Freeze Drying – A New Option for Home Food Preservation

Canning, pickling, freezing, drying, and fermenting are well-known methods of preserving fruits and vegetables for future use.  These processes have been used for generations and made simpler and safer over time with the help of science and innovation.  Freeze drying (lyophilization) is now an option for home food preservation.  HarvestRight, a company in Salt Lake City, Utah, introduced a freeze drying unit for home use in 2018 that has excited the curious of food preservers.  While still an uncommon home appliance, freeze drying is becoming a sought-after means for preserving food at home and the units are showing up at some retailers [1].

Freeze-dried vegetables for soups made from carrots, leek, celeriac, lovage, parsnips and parsley

Freeze drying is not a new process.  The process may date back to the 13th century with the Incas using a simple process to preserve potatoes in the Andes.  The first patent was issued in 1934.  During World War II it was used to safely transport blood serum and penicillin to the battle field.   In the 1950s–1960s, freeze drying began to be viewed as a multi-purpose tool for both pharmaceuticals and food processing and became a major component of space and military rations. Freeze drying has been widely used in the food industry to extend the shelf-life of food while maintain quality. Freeze-dried foods have been available commercially for some time and offer consumers fast meal prep, emergency prepardeness, and portable food. Freeze-dried foods also offer convenience as they can be eaten “as is” (except for raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs), added directly to recipes, or rehydrated and used the same as fresh food.

In a nutshell, freeze drying works by freezing the material, then reducing the pressure and adding heat to allow the frozen water in the material to change directly to a vapor (sublimate).  The process removes 98-99 percent of the moisture in food making it a superior method for preserving food. (An example of a freeze dried food are the berries in commercial cereals that feature real berries.) Freeze dried foods retain 97 percent of their nutrients and natural enzymes and original flavor and color [2] .  Additionally, freeze-dried food is really easy to use; food comes back to its original pre-freeze dried state by just adding water.  Since nearly all water has been removed, freeze-dried food is light making it a favorite for camping and backpacking.  A bag of apples that weighed 10 pounds when fresh, weighs about one pound after being freeze dried [3].

Freeze drying produces high quality foods that are safe as long as they were handled properly prior to freeze drying and once the packaging is opened.  It is important to note that freeze drying does not kill bacteria or other microorganisms; they remain viable, but dormant, despite the extreme conditions of freeze drying.  Any bacteria or microorganism on raw foods prior to freeze drying will reactivate upon rehydration. Therefore, food items that are traditionally cooked before eating must also be cooked before eating as a freeze-dried food.

A freeze dryer is not a fancy food dehydrator. While a freeze drying unit and a dehydrator both remove moisture from food so that microorganisms cannot grow and enzyme action is slowed down, a dehydrator uses low heat and a fan to remove 80-90 percent of the moisture content from food1.   As food is dehydrated, it typically shrinks up and develops a leathery feel and appearance; rehydration is slow and foods do not return to their natural state. Dehydration doesn’t change the fiber or iron content of food. However, dehydration can break down vitamins and minerals during the preservation process and retain less of their nutritional value when compared to freeze-dried food. Dehydration tends to result in the loss of Vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. [4]. With a lower moisture content, freeze-dried foods offer a shelf life of 25 years [2] compared to 4 months to 1 year for dehydrated foods [5]. Freeze-dried foods rehydrate faster and also retain their original shape, texture, and color. A far greater variety of foods can be freeze dried than can be dehydrated [6].  Both dehydrated and freeze-dried foods store best in airtight containers with an oxygen absorber for long term storage.  Because dehydrated foods rehydrate slowly, they do not readily absorb moisture if exposed to less than optimal conditions; freeze-dried foods, on the other hand, are like a sponge and can go quickly from crisp to soggy when exposed to moisture.

A home freeze drier puts you in control.  Commercially prepared freeze-dried foods are pricey and often have added ingredients.  HarvestRight suggests that home freeze-dried food is one-third the cost of store bought. Freeze drying versatility also allows for the preservation of dairy, meat, produce, and complete meals. 

Display at a local store featuring the medium-sized unit.

Investment in freeze drying equipment is an important consideration, too.  Be prepared for ‘sticker shock’ as the units are expensive and require considerable space in the home.  Equipment cost ranges from four to eight times more than conventional drying equipment and the energy required is almost double that of conventional drying.  Buying a Home Freeze-Dryer: What to Know Before You Go by Utah State University Extension and Let’s Preserve:  Freeze Drying by Penn State Extension explain this in more detail. Besides the initial investment in a freeze drying unit, packaging after drying is another consideration.  When correctly packaged, freeze-dried items can be stored safely for many years.   To increase shelf life, properly sized single-use food grade oxygen absorbers—small packets that attract and retain the oxygen in a package—must be included in whatever type of packaging is chosen.  While glass jars, cans, zip bags, and vacuum sealed bags can be used, opaque Mylar® bags are preferred; they block out air and light during storage, can be resealed once opened and take up less space than glass jars or cans. Mylar® must be used with an oxygen absorber and heat-sealed with an impulse (heat) sealer.

The options for food preservation are many.  Each method brings something different to the table. The flavors and textures are different and how we use the food preserved is different. If long term food storage or portable food storage is the goal, freeze drying is an option to consider.  Imagine rehydrating lasagna on a camping trip!

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1Andress and Harrison. 2014. “So Easy to Preserve” 6th ed. Bulletin 989, Cooperative Extension Service. The University of Georgia, Athens.

Guide to Freeze Drying – The Miracle of Food Preservation, HarvestRight.

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.

Marlene Geiger

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

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Sweet Corn – A Summertime Treasure

The long-awaited summer treasure, sweet corn, will be available from local growers very soon.  I am fortunate to have sweet corn growing in our garden but if I didn’t, sweet corn would be at the top of my list to buy only in season from local growers.  Getting a variety I like and biting into an ear of plump kernels bursting with that sweet, corn flavor is well worth the wait. 

Sweet corn is an old food. The specific time when sweet corn originated cannot be pin-pointed.  However, Spanish explorers in the early 1500s found Indians growing corn in East Texas, and the Spanish carried on corn culture in the Rio Grande valley settlements and Texas missions. They ate the grain as a basic ingredient in tortillas, tamales, posole, and atole.  The first known variety, Papoon, was acquired from the Iroquois Indians in 1779 by European settlers. Sweet corn has been ever evolving. Over time, plant breeders have developed sweeter cultivars as well as cultivars with better keeping qualities, flavor, tenderness, vigor, and other characteristics. Sweet corn now comes in several hundred varieties of five genetic types and is available in three different colors: yellow, white and bi-colored (yellow and white).

Genetic Types and Characteristics

The long-grown or older varieties of sweet corn are known as Standards (su).  These cultivars have the traditional sweet corn flavor and texture with sugar levels generally between 10 and 15 percent at harvest. Unfortunately, standard cultivars retain their high quality for only one or two days and don’t generally store well as sugars quickly convert to starch after harvest [1]. Honey and Cream, Silver Queen, Sterling Silver, Jubilee, and Merit are some well-known names.

The first breeding improvement was the introduction of Sugar Enhanced (se) cultivars. Sugar enhanced cultivars contain the sugar enhancer (se) gene that produces ears with sweet, tender kernels. Sugar levels are slightly higher than standard sugary cultivars. The harvest and storage life of se types are slightly longer than standard sweet corn [1].  Well-known SE varieties include Bodacious, Ambrosia, Sweet Temptation, Delectable, and Miracle.  SE varieties are typically used for freezing.

Then along came the Supersweet (sh2) corn varieties.  These cultivars contain the shrunken-2 (sh2) gene. Supersweet varieties have smaller, crisper kernels with high sugar levels and convert sugar to starch slowly, allowing for a longer harvest period and storage life [1] of about three days1. Candy Store, Florida Staysweet, Sugar Loaf, Sweet Time, and Sweetie are some of the Supersweet varieties.

With further development, the Synergistic (syn) cultivars possessing the su, se, and sh2 genes entered the sweet corn scene. These cultivars are sweet, creamy, and tender and have an excellent storage life [1] remaining at their peak for five days before converting to starch1. Allure, Inferno, Providence, and Sweetness are examples of Synergistic varieties.

Lastly, an improvement on the Supersweets are the Augmented Supersweets (shA). They are sweet, tender, and have an even longer storage life [1] offering a ten day window where sugars are at their peak before converting to starch1. Anthem, Obsession, and Patriarch are examples in this group.

Of course, when you’re buying corn, you often only have one choice and it’s frequently not labeled as anything but fresh corn. If you really want a particular variety or want to know the characteristics of what you are buying, talk with the producer at a farmer’s market; they will likely be able to fill you in on the variety or other details.  A seller at a local stand may or may not know the variety and simply sell the corn by a popular or recognized name.  One that I often see used for bi-color corn is ‘peaches and cream,’ a sugar enhanced (se) bicolor that has been around for some time. For a short listing of suggested cultivars of each each gene type, see Sweet Corn by Iowa State University Extension horticulturalists.

Get It Fresh – Keep It FreshEnjoy It Fresh

Despite all the genetic improvements, the trick to getting good corn for eating is to get it as fresh as you can and cook and eat it promptly. When choosing corn, look for ears with moist, fresh-looking husks free of insect damage. Feel the ears to assess the plumpness of the kernels and whether the rows of kernels are fully formed. (Quick fact:  the average ear of corn has 800 kernels, arranged in 16 rows. There is one piece of silk for each kernel.)  Refrain from pulling the husks back to check out the kernels as it is not only bad manners, but spoils the corn for others; opened corn dries out quickly. Once home, store sweet corn in the refrigerator with the husks on or off in a plastic bag; husk on is best but shucked corn may fit in the fridge better. Remember, depending on cultivar, the sugars in corn begin to convert to starch so purchase only what you can use in a few days.

Fresh sweet corn can be prepared in a variety of ways—boiled, steamed, microwaved, grilled—and even raw. The key thing to remember is that today’s sweeter and fresher varieties do not require the cooking time of yesteryear.  Sweet corn can be cooked anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes, depending on how “done” you like it.  Once cooked, it can be eaten directly off the cob or sliced off and used in recipes.

Fresh corn kernels are also great to keep on hand for tossing into salads or other side dishes. Raw corn cut off the ear will last only a day or two in the refrigerator before turning sour. To preserve the freshness, cut the kernels off the cobs and blanch them in boiling water for 1 or 2 minutes. Drain, let cool, and store in a covered container in the fridge for up to five days. Another option is to blanch, cool, and freeze the kernels in a single layer on a baking sheet until hard, and then store in an airtight container in the freezer where they will retain best quality for up to three months.

Lastly, when sweet corn is in season, it is a great time to freeze or can it for eating throughout the year. Corn is one of the best vegetables to freeze because the quality of home-frozen corn is superior to commercial products. Purdue Extension [2] says most sweet corn varieties are acceptable for canning and freezing but recommends the following varieties:
Yellow -Bodacious and Incredible
Bicolor – Temptation, Delectable, and Providence
White – Silver King, Silver Princess, and Whiteout.

For specifics on canning and freezing corn, see the National Center for Home Food Preservation website for details:
Freezing Corn,
Canning – Whole Kernel Corn,
Canning – Cream Style Corn.  
Or
Let’s Preserve Sweet Corn by Perdue Extension
Freezing Sweet Corn:  Whole Kernels by University of Minnesota Extension.

Enjoy and make the most of one of summer’s treasurers.  It’s only a matter of days!
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1
Rupp Seed Inc, 2021 Vegetable Resource Guide:  Sweet Corn Genetic Types

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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Deciphering Produce Labels and Codes

The produce department at the grocery store is the most shopped department.  Usually located at the front of the store, the brightly colored fruits and vegetables and eye-catching displays welcome shoppers to the store and the opportunity to explore nutritious options.  As shoppers peruse the aisles and refrigerated cases to make selections, one is sure to also find produce labels and stickers on the many selections. What do these stickers and labels tell us?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced domestically, as well as foods from foreign countries.  The laws require that labels on food be truthful and not misleading, but the laws don’t regulated definitions for all of the labels that one may see.  Here’s some help with deciphering what each label or sticker means.

FDA Regulated Labels

Country of Origin: Perishable produce must be labeled with the country where it was grown.

USDA Organic: This label indicates that the produce was produced on a certified farm that follows defined organic procedures, such as non-use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Nutrition Facts Label: If packaging makes a claim about nutrients, the Food and Drug Administration requires a nutrition label. So if the spinach is stamped with “good source of potassium,” it must carry a Nutrition Facts Label [1].

Excellent Source Of/High In: A label bearing this claim must contain at least 20 percent of the daily requirement of that nutrient in a serving.  A Good Source Of label indicates that one serving has 10-19 percent of the daily dose of the named nutrient.

Fresh: Fresh means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation.  Fresh does not address when the produce was harvested or if the produce was washed in a mild chlorine solution prior to packaging or shipping.

Unregulated Claims

Washed/Triple-Washed/Ready to Eat: Most produce gets a rinse prior to marketing.  However, a washing claim may only mean that the produce has had dirt or grit removed; it is not a guarantee that it is bacteria-free.

Pesticide-Free: This label could mean one of two things:  1) no pesticides were used during growing; or 2) pesticide residue has been washed away. There’s no real way to know unless it bears an organic label.

Hydroponically Grown/Hydroponic: This label generally means that the produce was grown in a greenhouse using a nutrient solution instead of soil.

Non-GMO:  The only possible GMOs to be found in the produce aisles include potatoes, squash/pumpkins, papayas, sweet corn, and soy beans (edamame). If this label were to appear on a package of greens, for example, it would be a misnomer.

Gluten Free:  Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten free.  This is a true claim but misleading in meaning.

No Preservatives/Free from Artificial Ingredients: Preservatives or artificial ingredients are not usually added to fresh produce making this label misleading on nearly all produce. 

Produce Code Stickers

Besides the labels, there are also stickers found on many fruits and vegetables.  Sometimes labels and stickers are one in the same.  The stickers on produce are for more than scanning the PLU (price look-up) number at the checkout. They may share information about the produce; no matter where you shop, the produce code for any particular fruit and veggie will be the same.  However, it is an imperfect system (no governing or regulating laws) that is voluntary on the part of the producer who could opt out of using the codes or telling the whole truth.  Here’s what those stickers are supposed mean.

Four Digit Code:  Produce with a four digit code beginning with a 3 or 4 means the produce was probably conventionally grown with the possible use of pesticides.  For example, the code for conventionally grown bananas is 4011.

Five Digit Code beginning with “9”:  Fruits and vegetables grown organically have a five digit code starting with a “9”.  An organically grown banana’s PLU would be 94011, for example.

Five Digit Code beginning with “8”:  Genetically modified produce (it has genes from other organisms) stickers also have five digits, but these codes begin with the number “8.” Remember there only five items likely to be found in the produce aisles that have been genetically modified so this is a rarely seen code.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, take a look at the labels on your produce!  Understanding what the labels and codes mean will help you choose what is right for you.

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 Canning Amid Canning Supply Shortages

Gardens are at the height of production in the Midwest and food preservation is in high gear.  However, many home canners are finding the shelves stripped of canning lids, jars, pectin, vinegar, and the various spices needed for pickling and canning.  Even canners, pressure and water bath, are in short supply.  Like all other shortages experienced in this year of COVID 19, it is a matter of supply for an unanticipated demand along with a slow-down in manufacturing due to either worker safety or shortages of raw materials.

Jars.  While jars are in demand, canners may be able to find jars in storage among friends and relatives or in second hand stores.  If older canning jars are used, an inspection for nicks, chips and cracks before buying or using them is a must. A damaged or disfigured jar should never be used for canning food because they are not safe or they could break during processing, wasting time and food. While true canning jars are USDA recommended and preferred, the National Center for Home Food Preservation says that commercial glass pint- and quart-size mayonnaise or salad dressing jars may be used with new two-piece lids for canning acid foods (food that might be processed in a boiling water bath). However, one should expect more seal failures and jar breakage. These jars have a narrower sealing surface and are tempered less than Mason jars, and may be weakened by repeated contact with metal spoons or knives used in dispensing mayonnaise or salad dressing. Seemingly insignificant scratches in glass may cause cracking and breakage while processing jars in a canner. Mayonnaise-type jars are not recommended for use with foods to be processed in a pressure canner because of excessive jar breakage. Other commercial jars with mouths that cannot be sealed with two-piece canning lids are not recommended for use in canning any food at home.

Canning lids. Canning lids are designed for one-time use and should not be reused for canning.  The sealing compound becomes indented by the first use preventing another airtight seal. Screw bands may be reused unless they are badly rusted or the top edge is pried up which would prevent a proper seal.  Previously used canning lids can be used to top jars of freezer jam, homemade mixes, dried goods, and other non-canned foods. As long as the lids aren’t rusty, they’re fine to use again and again for any purpose that doesn’t involve canning.  The Jarden (Newell) Company, manufacturer of Ball products, says that their lids, unused, have a storage life of five years beyond purchase; therefore, if stored lids are in that range, they can be used.  Reusable canning lids like those made by Tattler or Harvest Guard may be a desperate alternative; they have mixed reviews by canners and are not yet recommended by the USDA. (A study on Tattler reusable lids began in 2013 at The National Center for Home Food Preservation.  Even with grants received in 2014 and 2015 for the study, it appears that the study is still ongoing as there have been no reported results.) If new lids are not to be found, give consideration to freezing or dehydrating rather than canning. 

Canners.  Canners are of three types, boiling water bath, pressure, and steam.  A boiling water bath canner is a large, deep pot or vessel with a lid and a rack used for high acid food preservation; if a new one can’t be purchased, a second-hand one is fine as long as it isn’t rusty or chipped.  A pressure canner is used for low acid foods and is either a weighted gauge or dial gauge type.  An older pressure canner may or may not be safe.  An older pressure canner should only be purchased or used if it is in excellent condition—no imperfections or warping with a lid that fits perfectly and locks easily. Pressure canners build pressure when they are used, and in extreme cases, could explode if the canner is defective or damaged. More importantly would be their ability to process food safely.  At a minimum, the sealing ring should be replaced and the gauge on a dial gauge type be checked by a trained professional.  Dial gauges on pressure canners need to be tested each year against a calibrated ‘master’ gauge. Weighted gauges do not need to be tested as they do not go out of calibration.  An atmospheric steam canner is newer to the scene and can take the place of a water-bath canner.  According to University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers steam canners may be used safely to can naturally acid foods such as peaches, pears, and apples, or acidified-foods such as salsa or pickles as long as specified criteria is met; a steam canner is not recommended for low-acid vegetables and meat.

Pectin.  Some jams and jellies can be made without pectin.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation has information and recipes for making jelly and jams without commercially prepared pectin.

Vinegar. If the recipe does not specify a particular type of vinegar, white or cider vinegar may be used safely as long as it is labeled as 5% acidity or labeled as 50 grain. Apple cider vinegar will impart a different flavor and color when substituted for white vinegar. Specialty vinegars such as red or white wine vinegar, malt vinegar, balsamic, and other flavored vinegars should only be used when specified in a research-tested recipe.

Assorted Pickling Spices.  It may not be necessary to get fresh seeds and spices if there is some on your shelf.  Commercially prepared and packaged spices, stored properly, such as mustard seed, celery seed, dill seed, allspice, and cinnamon sticks, generally have a shelf life of 3-4 years.  Pickling spice is good for up to 3 years.  Spices do loose potency over time.  To test whether a spice is still potent enough to be effective, rub or crush a small amount in your hand, then taste and smell it.  If the aroma is weak and the flavor is not obvious, the spice should not be used as it will not flavor as intended.  Spices may be available from online sites when no longer available in local stores.

The right equipment (and vinegar) is a must to safely preserve food by canning.  Look to friends and family, online and non-conventional sources for help with acquiring supplies and equipment. Whatever is found, do carefully follow the suggestions contained herein to preserve 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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Exploring Portable Burners for Canning

AnswerLine gets questions each year about using a portable burner (hot plate) for canning.  Usually the question comes when a switch has been made to an electric cooktop from a gas range or when an electric-coil range is replaced with a smooth (glass) cooktop, either radiant heat or induction, and the way of canning needs to change to prevent cracking the cooktop, fusing the canner to the cooktop, or under processing of the canned product posing a food safety risk. 

Industry has answered the call for canners appropriate for induction cooktops with several options available.  That aside, consumers still have valid concerns about the weight of canners and the intense heat on the surface along with scratching if the canner is slid or drug across the cooktop.  When the options are beyond using the new cooktop or installing a second electric coil or gas burner range top, perhaps it makes sense to purchase a portable electric or gas burner.

Earlier this year, I, too, was exploring acceptable heat options for canning. While I have yet to purchase a new range, my 30-plus year old electric-coil range struggled last summer with the canner challenge; the struggle was sufficiently challenging to make me consider new options before getting into canning this year.  In addition, I know that when I make that purchase, it will likely be a smooth electric cooktop and my pressure and water bath canners will no longer work.  

The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) offers these guidelines for selecting a portable burner for canning purposes:

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 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 coil must be at least eight inches in diameter. 

 – For electric burners, you want the wattage to be about equal to that of a typical household range large burner which is 1750W or higher.  The best portable heaters found run 1500W which are deemed to be acceptable.

– You want the burner to have housing that will hold up to the high heat under the canner for long heating periods, and not damage counter tops with reflected heat.

An outdoor heat source such as a gas grill is not recommended by The National Center for Home Food Preservation for various reasons; however, a portable burner can be used outside as long as it is in a location away from wind, yet well ventilated. 

In addition to advice from NCHFP, I found a lot of researched based information along with references at the Healthy Canning website.

Having read all the recommendations, I began to explore my options looking at commercial burners used in restaurants. While inexpensive, most home units are too light weight and have insufficient wattage to be considered for canning.  The commercial units seemed to meet the NCFHP recommendations and received the highest recommendations from canning and restaurant users.  My search narrowed to two models made/sold by the same company.  One had a cast-iron burner and the other a coil burner.  In the end I chose the one with a cast-iron burner knowing that it would take longer to heat and cool, but seemed to offer the most stability.

Recently my portable burner made its canning debut as a heat source to water bath a batch of raspberry jam.  It worked very well for this application.  The temperature was easy to control.  Because the jam recipe only made four half-pints of jam, I did not use the big water bath canner so that test is still to be made as I move into canning season along with the pressure canner.  Besides using the portable burner for my primary intended use of canning, it has come in handy to heat water for defrosting my downstairs freezer, keeping food warm for outdoor meals, and being that ‘extra burner’ when needed. 

While not an option for me, an electric water bath canner sold by Ball® may be a good investment for water bath only canners says Karen Blakeslee, Kansas State University Food Safety Specialist.  This is a stand-alone canner with its own heater/burner system much like an electric pressure cooker.  It can also be used to make soups or stews.  However, an electric pressure cooker is not recommended by the USDA or NCHFP for canning of any sort despite information one may find on various websites.

UPDATES: The portable burner that I purchased got a work out during the summer canning season and worked perfectly for all my pressure and water bath canning. Temperature control was easy and very consistent. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I also think it reduced the amount of kitchen heat that comes with canning.

Marlene Geiger

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

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Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is here to HELP!

While AnswerLine has been providing information and resources for Iowa consumers with home and family questions for over 40 years, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has been serving Iowans since the early 1900s.  The Mission of ISU Extension and Outreach is to engage citizens through research‐based educational programs and extend the resources of Iowa State University across Iowa. AnswerLine is just one of the entities of extension outreach. Let me introduce you to some of the other resources available to help individuals and families navigate issues that may concern them. 

  1. Stay informed on general ISU Extension and Outreach resources and opportunities through the Extension home page and news feed.
  2. The Iowa 4-H team has at-home learning resources which are publicly available for members and families to use.
  3. Iowa Concern offers free and confidential calls and emails 24/7 to help with stress management, financial issues, legal aid, and crisis resources.
  4. The ISU Horticulture and Home Pest news page offers download publications, how to improve your garden videos, and a Hortline for answers to lawn and garden questions.
  5. Get help with meal planning and food budgeting through the Spend Smart Eat Smart website.
  6. Visit the Beginning Farmer, Women in Ag and Ag Decision Maker websites for updates on programs and helpful resources from the Farm Management team. You can also contact the farm management field specialists with your questions. 
  7. Preserve the Taste of Summer offers a number of publications and resources for safe food preservation techniques.
  8. For great information on home gardens, farmer’s markets and u-pick operations, plant sales, and more or how to become a Master Gardener, the Master Gardener Program site is a must.
  9. When Teens don’t know who to talk to, Teen Line can help with a variety of issues that affect Teens and their families.
  10. Use the ISU Extension Staff Directory when looking for a specific person or persons in a specific area of expertise.  The Contact page offers additional resources and provides a form to send an email with questions, concerns, or suggestions. Ask An Expert is always available for questions; those questions come to AnswerLine where we either answer the query or send it to someone in Extension (Iowa or elsewhere) that can better answer it.

Besides these resources, one can always find help at the ISU Extension and Outreach extension offices located in each of Iowa’s counties, on social media outlets, and the many blogs written by Extension staff on current topics.  At the present time, most ISU Extension and Outreach in-person events throughout the state have been canceled through May 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, ISU Extension and Outreach staff remain committed to serving Iowans during this difficult time; phones and emails are being answered by Extension staff at the county and state levels.  Please check out the resources available that may provide the help you seek and watch for updates on how ISU Extension and Outreach will proceed to serve Iowans after May 31.

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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Caring for Cloth Masks

As the world makes a slow comeback from the coronavirus pandemic, the CDC is now recommending individuals wear a new piece of ‘attire’, the face mask or any face covering, any time one goes out where social distancing is hard to practice such as to grocery stores, pharmacies, or other places where other people are likely to be present in number.  In recent days, many retail outlets are requiring this new attire of their customers. Employers, too, may be requiring employees who are unable to maintain the recommended 6 foot distance from others during the course of essential work functions to wear masks. It seems that for the foreseeable future, the face mask or covering of the nose and mouth will be a necessary part of our attire.

Hand washing and social distancing remain the critical means of disease prevention. When going out for essentials or required in the workplace, cloth masks are becoming essential attire.  While not as effective as clinical masks, properly made cloth masks can help slow the spread of COVID-19 by blocking large droplets from coughs and sneezes. 

Many have put their DIY skills to work and created cloth masks at home for themselves and others.  In a previous blog, I shared guidelines for DIY face masks.  However, acquiring a face mask is only step one.  Step two is wearing it to limit the spread of germs.  STEP THREE IS CARING FOR IT TO KEEP IT EFFECTIVE AND SAFE.  There are differing reports on whether coronavirus can live on clothing or cloth.  The general thought is that the coronavirus is more likely to live on hard surfaces than soft surfaces like fabric.  Despite that, the CDC urges laundering of cloth masks after each use, daily, or when wet or soiled.  When regular use is required, having multiple masks will be necessary. 

A piece by Kansas State University Environmental Health and Safety says a washing machine and dryer is adequate for cleaning.  The Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab suggests that face masks be washed with hot water (160֯F) in the washing machine and tumbled dried on high heat with other similar items.  Masks can also be hand washed by lathering masks with soap and scrubbing for 20 seconds or more with warm to hot water, rinsing, and tossing into the dryer.  Non-scented/allergy-free detergents should be used for laundering masks per guidelines from the University of Iowa and dryer sheets should not be used.  Further, masks can be ironed on the cotton or linen setting to further kill any remaining germs provided the masks are made of cotton.  Sanitizing face masks in the microwave, oven, or boiling water is not recommended.   A mask that is damaged or that no longer fits properly to the face should be disposed and replaced.

If filters are being used in conjunction with a cloth mask, filters too, need to be properly cleaned or replaced.  Coffee filters and paper towels are not washable so should be replaced after each use.  HVAC filters and non-woven interfacings are washable so can be laundered in the same way as the mask; however, the filter’s effectiveness decreases with each washing and will eventually disintegrate.

Masks need to be carefully removed from the face after use.  Individuals should take care not to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth when removing the mask; only the elastic ear pieces or head/neck ties should be handled.  Used masks should be placed outside down on a piece of paper or in a bag until laundering with hand washing following immediately.

As discussed above, cloth masks can provide limited protection.  Proper care of the mask is important to provide protection and to maintain the health of the wearer. 

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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Steaming Vegetables

Recently an AnswerLine client called with concerns related to the safety of microwaving steam bag vegetables such as those sold under the Birds Eye Steamfresh label. These bags are sold with the vegetables inside as stand-alone products containing just vegetables or with sauces or seasonings. In general, microwaving foods in plastic containers may carry some health risks due to the transmission of BPA and pthalates from the plastic to the food. However, the bags being used for the steamed vegetable products are specifically manufactured for microwave steaming and do not contain BPA or pthalates.  These bags are designed for a one-time use.  If there is any concern, the packages can be opened and the vegetables steamed or prepared by another method.

Whether you purchase the microwave steam bag vegetables or not, there are advantages to steaming vegetables.  Frozen vegetables are usually flash frozen right after picking.  As a result, frozen vegetables may be more nutrient dense than fresh vegetables that have spent time in transit, sitting in a warehouse, or on display at the store. 

Steaming by way of the microwave, stove top, or pressure cooker are healthy ways to cook vegetables to prevent nutrient loss and retain flavor, texture, and color.  Steaming also helps to retain the water-soluble vitamins and minerals that would otherwise leech into cooking water.  Water soluble vitamins are also heat sensitive, so quick cooking times helps to reduce nutrient loss.  Vegetable nutrients along with fiber and phytochemicals, help to lower risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, cancer, and vision loss.

Steam bag vegetables can be used in the same way as any frozen vegetable.  While steam bags do add cost to the vegetables, there definitely is convenience in using the steam bag packaging as there is virtually no clean up involved.  One doesn’t need to be confined to using an entire bag when a smaller amount is needed.  The bag can be opened and a smaller portion taken out and steamed using another method. For additional information on steaming vegetables, check out Cooking Fresh Vegetables by Purdue University.

Steaming is also a great way to prepare frozen vegetables for use in a salad. One should not thaw frozen vegetables and eat them without cooking.  Blanching prior to freezing stops the aging of vegetables but does not necessarily take care of contaminants that may be found in the field such as salmonella, listeria, and E.coli; contaminants can penetrate the tiny cell walls which are broken when the vegetables are blanched.  All vegetables are packaged as ready-to-cook, not as ready-to-eat. Therefore, vegetables should be cooked to 165 degrees for that reason. In most cases this temperature can be reached by steaming the vegetables to tender-crisp and then letting them sit in a closed container for 5 minutes before serving.

Bottom line is that the best cooking method for frozen (and fresh) vegetables is steaming.  If accomplishing that is by using pre-packaged steam bag vegetables, know that it is safe when package directions are followed.  Besides nutrient retention, steamed vegetables will have better flavor and more desirable textures.

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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Substitute Ingredients for Coronavirus Baking

When people feel anxious, they look for something to do, a distraction of sorts, and baking provides just that for many people.  During these challenging times, it seems that people are baking more at home than previously and psychologists have coined the baking frenzy as “coronavirus baking” or “stress baking”. I, too, have found myself baking more while at home to fill in what we don’t have on hand and maybe for a distraction, too. One thing is for sure, I have more time now for baking than I had before.

Baking triggers all kinds of positive feelings and plays welcome tricks on the brain whether one is stressed or not.  Such pleasures as creativity, memories of happy times, using energy in a focused, engaged, or mindful way, and enjoying tangible or measurable accomplishments come to mind.

With people staying at home, the urge to bake may strike only to find that ingredients needed are not on the shelf.  Or, even more unimaginable, with more people baking, there is a shortage of baking supplies in some areas. 

When this happens, we look to other ingredients to substitute for what is missing.  Bear in mind, that baking is more of an ‘exact science’  so when substitutes are used, baked products will perhaps be slightly different in taste, texture, appearance, and quality, but will result in an edible baked product that can be enjoyed.  Having tried these various substitutes over time, I have found that some substitutes are better for one baking situation than others; it’s very much trial and error. Most good cookbooks provide a listing of emergency substitutions; substitutions can also be found online.  (A good, printable chart is available from Colorado State University and includes many substitutions beyond baking.)  Despite these good resources, sometimes desperate times call for more desperate measures using less common substitutions.  To that end, here are some substitutes for common baking ingredients that one may not find in the usual lists of emergency lists.

Butter Replacers
Replace 1 cup butter with

NUT BUTTERS – Nut butters need to be combined with an equal part oil to get a 1:1 butter replacement.  (i.e., combine 1/2 cup nut butter with 1/2 cup oil to equal 1 cup butter.)

Oil – ¾ cup.  Choose an oil with a light flavor.

COOKED BEANS – 1 cup mashed beans; use black beans for chocolate baking and light beans such as cannellini for light backing.

AVOCADO – 1 cup mashed avocado.

UNSWEETENED APPLESAUCE OR PUMPKIN/SQUASH PUREE – 1 cup sauce or puree; reduce liquid in recipe slightly if possible.

Egg Replacers
Replace 1 egg with

VINEGAR AND BAKING SODA – 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 tablespoon vinegar combined.

UNSWEETENED APPLESAUCE, YOGURT, SILKEN TOFU, or MASHED BANANAS – ¼ cup of any.

GROUND FLAXSEED – 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed, 3 tablespoons water, combine and allow to sit until thick and gelatinous.

Baking Soda
Replace 1 teaspoon baking soda with

BAKING POWDER – 3 teaspoons baking powder; reduce salt, and replace acidic ingredients (buttermilk, yogurt, lemon juice, etc) with non-acidic ingredients, if possible.

EGG WHITES – 2 egg whites whipped to stiff peaks, fold in.  Measure egg whites and reduce any liquid used in the recipe by the same amount. 

CLUB SODA (sodium bicarbonate) – replace any liquid in the recipe with club soda.

Baking Powder
Replace 1 teaspoon baking powder with

BAKING SODA – 1/3 teaspoon baking soda and ½ teaspoon cream of tartar.

BUTTERMILK, SOUR MILK, PLAIN YOGURT – ¼ teaspoon baking soda and ½ cup buttermilk, sour milk or yogurt.  Decrease liquid in recipe by ½ cup.  (Sour milk can be made by adding ½ tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice to ½ cup sweet milk.)

MOLASSES – ¼ teaspoon baking soda and ¼ cup molasses; reduce liquids and sugars used in recipe.

White Granulated Sugar
Replace 1 cup sugar with

HONEY AND MAPLE SYRUP – ¾ cup honey or maple syrup.  Reduce liquid in recipe by 3 tablespoons. Add a pinch of baking soda to honey to reduce acidity.

AGAVE NECTAR – 2/3 cup agave.  Reduce liquid in recipe by 2-4 tablespoons and oven temperature by 25 percent.

POWDERED SUGAR, BROWN SUGAR, RAW SUGAR, MAPLE SUGAR, COCONUT SUGAR – 1 cup of any.

Brown Sugar
Replace 1 cup packed brown sugar with

SUGAR AND MOLASSES – 1 cup white sugar and ¼ cup unsulphured molasses.

COCONUT SUGAR – 1 cup.

All-Purpose Flour
Replace 1 cup flour with

SEE SUGGESTIONS FROM COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY

Go ahead and make your brownies, cakes, cookies, muffins, or biscuits if it calms your nerves or helps put your mind at ease. I’ll probably be doing the same.  And know that the same pleasures derived from baking can be experienced even if we have to substitute an ingredient and settle for a product that isn’t quite the same.

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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REAL ID Update

One year ago, I wrote a blog, Real ID for Travel, informing consumers about the need to get a Real ID driver’s license to comply with the Real ID Act enacted by Congress in 2005 for domestic travel and admission to federal facilities requiring an ID. At that time, US citizens had until October 1, 2000 to acquire the required ID through their respective driver’s license bureaus.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on March 26, 2020, an extension of the Real ID Act to October 1, 2021 giving citizens an additional year to obtain a REAL-ID compliant license. For more information on Real ID beyond the blog, check out the Real ID/Homeland Security website. UPDATE: On April 27, 2021 DHS announced a second extension for the REAL ID full enforcement date from October 1, 2021 to May 3, 2023, due to circumstances resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

While we may not be traveling much during this time, we will travel again. Bottom line remains the same, if you plan to travel by air or enter a federal facility requiring ID, you will need a Real ID unless you have other proper identification; for travel, that would be a passport.  If you do not anticipate either scenario, a Real ID is not needed.

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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