Small-Batch Fermentation – AnswerLine Team Gives It a Try

In recent years, consumers have become more interested in home fermentation, especially in making their own sauerkraut and kimchi for the beneficial bacteria it provides for gut health.  As this trend grows, the AnswerLine team receives many questions about the fermenting process. To help answer questions with first-hand experience, the AnswerLine team rolled up their sleeves and spent an evening learning to create the digestive ‘wonder food,’ sauerkraut, from scratch.

The biggest trend in DIY sauerkraut and kimchi is making it in small batches—small amounts made regularly using quart, half-gallon or gallon jars. Kraut or kimchi made in small batches ferments more quickly than in big crocks allowing one batch to be fermenting while another is refrigerated and eaten. The market has responded to consumer demand by providing consumers with a large assortment of fermentation kits, containers, and gadgets to make fermentation easy and fun.  The AnswerLine team randomly chose two different kits with which to experiment—MasonTops® and Ball®—to ferment cabbage into sauerkraut. Both of these kits used quart jars which were prepared in advanced.

Mature, firm heads of cabbage were selected from a team-member’s garden a day prior; cabbage can also be purchased at the supermarket for year-round kraut making.  Both red and green cabbage varieties can be used; the team used a mix of red and green.

We used a mandolin to shred the cabbage. Cabbage can also be shredded using a sharp knife, kraut cutter, or food processor.  However cut, the shreds should be long and thin.  Once the cabbage was shredded, it was weighed, and salt (canning and pickling salt) added per the kit recipe.

The salt was massaged into the cabbage until the cabbage was wilted and juicy. 

The wilted/juiced cabbage was firmly packed into the quart jars allowing the juice to come to the top and completely cover the cabbage. 

The two kits allowed for different amounts of headspace.  What is most important is that there is sufficient headspace for the brine from the cabbage/salt mix to completely cover the top of the cabbage.  After the jars were filled, the jars were weighted and topped with the fermenting lid and screw band supplied with each kit.  Weights can be a food grade glass disk (provided with the MasonTop® kit), stainless steel spring (provided with the Ball® kit), a freezer bag filled with brine* that fits into the jar, a smaller glass jar filled with water or brine, or a full wine bottle that sits on top of the cabbage.  If using a brine bag, glass jar, or wine bottle for weight, whole cabbage leaves (discard when the kraut is done fermenting) should be packed atop the cabbage first.

Rachel Sweeney and Thomas, Marlene Geiger, Beth Marrs, Marcia Steed, and Carol Van Waardhuizzen show the jars of cabbage ready for fermenting.

Each team member left the workshop with two jars to ferment at home.  At home, team members were advised to store their jars in a cooler, darker place in their home, to check it daily to make sure that the cabbage was always covered in brine, and to wait about 2 weeks to test.  Fermentation time is dependent on quantity and temperature.  Kraut fermented at 70º-75ºF will ferment in about 1-2 weeks; at 60º-65ºF, fermentation may take 2-3 weeks.  At temperatures lower than 60ºF, kraut may not ferment and above 75ºF, kraut may become soft or mushy.  The best way to determine when the kraut is ready is by smell and taste.  The cabbage should be translucent but remain crunchy, not soft or slimy. The salty flavor should be diminished and replaced with a bright, tangy flavor of the lactic acid. When the kraut has reached an individual liking, it is time to stop the fermentation by refrigerating and eating it.

Here are the team takeaways from this experience:

  • Small batch kits make it easy to get started, learn about the fermentation process, and build fermentation confidence. Kits are a matter of personal preference.
  • Approximately 2 pounds of cabbage is needed to fill a quart jar.
  • Tightly packing the cabbage into the jars is important to continue releasing the juices necessary to create the anaerobic (without oxygen) environment need for lacto-fermentation to take place while inhibiting spoil-causing bacteria.
  • Work in small batches when packing the cabbage into the jars.  Pack tightly after each handful addition.
  • Important to keep oxygen out yet allow carbon dioxide to bubble out.  Good amount of brine, weight, and lid with an air release enable this. 
  • Keep the cabbage submerged under the brine at all times to prevent oxidation; cabbage will brown at the top if the brine level drops. Add brine during the fermentation time, if needed.
  • Monitor it daily watching for off smell or loss of brine.  Watch for signs of healthy fermentation: cabbage swelling, gas pockets, color changes, bubbles or foam on the surface of the brine, some white sediment in the bottom of the jar. Bubbling activity is normal and a good sign the fermentation process is working.
  • Flavor improves with age but can be customized to individual taste and probiotic level. Longer ferments give a stronger flavor and more probiotics. 

Fermented foods can be a healthy and nutritious addition to your diet and a great way to preserve the harvest as well. Sauerkraut is one of the oldest and easiest of fermented food. Unlike the packaged kraut at the supermarket which may have been pasteurized to kill bacteria, small-batch sauerkraut is lacto-fermented, a fancy term for soaking uncooked cabbage in brine (salt and water), then letting nature ferment the vegetable’s own beneficial bacteria.  This process was perfected by the Germans during the 16th century and still used today.   (While the Germans are best known for their kraut making skills, it is believed that the first sauerkraut was made in China about 2,000 years ago, during the building of the Great Wall.)   

For additional information or help, check out Small Batch Sauerkraut Tips and Sauerkraut:  Problems and Solutions by Oregon State University Extension. 

Taking the plunge into home fermentation can be an intimidating proposition. Whether you’re a complete beginner or have some experience, small-bath fermentation with cabbage is a good place to start to build your confidence while learning about fermentation.

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*Brine – ½ teaspoon salt to ½ cup water

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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Can’t Beat Beets and Beet Chips

Beets are packed with nutrients and heart-healthy antioxidants, making them a great addition to any diet. Aside from being totally delicious and beautiful on a plate, beets are low in calories and really good for you.  They lower blood pressure, boost stamina, fight inflammation, are rich in fiber, support detoxification, contain anti-cancer causing properties, and so much more.

There are any number of delicious ways to prepare and serve beets for every day eating—vegetable side dish, soup, pickles, relish, salad, cake, hummus. . . . .  Beets also are easy to preserve by freezing, pickling, canning, or drying when one has an abundance of these root vegetables.  Michigan State University Extension and Penn State Extension have excellent information on selecting, storing, and preserving beets.   Tested recipes for beets can also be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

For a shorter preservation time, you might want to give beet chips a try.  Beet chips are a tasty and healthy alternative to potato chips and other junk food. They store well and are a good way to deal with the munchies when those evil urges strike.  They are easy to make in the oven or air fryer, have no “bad” fats, no preservatives, and you control the salt and seasoning.  Any color of beet may be used.  Beet chips are made from finely sliced beets, tossed in oil (olive, avocado, or coconut) and optional salt and seasoning, and then roasted in the oven or air fryer.  Beet chips store well for at least 2 weeks in an airtight container—that is if they last that long!  They can be made in any quantity desired.

Begin by washing beets thoroughly under cool running water.  Remove the tops to within 2-inches of the beet.  Trim off the tail.  Peeling is optional. 

Oven Baked Beet Chips

Beet chips can simply be made by slicing the beets very thin (1/16-in) using a mandolin if possible, tossing with a small amount of oil, seasoning as desired, arranging in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and baking in the oven until dry and crisp.  This recipe from University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources would be one example of how to make beet chips by this method.

Another way to make oven baked beet chips is to sweat (rest beets in salt and oil for a short time) the beets prior to baking.  This is the method I like best.  A brief sweating allows the beets to release some of their moisture before baking which makes all the difference in size, color, and texture of the beet chips.  After draining the beets, I also lightly pat the beets with a paper two to remove excess moisture before placing on the parchment-lined baking sheet to shorten the drying time.  Carnegie Mellon University provides this recipe. This recipe is easily made with a smaller quantity of beets as well.

Air Fryer Method

Prepare the beets as for oven baking.  Set the air fryer to 330°.  Arrange the slices in a single layer and air fry 15 – 20 minutes until crispy.  Time will vary depending on the thickness of the chips, air fryer, and moisture in the beets.

Give beets a try in whatever way you enjoy them. Beet chips are a great lunchtime side and snack option.

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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Canning Mistakes: “But, My Jars Sealed”

The AnswerLine Team receives many phone calls and emails regarding canning mistakes—incorrect processing time, canner wasn’t vented, wrong size jars used, forgot to add acid to tomatoes, incorrect headspace, hot water canner used for low-acid foods, elevation not considered–just to name a few.  Mistakes happen but the biggest mistake of all is the assumption, “BUT, MY JARS SEALED!”

A SEALED JAR DOES NOT EQUAL A SAFE PRODUCT if a canning mistake has occurred, a recipe has been altered, or if an untested recipe was used.  In the canning process, jars of food are heated to destroy pathogens, expel air, and create a vacuum seal.  While this process provides shelf stability, it is also the perfect environment for food borne bacteria, especially Clostridum botulinum, to germinate and produce toxins when a tested canning procedure is not followed.  In that ‘sealed jar,’ conditions favorable to producing the “perfect bacterial storm” exist:
MOISTURE,
‘DANGER ZONE’ TEMPERATURES that allow for bacterial growth (40⁰F – 120⁰F),
ABSENCE of OXYGEN (anaerobic) resulting from the air being driven out during processing, and possibly a LOW ACID food.  (Foods high in acid, like most fruits, or foods to which acid was added, such as vinegar to pickles, are less susceptible to bacterial growth.)

IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE, ACT QUICKLY.

Canning mistakes can only be rectified in the first 24 hours.  Within that time, they can be reprocessed, frozen, or refrigerated for quick use.  After 24 hours, the food needs to be disposed as it is no longer safe.  This is also true for jars whose lids did not seal.

Reprocessing means following the same processing that would have been done if starting with fresh food—empting and washing jars, reheating, re-filling jars, using new flat lids, and processing with correct time and weight (pressure canning).   Most foods do not tolerate reprocessing very well.  Quality is diminished as they usually end up soft and mushy.  Soft foods, such as applesauce, handle reprocessing better than foods with structure.

When reprocessing isn’t a good option, freezing is.  Remove the contents from the jar and put into freezer containers or bags, label and freeze.  Leaving food in the original canning jars is not recommended unless some of the contents are removed to allow for freezing expansion.

One may also put the jars into the refrigerator and use the contents within 3 days.  This is a good option with small batch canning, but may not be so when 7 quart jars are in question.

Home canning is about following the science to make a SAFE product by preventing foodborne illness.  One can never assume the contents of a sealed jar are safe if there has been any alteration to the recipe or procedure, whether intentional or by mistake.

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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Thickeners for Home Canning

Home canned fruit pie fillings make it easy to prepare delicious pies and desserts all year long. Since 2015 the USDA and the National Center for Home Food Preservation has recommended Clearjel® (cook type, not instant) as the thickening agent for some home canned fruit pie fillings.  There is not a safe substitute for Clearjel® when canning pie filling.

Clearjel® is a flavorless, modified cornstarch that doesn’t break down through the canning and baking process.  It can withstand a variety of pH levels and allows for adequate heat penetration during processing to render a shelf-safe product.  Clearjel® differs from other thickeners such as regular cornstarch, flour, and tapioca which thicken with heat, become dense, clump, break down with additional cooking, and do not allow for adequate heat penetration during processing. Without heat penetrating throughout the jar, yeast, mold, or other harmful bacteria can form. Clearjel® only thickens a small amount with heat; thereby, reducing the density and heat penetration issues during processing. Heat is able to penetrate the contents of the jar completely and safely.  The filling thickens in the jar after the jars are removed from the canner and the food cools. Clearjel® does not break down over multiple heatings as other thickeners might. In home-canned pie fillings, it easily survives the three heatings of preparation, processing, and eventual baking. 

To use, follow directions in Fruit Pie Fillings for Home Canning by Washington State University.  Care should be taken to not exceed the specified amount of thickener to avoid jelling, oozing*, or inadequate heat penetration. 

The shelf-life of Clearjel® in canned foods is excellent. Canned products retain a smooth texture with no liquid separation, weeping, or curdling during storage.  Like most home canned foods, pie fillings should be used within a year for best quality.

Clearjel® is not designed for freezing as it breaks down through freezing and thawing. Instant Clearjel® is freezer stable yet tolerates baking temperatures.  It thickens without cooking and begins to swell as soon as it is added to liquid gradually increasing in thickness during heating.  Although not modified food starches, arrowroot and tapioca starch can also be used to thicken products for freezing yielding satisfactory freeze-thaw results. Do not use Instant Clearjel® in canned pie fillings.

While Clearjel® is widely used commercially, its manufacturer, Ingredion, has not made it easily available to consumers. Therefore, it behooves one to think ahead. It is generally sold in bulk and is available only through a few supply outlets; it is not currently available in traditional grocery stores.  Look for it at online sources, Amish groceries, or bakery supply stores.  If Clearjel® is not available at the time of preserving, pie filling can be made without and thickened at the time of use with any suitable starch.  There are about 3 cups of Clearjel® in a pound.

At the present time, the USDA, the National Center for Home Food Preservation, and most University Extensions, including Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Minnesota Extension, stand by Clearjel® as the only recommended starch for four pie fillings– apple, blueberry, cherry, and peach pie fillings; there have been no broadening of recommendations from the USDA or NCHFP for other uses. However, some University Extensions have expanded the use of Clearjel® with tested canning applications or alternative products.  Food scientists at Oregon State University Extension have added a Blackberry Pie Filling option to the list of approved USDA pie filling recipes by following the USDA cherry recipe with blackberry as a substitute. Washington State University Extension has added recipes for making jams with Clearjel®.

PermaFlo®, ThermFlo® and Thick Gel™ are commercial equivalents that have been accepted as alternatives for Clearjel® by some University Extensions.  Penn State prefers ThermFlo® as an alternative for its “added advantage of holding up well during storage if canned goods are stored in a cold basement.  This stability factor allows it to be used in frozen pie fillings.” ThermFlo® is also made by Ingredion. Utah State Extension recognizes Thick Gel™ as an alternative for Clearjel®. Thick Gel™ is made and marketed by Cornaby’s, a Utah based company, which sells directly to consumers.  It advertises itself as gluten-free and non-GMO.  (Per the Ingredion website, Clearjel® is also gluten-free.)  PermaFlo® was not found to be mentioned by any particular University Extension; it is a product of Tate & Lyle International.

As always, to ensure a safe product, use a tested canning recipe without alteration and follow the latest guidelines; the National Center for Home Food Preservation, USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, and So Easy to Preserve are trusted sources. If other recipes or products are used, check with the manufacturer or recipe source regarding use and product safety.

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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Preserving Summer Squash

One zucchini, two zucchini, three zucchini . . . . four . . .

Summer squash is now in plentiful supply.  When a plant begins to produce, it often produces an overwhelming amount of produce.  While there are several varieties of summer squash, zucchini is the one we hear about the most.  And perhaps the one we have the most ‘fun’ with when surprise care packages show up on co-workers’ desk or neighbor’s doorstep. Before giving all away, consider saving a few for off-season use by preserving.

Summer squash is at its very best when it is eight inches or less in length and an inch or two wide (about two to three days of growth) or, in the case of odd-shapes, picked right when the flower falls off. When picked and eaten at this size, the inside texture is consistent throughout the fruit, never pithy, and the seeds aren’t yet developed. The skin is incredibly tender, and the flavor is mild and sweet–sweet because the plant creates sugars as energy to make seeds; when picked before the seeds develop, those sugars are still present in the flesh. If left on the vine longer, the skin begins to toughen and quality decreases. When cooked the tender squash create uniform, never mushy or stringy, delicious additions to soups, kebabs, sauces, salads, and stir-fries. And, yes, they make a fine zucchini bread or zucchini cake, too.

Fresh squash should be washed in cold water to remove all visible signs of soil before using or storing. Handle carefully as summer squash bruise easily. Store fresh squash in the refrigerator crisper in plastic storage bags or rigid containers to retain moisture. Stored in this manner, squash will maintain quality for 5-7 days. 

So while we know how to use them fresh, what about preserving them?

The USDA does not recommend canning summer squash or zucchini alone.  Rather the recommendation is to preserve by freezing, pickling, or drying.  An adequate processing times has not been established for a safe product.  Squash are low-acid vegetables requiring pressure canning to destroy the bacteria that cause botulism. The heat required to can squash results in the squash flesh turning mushy and sinking to the bottom of the canning jar. The compacted flesh does not heat evenly.  Zucchini may only be canned when paired with tomatoes using a tested recipe from The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP):  https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_03/tomato_okra_zucchini.html OR paired with pineapple juice, sugar, and lemon juice using a recipe also from the NCHFP, https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_02/zucchini_pineapple.html. Zucchini Pineapple maybe used in salads, desserts, or other recipes calling for crushed or chunk pineapple.

FREEZING

There are three different ways to successfully freeze summer squash./zucchini.  Begin by choosing young squash with tender skin and washing.  There is no need to peel but squash must be blanched before freezing.  Blanching slows or stops the enzyme action which can cause loss of flavor, color and texture.  Blanching also cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms, brightens the color, helps retard loss of vitamins and wilts or softens vegetables making them easier to pack. Blanching may be done in boiling water or steam.

  1. Slices – Slice ¼ – ½-inch thick.  Blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes on in steam for 4 1/2 minutes; cool in ice water for at least 3 minutes.  Drain well and package.  If packaged in freezer containers, leave ½-inch of headspace.  Slices may also be flash frozen using the tray method and packaged.
  2. Preparation for Frying – Follow instructions for blanching.  Before packaging, dredge in flour or cornmeal.  Flash freeze using the tray method and package.
  3. Grated for Baking – While some grate, package, and freeze squash for future baking, it is recommended to steam blanch squash for best quality.  Steam blanch small quantities of grated squash 1 to 2 minutes (until translucent) followed by packing measured amounts into containers.  Cool containers in ice water, seal and freeze.  When ready to use, thaw containers of frozen squash in the refrigerator prior to use. If the squash is watery when thawed, discard the liquid before using in baked goods.

Varieties for freezing include cocozelle, crookneck, pattypan, straightneck, white scallop and zucchini.  Chayote is also regarded as a summer squash but requires slightly different preparation for blanching.  Chayote is diced and seeded before blanching for 2 minutes. 

Remember to label and date packages. Properly packaged and frozen, squash should maintain high quality for approximately 10 months in the freezer.  Vacuum packaging can extend the shelf life of frozen squash but cannot be used as a food preservation method alone. Flash freeze squash slices before packaging, package frozen squash and return frozen squash to the freezer. Vacuum packaged frozen squash will have a longer shelf life than frozen squash which is not vacuum packaged.

PICKLING

Follow a tested recipe for pickling summer squash. Summer squash, zucchini, or chayote work well for pickling.  Two approved and very good tasting recipes can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation:

Summer Squash Relishhttps://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_06/summer_squash_relish.html

Notes:  Squash may be diced or shredded by hand instead of shredding with a food processor.  Any variety of onion is acceptable.  Celery salt may be used in place of celery seed for a taste preference.  Relish can be enjoyed freshly made without processing.  Fresh or opened jars of relish should be refrigerated. [Preserving Food at Home Resource Guide, PennState Extension, p.104] For best quality and safety, consume refrigerated pickled squash within 7 days.

Pickled Bread-and-Butter Zucchini:  https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_06/bread_butter_zucchini.html

DRYING

Varieties that work well for drying include zucchini and yellow summer squash.  Wash and trim ends from the squash and cut squash into ¼-inch slices.  Steam blanching slices for 2 ½ -3 minutes or water blanch for 1 ½ minutes is recommended for best quality.  Utah State University Extension suggests adding 1 teaspoon/gallon citric acid to the blanching water to reduce darkening during the drying process.  Drain the slices and arrange them in a single layer on a dehydrator tray. Dry in a food dehydrator at 135-140⁰F for 10-12 hours or until slices are leathery crisp and brittle.  Store the dried pieces in airtight containers (glass jars or in moisture and vapor-proof freezer containers, boxes or bags) in a cool, dry, dark place for up to 12 months. Vacuum packaging dried squash is also an option as it will resist moisture better and extend the shelf life.

Ten pounds of fresh squash will dry to approximately ¾ pound. Dried squash can be used in soups or stews or processed in a food chopper and used in breads or baked goods.

Regardless of how summer squash is preserved or used fresh, it is nutritious. One cup sliced (100 g), fresh summer squash has approximately 18 calories, 1 g fiber, and 1 g protein. Squash is an excellent source of vitamin C. Cooked squash will have essentially the same calories, fiber and protein, but will lose approximately 75% of the Vitamin C during the cooking process (http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/Data/index.html).

To learn more about the many uses for summer squash, check out: Summer Squash Is a Versatile Vegetable in Iowa Gardens.

References

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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Tray Pack for Freezing Food – Why and How

Sometimes a small amount of a frozen food is needed like a few strawberries for a smoothie, one chicken breast, or a few pepper slices for a soup.  By “flash freezing” or using the “tray pack” method, one can easily remove just the right amount of fruit, vegetable, meat, and even baked items needed, rather than thawing larger amounts of food all at once. 

In the food industry, flash freezing is used to quickly chill food items at extremely low temperatures with circulating air. This quick-chill method keeps ice crystals small, which preserves the cell structure and prevents moisture loss in the food when it thaws. In the home, flash freezing refers to the tray pack method or practice of freezing individual pieces of food separately spread out on a baking sheet or tray until firm (1-2 hours).   When frozen firm, the frozen food is promptly packaged (use containers or bags specific for freezing to prevent freezer burn), leaving no head space, sealed, labeled and returned to the freezer. This prevents individual pieces of food from fusing together during freezing.

Small ice crystals are desirable in frozen food to preserve texture.  Large ice crystals rupture food cells and cause a soft, mushy texture.  Small crystals are formed when food is frozen quickly and kept at a constant storage temperature of 0ºF (-18ºC) or lower making the at-home tray pack method desirable for any foods that come in or can be cut or broken into individual pieces.  Raw, cooked, or blanched foods may be frozen using the tray pack method.

Foods that can be Flash Frozen with the Tray Pack Method

Bacteria, molds, and yeast are present on all fresh foods and multiply rapidly between temperatures of 40°F and 140°F (4°C and 60°C). Therefore, fresh fruits and vegetables should be washed with cool water to remove dirt and residues and prepared appropriately, including blanching when necessary, prior to freezing. Other foods, should be handled appropriately for their type. Freezing does not kill most microorganisms in food; rather it prevents their growth. When thawed, the surviving organisms on any frozen food can grow again.

  • Fresh fruits: strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, mango chunks, cranberries, grapes, bananas slices, pineapple chunks, peach slices, kiwi slices, gooseberries, currants, rhubarb.  Fruits that darken, such as peaches, can be pre-treated with ascorbic acid and drained prior to freezing.
  • Fresh vegetables that do not need blanching prior to freezing:  peppers and chilies (seeded, whole, halved, or chopped), onions and garlic (chopped), tomatoes (peeled).  [See UNL video, Freezing Onions, Peppers, and Tomatoes]
  • Fresh vegetables that have been blanched, cooled, drained prior:  green/yellow beans, shelled peas, zucchini/summer squash, whole-kernel corn, carrots, okra, sugar/snap peas and small mixed vegetables.  [See YouTube How to Blanch and Freeze Vegetables]
  • Individual portions of meat or chunks of meat.
  • Individual scoops of cookie dough.
  • Unbaked, shaped yeast dough. [See Freezing Yeast Dough]
  • Individual portions of baked items.

Trays or baking sheets may be lined with a silicone baking mat (Silpat) or parchment paper if sticking or freezing to the metal is of concern. To insure that there is sufficient cold air to circulate around the trays to freeze quickly and not raise the temperature of already frozen food, add no more than 2 pounds of food per square foot of freezer space.

Food stored at temperatures of 0°F or below will always be safe to eat. Freezing prevents the growth of the microorganisms that cause food-borne illness. However, after time, frozen foods might lose flavor, texture, or overall quality.  The FDA Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Chart lists optimum freezing times for best quality of most foods.  Other recommendations for items not on the list are as follows:

Baked items – 3-6 months
Unbaked yeast dough – 1 month
Cheesecake slices – 2 weeks
Fruit – 1 year
Cookie dough – 3-4 months (all recommendations from StillTasty.com)

With the exception of most yeast dough products, it’s best to plan ahead and thaw frozen food in the refrigerator where it will remain at a safe, constant temperature — at 40°F (4°C) or below. Other options include thawing in cold water or in the microwave.  It’s also safe to cook foods from the frozen state; frozen vegetables are commonly prepared this way.  Frozen fruit can be served frozen as snacks or used in salads or desserts.

The Mayo Clinic favors flash-freezing of produce stating that studies have shown that fruits and vegetables that are appropriately prepared and frozen as quickly as possible retain nutrients better.

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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Peel Tomatoes Before Preserving

Tomatoes can be preserved by freezing, canning, or drying with good results.
For best results, PEEL TOMATOES BEFORE PRESERVING.   

Peeling tomatoes is a step that many seem to loathe and consider an unimportant extra step. Perhaps it is the word ‘peel’ that makes the task distasteful as peel means to remove the outer covering or skin from a fruit or vegetable usually with a knife—like peeling an apple or a potato.  My grandma used the term, ‘slip the skin’ which really seems more appropriate for removing the skin from a tomato.  The process is simple:   dip tomatoes in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds until skins split or wrinkle. Dip into cold water, slip off the skins and remove the cores.

Removing the skins is important for these reasons:

  1. The texture of the skin may be undesirable in the finished product.
  2. Most tested recipes for tomato products were prepared and tested with skins removed.  Since tested recipes are meant to be followed as written, leaving skins on would be an alteration of the recipe, and therefore, may not only influence the quality of the product, but also the safety.
  3. Skins may interfere with the necessary uniform heat penetration in the canning process.
  4. The skins of fruits and vegetables are sources of bacteria, yeasts, and molds.  Some of these contaminants are removed when the produce is washed with cool water but it is not possible to remove it all.  By peeling or slipping the skins, the bacterial load is greatly reduced rendering a safer final product.
  5. The tomato skin is heavy in a kind of nutrient called flavonols, which may impart a bitter flavor to a canned product.

So bite the bullet and slip those tomato skins.

For more information on freezing, canning, and drying tomatoes, check out How to Preserve Tomatoes by Utah State University Extension and Preserve the Taste of Summer, Canning and Freezing Tomatoes by Iowa State Extension and Outreach.  When canning tomatoes or tomato products, remember to acidify with commercially bottled lemon juice or citric acid to prevent the possibility of botulism.

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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Freezer Burn and Food Safety

Have you opened some frozen food to find it has a dry, grayish surface or lots of ice crystals clinging to the surface? This is freezer burn.   Freezer burn is simply the result of air coming into contact with food, and while it may not look appetizing, it is usually safe to eat.

The phenomenon of freezer burn happens when tiny ice crystals on the food’s surface evaporate directly into vapor without first going through the liquid water phase – a process scientifically termed sublimation. This moisture loss or dehydration leaves the food’s surface layers dried out and discolored.

Freezer burn happens when food is not adequately wrapped to remove oxygen, which has a bleaching effect on the food surface. Food stored constantly at 0 °F will always be safe. Only the quality suffers with lengthy or inadequate freezer storage.

The bleaching and moisture loss effect of freezer burn may not make food unsafe to eat, but it certainly affects the taste, texture, and color. Severely freezer-burned food will have an off taste and smell that is especially noticeable. It’s best to toss any food that exhibits severe freezer burn as the quality does not merit the effort to save or prepare it.  Products exhibiting mild freezer burn are usually fine to eat by cutting away the burned area either before or after cooking. Foods with a higher water content are more likely to get freezer burn.

A few simple precautions will help to avoid freezer burn and ensure frozen foods remain at peak condition at time of use and eliminate food waste.  Here’s some tips from the experts:

  • Use freezer-safe containers.  Only use bags, jars, paper and containers that are labeled for freezer use. These products are designed to keep air out.
  • Remove as much air as possible.   Air is the enemy of frozen food.  Vacuum sealers do a wonderful job of removing air.  However, squeezing the contents without smashing will also remove a lot of air.  Some people like to insert a straw into the corner of a zipper bag and pull air out before the final close.  If using freezer containers, crumple a piece of waterproof paper on top of the food to help minimize headspace. This helps prevent freezer burn, ice crystal formation and keeps food pieces from drying out.
  • Maintain the freezer temperature at zero degrees F or lower to help freeze food fast and stay frozen solid.  Foods stored near or in freezer doors or at the top of a chest freezer should be eaten first as these areas are for short-term storage.  Also avoid packing the freezer tightly; air must be able to flow freely around the food.
  • Let foods cool before packaging.  The USDA recommends cooling food as rapidly as possible, either in the refrigerator or in an ice bath.   Cold foods are less likely to trap steam inside the packaging.  Steam, like air, is detrimental to frozen foods as it turns to ice crystals.  Individual blanched vegetables, fruits, meat pieces, and baked goods are best if cooled and then flash frozen on baking trays (tray pack method) for an hour or two before packaging.
  • Store-packaging may be left on meat products but they should be over-wrapped in freezer paper, heavy duty foil or plastic wrap or placed in freezer bags prior to freezing for long-term storage.
  • Label and date.   Freezing keeps food safe almost indefinitely.  However, there are recommended storage times for best quality. Refer to and/or download the FDA Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Chart which lists optimum freezing times for best quality. 

Freezer burn affects food’s quality but not its safety. Even though the food is safe to eat, doesn’t mean one should. Freezer burn fundamentally changes a food’s chemical composition, affecting its flavor and texture.   All foods are susceptible to freezer burn but with proper packaging and freezer management, the problem can largely be eliminated.

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 About All the Different Brands of Canning Jars and Lids?

With supply and worker shortages and an increase in home canning in 2020 and 2021, new or unfamiliar brands of canning jars and lids began to appear to fulfill consumer needs.  Should consumers trust these new or unfamiliar products?

Canning jars have been around since 1858 when John L. Mason invented and patented a threaded glass jar that became known as the Mason jar and sold under the label, Mason. The original jar has changed very little but has undergone variations in shape and cap design. After Mason’s patent expired, many other manufacturers produced glass jars for home canning using the Mason-style jar with labels such as Ball, Kerr, Atlas, Drey, Mason, Globe, Mom’s, Knox, and Golden Harvest. However, as so often happens, through a process of competition and consolidation, the number of jar producers grew fewer over the years with one company, Newell Brands, acquiring the Ball®, Kerr, Bernardin, and Golden Harvest brands—all familiar brands to consumers.

Mason’s initial form of closure for the glass canning jar was a zinc screw-on cap with a milk-glass liner that screwed down onto a rubber ring on the shoulder of the jar, not the lip. In 1903, Alexander Kerr introduced lids with a permanent rubber seal eventually giving way to the modern two-piece metal lids that seal on the rim.

AnswerLIne has received many calls from clients wanting to know about the new or unfamiliar brands of jars and lids filling the shelf space formerly occupied by familiar and trusted brands. It is important to note that regardless of the brand, USDA canning procedures and processing times are based on scientific testing using standard Mason jars and two-piece metals lids. See Canning in Odd Sized Jars for information on non-standard sized jars.

Here’s what has been gleaned about some of the brands AnswerLine clients have asked about as they have shopped for canning supplies:

Anchor Hocking – Originally known for glass bake- and cookware, Anchor Hocking has re-entered the market with Mason jars.  The jars are made in the USA and per company information are dishwasher safe and perfect for canning, crafting, and storage.  The Anchor Hocking website gives instructions for both water bath and pressure canning with the jars.  Information on the box says the jars, lids and bands are BPA free.  The jars come with lids and bands; no information was found regarding the quality of the lids. 

Country Classics – These jars and lids are made in China and distributed by a company in Ohio.  Per the Country Classics website, www.countryclassicscanning.com, the jars are safe for preserving, crafting, and storing; information is provided for canning by water bath and pressure.  Wide-mouth and regular lids are available.  There is no information about the lids on the website but customer reviews on other sites are mixed. (17 October 2022 Update: numerous AnswerLine clients who have used these lids have reported buckling and seal failure.)

Denali – Offering wide-mouth and regular flat lids, rings, and a pressure canner in their canning line, this company has an engineering team in the US with manufacturing facilities currently in China; per the company website, www.denalicanning.com, this company plans to expand US operations in the near future.  Made of a heavier gauge of steel, the lids have been rigorously tested.  Consumers find that the lids seal well.  If something should not go right with the lids, Denali has a customer resolution option with possible refund.F

ForJars – ForJars has been in business for two year and currently offers only canning lids. Per the company website, https://forjars.co, the lids are made of high-quality metal, which prevents bending and buckling. They have also added some stainless steel material to the composition which prevents the formation of rust. The lids are thicker than many lids with a thickness of 0.18 mm versus 0.10 -0.12 mm of others. The lids work well for either pressure or water bath canning. A high-quality food-grade silicone is used for sealing. Presently the lids are manufactured in China but the company is hoping to open production facillities in Florida by late 2022 or early 2023. Customer service is provided at 941-257-8236 or support@forjars.com. A company representative said that they guarantee their lids and will work to make things right with customers who experience problems. Customer reviews are positive.

Golden Harvest – Golden Harvest is back on the market as a lower-priced line of home canning jars and lids sold by Newell Brands which also owns the Ball®, Kerr, and Bernardin (Canada) brands.  Most home canners find the Golden Harvest jars and lids to be of good quality.  The lids are manufactured in the US. There are no wide-mouth jars in the product line and there is no website for customer service. 

Kilner® – Kilner® is an old English company.  Currently jars are being manufactured in China.  Kilner® makes a variety of jars but the standard Mason jars with two-piece metal lids meet the USDA’s guidelines for home canning jars. They are safe for all types of canning, including pressure.  Kilner® makes their own lids but standard, two-piece, US market, metal lids also fit these jars. The jars may come with recipes but should be ignored; instead, recipes from a reputable source should be used.  The jars come in “ml” sizes, not the US standard half-pint, pint, and quart jars so processing times* need to be considered.  The USDA has not released any recommendations on these jars at the present time, so the rule of thumb is to use the next tested time up. More information can be found on the company’s website, www.kilnerjar.com.

Mainstay – The Mainstay line has been part of Walmart’s offering for several years.  However, it is not clear that Walmart is selling Mainstay canning jars and lids in 2022.  Prior, both jars and lids were made in the USA per product labeling—jars at an Anchor Hocking plant in Monaca, PA and lids by Healthmark LLC Jarden Home—but cannot be verified for recent products (should there be any).  Judging by 2020 consumer reviews, most consumers were satisfied with the lids but did note that the lids were thinner and some of the lids were defective right out of the box. The jars were listed as safe for home canning and freezing but did not specifically mention pressure canning. Mainstay BPA-free plastic lids that fit Mason jars are still available; these lids can be used for storage but not for canning.

Orchard Road – Orchard Road canning jars and lids are made in China following stringent guidelines per a company spokesperson. The plastisol sealing compound is made in Pennsylvania.  A company spokesperson said the entire canning product line has been tested by an independent lab against Ball® products and found to perform just as well.  Azure Marketing asserts that they provide consumers with high-quality canning products at reasonable prices.  The jars are heavy and safe for both water bath and pressure canning.  The lids are BPA-free and can be used with other Mason jars.  They also offer a line of decorative lids. 

PUR Mason – PUR Mason jars and lids are manufactured in China and distributed by the PUR Health Group in Broomfield, Colorado. According to a PUR company official, PUR lids and jars are safe for canning—both water bath and pressure canning.  Jars are lead free.  A new generation of BPA-free lids are now on the market and are heavier, have a thicker coating of enamel on the inside, and have an improved sealing compound for better adhesion.   For more information visit the PUR website.

Tattler – Known for their reusable lids since 1976, Tattler began producing one-time use lids in October 2022.  American made, the disposable lids feature extra thick metal for durability and double BPA-free coating on the underside to deter corrosion.  The flat lids are designed to be used with Tattler’s existing rubber gasket ring which replaces the plastisol used by other companies.  The lids are suitable for pressure canning, water bath canning, steam canning and vacuum sealing. For more information visit the Tattler website or call customer service at (231) 912-0525.

True Living – Both jars and lids are made in China and distributed by a company in Tennessee.  Lighter in weight than some other brands, they are sometimes found in the craft section of stores rather than the kitchen section.  Information on the side of the jar box says “dishwasher safe and BPA free.”  Lids have mixed reviews. 

Weck – Weck home canning jars are made in Germany and are well-known in Europe. Weck also owns the Rex line of preserving jars in Austria. The Weck canning jar system consists of glass jars, glass lids, tabbed rubber gaskets (sealing rings) and metal clamps. The jars are certified for both water-bath canning and pressure canning. The jars come in numerous irregular “ml” sizes—not the US standard half-pints, pints and quarts requiring processing time* adjustments; there are currently no USDA recommendations.  Canning information accompanying the jars has been found to lack modern, research-based procedures so should be discarded in the interest of food safety; tested recipes from reputable sources should be used.  Weck jars and supplies are more costly and are irregular in size; it is not possible to fit the standard 7 (quart) jars in a canner. More information can be found at www.weckjars.com.

There are countless sources for canning lids and it appears that most are made in China.  It is not possible to find reliable information for the no-name brands; reviewer’s comments indicate that lid failure is a problem.  Counterfeit lids are still being sold so it is definitely a “buyer beware” canning market.  While the cost will be higher, supplies are predicted to keep up with demand in 2022.

The USDA, National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP), Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, or AnswerLine do not recommend for (or against) any of these products.  The current recommendation is to use the tested two-piece metal lid system that has been the norm for many years and Mason jars specifically made for the rigors of canning.

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*The shape and size of a jar effects the safety of the canning process, so it should not be assumed that recommended processes can be used with jars other than the standard sizes and shapes of Mason-type jars manufactured for home canning. – So Easy to Preserve

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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Induction Cooking – What You Need to Know

If you’re buying a new range or cooktop, you might be deciding between electric or induction. Induction cooking is currently one of the top choices. It has risen to popularity because of how fast food cooks through the induction method. While both use electricity to cook food and produce the same outcome, the way they get there is quite different. Both are great options, but it’s important to understand the differences between them and which will be the best fit for your cooking needs.

Standard electric cooking sends electric current to open coils or radiant burner elements below the glass or ceramic surface to transfer heat to cooking vessels (pots or pans)  and then to the food inside. This process is known as thermal conduction. It takes time for the burner to heat and transfer heat to the vessel as well as to cool down due to the residual heat that the burners hold; after reducing the temperature, burners take a few minutes to settle to a lower setting and remain hot after burners are turned off.

An induction cooktop or range looks similar to a glass-top electric counterpart but is powered by an electromagnetic field below the surface of the glass cooktop. Instead of passing heat along from surface to cookware to food, induction cooktops heat the cookware directly resulting in even cooking and less loss of energy. The magnetic field reacts with the cookware (which must contain ferrous iron) and transfers heat and energy directly into the cooking vessel. Only the pan, and what’s directly under it, on an induction range gets hot. The surface around it stays cool.  

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF INDUCTION COOKING?

  • Cooking is faster.  In general, an induction range or cooktop is 2-4 minutes faster than gas or electric at bringing 6 quarts of water to a boil.
  • Excellent temperature control. Allows for precise temperature adjustments and reduces the chance of burning food.  When you turn the burner off, heat transfer stops immediately, so there’s less of a chance of foods boiling over or overcooking.
  • Easy clean up. Spatters or spills outside of the pan will not bake onto the cooking surface.  There are no burners to take apart and reassemble.
  • More energy efficient. An induction model uses 10% less energy than a smooth-top electric range.
  • Safe.   There is no emission of gas into the air. Cloth objects will not catch on fire because no element is exposed and heat only transfers to items with iron particles in it. Induction units also turn off when the cookware is removed from the heating element so there’s little risk of accidentally leaving it on when cooking is done. Burners accidentally turned on will not get hot.  Fire hazards and risk of burns is reduced.

Electrical appliances such as an induction unit create Non-Ionizing or Low-Frequency EMF. According to the National Cancer Institute there are no current studies that have been able to provide a link that Non-Ionizing radiation causes any adverse health issues such as cancer. In fact the natural radiation emitted from the sun is far more harmful than induction unit could ever be.[1]

The American Heart Association has also deemed the low electromagnetic field safe for patients with pacemakers or medical implants.

  • Reduces kitchen heat and ventilation requirements.

WHAT ARE THE DISADVANTAGES OF INDUCTION COOKING?

  • Cost.  Induction surfaces are an investment since the technology is relatively new.  However, as induction becomes more mainstream, the cost is decreasing.
  • Require cookware containing ferrous iron.  Specifically, that means stainless steel, cast iron, and carbon steel. Pots and pans made from aluminum and copper aren’t compatible. Most confusing of all, some cookware uses a combination of materials in its construction, so its induction status isn’t always obvious. Look for pots and pans marked “induction safe” or “induction compatible.” An easy test to see if cookware is compatible is to see if a magnet strongly sticks to the bottom of the pan.  If a magnet sticks to the bottom, it can be used with induction. 
  • Caution – Cooktops can get hot.   Heat is transferred from the cooking vessel to the glass through conduction, much as a hot pan would transfer heat to a countertop if you set it down to rest.  The glass surface never gets as hot as it would on a traditional radiant electric range but one can never assume that it will be cool to the touch.
  • Unfamiliar sounds.  Some consumers report a buzz or hum on the higher settings resulting from the high energy transferring from the coil to the pan.  There is also the possibility of hearing the element clicking or the fan cooling the electronics. All are common and resolve by turning down the heat or adding food to the pot or pan,, Consumer Reports says that heavy, flat-bottomed pans help reduce the vibrations that cause the buzz.
  • Magnetic field can interfere with digital thermometers.  Consumer Reports suggests the need to resort to an analog thermometer—an old-fashioned solution to a modern problem.
  • Requires a learning curve. Induction cooking takes some getting used to.  Some nuances include: placing the right sized cookware in the center of the heating element in order for it to be properly activated; cookware must be flat-bottomed; the heating element may cut off prematurely or shut off without warning when the pan is shaken or moved; food may overcook until one learns that cookware doesn’t take long to preheat and a lower heat setting is needed to maintain the temperature of food.  Touch pad controls also take time to get used to.
  • Cooktops scratch easily.  Although induction cooktops are made of a durable glass-ceramic composite, they are more prone to scratching if scratchy pans are slid across the surface and even cracking if a heavy pot is set down too hard. Most manufacturers suggest using cookware with clean, smooth bottoms, and to avoid sliding pots and pans across the surface. Sharp tools or abrasive cleaning materials should not be used on the surface.
  • Repairs may be expensive after the warranty period. 
  • A 240V outlet is required.  An induction range or cooktop easily replaces an electric range or cooktop.   If the conversion is from gas, an electrician will need to install the proper wiring. 
  • Requires canners (pressure and water) specifically made for induction cooktops.  Both are available.

While induction cooking is one of the most efficient, safest and precise ways to prepare food, the question remains, is it for you?

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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