Remember to Vent

A critical step to achieving proper pressure inside a pressure canner is allowing it to VENT. What does this mean?

Venting is also “exhausting” the canner, a process of letting steam (and air) come out of the canner through the vent pipe for a period of time before beginning the pressure processing time.  Air trapped in a canner lowers the processing temperature and results in under processing of low-acid foods.  To be safe, the USDA recommends that all types of pressure canners must be vented 10 minutes before they are pressurized.

WHY VENT? 

It is STEAM, not water, that does the processing in a pressure canner. Low-acid foods (foods with a pH of 4.6 or higher such as all vegetables excluding tomatoes, meats, seafood, soups and sauces) are not acidic enough to destroy bacteria, their spores, and the toxins they produce or prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria in a vacuum.  The heat-resistant spores produced by C. botulinum can only be destroyed with the correct combination of temperature, pressure, and tested time. Temperatures in the range of 240°F to 250°F (115°C to 121°C) are needed to kill spores (USDA 2015). Water can get no hotter than the boiling point (212ºF, 100ºC), but steam can. Steam trapped in the canner increases the atmospheric pressure inside the canner causing the boiling point of water to increase to 240ºF-250ºF, the temperature needed to destroy bacteria and C. botulinum, that would otherwise be free to grow in a vacuum sealed jar.

In order to reach the optimum temperature to destroy botulinum bacteria, air inside the canner must be exhausted to allow space for a pure steam environment to build. There is a vast amount of air in a canner due to the space between the water level and the lid as well as the air that escapes from inside the jars and from the water. The most “jar air” comes from those with raw-packed foods.

Image Source: USDA Complete Guide to Home CAnning

HOW TO VENT

The vent or petcock is a short hollow pipe that sticks up above the canner lid.  When open, it allows air and steam to escape from the canner.  When closed, it holds steam inside. To vent a canner, leave the vent port uncovered or manually open the petcock (some older models).  After placing jars inside the warm canner and securing the canner lid, set the burner on high. Watch for steam to escape from the vent pipe. When a strong, visible, funnel-shaped steam cone emerges, set a timer for 10 minutes and let the canner continuously steam. After the 10 minutes, add the weight or counterweight to the vent or close the petcock to pressurize the canner.

WHAT HAPPENS DURING VENTING?

As the water boils inside the canner, the empty spaces become a mixture of steam and air. As steam increases, it pushes the air out creating a pure steam environment.  USDA processing times are based upon a pure steam environment which makes venting so very important.

In addition to venting, remember to adjust for altitude. Most recipes list processing time based on altitudes near sea level. To ensure the health of those who enjoy your foods, always use a tested recipe and follow instructions. Remember to VENT for 10 minutes to ensure that any and all microorganisms are destroyed.

Source: National Center for Home Food Preservation and USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning (2015)

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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Are Two-Piece Lids Really Necessary?

The past two years have been very frustrating for home canners as canners searched and scrambled for two-piece lids. Out of frustration and desperation to get garden produce into jars, canners turned to using lids from uncertain suppliers, one-piece lids, reusable lids, and sadly reusing lids from previously canned foods (definitely a NO! NO!).  It is hopeful that the canning lid supply and demand problem will be less in 2022, but it is not clear that the problem has gone away as the shelves of many reliable outlets remain void of lids at this time.

Despite the supply and demand issue with two-piece lids, the USDA and the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) continue to recommend and support the two-piece lid system even though one-piece and reusable lids are available.  Why the recommendation? 

The two-piece lid system (flats and screw bands) is still the best option for home canners. They are easy to use, known to seal reliably, and easy to tell if the jars sealed. When researched guidelines are followed by users, the two-piece lid system safely replaces the vacuum system used for commercially canned foods with a self-sealing system consisting of a flat metal lid held in place by a metal screw band. A trough around the outer edge of the flat lid holds a rubber-like, plastisol sealing compound which acts like a gasket; heat causes the compound to flow slightly over the rim of the jar.  During processing, the gasket allows air to escape from the jar and then forms an airtight seal as the jar cools. 

To ensure safe home canned foods, follow these important tips for two-piece lids:

  • Use new lids (flats) each time; after the first use the lid will no longer seal effectively. With careful handling, canning jars and screw bands may be reused many times. 
  • Purchase your lids (flats) from reputable suppliers.
  • Buy only the quantity of lids (flats) that will be used in a year’s time—please don’t hoard.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s directions for preparing lids (flats) to make sure to get a good seal.
  • Carefully observe headspace requirements for the product.
  • Removed air bubbles inside the jar with a plastic or silicone spatula.
  • Make sure the rim of the jar is clean before placing the flat lid on the jar.
  • Tighten the screw band as specified by the manufacturer.  Usually this is fingertip tight, which means the first full resistance is felt using just your fingertips.
  • Check all metal lids carefully. Don’t use old (more than 5 years old), dented, deformed, or defective lids.
  • Do not re-use lids from previously canned foods.

One-piece, reusable, and previous used lids are not approved for home canning by the USDA as they may allow air to be trapped within the sealed jar permitting bacteria to thrive and spoilage to occur which can lead to illness and even death.   While one-piece lids are available for home canning, they were made for use in industry where very strict time and temperature controls are in place.  Because they do not allow air to escape properly in home canning, consumers have reported jar breakage and lids buckling.

Reusable canning lids have been around for decades [1]. Research conducted through the National Center for Home Food Preservation on the reusable lids revealed that the three types of reusable lids they tested had an acceptable seal and removed the necessary amount of air. However, despite these finding, it was still recommended that the traditional two-piece metal lid system be used to “ensure the highest confidence in sealing.” [1] While there is no data to indicate that these lids will not perform satisfactorily if the manufacturer’s instructions are followed explicitly, the USDA and NCHFP cannot recommend their use due to a lack of researched-based information about their performance.

Lastly, recommendations and recipes from the USDA and NCHFP are currently based on the two-piece metal lid system.  The recommendation does not come lightly; it is backed by a body of research documenting how well they work consistently for safe home canning.

Why take a chance?  TWO-PIECE LIDS REALLY ARE NECESSARY

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Sources: 

1G. Sivanandam. Evaluation and Comparison of the Sealing Performance of Three Major Types of Jar Lids Available for Home Canning. Thesis Project – University of Georgia. https://tinyurl.com/pj7ywjat

National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP), Recommended Jars and Lids, https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/general/recomm_jars_lids.html

North Central Food Safety Extension Network, North Dakota State University, Put a Lid on It, Best Practices for Using Closures for Home-based Canning, https://www.ncrfsma.org/files/page/files/fn2028_put_a_lid_on_it_fillable_information.pdf

University of Missouri Extension, GH1452, Steps for Successful Home Canning, https://extension.missouri.edu/publications/gh1452

University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension, Put a lid on It, Best Practices for Using Closures for Home-Based Canning, https://fyi.extension.wisc.edu/safefood/files/2021/04/Closures_2021.pdf

Marlene Geiger

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

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What’s Your Elevation? Does It Matter?

While residents of most Midwestern States usually don’t think about their elevation, elevation affects cooking and baking as well as home canning.  As elevation rises, air pressure falls and water boils at lower temperatures.

Boiling water at 1014 Ft of elevation

When it comes to everyday cooking and baking, there are few noticeable effects of elevation until one reaches 3000 ft.  Higher altitudes present several challenges when preparing some foods. At higher altitudes, leavened products using yeast, baking powder/soda, egg whites, or steam rise more rapidly, may collapse, and may not be fully cooked. Because water boils at a lower temperature at higher elevations, foods that are prepared by boiling or simmering will cook at a lower temperature, and it will take longer to cook. High altitude areas are also prone to low humidity, which can cause the moisture in foods to evaporate more quickly during cooking. At altitudes above 3,000 feet, preparation of food may require changes in time, temperature or recipe.  For those that find themselves at higher elevations, Colorado State University and New Mexico State University have excellent tips and guidelines for successful baking and cooking.

Because water boils at 212°F at sea level and decreases about 1°F for each 500-ft increase in altitude, adjustments must be made when canning foods at home to ensure home-canned foods are processed safely. The amount of time that jars are held at a certain temperature during canning is important to producing a safe product. Processing times for most recipes are based on elevations of 0-1000 ft unless stated otherwise. When elevations are above 1000 ft, extra time is added for food processed in a water-bath canner.  For food processed in a pressure canner, extra pressure is added.  Both adjustments are needed to get to their respective safe processing temperatures for high acid and low acid foods. 

Each USDA process has an altitude table with it. In this example for Crushed Tomatoes from the USDA Compete Guide to Home Canning, 2015 edition, note that time is increased in 5 minute increments as altitude increases for boiling water canning and pounds of pressure is increased for pressure canning. (Crushed Tomatoes is one example a food that can be processed by either boiling-water bath or pressure.)

While time is adjusted for water-bath canning, pressure regulation differs by the type of pressure canning equipment used—dial- or weighted-gauge canner as noted in the chart. (To be considered a pressure canner, the USDA recommends that a canner be large enough to hold at least 4 quart jars.) Pressure canners have either a dial gauge to indicate the pressure or a weighted gauge to indicate and regulate the pressure. Weighted gauges are designed to “jiggle” several times a minute or to rock gently when they are maintaining the correct pressure. If a dial-gauge canner is used, the gauge needs to be checked each year for accuracy.  If the gauge reads high or low by more than two pounds at 5, 10 or 15 pounds pressure, it should be replaced. If it is less than two pounds off in accuracy, adjustments can be made to be sure you have the required pressure in your canner [NCHFP]. Gauge testing is available at some county extension offices; contact your local extension office for testing availability. See Testing dial pressure canner gauges for more information [University of Minnesota Extension].

Elevation does matter in all aspects of food preparation, but especially so in home canning. Before beginning the canning process, it should be a priority to find and know your elevation.  It is quite easy to find your elevation using one of these sources:

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

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

How to Use a Water Bath Canner video
How to Use a Pressure Canner video

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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Potential Deadly Canning Mistakes

Home canning is an excellent way to preserve garden produce and share it with family and friends, but it can be risky—or even deadly—if not done correctly and safely.  The potential culprit is botulism. 

Although it’s a rare occurrence, botulism is a serious illness caused by a bacterium toxin, Clostridium botulinum, that attacks the body’s nerves. It can cause difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, and even death.  Clostridium botulinum is commonly found in soil, on raw fruits and vegetables, on meat and fish, and many other foods and surfaces. Improperly home-canned, preserved, or fermented foods can provide the right conditions for the bacteria to make the toxin.  One cannot see, smell or taste the toxin, yet if ingested, even a small amount can be deadly. 

To avoid concerns about botulism, steer clear of these canning mistakes [1].

Making Up Your Own Recipe
Use only up-to-date, scientifically tested recipes approved by the USDA and follow directions exactly.  Good sources are The Complete Canning Guide, the National Center for Home Food Preservation, So Easy to Preserve, and land-grant university publications.    Without scientific testing, there is no way to know how long the product needs to be processed to be safe.

Adding Extra Starch, Flour or Other Thickeners
Starches slow the rate of heat penetration into the product and can result in under processing.  Clear Jel® is recommended as a thickener for canned pie fillings. If a product is not as thick as desired going into the jar, it can be thickened at the time of use.

Adding Extra Onions, Chilies, Peppers, or Other Vegetables to Salsas or Sauces
Tested recipes specify the quantity of vegetables allowed to keep the salsa or sauce within the safe pH range.  Most vegetables are low-acid and adding extra vegetables will dilute the acidity and result in an unsafe product.  While it is dangerous to add more vegetables to salsa and sauce recipes, fewer may be used for a milder flavor.  Extra ingredients can be added at the time of use.

Canning by Electric Pressure Cooker, Oven, Open Kettle, Microwave, or Dishwasher
Boiling water bath or pressure are the only approved canning methods. Any other method should be avoided as foods will be under processed and unsafe. Heat is conducted by air in an oven which is less efficient than water or steam. As a result product temperature never exceeds the boiling point; jar breakage is also a possibility. Open-kettle canning, placing hot food in jars and sealing with no further heat treatment, has been considered an unsafe home canning practice since the 1980’s due to insufficient heat to destroy bacteria [2]. Microwaved food reaches 212°F but heating is not uniform; in additon, there is a danger of jar explosion within the microwave oven or as food is being removed [2]. The water temperature of the dishwasher’s cleaning and rinsing cyles is far below that required to kill harmful microorganisms. While electric pressure cookers use pressure for cooking, they do not meet the appliance standards for home pressure canning, even if marketed as safe for pressure canning. Washington State Extension explains all the reasons why electric pressure cookers should not be used for home canning in Canning in Electric Pressure Cookers.

Not Making Altitude Adjustments
The temperature at which water boils is affected by barometric pressure which is reduced with elevation or altitude. When water doesn’t reach the normal boiling temperature, undesired pathogens may survive the canning process. These pathogens could multiply in the canned food and cause sickness.  Processing times and temperatures for recipes in most canning resources are based on canning at an elevation of 1,000 feet above sea level or lower.  When canning at a higher elevation, one must add more pounds of pressure for pressure canning and more processing time for water bath canning.  See charts prepared by South Dakota State University Extension for altitude adjustments.

Not Venting the Pressure Canner
Trapped air inside a pressure canner lowers the temperature obtained for a given pressure and results in under processing.  To be safe, the USDA recommends that all pressure canners be vented 10 minutes before they are pressurized.

To vent a canner, leave the vent pipe (steam vent) uncovered (or manually open the petcock on some older models) after you fill the canner and lock the canner lid in place. Heat the canner on high until the water boils and generates steam that can be seen escaping through the open vent pipe or petcock. When a visible funnel-shape of steam is continuously escaping the canner, set a timer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes of continuous steam, you can close the petcock or place the counterweight or weighted gauge over the vent pipe to begin pressurizing the canner. [3]

Failure to Acidify Canned Tomatoes
Because the pH of tomatoes is an unknown, the USDA recommends that bottled lemon juice be used to lower the pH of the product to be unquestionably safe.

Rushing the Pressure Canner Cool-Down Time
The natural cool-down of the canner is part of the tested processing time.  Hurrying this process will result in under-processed food and siphoning of liquid from the jars.  It may also cause jar breakage.

Allowing “Hot Pack” Foods to Cool in Jars before Processing
Processing times are based on the food being hot at the beginning of the processing.  Foods not starting hot could be under processed. Further, the rule, “hot foods hot and cold foods cold” applies; when foods are held between 40 and 140°F, bacteria can grow rapidly.

Processing Low-Acid Foods in a Water Bath
Canning low-acid foods requires special care. This includes red meats, fish, poultry and all vegetables (except for acidified tomatoes). Low-acid foods can support the production of the deadly botulism toxin if these foods are not processed properly in a pressure canner. A pressure canner heats food to high temperatures (240-250 degrees F or higher) and destroys the spores that produce the botulism toxin. A boiling water bath canner, which can be used for canning pickles or fruit, heats food to boiling temperature (212 F), which is not high enough to ensure safety for canning vegetables and other low-acid foods.[4]

Home canning is perfectly safe but needs to be done correctly.  If you are new to canning (or need a refresher), check out Safe Home Canning Basics, by Minnesota University Extension to learn about preventing botulism and other key issues to be aware of when preserving food by home 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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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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Cleaning Your Iron

When was the last time you cleaned your iron?  Cleaning an iron can be one of those tasks that is easily forgotten or put off.  That is, until the iron seems to be sticking to fabric, spraying dirty water, or leaving black spots on your clothing.  It is not uncommon for dirt, dust, lint, detergent, and spray starch to build up on the soleplate of the iron or for water inside the water reservoir used for steam to cause dirty spots.  For those who sew or do fabric crafts, there is often the sticky residue from fusible interfacings or other fusible/iron-on products.

The frequency with which an iron needs to be cleaned depends on frequency of use and/or how it is used.  At any rate, a cleaning or maintenance schedule that meshes with the frequency or use is important to keeping the iron functioning properly.  If maintaining a schedule is too much, then a good rule of thumb is to clean as soon as a problem is detected—iron doesn’t glide as it should or steam doesn’t come out or sprays or spurts out rusty or black droplets onto the cloth.  All are signs that gunk has accumulated on the soleplate, the steam outlets are clogged, or tap water mineral deposits have accumulated in the water reservoir.

Fortunately, cleaning an iron isn’t that difficult.  If you’ve ever Googled “how to clean an iron”, you will find many shared methods.  And if you have a method that works for you, by all means continue on as the bottom line is to achieve a properly functioning iron.  If you are new to iron cleaning or unsure of how to proceed with your iron, the best route is to consult the owner’s manual as there may be specific guidelines for the kind of soleplate (stainless steel, ceramic, titanium, or non-stick), water reservoir, or self-cleaning feature unique to your iron. (If a manual is lost, often times they can be found online.)

Cleaning the Soleplate

Various options exist for cleaning the soleplate.  I will review the three most common recommended by iron manufacturers.  In all cases, never use anything that could scratch the soleplate.

Hot Iron Cleaners.  Cleaning pastes are found almost anywhere fabric or laundry products are sold and usually restore the iron’s soleplate to perfect condition. They are nontoxic, nonflammable, and nonabrasive.  When the pastes are applied to a very hot iron soleplate, they quickly and easily remove starch, detergent, and fusing residue. These cleaners dissolve the residue either by ironing over the cleaner on an old towel or by squeezing the cleaner onto the soleplate and wiping off residue with an old towel or cloth.   (Rowenta offers a product specific to Rowenta irons for consumers who choose to use it.)  One must be careful to remove the paste from the steam vents as well. (Cotton swabs work great for vent cleaning.)

Iron Cleaning Cloths.  Cleaning cloths (usually in packs of 10) are designed to be disposable and as an alternative to hot iron cleaning pastes for quick clean ups.  They dissolve and remove any residue by simply running the cloth over a hot soleplate. They usually work best for less soiled soleplates or for very regular clean up.  Because there is no paste involved, they do not clog the steam vents.

Baking Soda and Water or Vinegar.  Both baking soda and vinegar are common household cleaners.  They also work wonders as a natural scouring agent to remove grime from an iron’s soleplate.  One begins by mixing baking soda with distilled water or vinegar to make a paste (approximate 2:1 proportions of soda to liquid).  Apply the paste with an old tooth brush to a cool, unplugged iron.  Scrub gently with the brush to loosen the residue; wipe residue away with a microfiber cloth until the soleplate is cleaned. Like the commercial pastes, the steam vents must be cleaned, too. 

Hot vinegar applied to a microfiber cloth works like an iron cleaning cloth if the residue is light.

After cleaning, fill the reservoir with water, heat, and run the iron over an old towel or cloth, pressing the spray button several times to insure the soleplate and vents are clean before ironing clothing. 

Cleaning the Water Reservoir

When cleaning the water reservoir, discretion is needed.  Steam iron reservoirs need to be cleaned out often to ensure that the appliance doesn’t leave rusty or black water marks on clothing or fabric, performs properly, minimizes build up that may damage clothing, and, thereby, extends the life of the appliance.  Whenever possible, follow manufacturer’s directions.

Distilled water is commonly and safely used for cleaning the reservoir and vents.  While there are many distilled water and vinegar recipes suggested for reservoir cleaning, most manufacturers caution against the use of vinegar.  In a previous blog, AnswerLine suggested a method of filling the reservoir with distilled water and allowing the iron to self-steam out the minerals, lint, and other accumulations in the reservoir and vents.

A commercial iron cleaner is another option to decalcify and remove lime and mineral build-up from steam irons and vents. However, some iron manufacturers will void the warranty if you use them as they can be harsh and cause additional damage.

Keep the Iron Working at Its Best

Here’s some tips to protect and keep an iron working at its best.

  • Whenever possible, use distilled water.  Tap water, even when filtered, contains minerals that can clog, corrode, or damage the iron resulting in rusty or black steam or spray.
  • Fill the iron with water before plugging in and while cool.
  • Empty the reservoir before storing the iron—especially if it isn’t used frequently.
  • Store in an upright position.  This will prevent water from leaking if water is left in the reservoir and avoid scratching the soleplate.
  • Avoid pressing or ironing over zippers, snaps, decals, pins, or any screen printing without using a pressing cloth to avoid scratching the soleplate or adhering paint or plastics to the soleplate.

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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A Look at Electric Casseroles

What are electric casseroles? How should they be used?  

Taco Casserole made in a slow cooker casserole.

Electric casseroles are 9×13-in, rectangular crockery slow cookers. Known as casserole cookers or slow cooker casseroles, they work like a slow cooker but are ideal for preparing favorite casserole dishes, lasagna, desserts and more that one would ordinarily bake in the oven because they do not present well when made in a traditional slow cooker.  Like a slow cooker, they are ideal for make-ahead meals to simplify mealtime for busy families.

There are at least two manufacturers that make casseroles cookers—Crock-Pot® and Chefman.  Hamilton Beach also offered one but it appears to no longer be available.  These appliances have a 3.5 quart, stoneware, oven-safe, crock insert that is removable for easy cleaning or for actually baking in the oven.  All of the models come with a locking lid system for easy transport without spills making them safe and ideal for carry-in or potluck meals.  Like a slow cooker, they reduce heat in the kitchen and free up oven space when the kitchen is on overload.  Crock-Pot® offers both a manual setting (high, low, warm) unit as well as a programmable unit; the Chefman appliance offers only manual features. The stoneware crocks are dishwasher-safe making cleanup a breeze.

Should one need to put the removable insert into the oven for baking, reheating, melting toppings or browning, Crock Pot® asserts that the crockery insert can be used safely in the microwave or the oven up to 400ºF without the lid. The Chefman website says the crock insert can be used over an open flame on the stovetop to simmer sauce, sauté vegetables, or brown meat before slow cooking for greater depth of flavor. It can also be used in an oven to roast, bake, or reheat.

Any recipe that one would make in a traditional slow cooker will work in the casserole cookers.  Also any casserole recipe designed for the oven will work as long as additional time is allowed for cooking.  For the most part, the cooking time required of a traditional slow cooker is the same for the casserole cooker.  However, timing may vary some depending upon manufacturers and different appliances.

Here’s some ideas to get one thinking about how to use a slow cooker casserole:  corn casserole, baked beans, scalloped potatoes and ham, funeral potatoes, spaghetti and meat balls, beef and noodles, enchiladas, tater tot casserole, bbq chicken, apple or fruit crisps, lasagna, French toast casserole, egg bake, vegetable gratins, and green bean casserole.  Cookies can even be baked in the crocks.  There are any number of slow cooker recipe books available—a cookbook for everyone, every cuisine, and every occasion—as well as numerous websites with ideas and recipes.

While the casserole cooker option likely won’t replace the traditional slow cooker, it is a great option for slow cooking recipes that are more casserole-like.  I have one and find it quite useful, especially when the family comes home.

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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Kitchen Mixer Scraping Tip

Last year I acquired my mother’s Kitchen Aid® Food Preparer (Mixer).  I didn’t really need it as I’ve had a perfectly good mixer of another brand for many years.  My mixer did all the chores I asked of it and I was completely comfortable with its operation.  However, I just couldn’t bring myself to sell or donate my mother’s prized possession.  She purchased it in 1978 for a sum of money that she worked diligently to pay for by decorating cakes.  She loved it and over the many years that she owned it, it was well used to prepare foods of many kinds.

Wanting to love this piece of equipment as my mother had (and so many friends do), I boxed up my mixer, put it in storage, and set my mother’s mixer in its place.  I had never used a Kitchen Aid® before so I was a novice; fortunately, there was an instruction manual to go with it which guided me on which attachment for what and what speeds to use, etc.  I continue to learn as I try new things with it.  While it can do many operations quite nicely, I was befuddled and frustrated with scraping down the sides of the bowl while creaming butter and sugar or any other operation requiring scraping.  With my previous mixer, I was able to scrape along the inside of the bowl with a rubber/silicon scrapper anytime needed.  Not so with my new friend; every time the bowl needed scraping, I had to stop the machine, lift the head, scrape, and restart the operation.  

As if in answer to my frustration, I spotted an online Food and Wine article sharing information about a new Kitchen Aid® attachment, the Flex Edge Beater, designed specifically to take care of my problem.  The Flex Edge Beater is the classic beating attachment with a sturdy rubber/silicon outer blade wrapped completely or half-way around the blade for the purpose of continuously scraping the sides of the bowl and bring ingredients into the batter.

The article gave some good reasons for using the new attachment with the first being my No 1 problem: no more stopping and lifting to scrape the bowl!  It also mentioned thoroughly combined ingredients (no more flour or other ingredient left at the bottom of the bowl), reduced strain on the motor, and using the beater in place of a spatula to wipe out the bowl.  Sold!

I was not able to find the beater in any of my local stores so I ordered one online.  I am pleased to say that the new flex beater lives up to its promotion and I am indeed beginning to love the new (old) machine.

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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