The Not So “Bitter” Truth About Eggplant

Eggplant, also called an aubergine, is now in season as a ‘fresh from the garden’ vegetable.  For many Americans, it is an underused vegetable even though it is highly versatile. It can be grilled, stuffed, roasted, and stir-fried and also used in soups, stews, curries, and kabobs.  Eggplant is nutritious, low in calories, fat, and sodium while high in fiber and nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, folic acid, Vitamin B6 and A.  Eggplants are also recognized as a source of phenolic compounds that act as antioxidants.  All of this “goodness” helps with maintaining good blood cholesterol, cognitive function, weight, and eye health and preventing cancer and heart disease.  As such it is a big component of vegetarian and Mediterranean diets; it is also a family favorite and we are fortunate to have a number of varieties in our garden to enjoy.

While this vegetable provides so much good, many shy away from it because they detect a “bitterness” in it or have heard that the fruit is bitter.  A young, freshly picked eggplant with smooth, glossy skin and intense color will have no bitterness whatsoever if consumed soon after picking.  Old or overripe eggplants or those that are off color or sit out for a while after being harvested are more likely to exhibit a bitter flavor.  Therefore, choose eggplants that are heavy, shiny and firm and avoid eggplants that are off-colored and/or do not exhibit a bright, glossy color. The seeds of a young, fresh eggplant are very small, so the flesh will not have accumulated the bitter compounds found in eggplants that have become overripe and rubbery. 

If bitterness should be of concern, there are some actions one can take to eliminate it.

Begin by peeling the skin to remove any bitter compounds present in the skin or between the skin and the flesh.

 “Sweating” an eggplant with salt will draw out the compound solaine, the chemical found in the seeds and flesh that contributes to the bitterness; it will also draw out some of the moisture making the eggplant more tender.  To do this, slice, dice, cube, etc the eggplant and sprinkle the pieces with salt.  (Canning and pickling salt is best, but any salt will do.)  Allow the eggplant to set for 30 or more minutes, rinse off the salt, pat dry, and continue to prepare.  Sweating an eggplant will also reduce the amount of oil it will absorb during cooking, too.

If salt is a dietary problem, another method used to remove bitterness is to soak the eggplant pieces in milk for 30 minutes prior to cooking.  Drain off the milk and prepare the eggplant normally.  Some feel that removing the seeds from the flesh is helpful.  This may be of some use in an older eggplant as the seeds enlarge with age thereby increasing bitterness.  To remove the seeds, slice the eggplant length-wise and use a spoon to scrap out as many seeds as possible.

In an ideal world, the eggplant is used the day of harvest and is fine on the counter short term.  For longer storage, eggplants can be refrigerated for about a week as long as they don’t get too cold or damp.  They should be stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer in a perforated plastic bag. I find it helpful to also wrap it in a paper towel before placing in the bag; the thin skin is highly susceptible to moisture damage so the paper towel helps with that.  It can be sliced or cubed, then blanched or steamed, and frozen up to eight months for later use. 

Eggplant should be cooked as it has chemicals that can cause digestive upset if eaten raw.  Since the flesh discolors quickly, use right away after cutting.  Lightly sprinkling raw eggplant with lemon juice helps to prevent browning.  Eggplant is best cut with a stainless steel knife since carbon blades will cause discoloration.  Cooking in an aluminum pan also will cause blackening.  Eggplant fruits should be handled with care as they do bruise easily and those flaws quickly turn bad; a bruised eggplant will exhibit brown, corky flesh in the affected area. 

Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, same plant family as tomatoes and peppers.  There are many varieties of eggplant in numerous colors and sizes.  To learn more about eggplant, check out the eggplant fact sheet from the National Garden Bureau. (This site has fact sheets on other vegetables that may be of interest, too.)  Visit ISU Extension and Outreach’s Quickinars, 5-15 minute online lessons, of seasonally appropriate topics for the garden, food preparation and food preservation to also learn more about gardening and how to use garden produce.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

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

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Exploring Portable Burners for Canning

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

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

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

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

The burner must be level, sturdy, and secure. Look for enough height to allow air to flow under the burner, but not such that it will become unsteady with a full, heavy canner resting on it.

Look for a burner diameter that is no more than 4 inches smaller than the diameter of your canner. In other words, the canner should not extend more than 2 inches from the burner on any side.  For heating a typical 12-inch diameter canner, the coil must be at least eight inches in diameter. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

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

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Here’s to Crisp Pickles in 2020!

Pickle making is just around the corner.  With it comes lots of questions regarding pickle crispness, the essence of a good pickle.  There are several factors that determine pickle crispness including variety, freshness, preparation techniques, ingredients, and processing method. 

Variety.  First and foremost, use true pickling cucumbers for pickling.  Salad cucumbers were never intended for pickles as they are too large and contain a thick seed base compared to pickling cucumbers.   Burpless cucumbers are not suitable for fermented pickles because their skins are often tougher and contain an enzyme which will soften pickles during fermentation.   Look for slim, dark green cucumbers with prickly bumps on the skin no more than 2 inches in diameter.

Freshness.  Start with just-picked cucumbers; it is best to prepare pickles within two hours of picking for best quality.  When that isn’t possible, cucumbers should be refrigerated immediately and used as soon as possible as crispness is lost with time.  Some pickle makers like to place cucumbers in an ice bath for 2 hrs before starting the pickling process to assure crispness. However, once crispness has been lost, it cannot be replaced.

Preparation Techniques.  Proper acidity is needed to produce safe pickles.  Use only researched-based recipes like those found with the USDA Complete Guide to Canning, the National Center for Home Preservation, and university extension publications.  Begin by washing the cucumbers and removing at least 1/16th inch from the blossom end; the blossom end harbors enzymes that cause softening.

Use of Firming Agents.  Depending upon the quality of the cucumbers, recipe, and pickle maker, firming agents may or may not be part of the process.  Firming agents include alum, food grade lime (calcium hydroxide), grape leaves, or calcium chloride (Ball Pickle Crisp® or Mrs. Wages Xtra-Crunch®).
Alum – at one time alum was added for crispness; however it is no longer recommended by the FDA and most modern, science-based recipes no longer include it.  Scientifically, alum has little effect on quick-process pickles but may add firmness to fermented pickles when used at a rate of ¼ teaspoon per pints.  Using too much alum will actually decrease firmness.
Food Grade Lime – Lime or calcium hydroxide has been used for years for pickle crispness as it improves pickle firmness when cucumbers are soaked in a lime solution for 12 to 24 hrs prior to pickling.  Besides the time for soaking, another draw back of lime is the need to remove excess lime prior to pickling with repeated soaking and rinsing in fresh water to render the cucumbers safe for pickling.  The hydroxide component of lime lowers the acidity of the pickling brine; therefore, it must be thoroughly removed to make pickles safe to can. 
Grape Leaves – Grape leaves have historically been used to add crispness.  Grape leaves contain tannins that inhibit the enzyme that makes pickles soft.  However, if the blossom end of the cucumber is removed, grape leaves really aren’t necessary as their function is eliminated.
Calcium Chloride – Calcium chloride is a generic firming agent that is used in the pickling and canning industry. In recent years calcium chloride has become available commercially as Pickle Crisp® by Ball or Xtra Crunch® by Mrs. Wages. These are both granular products found with the canning supplies; they offer fast results with the same great taste and crispness of lime.  Calcium chloride does not have the hydroxide component of lime and therefore does not lower acidity of pickled food or pose a food safety risk.  A small amount is added to each jar of pickles before sealing following the manufacturer’s directions.  (It should not be added to the vat during brining or fermentation.)  Calcium chloride is used by brewers and wine makers and has been found to improve the texture of canned apple slices, pears, and peaches.  It has also been used with canning whole tomatoes to hold the tomatoes together.  (I personally have used the Ball product and like it very much with pickled foods; I have not tried it with the fruits and tomatoes as suggested.)  Calcium chloride may impart a bit of a salty taste but adds no sodium.  These products have an indefinite shelf life but will clump and become hard when exposed to humidity so it is important to keep them in as dry of conditions as possible.

Ingredients.  Use recommended ingredients—salt, 5% acidic vinegar, sugar, spices, water—in exact recipe proportions; there must be a sufficient level of acid to prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria.

Processing Method.  Pack pickles to allow sufficient room for the pickling solution to surround each piece.  Process all pickles in a boiling water bath or atmospheric steam canner to destroy harmful organisms and to obtain a strong vacuum seal on the jar.

Here’s to crisp pickles in 2020!  For additional help with pickles see Avoid Getting into “a Pickle” with Pickling Projects or download (free) Preserve the Taste of Summer:  Canning Pickles from the Iowa State Extension and Outreach Store.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

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

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What is this?

Recently an AnswerLine client spotted these two products on the shelf with the canning supplies and wanted to know what they were and how they should be used. Both are calcium chloride, a generic firming agent that is used in the pickling and canning industry. In recent years calcium chloride has become available commercially as Pickle Crisp® by Ball or Xtra Crunch® by Mrs. Wages. These are both granular products that offer fast results with the same great taste and crispness of lime (calcium hydroxide) but with less fuss.  Calcium chloride does not have the hydroxide component of lime and therefore does not lower acidity of pickled food or pose a food safety risk.  A small amount is added to each jar of pickles before sealing following the manufacturer’s directions.  (It should not be added to the vat during brining or fermentation.)  Calcium chloride is used by brewers and wine makers and has been found to improve the texture of canned apple slices, pears, and peaches.  It has also been used with canning whole tomatoes to hold the tomatoes together.  (I personally have used the Ball product and like it very much with pickled foods; I have not tried it with the fruits and tomatoes as suggested.)  Calcium chloride may impart a bit of a salty taste but adds no sodium.  These products have an indefinite shelf life but will clump and become hard when exposed to humidity so it is important to keep them in as dry of conditions as possible.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

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

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Freezing Blueberries

I will quit picking my rhubarb very soon and am looking forward to picking blueberries. I do not have any blueberry bushes on my own property but I have traveled to some wonderful blueberry farms to pick. Blueberries are so easy to freeze and when picked at the peak of their season add wonderful flavor to anything you add them to.

The National Center for home Food Preservation has two ways you can freeze blueberries. One is the dry pack which involves laying the unwashed blueberries out on a cookie sheet, freezing them til they are like little marbles then packaging them in freezer bags or containers. You wash them right before using. Washing them before freezing can cause the skins to get tough if there is any moisture left on them.

The second way to freeze blueberries is crushed or pureed. For this process you wash the berries first then use a food processor, blender or sieve to crush or puree them. For each quart of berries you add one to one and an eighth cups sugar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved then package in your freezer containers and freeze. Frozen blueberries will remain safe indefinitely as long as they are continuously frozen but will lose some quality over time. It is recommended to use them within one year.

Spend Smart Eat Smart offers some great recipes for using your blueberries. You might want to try Blueberry Pancakes or a Smoothie.

Enjoy Blueberry Season!

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

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

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Rhubarb

Somehow it has already become the middle of June and with that comes the end of the rhubarb season. If you have a well established rhubarb bed and you continue to harvest it later than the middle of June in Iowa or late June in Minnesota, it will weaken the plant. Over-harvesting can reduces the yield and quality of next year’s crop. The rhubarb stalks also develop a woody taste later in the summer but they do not become poisonous.

If your plant is producing more than you can use you might want to freeze some to enjoy later in the summer or next winter.  Here are the directions to freeze yours successfully:

Preparation – Choose firm, tender, well-colored stalks with good flavor and few fibers. Wash, trim and cut into lengths to fit the package. Heating rhubarb in boiling water for 1 minute and cooling promptly in cold water helps retain color and flavor.

Dry Pack – Pack either raw or preheated rhubarb tightly into containers without sugar. Leave headspace. Seal and freeze.

Syrup Pack – Pack either raw or preheated rhubarb tightly into containers, cover with cold 40 percent syrup. Leave headspace. Seal and freeze.

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Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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Canning meat

Due to some grocery stores limiting the amount of meat that can be purchased per visit, we at AnswerLine have been receiving calls about canning meat. If you decide to purchase and can meat you will want to follow the directions from the National Center for Home Food Preservation to make sure you have a safe product.

Meat is a low acid food and needs to be processed in a pressure canner. The pressure canner needs to be large enough to hold 4 quart sized jars regardless of whether you plan to can pints or quarts. You may use a dial gauge or weighted gauge pressure canner.

If you have a dial gauge canner it is recommended you have the gauge tested once a year before you use it. Typically your County Extension and Outreach Office can test the dial gauge at their office. Some canner manufacturers will also test gauges if you mail it to them. If you want more information on where to have your dial gauge tested please contact us at AnswerLine. We would love to help! If your dial gauge reads high or low by more than 2 pounds at 5, 10, or 15 pounds pressure, replace it. If it is less than 2 pounds off in accuracy you can make the adjustments needed to be sure you have the required pressure needed for the safety of your product. If you are using a weighted gauge pressure canner you do not need to have the weight tested. You will continue to listen for the jiggle or rock.

Meat can be pressure canned in strips, cubes, chunks, ground or chopped.

Enjoy!

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

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

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Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is here to HELP!

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

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

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

Marlene Geiger

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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Jelly and Jam Time

Raspberry jam in a canning jar

May is often the beginning of jelly and jam making time for callers. We often get calls from first time jelly makers. This year there is a resurgence in both gardening and home food preservation. I have already had several calls from people making jam this spring.

Freezer jam or jelly is easier to make than cooked jam or jelly as freezer style does not need to be processed through the boiling water bath canner. You will often need pectin to make freezer jam but it can also be made with Jello. You should know that any jam made with Jello is considered freezer jam and can not be processed in a boiling water bath canner. But any jam that is not freezer jam MUST be processed through the boiling water bath canner unless it is stored in the refrigerator.

Jam and jelly recipes should be followed exactly as written. You should not experiment with these recipes, add extra ingredients, or double these recipes. Following the recipe as written is the only way to guarantee a safe product when you intend to process it in the boiling water bath canner.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has some recipes available in the Preserve the Taste of Summer publications and the National Center for Home Food Preservation also has safe, tested recipes.

If you need a little help when you get started making jelly or jam this year, call us at AnswerLine. We are always glad to help.

Liz Meimann

Liz Meimann

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

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How to store bread

Many of us may have been finding time recently to do more baking. If you were fortunate enough to be able to find a supply of yeast, you may have been baking your own bread. It tastes delicious right out of the oven but can become stale very quickly. So where is the best place to store bread to keep it the freshest the longest?

If you want to keep your bread for more than a day or two, the freezer is your best option. Make sure your bread is completely cool before packaging it so moisture is not trapped which affects the texture and quality of the crust. Freezing greatly slows down the staling process and reheating the bread in an oven or toaster makes the bread springy and chewy again.

To freeze bread, wrap it in plastic then again in foil. Place it in a freezer bag or some other airtight packaging and use a straw to suck out extra air in the bag before sealing it. Bread stored in the freezer will remain safe indefinitely but for best quality you will want to use it within 6 months.

When you are ready to use your bread, defrost it at room temperature in it’s wrapping. If you unwrap the bread while it is still cold, condensation will form on the exterior compromising the texture. The bread will thaw at room temperature in about 3 hours. When the bread is fully defrosted you can unwrap it and reheat it at 300-350 degrees F for @10 minutes to crisp up the crust.

We have callers who want to store bread in their refrigerator to keep it fresh. Storing bread in the refrigerator is not a good idea however. The refrigerator draws moisture out of the bread causing it to go stale faster.

If your bread does happen to go stale before you were hoping – never fear! To revive it try flicking a little water on the crust, wrapping it in foil, and heating it in a 300 degree oven for 5-10 minutes. Or consider using the stale bread to make bread pudding, French toast, or croutons.

If you are not going to be able to use your whole loaf of bread at one time out of the freezer you may want to consider slicing it before freezing it so you are able to pull out smaller amounts. You can defrost individual slices in the toaster.

If you are interested in trying to make your own bread, Spend Smart Eat Smart has a recipe for No Knead Whole Wheat bread. It is easy, delicious, and less expensive than purchasing whole wheat bread at the store. Enjoy!

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

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

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