less likely to trap steam inside the packaging. Steam, like air, is detrimental to frozen foods as it turns to ice crystals. Individual blanched vegetables, fruits, meat pieces, and baked goods are best if cooled and then flash frozen on baking trays (tray pack method) for an hour or two before packaging.
  • Store-packaging may be left on meat products but they should be over-wrapped in freezer paper, heavy duty foil or plastic wrap, or placed in freezer bags prior to freezing for long-term storage.
  • Label and date. Freezing keeps food safe almost indefinitely. However, there are recommended storage times for best quality. Refer to the FDA Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Chart which lists optimum freezing times for best quality. 

Freezer burn affects food’s quality but not its safety. Even though the food is safe to eat, it doesn’t mean one should. Freezer burn fundamentally changes a food’s chemical composition, affecting its flavor and texture. All foods are susceptible to freezer burn but with proper packaging and freezer management, the problem can largely be eliminated.

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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March is National Frozen Food Month!

March - Frozen Food Month

Some of America’s favorite, most versatile foods are found in the frozen food aisle. There are some 3,700 frozen food options available to consumers catering to every lifestyle, ethnic cuisine, daily food need, or food occasion.

Frozen foods have definitely made our lives easier and offer great value. With a wide assortment of choices from ready-to-cook meals to ingredients and produce that leave nothing to waste, there are so many reasons to prepare meals using frozen foods. Freezing keeps our foods safe and fresh tasting. Here are some frozen food facts from the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association:

  • Frozen foods are picked at the peak of ripeness and flash frozen, sometimes right in the field, locking in all of the beneficial nutrients and keeping them in their perfect, just-picked state.
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables are equally as nutritious as their fresh and canned counterparts.
  • Freezing acts as a natural preservative, so many of your favorite frozen foods contain no preservatives.
  • Frozen foods are consistently priced year-round. You are paying for 100% edible food – no stalks, seeds or rinds. And many frozen foods are perfectly portioned so there’s no waste.
  • Frozen foods last much longer than their fresh counterparts. You can use just what you need and put the rest back in the freezer for next time – wasting less food and saving you money.

We can also freeze many things ourselves at home—summer produce, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, leftovers, make-ahead-meals, casseroles, breads, cakes, pies, and more. Our food dollars are saved when we use frozen foods in our meals. Prior to freezing, best practices must be followed for any food to retain best quality and be safe after thawing. Check out Storing Food in the Freezer for helpful and safe preparation tips and Freezing Convenience Foods for using your freezer to help with meal preparations.

Although frozen food is convenient, foods in the freezer only remain safe and at best quality if the freezer temperature is at or below 0 degrees F. Keeping a thermometer in the freezer is helpful for monitoring the temperature. The thermometer should be checked frequently to be sure the freezer is maintaining the appropriate temperature. Further, always date and label foods placed in the freezer. Older foods should be used before newer ones for best quality and to avoid freezer burn. Food Safety.gov has a Cold Food Storage Chart for maintaining frozen food best quality; frozen foods stored continuously at 0°F (-18°C) or below can be kept indefinitely.

If you would like more information about freezing and food safety, contact AnswerLine,
Monday-Friday, 9 am to noon and 1-4 pm: 
Phone: 1-800-262-3804 or 515-296-5883 (Iowa residents); 1-800-854-1678 (Minnesota residents);
 1-800-735-2942 (Relay Iowa)
Email: answer@iastate.edu
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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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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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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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HAPPY HOLIDAYS! from AnswerLine 2023

operator taking phone calls or replying to emails
Phone operator – Photo: Canva.com

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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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
Pieces of chocolate and cocoa powder – Photo: Canva.com

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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