Asparagus Now and Later

There is no denying it! Spring and asparagus go hand in hand. Whether it comes from the garden, supermarket, or farmer’s market, asparagus is perfect for any meal. While asparagus may be a symbol of spring, it can and should be enjoyed year round.

Bundle of fresh asparagus spears

Asparagus is a great source of fiber, folate, potassium, and vitamins K, E, A, and C. (Because it is a good source of vitamin K, those who are on blood thinning medications should monitor the amount consumed.)  Asparagus does not contain fat or cholesterol and is very low in calories—just 4 calories per spear and approximately 27 calories in a one cup serving.

Peak season is usually mid-April to early/mid-June in the Midwest depending upon the season. When the temperatures warm in June, the spears begin to get spindly indicating it is time to stop harvesting and let the plants mature into their fern-like foliage and replenish for the next growing season.

Selecting and Preparing Asparagus

Green is the most common color of asparagus. However, it can also be white or purple. White asparagus is green asparagus that has been covered to block out light to the green shoots so that photosynthesis cannot take place. White asparagus has a very mild flavor and because of the extra effort to cover and blanch it, it is usually more expensive. Like white asparagus, purple asparagus also has a mild flavor; it also exhibits a nuttiness and sweetness due to a higher natural sugar content. It is best used raw or cooked minimally as it will turn green with cooking. Purple asparagus is a result of a genetic mutation of a variety of green asparagus; purple has 40 chromosomes instead of the natural 20 found in green and contains anthocyanins contributing the purple color.

Regardless of color, select stalks that are smooth, uniform in color, and have compact tips. Avoid stalks that are shriveled, limp, or have open, seedy tips—all signs of aging or improperly cared for spears. Do a sniff test; old asparagus gets smelly fast.

Asparagus can be prepared in any number of ways—broiled, steamed, grilled, roasted, sautéed, air fried—or used fresh or par-cooked/cooled in salads. Whatever cooking method is used, the cooking time is short as asparagus is easily overcooked. Strive for stalks that are tender crisp. 

Wash and remove the woody stems prior to cooking or using fresh. Gently bend the stalk until the woody part snaps away naturally. Peeling is a personal option; some people like to peel the lower stalk or remove the scales when the stalks are ½-inch or larger as the lower stems may be a little tougher.

Storing or Preserving Asparagus to Retain Freshness

Asparagus is best used fresh. Store asparagus spears in the refrigerator with the ends wrapped in a damp paper towel or with the stalk ends in shallow water. Loosely cover with plastic to prevent dehydration. If asparagus has been purchased at the market, cut the stalk ends about an inch before wrapping or placing in shallow water. Asparagus will keep well in the refrigerator for a week or longer using one of these methods. Watch asparagus for signs of spoiling—cloudy water, soft/mushy heads, limp stalks, off odor. If heads are drooping but not soft, remove the head and use the rest of the stalk for soup.

Asparagus can be preserved by freezing, drying, canning or pickling for year-round use. In all cases, young, tender spears should be selected and thoroughly washed. Scales should be removed if the directions/recipe directs such. Blanching is needed prior to freezing or drying. Blanching—scalding vegetables in boiling water or steam for a short time—is a must for almost all vegetables to be frozen. It stops enzyme action which can cause loss of flavor, color and texture; cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms; brightens the color; helps retard loss of vitamins; and makes packing easier. Timing is also critical. Underblanching stimulates the activity of enzymes and is worse than no blanching. Overblanching causes loss of flavor, color, vitamins and minerals.

Freezing. Sort the spears into sizes and cut into even lengths. Water blanch small spears for 2 minutes, medium spears 3 minutes and large spears for 4 minutes. Steam blanching is also an option and takes about 1 1⁄2 times longer than water blanching. After blanching is complete, remove the asparagus from the water and put in ice water. This stops the cooking action and retains color, texture and flavor. After it has cooled, drain and package, leaving no headspace OR tray pack prior to packaging.

Pickling. The addition of vinegar to asparagus increases the acidity allowing for processing in a boiling water bath. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a tested recipe for Pickled Asparagus.  Note that the use of hot peppers in the recipe is optional. Delicate spears enhanced with garlic and dill remain flavorful and crisp.

Drying (Dehydrating). A dehydrator or an oven may be used. To successfully dry asparagus, follow directions by Colorado State Preserve Smart. Watch the spears closely at the end of the drying period to prevent scorching and be sure to condition prior to long-term storage.

Canning. Asparagus is a low-acid vegetable so a pressure canner must be used to guarantee the spears or pieces are shelf safe and free from clostridium botulinum, the toxin that causes botulism. The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides directions for spears or pieces by hot or raw pack.

Make the asparagus season last as long as possible! Store fresh asparagus properly to retain freshness or preserve it to make the season last through the year.

Sources:
National Center for Home Food Preservation
Drying Asparagus, Colorado State Preserve Smart
Preparing and Preserving Asparagus, PennState Extension
Using, Storing, and Preserving Asparagus, Michigan State University Extension

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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Spouting or Greening Potatoes . . . Keep or Toss?

“Should a potato with sprouts be used or tossed?” There is a great deal of conflicting advice on the question of use or toss. It comes down to the condition of the potato.

Sprouted potatoes in bag
Photo: MGeiger

As the warmer months approach, potatoes in storage may be showing signs of sprouting or even vigorously sprouting; shriveling may also accompany sprouting as the starch in the potato is converted to sugar to feed the new plants. Potatoes have an inherent natural dormancy maintained by endemic plant hormones. The concentration of the hormones in the tubers decreases over time resulting in sprouts forming at the eyes. When sprouting starts to occurs, this is a sign that the dormant period is over and nature is telling them it is time to reproduce. Even under ideal well ventilated, cool, dry, and dark storage conditions, this natural phenomenon occurs. Potatoes that are improperly stored in the home may exhibit the same sprouting and shriveling regardless of time of year as conditions may trick them into “thinking spring.”

Why the Concern?

Potatoes contain two kinds of glycoalkaloids called solanine and chaconine. Both are naturally occurring chemical compounds. Glycoalkaloids are found throughout potato tubers, but are in highest concentration in the leaves, flowers, sprouts, green skin and the area around the potato ‘eyes’. The lowest concentration is found in the flesh of the tuber.

In normal tubers, glycoalkaloids concentrations are small with a slightly higher concentration in a thin layer immediately under the skin and around the eyes. Peeling potatoes and removing the eyes reduces the presence of the compound. The concentration of glycoalkaloids in sprouts is much higher and can be high enough to be toxic to humans. The more potatoes sprout, the greater the presence of glycoalkaloids in both the sprout and potato itself. High concentrations of glycoalkaloid compounds give potatoes an unpleasant, bitter taste and can lead to headaches, vomiting and other digestive issues.

According to articles by Michigan State and North Carolina Extensions, removing the sprouts will allow safe consumption of the rest of the potato as long as the potatoes are firm, not soft or shriveled, and the sprouts are small. Further, most of the nutrients are still intact. But if the sprouts are long (1 inch or more) and the potato has shriveled, it should be tossed.

The same is nearly true for potatoes exhibiting greening. Green skinned potatoes have been exposed to too much light. Light causes the potato to produce chlorophyll and activate the skin cells to produce solanine which has a bitter taste and is an irritant to the digestive system. Because of the bitter taste, most people do not eat enough to get sick. Despite that, always use caution when greening is found on the tubers as this indicates elevated levels of solanine. Peeling the potato and removing the green portions by simply cutting them out will eliminate most of the toxin. However, if more extensive greening occurs into the tuber, throw the tuber away. Never eat tubers that are green beneath the skin. 

Cooking does not destroy glycoalkaloid compounds; therefore, potatoes exhibiting sprouts and shriveling or deep green parts should not used. Potatoes that are firm and exhibiting only small sprouts at the eye and/or skin-deep greening can be eaten if the entire sprout and any green-tinged parts of the potato are cut away.

Storing Potatoes to Prevent Sprouting and Greening

Storing potatoes the right way will prevent sprouting and greening. As mentioned earlier, potatoes should be stored in a cool (45-50 degrees), dark, dry, and well ventilated location for maximum freshness.  Kept in these conditions, potatoes will likely last up to three months or longer. At room temperature, potatoes will usually last about 2 weeks. Storing potatoes in a cellar or cool basement is ideal. Storage areas should always be away from appliances that give off heat or any area that allows light. If potato tubers will be consumed soon, they can be stored in a cupboard/pantry in a paper bag.

Don’t store potatoes in the fridge. Cold temperatures turn the starches in potatoes into sugars. This makes potatoes sweeter and cook dark. Also, potatoes should not be stored with onions. Storing them together shortens their shelf life. Onions produce ethylene gas which causes potatoes to spoil prematurely. The high moisture content of potatoes can cause onions to turn brown and rot.

In conclusion, sprouted or green potatoes are not necessarily destined for the landfill or compost pile.  With certain precautions, the potato may be safe to eat as long as sprouts and green spots can be cut away. If there is extensive sprout growth, shriveling, and deep green within the tuber, potatoes should be tossed to prevent risk of potential toxicity from solanine and chaconine, the two natural glycoalkaloid compounds found in potatoes.

For other questions about food safety and storage advice that will help keep food safe after purchase or harvest, The Food Keeper is an excellent resource. This handy reference tool was produced by the Food Marketing Institute at Cornell University in conjunction with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It contains useful guidelines for storing food safely. The app is just a finger touch away for IOS and Android smartphones users by visiting the App Store or Google Play and searching for “FoodKeeper Mobile App.” The same app is also available for computer or pads at FoodSafety.gov.

Sources:
Toxic Glycoalkaloids in Potatoes, Centre for Food Safety
Glycoalkaloids in Potato Tubers, Oregon State University Extension
Food Safety of Potatoes, Michigan State University Extension 
Is It Safe to Eat a Potato That Has Sprouted?, North Carolina Extension
Is It Safe to Eat Sprouted Potatoes? Here’s What the Experts Say, EatingWell
Are Sprouted Potatoes Safe to Eat?, Poison Control

Reviewed and updated 3-2024, mg.

Marlene Geiger

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

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Freezing Yeast Dough

The frozen yeast dough products available at the supermarket are a nice convenience. But did you know that yeast dough can also be prepared at home and frozen to nearly duplicate the convenience of a ready-to-use product?

Bread rolls
Baked rolls – Photo: mrgeiger

Fleischmann’s Yeast introduced home bakers to freezing yeast dough in their 1972 publication, Fleischmann’s Bake-it-easy Yeast Book. Included in the book were the very first recipes for frozen dough one could make at home, freeze, and bake later. The recipes introduced were specifically developed for freezing and to this day, they remain the standards for freezing yeast doughs.

It should be noted that freezing dough at home may not yield the same results as commercially frozen dough but is still a means to delicious, freshly baked bread when time is short. Frozen dough manufacturers have access to superior dough stabilizers and freezing equipment that freeze the dough very quickly, allowing doughs to freeze with minimal damage to the yeast and dough structure. Dough freezes slower in home freezers increasing the risk of damage to the yeast and dough structure.

Tips for Preparing Yeast Dough for the Freezer  

  • According to Fleischmann’s Yeast, only yeast dough recipes specially developed for freezing should be used for best results. Freezer dough recipes usually call for more yeast and sugar and less salt and fat. The most success is achieved with roll or pizza dough. The method of preparation is not limited; dough can be made by hand mixing and kneading, mixer, food processor, or bread machine.
  • Original freezer-dough recipes used all-purpose flour. Today, it is recommended to replace all-purpose flour with bread flour as it helps to maintain better structure.   
  • Active dry yeast should be used instead of fast-acting yeast. Fast-acting yeast is not ideal for recipes that require a long rising time. King Arthur Baking suggests making the dough with cool, not lukewarm liquid (water or milk) to keep the yeast as dormant as possible so that it is less vulnerable to damage during the freezing process.
  • To compensate for the yeast that will inevitably die in the freezing process, King Arthur Baking suggests increasing the yeast by ¼ to ½ teaspoon per 3 cups (360 grams) of flour.
  • Dough may be frozen at two junctures:
    1) after kneading and before the first rise (proofing) OR
    2) after the first or second rise.  
    American Test Kitchen tested both junctures and found “freezing the dough between the first and second proofs was the best strategy. The first proof ensured that enough yeast had fermented for the dough to develop complex flavors and for some gluten development for better baked size. The remaining viable yeast cells then finished the job as the dough thawed and proofed for the second time.” 
  • Form the dough into balls for rolls or flatten the dough into a disk about 1 inch thick for pizza crust or dough to be shaped later. French bread, loaves of bread, braids, and cinnamon rolls can be shaped prior to freezing; loaves should be frozen in greased loaf pans and cinnamon roll slices placed on their sides on a lined baking sheet. Tightly wrap the dough with plastic wrap.
  • Flash freeze the dough in the freezer for 1-2 hours. Dough should be covered during flash freezing, thawing, and rising prior to baking to prevent the dough from developing a dry crust.
  • When the dough pieces have formed a hard shell around the outside, transfer to a zipper freezer bag or air-tight freezer container. Return the dough to the freezer. Dough may be frozen up to 1 month. For best results, use dough sooner rather than later.

When ready to use, remove needed dough balls, loaves, rolls, or disks from the freezer and allow to thaw covered in the refrigerator, a warm location, or combination until doubled in size. Do not over proof.  Since the yeast and bread structure have been compromised during freezing, over proofing may cause the dough to collapse on itself.

Previously formed dough can be thawed in a greased baking pan until double. Disks should be allowed to thaw and then rolled or shaped (pizza crust or any shape or specialty desired), placed in a greased baking dish, and allowed to rise until doubled. (Rolled dough for pizza crust does not need time to double unless desired.) When dough has reached the desired size, bake as directed.

Thawing and rising times vary according to the temperature of the dough, the size of the dough pieces, and where thawing takes place. Use these times as a guideline for thawing:
Refrigerator: 8-16 hours
Countertop: 4-9 hours
Warm location: 2-4 hours
Dough balls for dinner rolls take about 1½ -2 hours to thaw and double before baking in a warm location. Loaves of bread may take 4-6 hours at room temperature.

Cinnamon rolls

Recipes for freezer dough can be found on the Fleischmann’s website. Some examples include: pizza dough, bread dough, and dinner rolls. If one is lucky enough to have a copy of Fleischmann’s Bake-it-easy Yeast Book, 1972, a variety of yeast doughs developed for freezing can be found therein.

Fresh-baked bread is always more delicious than reheated. If you plan ahead, you can freeze yeast dough to save time provided you remember to pull it from the freezer early enough—that’s the hardest part! 

References:

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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March is National Frozen Food Month!

March - Frozen Food Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elevation? Does It Matter?

While residents of most midwestern states usually don’t think about their elevation, elevation affects all aspects of food preparation–cooking, baking, canning, jams and jellies, and candy making. As elevation rises, air pressure falls and water boils at lower temperatures making recipe adjustments necessary.

Pan of boiling water on stovetop
Boiling water at 1014 Ft of elevation – Photo: mrgeiger

Elevation and Everyday Cooking and Baking

When it comes to everyday cooking and baking, there are few noticeable effects of elevation until one reaches 3,000 feet. Higher elevations present several challenges when preparing some foods. At higher elevations, 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. High elevation areas are also prone to low humidity, which can cause the moisture in foods to evaporate more quickly during cooking. At elevations 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.

Elevation and Canning Safety

Because water boils at 212°F at sea level and decreases about 1°F for each 500-ft increase in elevation, 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 0-1,000 feet unless stated otherwise. When elevations are above 1,000 feet, 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. 

USDA and National Center For Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) recipes include a table for proper processing based on elevation to insure sufficient time and temperature have been reached for a safe, shelf-stable product. In the NCHFP table for Crushed Tomatoes, note that time is increased in 5 minute increments as elevation increases for boiling water canning and pounds of pressure is increased for pressure canning. (Crushed tomatoes are one example of 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.

Elevation and Sugar Concentrations

Elevation is also a factor in candy making and the gelling of jams and jellies when pectin is not used. At higher altitudes, atmospheric pressure is less so water boils at lower temperatures and evaporates more quickly. Syrups become concentrated and reach the gel point at a lower temperature. The concentration of sugar required to form a gel is in the range of 60 to 65 percent which occurs at 217 and 220 degrees F, respectively, at sea level. As elevation increases, the gelling point decreases by 2 degrees per 1,000 feet. When elevation is not taken into consideration, overcooked jam is the result as too much water has boiled away leaving a sugar concentration that is too high, leaving a jam that is gummy, dark in color or tough. The same is true for candy making. For each 1,000 feet above sea level, reduce the temperature in the recipe by 2 degrees F to prevent overcooking. Colorado State University provides a High Elevation Candy Making (Sugar Solution) Adjustment chart for various kinds of candy mixtures.

Find and Know Your Elevation

Elevation matters in all aspects of food preparation. It is especially important for the safety of home canned products beginning at elevations above 1,000 feet. Before beginning the canning process or making sugar concentrations, find your elevation using one of these sources to insure proper processing of canned products and prevent overcooking of jams and candies:

  1. Visit a web page about your town or city.
  2. Use an online tool such as What is my elevation?
  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 elevation, watch this YouTube video by UNL Extension Food & Fitness.

To learn more about safe water-bath or pressure canning practices, watch these videos produced by South Dakota 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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Making Granola Bars a Healthy Treat

granola bar
Granola bar – Photo: Canva,com

Crunchy, chewy, chocolatey, fruity granola bars are an American favorite breakfast staple and snack. In fact, granola bars are so popular they even have their own annual day of celebration in January. Often considered a healthy food (and they can be), the nutrition label may tell otherwise; most are little more than candy bars in disguise loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup, unhealthy fats, and short on fiber and protein. The satiety value is low—in a short time, hunger sets in again.

How can you enjoy your favorite snack without leaving you hungry or wanting more? Here are a couple of ideas to up the granola bar game:

  1. Look for a better bar. Check the ingredients and nutrition label. The ingredients are listed by weight, so the foods at the beginning of the list are the most prevalent in the recipe. Specifically, look for bars that include whole grains (oats) rather than enriched refined grains. Also, look for bars high in fiber (3-5 grams) and protein (5 grams), sweetened with fruit, honey, or natural syrups, and including nut butters, nuts, grains, seeds, and fruits to ensure the best nutrition possible. Granola bars are intended to be a snack, not a dessert, so pay specific attention to the amount and kind of added sugars. Lastly, avoid granola bars with hydrogenated oils and those where most of the total fat is saturated fat.
  2. Make or concoct your own. Homemade variations offer the option to choose healthier ingredients, use more whole grains and less sugar, and control the type of fats and add-ins. The cost is usually less than the store-bought versions. There are an abundance of recipes to choose from. Groovy Granola Bars from Oregon State University is an easy recipe to get you started. It is packed with fiber and protein and provides half of your daily value of Omega-3’s. Change it up with other dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and even a few dark chocolate chips.

Granola bars can be a healthy food. Check the ingredient list and nutrition information on the label to ensure they are a good source of fiber and protein, OR find a recipe that provides nutrition rather than just a sweet treat. Making your own granola gives you complete control over the ingredients to create something healthy and personally enjoyable!

Learn more about Buying and Making Healthy Granola Bars from PennState Pro Wellness.

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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Ingredients Affect How the Cookie Crumbles

Cookies are a favorite treat and especially so during the holidays.  Holiday cookie baking is a tradition for many families and a fun way to honor family heritage.  Whether making sugar cookies for Christmas, rugelach for Hanukkah, or benne/sesame cookies for Kwanzaa, the ingredients play a role in how “the cookie crumbles.”

Plate of cookies
Tray of assorted cookies – Photo: Canva.com

Cookie baking is more chemistry than art and the ingredients used play an important role in the appearance, taste, texture, color, and flatness of the cookie. Here’s a look at the five traditional ingredients—sugar, fat, flour, leavening agents, and binding agents—used in cookie baking and the role they play.

SUGAR
Besides sweetening and tenderizing cookies, the type and amount of sugar plays a role in the flavor, texture, color, and spread of the cookie. Sugars give color to cookies as the sugar granules melt together caramelizing the bottom and edges and gradually spreading over the cookie. Sugar is hygroscopic meaning it attracts and absorbs the liquid in the dough, which slows down the development of gluten, a protein in flour that provides strength and elasticity to dough. 

Granulated white sugar contributes to the thinness, crispiness, and lighter color of a cookie. Being neutral in flavor and color, it allows the flavors or colors of other ingredients to come forward. With a neutral pH, interference with gluten development is less, allowing the dough to spread more before it sets during baking. When creamed with a solid fat, white sugar easily aerates the dough for puffier cookies.

Brown sugar contributes more tenderness, flavor, color, and rise to a cookie along with a denser and moister texture. The flavor, color, and moisture of brown sugar comes from the addition of molasses. Due to the molasses, it is slightly acidic. In the presence of baking soda or baking powder, the acid reacts with the sodium bicarbonate (alkaline) to produce carbon dioxide. Being more hygroscopic and acidic than white sugar, brown sugar is able to absorb more moisture and slow gluten development faster so the dough sets more quickly during baking.

Substituting one sugar for the other will not affect the sweetness, but will change the appearance and texture of the cookie.

FATS
Fat contributes flavor, tenderness, chewiness or crunchiness, and browning to cookies. Fat options include butter, margarine, shortening, or oil. When sugar is creamed into a solid fat, air pockets are created in the dough resulting in puffier cookies. Further, fats can inhibit or enhance gluten development. When solid fat coats gluten strands, gluten is inhibited and yields tenderness. Chewy cookies are the result of water in melted fat binding with gluten to strengthen structure.

Butter, in solid form, traps air during creaming which expands with heat producing a fluffier cookie. For best results, butter should be at room temperature for baking. Some recipes may specify the use of melted butter or browned butter; melted butter incorporates no air, leading to denser, flatter, and chewier cookies. When butter is browned, the water in butter evaporates resulting in a very dense, but flavor-rich cookie. (Butter is at least 80 percent fat and 16-18 percent water.)

Unsalted butter is the standard in baking unless otherwise specified. However, the amount of salt in salted butter is so small that it can be substituted for unsalted butter in most cookie recipes.

Margarine, made from vegetable oils, may contain more water and less fat than butter. It functions similarly to butter and produces a similar texture. However, cookies made with margarine may be thinner and spread more during baking. Depending upon the fat/water ratio, margarine may not be a direct substitute for butter; for best results, recipes specifically tested with margarine should be used.

Vegetable shortening is 100 percent hydrogenated vegetable oil, contains no water, and has a higher melting point than butter. Cookies made with shortening tend to rise higher, hold their shape during baking, and have a soft, fluffy texture. Cookies made with shortening may stay soft longer after baking because shortening returns to a semi-solid after baking.

Vegetable oil is 100 percent liquid fat. Cookies made with vegetable oils are denser and flatter as very little air can be incorporated. A neutral flavored vegetable oil should be used to retain the intended flavor of the cookies. 

FLOUR
Wheat flour contains gluten and provides structure by forming a web of gluten strands to catch air bubbles from creaming liquids and leavening agents. Sugar and fats, as mentioned earlier, help restrict gluten formation for a softer, more tender cookie. Generally, all-purpose flour is the flour of choice for cookie baking.

LEAVENTING (RISING) AGENTS
A leavening agent helps cookies rise while baking; the type used affects the texture and structure of cookies. The leavening agents most commonly used in cookies are either baking soda or baking powder.  While they both create rise during baking, they function very differently.

Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) requires an acidic ingredient such as vinegar, sour cream/milk, brown sugar, lemon juice, or chocolate to release carbon dioxide and leaven the dough. When baking soda and the acidic ingredient combine, there is a single reaction resulting in a denser cookie. Due to the single reaction, baked goods made with baking soda as the only leavening agent should be mixed quickly and baked immediately to get the most rise.

Baking powder is a chemical agent containing sodium bicarbonate and acids giving cookies more rise and a cakier texture. Baking powder is double acting, meaning it provides leavening first when it gets wet and second when it is heated. Because most of the reaction takes place in the second stage, the dough remains stable and does not have to be baked immediately.

It is quite common for both leavening agents to be used in a recipe, but it is a misconception that the two can be used interchangeably.

BINDING AGENT
Binding agents are the liquids in the recipe that hold the cookie dough together, such as eggs and milk which also add flavor, color, structure, moisture, and nutrition. The proteins in eggs, and to a lesser extent in milk, set with heat contributing to the final shape and texture of the cookie. The emulsified fat of the egg yolks contributes to tenderness while egg white contributes to cookie rise.

TIP
While not an ingredient, chilling the dough for 24 hours is one of the easiest ways to improve flavor and outcome. As the dough rests, the large molecules of flour and sugar breakdown and the fat hardens. As a result, cookies expand more slowly, hold their shape, have a richer butterscotch-like flavor, and brown more evenly. 

Each ingredient plays a key role in the recipe. Understanding their role and the contributions each make to a cookie is important to baking the best cookies ever or adjusting the ingredients to achieve the desired cookie. How Can I Get the Cookie Texture I Want? has suggestions for adjusting key ingredients to change the texture of any cookie recipe. To get a visual idea of how the various ingredients can affect the taste, texture, and appearance of your cookies, visit: The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies.

While ingredients are key players, they do not hold all the magical powers; the mixing process and baking temperature also affect the end result—topics for another time.

__________________________________

Sources:
6 Ingredients that Affect Your Cookies, Home Made Simple.com
How Ingredients Behave in a Cookie Recipe, Instructables. com
The Science of Cookies, Redpath.com
Cookie Ingredients:  The Way the Cookie Crumbles, Land O’Lakes Test Kitchen, LandOLakes.com
Here’s What Room Temperature Butter Really Means, Sally’s Baking Addiction.com
Cookie Science:  The Real Differences Between Brown and White Sugars, Serious Eats. com
How Can I Get the Cookie Texture I Want?, Dartmouth.edu
The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies, Handle the Heat.com
Image Source: Canva.com


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Marlene Geiger

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

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Welcome Jennie Savits to AnswerLine!

AnswerLine is pleased to welcome Jennie Savits as our newest team member. Jennie joined AnswerLine on June 1 and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the team. Further, she is no stranger to Iowa State University or Extension and Outreach.  

Jennie holds BS/MS degrees in Food Science from Iowa State University and completed 11 years with the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at Iowa State University. While with the Institute, Jennie held various roles in the lab and in the field. She worked on extension and outreach activities and research projects to support the local grape and wine industry in Iowa and throughout the Midwest. Jennie also has experience with the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University as a lecturer, where she taught food science laboratory courses and oversaw laboratory renovations.

Jennie’s interest in food science stemmed from participation in the 4H and FFA organizations. Growing up in rural Boone County, she was a member of the Harrison Happy Hustlers 4-H club and the Boone A&M FFA Chapter. Jennie enjoyed completing 4H projects in the areas of food and nutrition, horticulture, and livestock. Food science became a key area of interest after she competed on a team that won the inaugural Iowa FFA Food Science Career Development Event (CDE). Their team went on to place 2nd nationally and directed Jennie’s career path toward food science.

Jennie says that she really enjoys the opportunity to help people find answers and solve problems, especially on topics related to food safety and food preservation. Jennie has developed strong relationships within the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach organization and looks forward to helping disseminate research based information to those we serve.

Family
Savits family – Photo: jsavits

Jennie lives with her husband, Paul, and their 5 children on a farm near Ogden. She enjoys spending time with family, helping out around the farm, and gardening.

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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Preparing for a New Baby: Helping Parents Adjust

My husband and I will be welcoming our second child this August. As excited as we are about our newest addition, we also recognize this will shift our family dynamics and be an adjustment for ourselves and our son, Thomas, who will be 21 months when his brother or sister arrives.

Child with grandparents.
Child with grandparents – Photo: rsweeney

In this blog, I am focusing on things my husband and I plan to do prior to baby arriving to help make the adjustment easier (for strategies on how were preparing Thomas for the adjustment, see my previous blog, Preparing for a New Baby: Helping Older Children Adjust).

We are excited that our family is growing, but also recognize our hands will be quite full with two children under two years old. As we close in on the third trimester, I am embracing Benjamin Franklin’s quote: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Now, I realize not every detail will be attended to (and there are going to be things I overlook) but having a general game plan and preparing accordingly will help reduce my stress heading into this transition.

Strategies to Help Parents Adjust:

Thomas with Grandma Wall
Child with grandmother – rsweeney
  • Create a plan for who will watch the other child(ren): while we are at hospital Thomas will be staying with my in-laws. We plan for Thomas to do a test run at Grandma and Grandpa’s house overnight before the baby arrives, so he is familiar with sleeping overnight in a new place. Also consider what your child needs with them and make sure to pack those items. For Thomas, this will include his sound machine and sleep sack.
  • Create a plan for meals ahead of time: caring for a newborn and toddler doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy to prepare meals. There are several different approaches you can take when thinking about advance meal planning. Some may want to organize a Meal Train, where friends, family and neighbors select a date and meal they will be delivering to your home, others may order frozen meals to be delivered. I am planning to set aside a day to prepare several main dish recipes and store them in my freezer for easy meals when the baby arrives.
  • Preparing nursery and other baby-specific areas: this will look different for everyone depending on the set-up of their home. For me, this will include getting the nursery set-up, washing baby clothes and blankets, creating several diaper changing areas throughout the house, and preparing supplies for nursing. I also plan to set up a subscription for diaper delivery as this will be one less thing to worry about once the baby is here. Alongside washing baby clothes and blankets, I’ve been carefully selecting organic options, prioritizing quality and sustainability. From soft cotton onesies to cozy sleepers, each piece has been carefully selected for its quality and sustainability. I’m particularly excited about a Dim Sum-inspired onesie I found, adorned with adorable dumpling illustrations. It’s a playful nod to our favorite cuisine and adds a touch of whimsy to our baby’s wardrobe.
  • Pack hospital bag: this is always nice to have done as we don’t always know when babies will make their appearance. Along with the hospital bag, I’ll also be washing the material in our infant car seat, reassembling, and setting it next to my hospital bag so it is not forgotten! 
  • Ask for help if you feel overwhelmed: babies bring so much joy to our lives, but they are also a lot of work. Make sure to accept help from your partner, relatives, and friends. After Thomas was born my mom stayed with us for several days when we returned from the hospital. It was so nice to have an extra set of hands and we’re planning to have her stay again once this baby arrives!
  • Make time to care for yourself: After having Thomas, I decided to swim twice a week as preparation for a half-Ironman relay. I really appreciated this time alone to recharge and found I was more patient with both Thomas and my husband after swimming.
  • Remember to make time for each other: children of couples who have a strong and loving relationship are more likely to adjust well to the new baby. After Thomas was a few months old and we felt comfortable leaving him for a stretch of several hours, we have tried to do a date night (or afternoon) once a month, just the two of us. It isn’t always fancy (sometimes it involves running errands), but it is nice to have that time to reconnect.

Welcoming a second (or third, or fourth, etc.) baby into the family is a big transition for parents but planning and preparing ahead of time can make the transition easier for all involved. With a little preparation beforehand, we are eager to bond as a family.

Sources:

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.

Rachel Sweeney

I graduated from Iowa State University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Dietetics and Exercise Science. I enjoy gardening, cooking and baking, food preservation, traveling, being outside, and spending time with my family.

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It’s Morel Mushroom Time! -‘Shrooming in the Woods or Supermarket

common morel fungus growing in the forest
Two morel mushrooms.

As spring creeps in, mushroom enthusiasts are just itching to get out into the woods and search for the highly prized morel mushroom. This elusive mushroom is prized for its tastiness and can only be wild-crafted as no one has yet figured out how to grow and farm them.

Besides being prized for their taste, morels are loaded with various nutrients. Because they tend to grow in rich soils, they come packed with vitamins and minerals such as iron, copper, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin D, folate, niacin, riboflavin, potassium, magnesium, calcium selenium, thiamin, vitamin E, and vitamin B6. However, their nutrient value varies with the soil where the moral grows. Morals are also loaded with antioxidants, help to balance blood sugar and provide protein and fiber. Morals should be eaten within four days of harvest and best within 1-2 days. Due to their sponge-like texture, morels tend to trap dirt, grit, and insects in their gills, so cleaning requires a bit more attention than merely brushing. Illinois Extension says that mushrooms should be soaked in lukewarm salted water for 30 minutes, changing the water a few times. Avoid oversoaking, as it can dilute their flavor. Rinse the mushrooms well and pat dry. Morals can be used in any way that farmed mushrooms would be used. For tips on preparing morals, check out How to Cook Morel Mushrooms–If You’re Lucky Enough to Find Some.

While the wild morel mushroom is highly prized, its’ farmed mushroom cousins—white, shitake, cremini, oyster, maitake–are equally as nutritious and offer delicious and unique flavors. They are also readily available at the supermarket. Even though there are more than 2,000 varieties of edible mushrooms worldwide, most people cook with only one or two. Here is a summary of those most commonly found on produce shelves:

white button

White Button
Most common mushroom.
Mild flavor, very versatile. Protein-rich.

Cremini/Portobello

Cremini/Portobello
Baby bella = Cremini; larger, mature form = Portobello.
Makes dark sauces and is great for grilling.

shitake mushroom

Shitake
Deep woodsy flavor, especially if dried and rehydrated.
Calcium-rich.

Oyster

Oyster
Delicate, mild flavor.
Stays firm when cooked; excellent for stir-fry.
Iron and antioxidant-rich.

Maitake

Maitake
Also known as hen-of-the-woods.
Earthy flavor.
Excellent for stirfry. Antioxidant-rich.

The enemy of any mushroom is moisture in its packaging. Fresh morels will keep about a week in the refrigerator, provided they were harvested in good condition. Place them in paper bags and store them in the refrigerator with plenty of air circulating around them. Drying is an excellent storage option, too. A paper bag is also a good way to store purchased mushrooms; this allows them to breathe. Moisture build-up inside the packaging is the fastest way mushrooms break down.

Mushrooms need to be cleaned before use. The best way to clean most fresh mushrooms is to wipe them with a clean, barely damp cloth or paper towel. Washing mushrooms is usually not necessary. If you must rinse them, do it lightly and dry them immediately, gently, with paper towels. Never soak fresh mushrooms in water, which will cause them to become soggy. 

Cleaned mushrooms can be wrapped loosely in damp paper towels or a damp clean cotton cloth, placed in a container, and stored in the refrigerator for up to three days; the mushrooms may darken if stored this way.

Mushroom nutrition can be enhanced by placing them in the sun for 30 minutes before use. Since most mushrooms are grown in the dark, they need sunlight to increase their vitamin D content. Exposure to sunlight significantly improves vitamin D. Vitamin D is maximized if the mushrooms are chopped before exposure. Some packaged mushrooms are marketed as vitamin D enhanced.

Dried mushrooms may be an option for those who do not care for fresh mushrooms. Dried or powdered mushrooms pack the same nutritional punch as fresh mushrooms. To add nutrition, the mushroom powder can be included in sauces, homemade bread, casseroles, soups, etc. Several mushroom powder “enhanced” products and foods are now on supermarket shelves.

So whether it is the wild morel mushroom or farmed, store-bought mushrooms, mushrooms are an excellent food for both flavor and nutrition. Take good care of them to maximize both their flavor and nutrition.

Sources: 

Marlene Geiger

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

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