Storing chocolate

If your sweetie got you some chocolates for Valentine’s Day, you may be wondering just how long you can safely keep them. I did a little research and discovered that you can store that box of chocolate longer than you may have thought.

Chocolate should be stored at temperatures that are slightly cooler than room temperature. Try to keep them between 60° and 70° Fahrenheit. At these temperatures, they should keep well for at least six months. If you need to store them longer, consider storing in the refrigerator or freezer. Chocolates will keep for a year in the refrigerator and for a year and a half in the freezer.

If your sweetie went all out and bought some handmade or premium chocolates, enjoy them now. These chocolates have a much shorter shelf life and will keep for 2-3 weeks in the refrigerator or for 3-6 months in the freezer.

Chocolates will absorb odors from their surroundings so store them in the box they came in or place the box into a freezer bag and keep it sealed. Enjoy that special treat.

Liz Meimann

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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Deicers–helpful or harmful?

“What do you recommend for deicing sidewalks?” was a recent question to AnswerLine.  Most deicing products readily available on the market contain salt compounds known as magnesium chloride (used as a liquid on roads), sodium chloride (table salt), calcium chloride, and potassium chloride (fertilizer). Each winter these materials are applied to sidewalks, driveways, and steps to prevent slipping and falling.  However, they are often applied without regard to the substance, application, or the damage that they may cause to the home, property, environment, pets, and nearby plants.

As for mentioned, deicing products are primarily comprised of salt.  And just like household salt, all salts are not the same.  Salts can cause injury to trees, lawns, and shrubs, corrode metal and concrete, and even do bodily harm to pets and humans.  The most problematic element in any of the deicing products is the chloride; it causes corrosion and is toxic to plants.

The University of Maryland offers some great information on deicers in their help sheet, Melting Ice Safely.  While this is an older publication (1998), there is good information on how deicers work and how to use them effectively and safely.  On the second page of the publication, there is a table comparing the fore-mentioned products along with their effectiveness, corrosiveness, and potential harmfulness to plants. 

A more recent product, calcium magnesium acetate (CMA), contains no chloride and is less damaging to cars, metals, and concrete and less toxic to plants.  It is also said to be biodegradable and pet and wildlife friendly.  It works very much like the traditional ‘chloride’ products to melt ice.  The big downside is the cost.

If you want to avoid deicing products, consider using sand, kitty litter, or chicken grit. While these products won’t melt snow, they will provide traction in slippery spots. Sand and kitty litter are safe for pets and plants and can be swept up when the snow melts. (Chicken grit may be too sharp for the paws of some pets but will not harm plants.)  Boots or shoes traversing any of these products should be removed upon entering a home as they could scratch floors.

Should the landscape fall victim to deicing, a recent article published by Reiman Gardens suggests flushing the area around the plant roots in the spring with water to leech out the salts.

The best advice is to know something about the substance (salts used in the product), consider the application, and then READ AND FOLLOW the manufacturer’s directions for applying the product to minimize damage to property and landscape.  And if possible, apply even less than is recommended.  Deicing products are not meant to replace shoveling or to melt all snow and ice, but to aid in removal efforts to prevent slipping and falling.

Marlene Geiger

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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Stolen Packages

My husband and I recently were in Chicago for several days at our daughter’s house while she was away on a business trip. Sadly, on our watch a thief stole 3 packages that had been delivered to her front porch while we were out to lunch. Luckily she has a security camera so the whole thing was caught on tape which made it easier to submit a police report but the whole experience was very frustrating, maddening and unnerving.

According to an article in Consumer Reports there are some things you can do to lower your risk of being a target. Even though my daughter has a working internet-enabled security camera installed and has a security system to protect the house, it still happened and it can happen to anyone anywhere. The holidays are over for 2018 but you may want to consider being proactive in 2019 to help prevent a theft happening to you or someone you know.

If it is possible, avoid home delivery altogether. If you shop on Amazon they have lockers available in some locations (often a Whole Foods store) where you can have your packages delivered to and you retrieve using a security code for the locker. Amazon also offers a Key Kit that can be used for the delivery person to unlock your home and put your packages inside the door. An Amazon Key app is another alternative that is available for your packages to be put in the trunk of your car. There is a cost for some of those services but if you shop on Amazon a lot and buy a lot of things online it may be worth researching.

UPS recommends sending packages to where you are – not where you are not. Check with the company you work for to see if it is an option to have your packages delivered to you at work. Send to a relative or neighbor who is home during the day. Send to a walk in store and pick it up there if possible. UPS offers               “access points” in some locations which are delis, grocery stores, dry cleaners, florists, etc that allow packages to be dropped off by UPS and picked up by you later. Some UPS stores have mailbox service. UPS also has a service called My Choice that is free and lets you know when your package will be arriving so you can be there to accept it, reroute or reschedule the delivery, or authorize a shipment release.

USPS offers Informed Delivery Manager. It is also free and allows you to track your packages and leave delivery instructions if you are not going to be home.

Some shippers allow a required signature at delivery so if no one is home the delivery service will take it back to it’s facility and try again later or let you come pick it up and sign for it.

Door bell cameras, motion sensors and internet-enabled security cameras have their benefits but the benefit is usually realized after the theft has been committed, which was true in our case.

I sincerely hope you never have any packages stolen but if you do, notify the police immediately and file a report. You can also contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. They are the law enforcement arm of the postal service. You should contact the shipper and delivery service as well as your credit card company and the company you bought the packages from to see if you can get reimbursed or have a new package sent. We were, thankfully, able to get all three packages we had stolen replaced at no charge.

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Hand Dryers vs Paper Towels

We recently had someone reach out to us asking about the sanitation of hand dryers vs paper towels for drying  hands. I noticed as I recently did some traveling that many airports, restaurants and rest areas are going to air hand dryers rather than paper towels. I’m sure it is beneficial to them as a means to keep their restrooms more tidy.  According to the CDC, drying your hands is very beneficial as germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands. But is it more beneficial to us to use a hand dryer or paper towels?

According to an article in the Harvard Health blog from Harvard Medical School, bacteria in a bathroom can form a fecal cloud due to lidless toilets being flushed. That fecal cloud contains many microbes. Fortunately the majority of those microbes do not cause disease in healthy people. For those people in a hospital or with a weakened immune system though this could be a big problem.

As I was beginning to look for pictures to go along with this article the first place I decided to check was our local clinic. I found only paper towel dispensers there. As I did more research I found that is because paper towels are already routine in health care settings.

As was stated in the CDC article, the best way to dry hands remains unclear because few studies about hand drying exist and the results are unclear. There are many factors involved and of course it depends on who is paying for the study. Many are sponsored by either the paper towel industry or the air blower industry with results of course favoring their products. Some studies focused on the effectiveness of the hand drying, some on the cost, some on the carbon footprint, and some on the degree of which bacteria and viruses are deposited on the hands during the drying process.

The Harvard Health study recommended using paper towels as they found them to be the most hygienic way to dry your hands. Another study agreed suggesting paper towels can dry hands efficiently, remove bacteria effectively and cause less contamination of the restroom environment. That same study found that with air dryers people were more likely to incompletely dry their hands or not dry them at all.

The bottom line is to wash your hands effectively and dry them completely with whatever method is available. Don’t let your hands drip dry and don’t dry them on your clothes.

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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FOG (Fats, Oils and Grease)

As we continue to enjoy the Holidays with family and friends, I want to remind everyone about something we may not think about often but that could certainly impact a gathering in our homes. If not disposed of properly, fats, oils and grease can build up in the pipes of your home and cause a sewer backup. Those backups are always unpleasant and expensive to repair and there are things we can do to help prevent the backups in the first place. Many food products can lead to a buildup in your homes pipes if not disposed of properly: grease from cooking a turkey in the oven or a deep fat fryer, salad dressing, leftover gravy, cooking oil, butter/margarine, etc.

Here are some tips to help us all avoid having a sewer backup event:

Use a paper towel to remove as much leftover fat, oil and grease as you can on dishes and pans before you wash them.

If you cooked with the fat, oil or grease, let it cool completely then either throw away the fat that has hardened or pour the leftover fat in a sealable container and throw it away in your garbage.

If you have deep fried your turkey, dispose of that oil after each use. If you leave the oil in the fryer to reuse at another time it may attract pests and may not be safe. Many resource recovery plants will accept used cooking oil at no or minimal cost.

By following a few tips in removing fats, oils and grease from our dishes and pans we can save ourselves a lot of stress over clogged pipes in our homes.

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Safe Tailgating

Tailgating is in full swing in our area and what fun everyone has! Whether you are the person that plans the menu, prepares the food, sets everything up, or just enjoys, it is important to take precautions to keep everyone safe. According to the CDC, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from foodborne illnesses every year. It is estimated that over half of those cases are related to improper hand washing. If your venue does not have hand washing stations readily available consider taking water and soap along specifically for hand washing. Proper hand washing with soap and water for 20 seconds is always your best line of defense. If that is not feasible, take plenty of antibacterial wipes along and after using them follow up with an alcohol based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol which is very effective in killing harmful microorganisms. Most commercial hand sanitizers contain that percentage of alcohol or close to it.

Bacteria cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted and multiply rapidly in the Danger Zone – 40 degrees to 140 degrees F. It is very important to not let foods remain in this Danger Zone for more than two hours. If the temperature outside is 90 degrees or higher that time frame drops to 1 hour. Pack your cooler the last thing before leaving home for the tailgate and put foods directly from the refrigerator or freezer into the cooler with sufficient ice or ice packs to keep the temperature inside the cooler at 40 degrees or colder. Raw meat and poultry should be wrapped tightly to prevent contamination of other foods. A separate cooler is recommended for beverages as it is opened frequently which allows the internal temperature of the cooler to increase. If you won’t be serving the food soon after your arrival at the tailgate, keep the food in the cooler.

To keep hot food hot, insulated thermoses work well. Fill the thermos with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, then empty and fill with your hot food before you leave. If you have access to electricity a crock pot works well to keep hot foods above the Danger Zone during the tailgate. If you do not eat all the hot foods you have taken, be sure to put any leftovers in your cooler with enough ice before you head to the game.

If you are planning to grill as part of your tailgate, the only safe way to make sure your meat has cooked to the correct internal temperature is to take and use a calibrated food thermometer.

So what foods should you be cautious of when tailgating and which foods would be considered always safe? Be cautious of foods that are high in protein like meat, milk and dishes/casseroles containing eggs as well as marinades, potatoes, and pie (especially cream pies). Often part of the fun at a tailgate is preparing the food while you are there. However from a safety standpoint, single-serving, pre-packaged foods are the best. There would be far less people touching the food limiting the chances of contamination. Dry foods and those high in sugar are safe bets as well. Things like breads, cakes, and cookies. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also good choices.

Enjoy the rest of tailgate season!

 

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Plastic Straw Ban

There has been quite a controversy lately surrounding the reduction in use or ban on plastic straws. The goal, of course, is to help protect the environment. Straws are a small fraction of all plastic waste but the movement to ban plastic straws is definitely growing. Major corporations (Starbucks, American Airlines) have announced they will phase out plastic straws. Seattle recently became the first major city to institute a ban on plastic straws. California became the first state to officially adopt plastic straw regulations. The food service industry there is being banned from making plastic straws available unless requested.

The merits of a plastic straw ban depend on who you ask. Those pushing the idea consider plastic straws to be a “product of convenience” or a “symbol of waste”. They would like all straws to be biodegradable and have offered some alternative materials – paper, pasta, bamboo, and hay – for straws to be made out of. Criticism has come from disability advocates. Paper straws can cause difficulties for those individuals who have difficulty swallowing. Reusable straws, like those pictured above, can be potentially hazardous.

The University of Georgia was recently awarded a grant to develop a totally biodegradable straw. It will be interesting to follow this story. It will take time for them to develop some prototypes and go through the approval process however.

As a consumer, I think it is important to research ahead of time what our options might be if straws do indeed disappear.

 

 

 

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Fall Spice Refresher

Summer may not be over yet but people are already craving spice-flavored foods, beverages,and smells.  Even before we had our Labor Day barbeques, Starbucks introduced it’s fall Pumpkin Spice Latte because customers were asking.  “Sweet” spices–cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger–go hand in hand with fall and holidays.  Now is a good time to prepare for the season of “spice and nice” and soups and stews by going through our spice collection to make sure we are ready when it comes time to reach.
Ground spices retain their goodness for about six months.  Whole spices such as allspice berries and cinnamon sticks stay fresher longer, 1-2 years, if stored in air-tight containers.  Vanilla extract is commonly used with the “sweet” spices to bring out their best.  Vanilla retains it’s best flavor for 12 months.  And while one is in the process, why not check out the herbs, too.  Like ground spices, herbs retain their best flavor for six months.  All spices and extracts should be kept in locations away from heat and light.  If a date is not present on the container, apply the smell test.  If you don’t detect an intense fragrance when you open the container, it’s likely time to replace it.  I’m always amazed at how much more flavorable something tastes when fresh spices or herbs are used.
While fall spices are reminenct of crips days, rustling leaves, baked goods, and hearty soups and stews, there are always lots of questions about which to use for what.  Here’s a quick primer:
Allspice (whole or ground)  is the dried unripe berries of the Pimenta dioica tree found in wamer parts of the world.  The berries combine the flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves and complements stews, yellow vegetables, pork, poultry, cakes, cookies, and sweet breads.  When ground allspice is not available, a good substitution is a mixture of half ground cinnamon and half ground cloves.
Cardomom is a blend of seeds that bring a warm and aromatic flavor that is delightful in baked goods like gingerbread; it is also a staple of Indian cuisine. It is often used  with cinnamon, cloves and chocolate.
Cinnamon (ground or stick) is a spice obtained from the inner bark of  the Cinnamomum tree. With its mildly-sweet-to-bittersweet flavor, cinnamon is a nice addition to baked goods, stews, curries, fruit, squash, oatmeal, pork and beef.  It pairs well with fruits and chocolate.  Cinnamon sticks are perfect for mulling cider, tea, or other fall beverages.
Cloves (whole and ground) are the aromatic flower buds from a tree found in India and other countries in that part of the world.  Cloves goes well with sweet breads, yellow vegetables, chocolate, and fruit.
Chili powder is the dried, pulverized fruit of one or more varieties of chili peppers, sometimes with the addition of other spices. It is used as a spice to add pungency and flavor to dishes. Commonly used in traditional Latin American dishes like enchiladas and tacos, a spoonful of chili powder also adds a welcome kick to grilled meats, stew, soup, a pot of beans, vegetables, and even chocolate.
Ginger adds a pungent zest to both sweet and savory dishes. It is derived from the Ginger plant rhizome known as ginger root or simply ginger.   Ginger is widely used as a spice or a folk medicine.  As a spice, ginger has so many uses:  baked goods, stir-fries, curries, hot tea and seafood. It also offers a great accent to garlic.
Spice Mixes (Apple Pie Spice, Pumpkin Pie Spice) are blends of ground cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger made specifically for convenience.  Both can be used as a seasoning in pie as well as general cooking and baking to enhance the flavors of any products using apples or pumpkin/squash.  There are many DIY recipes for making blends using basic spices such as these.
Enjoy the coming of fall and the smells and flavors that enhance it!
Marlene Geiger

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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Bed Bugs

A single bed bug on a blanket fiber There is a lot of moving going on in the area I live. Many leases are turning over August 1st or September 1st. I have seen lots of furniture on the curb for free and there are several places that offer furniture swaps or sell the used furniture at bargain prices. There are also a number of people giving their used furniture away to friends they know that could use it.

I had a caller yesterday concerned about her college-aged son getting a free couch from a friend. Her main concern was if bed bugs might be present. She did not want him to be affected by that or to introduce bed bugs into his apartment. That is a legitimate concern for sure.

Bed bugs are a headache and can be difficult to get rid of on your own. The first thing you need to do is make sure there really are bed bugs present. The EPA and the University of Kentucky have great websites with pictures for identifying, preventing, and getting rid of bed bugs. It can be very difficult to get rid of bed bugs yourself. Most often it is necessary to contact a pest control company to come and rid your infested areas of bed bugs.

Besides being concerned about used furniture you might pick up, traveling can also be a concern. The EPA has tips for travel when you are staying in a hotel room. Since bed bugs are most active at night when you are sleeping it is a good idea to be diligent when you check into your room. It takes only a few minutes and can prevent a lot of hassles for you.

Bed bugs were practically eradicated a few decades ago but infestations have increased dramatically in recent years due to changes in pest control practices, less effective insecticides due to bed bugs being more resistant and the general population not being as vigilant as we should be.

Bed bugs do not favor any socioeconomic class or level of cleanliness. They can be anywhere. I hope none of us ever has to personally deal with them but if you do or know of others who are dealing with them, I hope the research based sites mentioned above are helpful.

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Beware of New Medicare Card Scams

The Centers for Medicare Services (CMS) began mailing new Medicare cards to Medicare beneficiaries in April and will continue with mailing for the coming year. As the cards began to go out, so did the scams. Here are some things to know and to share with those in your life who are Medicare recipients to prevent them from becoming victims of fraud or scams:

No action is needed. The new cards will be mailed to the address on file with the CMS. Beneficiaries do not need to provide any additional information to anyone claiming to need more.

A temporary card is not needed. The existing card may be used until the new one is received.

There is no charge for the new card. CMS does not charge for the new card.  It is free.

CMS does not call recipients. If anyone calls about the new Medicare card, hang up.

There will be no change in your health care benefits.  Ignore anyone threatening to cancel your health benefits due to the change in Medicare numbers and cards.

Never give out personal information on the phone unless you are 100% certain who you are talking to.   This includes the new number on your new Medicare card, social security number, and bank account information.

Once you get your new Medicare card, carefully destroy your old card right away.  The card should be shred or cut into small pieces rather than tossed into the trash.

You can learn more about the new Medicare card by visiting the CMS website or reading a previous Answerline blog.  If you get a suspicious call, contact 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227); TTY: 1-877-486-2048.

Marlene Geiger

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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