Get Fired UP! Tips for Baking on the Grill

Nothing says summer quite like the smell and sound of food sizzling on the grill.  In previous blogs, tips for grilling meat and sides—fruits and vegetables—were shared.  Did you know that you can use your grill as an oven for baking, too? 

Anything you can bake in a kitchen oven – casseroles, pies, cookies, brownies, pizza, coffee cake, bread – can be baked on a gas or charcoal grill all summer long without heating up the kitchen.  While you don’t need to adjust the recipes, you do need to figure out how to turn direct heat into indirect heat. Every grill is different, so you’ll need to figure out what will work best with what you’ve got. It’s also a good idea to start with something simple (I started with brownies and pizza) and work up to more complicated baked goods. It may take some time to get it just right, so be patient and write down what you learn along the way. Here are some tips to get you started.

Start with a clean grill.  You don’t want your baked goods to taste like last night’s onions or brats or whatever was grilled last.

Preheat the grill.  Weber [1] has some great tips for preheating and baking with both gas and charcoal grills.  I have a gas grill and have found that preheating to 25⁰ F higher than the desired temperature is helpful.  Heat is lost when placing the unbaked items inside and is not regained as quickly as in an oven.  Every grill is different, so getting the temperature right may take some experimenting. If your grill doesn’t have a built-in thermometer as mine does, invest in one as knowing the temperature inside the grill is important.

Use indirect heat.  To create indirect heat, turning off some burners on a gas grill will be necessary to create indirect heat.  My grill has three burners so I turn 1 and 3 to medium and turn off 2 allowing me to bake in the middle of the grill.   Sometimes, I find the need to turn off both 1 and 2 and use only 3 for heat giving me more space on the grill for baking.  For charcoal grills, move the charcoal to one side of the grill and bake on the side away from the heat.

Choose baking dishes that withstand intense heat.  A pizza stone or a cast iron skillet are perfect options. I bake cookies, pizza, and bread on my pizza stone and casseroles, cakes, brownies, cobblers, and crisps in my cast iron skillet!  Avoid using glassware even if it is Pyrex® as it is prone to breaking despite using indirect grill heat. Grill mats are another options for some baked goods.

Choose recipes that are forgiving.  Since grill baking is less precise than oven baking, choose recipes that will withstand the fluctuating temperatures on a grill.  Cakes are the most finicky. I’ve had the best luck with pizza, brownies, fruit crisps, and casserole dishes.  Flatter, artesian-type breads usually do well for me, too.

Keep an eye on the temperature while baking.  Grill temperature fluctuates more than the oven so sometimes adjustment of temperature is necessary.  I’ve found this to be particularly true when there is wind. Check the temperature frequently while baking and adjust as necessary.

Avoid the temptation to lift the lid.  Lifting the lids releases a lot of heat.  Use your nose as much as possible and if you must lift the lid, make it quick.  It takes a little practice to know that distinct perfect—DONE—smell.  (We all know the one of food baked too long.) 

Grill baking time may be different than oven baking time.  I find that baking goes faster in the grill than in my oven and that the same recipe can vary in time depending upon grill conditions.  While the traditional toothpick inserted into the middle technique works well to determine doneness, it is helpful to insert a temperature probe into the center of the unbaked product to determine when some baked items are done.  For example, cake is done when the probe reaches 210⁰ F.

Baking in a grill takes experimentation and patience.  Grilled baked goods may not turn out the same as baked in an oven.  There may be signs of hot spots or browned more than usual on the bottom.  As long as they are not over-baked (burned), they will still be tasty.  By using your grill, you’ve kept the kitchen cool.  And as a bonus, in the event of a power outage, you will have learned a means of baking without an oven.  Check out Get Fired UP!  Tips for Grilling Meat and Sides—Fruits and Vegetables for additional grilling tips and get into summer grilling in a big way!

This blog was reviewed by Anirudh Naig, Associate Professor in Hospitality Management & State Extension Specialist for Retail Food Safety at Iowa State University.

Marlene Geiger

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

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Get Fired Up! Tips for Grilling Sides – Fruits and Vegetables

Nothing says summer quite like the smell and sound of food sizzling on the grill.  In a previous blog, tips for grilling meat were shared.  While the king of the grill might be meat, the produce aisle is full of goodies that take on amazing flavors when grilled.  Grilling brings out the sweet, toasty, and caramelized flavors that other cooking techniques do not. Besides shining with flavor, there’s very little prep involved.

Here are a few pointers to perfect your vegetable and fruit grilling technique:

  • Wash, trim, and peel as necessary.
  • Make sure to clean the grill grates with a wet cloth or paper towel. If using a metal brush, besure that there are no bristles left behind. Bristles can attach to food and if consumed can cause choking or affect the digestive tract.
  • Prepare pieces that are consistent in size to ensure even cooking.
  • To prevent sticking and add flavor, brush or toss with 1-2 tablespoons oil per pound. Excessive oil will cause flare-ups.  Add any seasonings desired with the oil.
  • Use a perforated grilling basket or grilling mats to prevent items from falling through the grates.  I prefer the grilling mats, copper or non-stick PTEE (PFOA free).  Mats make grilling so easy and still allow foods to take on the grill flavors and coveted grill marks. They are easy to clean and keep the grill grates clean, too. 
  • Stainless steel kabob skewers are best for grilling because they don’t roll and they are easy to flip. Wood or bamboo skewers should be soaked in water for 30 minutes before using to keep them from burning.
  • When grilling a variety of vegetables, be sure to start with the ones that take the longest to cook and add the others incrementally, saving the quickest-cooking ones for last. Produce should be removed before it is soft as it will continue cooking once removed from grill.  On a medium hot grill it typically takes 10 minutes or less for most vegetables to cook.
  • Apply barbecue or other sweet sauce or coatings toward the end of cooking so it has time to glaze but not burn.

Guidelines for Grilling Individual Vegetables

Here are some great tips for grilling individual vegetables from Alexandra Grenci with Rutgers Cooperative Extension [1].

  • Asparagus: The ends of asparagus spears can be tough, so trim them off, then toss the spears in olive oil and salt/pepper and grill for 4-5 minutes over a medium-high grill, then turn and grill another 4-5 minutes.
  • Bell peppers: Remove the core and seeds, then slice each pepper into about four separate sections. Toss with olive oil and salt/pepper and grill over a medium-high heat for 4-5 minutes. Then turn and grill 4-5 minutes longer.
  • Cabbage: Cut the cabbage in half and then slice each half into thick 1-inch slices. Toss with olive oil and your favorite seasonings. You can skewer each big slice to keep it from falling apart. Grill over a medium-high grill for about 10 minutes, then turn and grill for another ten minutes.
  • Cauliflower: Cut the cauliflower into big florets, toss in olive oil and your favorite seasonings and then skewer. Grill over medium-high heat, turning often, for about 10 minutes or until the cauliflower is tender and lightly charred.
  • Corn: Some people like to grill corn with the husks still on, but that’s just steaming the corn, really. By removing the husks and the silk and cooking the corn directly on the grill, the kernels get lightly blackened and caramelized, bringing out tons of sweet corn flavor. You should grill corn over a medium grill for 4-5 minutes, turning frequently.
  • Eggplant: Cut the eggplant into ½-inch slices. Brush them with oil or a simple balsamic vinaigrette, toss with your favorite spices. Grill over a medium-high grill for about 5 minutes, then flip and grill for 5 minutes longer.
  • Mushrooms: Toss white or brown button mushrooms with olive oil and Kosher salt. Then skewer and cook over a medium-high grill for 7-8 minutes, turning frequently. You can also grill a whole Portobello mushroom cap directly on the grill. Grill them smooth-side-down for 8-9 minutes.
  • Onions: Large, sweet onions like Vidalias are great for grilling, as are red onions. Just peel them, cut them into ½-inch slices, toss them in olive oil and your favorite seasonings and cook over a medium-high grill for 2-3 minutes, then turn and grill 2-3 minutes longer. A skewer can be handy to hold the onions together on the grill.
  • Tomatoes: Cherry tomatoes can be skewered and grilled whole, for 3-4 minutes over a medium-high grill. Be sure to turn them frequently so that they cook evenly. You can also grill plum tomatoes. Cut them in half the long way, remove the seeds and grill for four minutes, then turn and grill for four minutes longer.
  • Zucchini and yellow squash: Cut into ½-inch pieces lengthwise, toss in olive oil and salt /pepper and cook over medium-high grill for 4-5 minutes. Then turn and grill another 4-5 minutes longer.

Guidelines for Grilling Fruit

  • Just about any fruit can go on the grill as long as it is fairly firm and not overripe. Peaches, melons, pineapple, pears, tomatoes, bananas, and figs are just some of the fresh fruits that will hold their shape over the coals.
  • Most fruit is fairly fragile, so cut fruit into large chunks, slices, and wheels to help it maintain its structure as it heats up and breaks down. Smaller fruits like grapes and blueberries can be prepared on a skewers.
  • Grilled fruit kabobs are a win at any picnic or barbecue.  Any combination of fruits can be used and they make a perfect appetizer or dessert.
  • In addition to a small amount of oil (neutral) or butter, fruits are best mixed or brushed with a bit of citrus juice (lemon juice prevents browning), maple syrup, or honey prior to grilling.  For additional flavor, try adding cinnamon, chili powder, smoked paprika or a curry blend.
  • Grill fruit over high heat for three minutes without moving or turning it to get the perfect sear (and coveted grill marks). Flip and cook for one to three minutes more.
  • Grill fruit flesh-side down.  If you place it skin side down, you’ll miss the caramelized texture and the heat won’t get through the rest of the fruit evenly.
  • Fruits contain a lot of water, which makes them very hot once they are cooked. Be sure to allow time for grilled fruits to cool down a little before serving.
  • Even though grilled fruit makes a great dessert, it is not just for dessert.  Grilled fruit can be used as a side dish, in fresh salsas, and as part of delicious appetizers.  Taste of Home [2] offers 39 amazing ways to grill fruit.

If you haven’t grilled fruits and vegetables, do give it a try. You will find them tasty, nutritious and a great way to enjoy those foods that are so good for you. Enjoy your grill even more by getting additional Get Fired Up! tips for grilling meat and baking.

This blog was reviewed by Anirudh Naig, Associate Professor in Hospitality Management & State Extension Specialist for Retail Food Safety at Iowa State University.

Marlene Geiger

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

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Get Fired UP! Tips for Grilling Meat

Nothing says summer quite like the smell and sound of food sizzling on the grill.  Of all the foods that can be prepared on the grill, meat is king with everyone’s goal to cook it to perfection.  Whether it is steak, pork chops, chicken, or fish, knowing how to grill each type of meat is crucial for success. There’s nothing worse than overcooking or undercooking the priciest part of the meal! Meat, chicken, hamburgers, or seafood must be fully cooked to a safe internal temperature before serving to prevent falling ill after eating from food poisoning. 

Grill Safely to Prevent Foodborne Illnesses

Before starting any grilling, care needs to be taken to prevent foodborne illness.  The risk of foodborne illness increases during the summer months because disease-causing bacteria grow faster on raw meat and poultry products in warmer weather. Bacteria also need moisture to flourish and summer weather, often hot and humid, provides the perfect conditions. Follow these four USDA recommendations to keep friends and family safe from foodborne illness:

  • Clean – Wash hands and surfaces often.  Prior to placing food on the grill, wipe the grill surface or clean the grill grates with a stiff brush. If a stiff brush is used, inspect the grill surface to ensure there are no bristles left behind; bristles can cause physical contamination if it sticks to the food.
  • Separate – Don’t cross-contaminate. Keep raw meat and poultry apart from cooked foods.  Place grilled food on a clean plate, not the plate you used to carry the raw meat to the grill.
  • Cook – Use a food thermometer to ensure meat and poultry are cooked to a safe temperature to kill harmful germs. When smoking, keep temperatures inside the smoker at 225oF to 300oF to keep meat at a safe temperature while it cooks [1].
    145oF – whole cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and veal (stand-time of 3 minutes at this temperature)
    145oF – fish
    160oF – hamburgers and other ground beef
    165oF – all poultry
    135oF – all pre-cooked meats, like hot dogs
  • Chill – Refrigerate or freeze left-overs promptly – within two hours of cooking (one hour if above 90oF outside.).
    For more food grilling safety tips, see Food Safety Tips to Grilling Pros and Beginners provided by the USDA .

Tips to Ensure Your MEAT Masterpieces Come Off the Grill Flawlessly

  • Prepare the grill by cleaning the grill grates as previously stated. Oil the grates. A great tip I learned from a program on IPTV is to slice an onion in half, stab one half on the onion with a long fork, dip the onion in oil and rub the grates with the onion. It not only does a great job on getting oil on the grates without flare up, but also seasons the grates a little.
  • Pat meat dry using paper towels to remove any excess moisture that would otherwise steam-cook the meat or inhibit caramelization.
  • Liberally rub the meat with a dry brine or salt and pepper to help keep the meat from drying out.  For steaks and chops, season just before grilling.  Salt pulls moisture to the surface so seasoning when the grill is ready keeps that process from drawing moisture out of the meat and making it wet. It helps to rub the meat with a little bit of olive oil prior to seasoning as it helps to hold the seasoning in place.
  • If possible, establish a two-zone cooking area in the grill.  One area should be hot for searing (cooking briefly over high heat) the meat and the other at a cooler temperature for cooking the meat to the desired doneness after searing.  If this is not possible, turn the heat down on the grill after searing. 
  • Once the meat is on the grill, resist all urges to touch or lift it until it releases from the grill naturally. This will aid in solid grill marks which lend flavor and keep the meat from tearing. Once the meat releases, turn it often to allow even cooking.
  • Use a meat thermometer to gauge when the meat is done using the USDA’s Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart, updated in 2020.  After grilling, hot foods should be kept at a minimum of 140⁰F.
  • After the meat has reached temperature, allow it to rest before slicing or eating so the meat has time to reabsorb its favorable juices and make the meat soft and moist.  Cover with foil and let rest a minimum of 3 minutes before serving. The meat temperature will also rise a small amount while resting.
  • Slice the meat against the grain. Cuts made perpendicular to the grain results in short meat fibers which gives a tender bite of meat.

Meat Grilling Specifics from the Pros

For specifics on grilling the various meat types see the following:
Grilling Pork by the National Pork Board.
Grilling Basics for Beef or Expert Grilling Advice from Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Also, How to Grill Steaks Perfectly… For Beginners by Omaha Steaks.  
Poultry Grilling Guide by Weber, B&G Foods, Inc.
How to Grill Fish by the Institute of Culinary Education.

Grilling is more than throwing some meat on a hot grill.  Whether using a gas or charcoal grill, following a few steps when grilling and knowing how to cook and how long to cook the particular food will help assure a successful outcome. The Get Fired Up! grilling tips continues with Grilling Sides–Fruits and Vegetables and Baking on the Grill.

This blog was reviewed by Anirudh Naig, Associate Professor in Hospitality Management & State Extension Specialist for Retail Food Safety at Iowa State University.

Marlene Geiger

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

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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!
_____________________________________
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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Make Lemonade! Drink Lemonade!

Sipping ice-cold lemonade on a hot summer day is one of life’s memorable pleasures.  However, for me, that means lemonade made with real lemons, sugar, and water.  I am not a fan of frozen concentrate, powdered instant mixes, or bottled or canned (refrigerated or shelf-stable) lemonades.  While the latter are very convenient, they just don’t make the mark for me; they are nowhere near as delicious as a homemade version and often are full of artificial ingredients.  There’s seriously nothing more refreshing than a big glass of cold, fresh squeezed lemonade.

There are two easy ways to make fresh lemonade—fresh squeezed or DIY concentrate.  Either option is made with just three simple ingredients—fresh lemons, sugar, and water.  Making your own lemonade gives the option to adjust the sweetness to one’s liking and also add other fruits or herbs to the mix—like strawberries or mint.   WARNING!  There are downsides to making your own lemonade: it may ruin your taste for any store-bought lemonade, be more costly, and require preparation time.

Get Squeezing and Make Lemonade.

Fresh Squeezed.  Fresh squeezed lemonade can be made by combining fresh lemon juice, sugar, water, and ice followed by stirring or shaking to dissolve the sugar OR by combining the lemon juice with a simple syrup and pouring over ice.  Recipes for both styles of fresh lemonade can be found at food.com and tastesbetterfromscratch.com.

DIY Lemonade Concentrate.  Concentrate is made by adding fresh lemon juice to a simple sugar.  It can be store in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks or in the freezer for up to 6 months (for best quality). When the mood strikes, the concentrate is simply diluted with water and ice.   A good recipe can be found at realsimple.com.

Health Benefits Derived from Drinking Lemonade

As it turns out, the adage, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” is good advice.  Beyond quenching your thirst, fresh lemonade has many health benefits because it contains lemon juice—lemons are one of the superfoods. Lemonade made with real lemons is an easy way to get a healthy dose of lemon juice.  Lemon juice is an especially good source of vitamins (C, B6, A), folate, potassium, phytonutrients and antioxidants (flavonoids) that can assist the body in numerous ways.   Some benefits include:

Assist with Digestion:  Citric acid stimulates the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach which improves digestion. Citric acid also slows the break down food and absorption of nutrients in the gut.

Prevent Kidney Stones:  According to researchers at UC San Diego [1], lemons have the highest concentration of citrate of all citrus fruits.  Citrate is a natural inhibitor of kidney stone formation and also breaks up small stones that are forming. The more citric acid in your urine, the more protected you are from forming new kidney stones [2]

Improve LDL Cholesterol Levels.   Citrus fruits contain a compound known as citrus limonoids. One type of limonoid, called limonin found in the juice of lemons, may help reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol and improve heart health.

Prevent Cancer:  The antioxidants found in lemons have been shown to prevent cells in your body from deforming which can lead to cancer developing and/or spreading.

Lower Blood Pressure:  Lemons contain a high amount of potassium which can help to calm numerous cardiac issues.

Risks of Consuming Lemonade

If consumed in excess, lemonade could cause gastric reflux problems or heartburn for those who suffer from the conditions. Citric acid can also wear down tooth enamel.  For that reason, drinking lemonade through a straw is encouraged.  Additionally, there are approximately 28 grams of carbohydrate (sugar) or 150 calories in a 12 oz glass of lemonade.  

Fresh lemonade—it really does a body good!

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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Vinegar Shelf Life and Safety

Dear AnswerLine, I found several jugs of unused vinegar in my pantry with old “Best By” dates on them.  Can I safely use them for canning, pickling, and other general cooking?  Does vinegar spoil or become less acidic over time? Are they still good for cleaning?  Should old vinegar be disposed of?

Almost Indefinite Shelf Life

Vinegar is a fermented product and has an “almost indefinite” shelf life according to the Vinegar Institute [1].  “Because of its acid nature, vinegar is self-preserving and does not need refrigeration.  White distilled vinegar will remain virtually unchanged over an extended period of time.  And while changes can be observed in other types of vinegars, such as color or the development of a haze or sediment, this is only an aesthetic change.  The product can still be used and enjoyed with confidence.”  The main component of vinegar, acetic acid, is relatively stable under the right conditions.

Because there are few organic compounds to cause random reactions affecting the quality of white distilled vinegar, StillTasty [2] concurs that commercially prepared white distilled vinegar keeps indefinitely.  Like white vinegar, commercially prepared cider, malt, balsamic, rice, wine, and flavored vinegars are also safe indefinitely. However, over time, the appearance and flavor of non-white vinegars may start to change.  Most of these changes are harmless if the vinegar has been stored properly.  Due to the changes that may take place, StillTasty recommends that these non-white vinegars are of best quality if used within 2-3 years of purchase.  The “Best By” date is not a safety date, but rather the manufacturer’s estimate of how long the vinegar will remain at peak quality.  The “Best By” date, by convention, for most manufacturers is two years from the production date. 

To maximize the shelf life of all vinegars, store them in a cool, dark cupboard away from direct heat or sunlight. Vinegar should only be stored in glass, plastic, or non-reactive containers.  It is important that the lid is secured and replaced immediately after use to reduce the amount of oxygen coming in contact with the vinegar.   The acidity of vinegar does not change unless moisture or water gets into the container.

Common and Harmless Changes in Vinegar

Cloudiness – Once opened and exposed to air, harmless “vinegar bacteria” may start to grow. This bacteria causes the vinegar to cloud.  Cloudiness does not affect the quality of the vinegar or its flavor.  Straining cloudy vinegar through a coffee filter may clear it.

Color – Red wine vinegar may become a pale red if sulfites are not added in the manufacturing processes.  Other vinegars can change color by a process known as the Maillard reaction. Residual sugars and amino acids in many fruit vinegars may cause a browning over time similar to the browning of baked food. This reaction is long time (likely years) in coming.  A change in color likely indicates a change in taste as well.

Sediment – Vinegars are usually filtered to make them clear.  Those that are less filtered can form sediment over time as the particles settle.  To deal with sediment, simply strain the vinegar through a coffee filter set inside a fine-mesh strainer before using it.

Mother – Most vinegars are pasteurized unless stated otherwise. When pasteurization is incomplete or the vinegar is re-inoculated with vinegar bacteria from the air after opening, a slimy, amorphous blob or substance will form and float near the bottom. This is a vinegar mother and is just bacteria that feeds on alcoholic liquids.  If one develops, it simply means that there were some sugars or alcohol that weren’t completely fermented in the vinegar process.  Mother can be strained out using a coffee filter.  Some look on a mother as something beneficial to health or to restart their own batch of vinegar.

Canning and Pickling

When considering vinegar for canning and pickling, it is always best to use fresh ingredients as they are very important to the process. If you start with good ingredients, your product will likely be successful.  As previously stated, acetic acid, is relatively stable so any vinegar with 5% acidity is safe to use regardless of age for canning and pickling.  However, non-white vinegars may lose flavor so for that reason, fresh vinegar may be advisable.  Also, if any vinegar is showing any of the harmless changes mentioned, it would be best to not use the vinegar for canning or pickling as such changes may cause unwanted darkening, cloudiness, off flavor, or sediment in the product. Further, should there be any sign of condensation in the container or the container was left open for a period of time, the vinegar could possibly be less than 5% acidic and therefore, should not be used for canning or pickling.

Past Its Prime – No Need to Toss

Contrary to “when in doubt, toss it out,” there is no need to toss out older vinegars.  They are safe to use but may change over time.  If the change is too bothersome for food preparation, vinegar past its prime can still be used for cleaning, weed control, fabric softening, and dying to name a few.  There are a plethora of websites touting the many uses of vinegar.  You may wish to begin with tips from the Vinegar Institute [3].

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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Celebrating Animal Crackers with DIY Animal Crackers

My granddaughter loves to celebrate every significant day possible.  As I was peeking ahead in the April celebration calendar, I saw that National Animal Cracker Day is April 18.  While I was immediately hit with nostalgia remembering the times my grandmother allowed me to pick out a box of Barnum’s Animal Crackers in that well-known circus train box with the string handle, I knew it was a great opportunity to share a fun activity with my grandchildren–DIY animal crackers. 

Animal crackers were originally made at home in England and known as animal biscuits (biscuit being the British word for cookie).  Keeping with tradition, we, too, made our animal crackers at home.  We used a recipe from the King Arthur Flour (KAF) website [1]. (While the KAF recipe worked perfectly, it is essentially a shortbread recipe.)  The KAF site suggested using small, spring-loaded, plunger cookie cutters to make the animal cutouts more realistic.  (The cutters are available on the KSF site as well as from other online vendors.) Any small cookie cutter could be used but we liked the imprints on the animals so we purchased a set of the cutters and found them to be amazing!  With two plunges of the spring, the cutters cut the shape, imprinted the animal details, and popped out the cut shape.  It really was that easy—even for young children! The crackers came out perfect nearly every time!  After we cut the shapes, we froze them for 15 minutes before baking.  They came out of the oven picture perfect!

It was also fun to share a little of my animal cracker nostalgia with the kids and a little history of the famed crackers.  As already noted, the English made animal biscuits at home. Animal crackers, as we know them today, are thought to have originated in England in 1889 when PT Barnum toured England with his famous circus. Inspired by the ‘circus in town’, several companies began manufacturing circus packaging for the animal biscuits and called them Barnum’s.

Across the pond, Stauffer’s in York, Pennsylvania, was also making animals cookies. Stauffer’s began making their version of animal cookies in 1871 and is still using their original recipe today but making them much smaller.  However, the English Barnum’s migrated across the Atlantic and were an instant hit with Americans. The demand for these crackers grew to the point that other bakers began to produce them domestically making their own version along with changing ‘biscuit’ to cracker.  Most of these early animal crackers were sold in bulk from cracker barrels or in tins.   

It was the ingenious marketing of the National Biscuit Company (Nabsico) in 1902 that put the animal treats on store shelves as “Barnum’s Animals,” named after the famed showmen, P.T. Barnum, in small, snack-size boxes.  A circus-theme box was designed for the 1902 Christmas season with the innovative idea of attaching a string to turn gift into ornament using the string to hang the box on the Christmas tree. These small cartons, which retailed for 5 cents at the time of their release, were a big hit and have remained so to this day.  In 1948, the product became Barnum’s Animal Crackers.  The circus train theme with caged animals in box cars was continued in various versions until 2018 when a new box design was created freeing the animals from the cages [2].

While we weren’t able to make our crackers on April 18 or have circus boxes for our crackers, we enjoyed making and eating them.  And, yes, we ate the heads first!

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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Time for Spring-Dug Parsnips

This past week, we dug the last of our parsnips.  Spring-dug parsnips are characterized as ‘the cream of the crop!’ and I couldn’t be more of an advocate.  The seeds, sown nearly a year ago, grew into healthy plants over the summer and were left to die back in the fall.  After a frost or two, a few were dug; the remainder of the row was left to winter over in the ground. They are a great roasted vegetable in the fall, but nothing like those left in the ground for a winter deep freeze.  The extreme cold converts the starches into sugar and allows the flavor to mellow.  The timing is critical for spring-dug parsnips; they need to be dug as soon as you can get into the ground with a shovel or fork and just as their tops start to show new growth.  If they are left in the ground too long in the spring and the tops start to grow out, they become woody. 

Never had parsnips?  Some mistakenly refer to them as white carrots, but while they may be related to carrots distantly, they are actually part of the parsley family.  They are a cream-colored, gnarled, carrot-shaped root vegetable.  They can be eaten raw but are best prepared by roasting, frying, grilling or steaming to bring out their distinct succulent flavor and nutty sweetness.  They have a tan peel that is typically removed before use; peeling also removes their gnarly surface.  The flesh is cream-white.  They are a very versatile vegetable with recipes ranging from roasted side dishes, soups and stews, mashed, turned into fries, and even made into wine.  They pair well with other root vegetables, too.  Like potatoes or an apple, parsnips oxidize when exposed to air after their peelings are removed. If not prepared right away, cut parsnips should be placed in water to reduce the effect.

Being white in color, one would tend to believe that they offer little nutrition.  Quite the opposite is true.  According to the USDA [1], a half-cup serving of parsnips are high in heart-healthy fiber providing 3 grams of fiber and only 55 calories. They are a low-fat food yet a good source of numerous vitamins (especially C and K), minerals (especially folate and manganese), and antioxidants.  (Note that the level of vitamin C is somewhat reduced with the cooking.)

Besides the home garden, parsnips are available at the supermarket and likely can also be found at the late fall and spring farmer’s markets. Spring is the best time to give them a try if you are new to parsnips.  If you are lucky enough to find this once-a-year spring treasure, choose fleshy, fresh, firm, medium-sized and even surfaced roots.  Avoid woody, over-matured, long, thin, and tail-like roots as they are off-flavored and have tough fiber.  Also avoid soft, pitted, shriveled, knobby, or damaged roots. 

Fresh parsnips should be stored in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator where they should last three to four weeks [2]. Use cooked, refrigerated parsnips within three days.  Parsnips can also be frozen [3] for later use by cutting into 1/2-inch cubes, water blanching for 2 minutes, cooling promptly in cold water, draining, and packing and sealing into containers, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Fully cooked parsnip puree may also be frozen for up to 10 months for best quality.  Drying is another method for preserving parsnips as well.

For more information on parsnips, check out Growing Carrots and Parsnips in Home Gardens by the University of Minnesota Extension [4].

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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DIY Corned Beef

Corned beef brisket sliced on a cutting board

Corned beef and cabbage has been the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal for my family and invited friends for many years. We are not of Irish descent, but do enjoy the St Patrick’s Day cuisine.   While St Patrick’s Day is celebrated around the world, corned beef is strictly an Irish-American tradition.  It isn’t the national dish of Ireland nor the food you would eat on St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin.

The early Irish immigrants are credited for giving us corned beef, however.  In their homeland, St. Paddy’s Day was celebrated with boiled bacon.  Being too poor to afford the high price of pork and bacon products, they turned to a cheap cut of beef (brisket) and adapted Eastern European and Jewish brining methods to prepare the meat.  “Corned” has nothing to do with corn; instead it refers to the corn-sized salt crystals (saltpeter) used during the brining process to cure or pickle the meat.  Their new celebration dish was paired with cabbage as it was one of the cheapest vegetables available to them.

Corned beef is essentially beef cured in a salt brine, with some pickling spices for added flavor. It is readily available around St Patrick’s Day in ready-to-cook form and available at most delis year round. It can also be made at home using fresh brisket or any other cut of beef desired.

I decided that this year I would attempt making my own corned beef and in the process learn another food preservation technique first-hand.  After looking at a few recipes, it became apparent that while the technique was nearly the same from recipe to recipe, the seasoning for pickling varied and there was a learning curve regarding curing salts referred to as ‘pink curing salt’ for me. 

Salt (sodium chloride), in general, acts as a preservative and by osmosis action pulls water out of the meat cells as well as any bacteria, killing or preventing it from multiplying by dehydration.  Even though salt is a dehydrator, it also produces a contradictory reaction making brined meat moister and juicier by changing the shape of the cell protein to hold more juice.  Care should be taken in the amount of salt used in the brine.  1Ruhlman and Polcyn recommend a 5-percent brine, 5 ounces of salt per 100 ounces of water. Kosher salt is preferred but it is not absolutely necessary; table or pickling salt can be used.  Since kosher salt has larger crystals, a lesser amount of finer grained salts should be used.  (See this Morton Salt conversion table.)

Pink curing salts are a mixture of sodium chloride (93.75%) and sodium nitrite (6.25%) and serve as a preservative by inhibiting bacterial growth as well as giving cured meats their characteristic reddish color and savory, sharp flavor. Pink curing salt used for brining have such names as InstaCure #1, Prague Powder #1, DQ Cure #1 and Modern Cure #1.  I had to order a small packet online as none was available in my supermarkets.

Pink curing salt should not be confused with Himalayan salt which is also pink; the two salts are only similar in color and sodium chloride content. Curing salts are colored pink so that they are not confused with table or pickling salt as, if used in quantity, they are toxic. The National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends that consumers use 1 ounce of curing salt for every 25 pounds of meat or one level teaspoon of cure for 5 pounds of meat.

There is some controversy over the use of sodium nitrite in curing meats as with frequent consumption of cured meat, some studies have shown a risk of certain types of cancer. (Per University of Minnesota scientists, “based on available evidence to date, nitrite as used in meat and meat products is considered safe because known benefits outweigh potential risks.”2) Because nitrites are also found in vegetables, it is estimated that around 90 percent of the nitrite in our bodies comes from vegetables, while just 10 percent comes from processed meats.2   If curing salt is not used, the brined meat must be cooked immediately after curing and one should expect grey meat; salt used in the brine turns the meat grey.

Regardless of recipe, making corned beef is a three-step process and is easily done. The biggest difference in recipes is the pickling spice mix.

Step 1.  Make a salty curing brine of water, kosher salt, and pickling spices with any combination that appeals in flavor. Pickling spice, mustard seed, allspice berries coriander seeds, peppercorns, juniper berries, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cloves, and ground ginger are just some of the pickling spice suggested.   The brine for corned beef usually contains a small amount of sugar (white or brown) and pink curing salt. Sugar helps to cut some of the harsher effects of salt and enhances flavor.  The brine is boiled and chilled.  Boiling activates the pickling spices to flavor the brine and insures that the sugar and salt are fully dissolved.

Step 2. Add meat to the chilled brine and marinate in the refrigerator. This is perhaps the most difficult as it involves finding a sealable, non-reactive container big enough for brisket and brine to marinate for 5-10 days and a space large enough in the refrigerator. The container should be plastic, glass, or stainless steel. Other metal containers will react with the brine solution and give the meat a metallic flavor.  A large zip bag on a tray is a good option if the brisket is not too big and both will fit in the refrigerator. The brisket should be turned daily during this time to insure that it is cured evenly and thoroughly.

Step 3.  Rinse and simmer in the same way as a prepared corned beef brisket from the supermarket.  The brisket is rinsed to remove the brine and simmered in water covering the meat with more pickling spices for at least three hours or until tender.  Once the meat is tender, it should be sliced against the grain for serving. Cutting through the muscle fibers shortens them and makes each piece easier to chew. 

Obviously, DIY’ers need to start early.  Since this is my first attempt, I started extra early giving me time to purchase a prepared corned beef should I fail.  I’ve gathered by ingredients, made the brine, and am currently marinating the brisket.  Assuming I am successful, I will slice the cooked brisket/corned beef and freeze it for use on St Paddy’s Day.  I will also defat the cooking liquid and freeze it for cooking the cabbage, potatoes and carrots to accompany the brisket for the once-a-year meal.

With any luck, this DIY adventure will end well with a “Ta-Da! Corned Beef from scratch!” and we will enjoy the flavoring derived from the combination of spices chosen.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

To learn more about corning, curing, and salts, I used the following resources:
1Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, 2013. 
Joy of Cooking, by Irma S Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker, John Becker, and Megan Scott, 2019.
National Center for Home Food Preservation:  Curing and Smoking Meats for Home Food Preservation
2Nitrite in Meat by Richard J Epley, Paul B Addis and Joseph J Warthesen, Minnesota Extension Service, University of Minnesota Agriculture
The Ultimate Guide to Curing Salts from the Smoked Barbecue Source website

Follow up to blog: “Ta Da!!!” The corned beef adventure was a total success! The meat is tasty and succulent with a lovely pink/red color; I would not hesitate to do it again. There will be no need to purchase a prepared corned beef for this family.

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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‘Celerybrating’ Celery

March is National Celery Month.  Even though celery may not be one of the most exciting foods to blog about, there are plenty of good reasons to. Celery is an amazingly versatile vegetable that can provide so many benefits for you and your family. Besides, it is a favorite food of mine and has been since my Grandma introduced it to me as a snack with peanut butter and raisins in my childhood.

Celery is native to the Mediterranean and is considered a marshland vegetable.  It really is quite easy to grow in the home garden as long as it has plenty of water.  Celery adds crunch to salads while adding lots of flavor to casseroles, soups, stuffing and a variety of cuisines. And it is always a great snack with dips, cheese spreads, avocado, or peanut butter.  Don’t forget that celery leaves are as nutritious as the stalks; the dark green outer leaves have the most flavor but are often a little tough so they are great additions to soups and stews.  The tender and milder inner leaves can be chopped along with the stalks for any recipe that calls for celery or used as a garnish.  It is also possible to dry celery leaves and use them to flavor anything that needs a ‘celery lift.’

Celery is high in fiber and as such is filling. Per serving (2-3 medium stalks), celery has only 16 calories and is 95 percent water. While not a superfood, it is a good source of potassium and vitamins A and C.  Celery is also a source of sodium nitrate which our bodies convert to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps relax our arteries, which reduces blood pressure and improves blood flow throughout the body. Celery is known as a negative calorie food because it requires more calories to digest it than one consumes by eating it.  Plus, it’s low on the glycemic index, meaning it has a slow, steady effect on blood sugar.  Thus, it is a great food for dieters.

Celery has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. As far back as 850 B.C., celery seed was believed to have healing powers. Celery still plays a role in traditional Chinese medicine because it contains a plant compound called apigenin which is an anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, and antioxidant agent.  Celery also contains a flavonoid called luteolin that has shown promise in preventing the spread of cancer cells. Other benefits include preventing gallstones, aids in indigestion, and helps to lower blood pressure.  Because these nutrients occur in relatively small amounts in celery, eating celery alone is not likely to prevent or cure any disease.

In recent times, celery juice has become popular.  While eating celery stalks and using celery in recipes is healthy and important, drinking pure celery juice is more nutrient dense.  When celery is juiced, the pulp or fiber is removed so one is able to consume far more celery as juice than by eating it.  Moreover, it’s very hydrating and low in sugar making it a great alternative to sugary beverages.  While there are health benefits to celery juice, consumers should be weary of claims that celery juice detoxes the body as these claims are not supported by science. Further, celery juice has a high concentration of sodium nitrates which may be of concern to some. People on salt-restricted diets may wish to avoid celery juice as a single cup of celery juice contains around 215 mg of sodium.

Low in calories, packed with flavor, fiber, and crunch, celery is an amazing vegetable that can promote health and with good health, comes happiness—all reasons to celebrate! What are we waiting for? With so many benefits, we should be adding celery to our meals in whatever way chosen not only in March but always. How will your ‘celerybration’ look?

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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