Spring means it is time for rhubarb!

A sure sign that spring is arriving is rhubarb starting to grow! Although it is technically a vegetable, it is used as a fruit since it is highly acidic which gives it the distinctive tart flavor. It is delicious combined with strawberries for a pie, made in bars or crisps, or a sauce poured over ice cream or cake.

According to our Iowa State University Extension Horticulturists, if you want to establish a rhubarb bed, early spring is the best time. Rhubarb plants can be purchased at garden center or if you are lucky enough to know someone dividing their plant, you can start your patch with that. Each division should contain at least two to three buds and a large piece of the root system. Replant in your own spot as soon as possible. Select a site that will receive at least 6 hours of direct sun each day. Plants prefer well-drained, fertile soils that are high in organic matter.

If you bed is newly planted patience is required since you should not harvest it until the second season to allow for good root development. During the third year, harvest for a four- week period. In the fourth and following years, rhubarb can be harvested for eight to ten weeks, ending in mid-June in Iowa and late June in Minnesota. It is a good idea not to remove more than one-half of the fully developed stalks from any plant at any one time. An old wives tail that we hear often from callers is that rhubarb is poisonous if eaten later in the summer. Rhubarb does not become poisonous, but harvesting later in the summer may weaken the plant and make it less productive the following year.

Spring weather can change quickly in the Midwest and fortunately, rhubarb is a sturdy plant that can withstand cold temperatures after it has started to grow. If a frost occurs, check your plant in a few days. If the leaves and the stalks are blackened and soft, remove them. Any new growth will be safe to eat. If the stalks do not show any sign of damage from the frost those stalks are safe to eat.

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.


Rhubarb is easy to grow and a treat to eat! If you would like more information on growing rhubarb, the University of Minnesota Extension has some very helpful tips on watering, controlling weeds and harvesting.

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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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Time for Spring-Dug Parsnips

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

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

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DIY Corned Beef

Corned beef brisket sliced on a cutting board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene Geiger

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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Taking the ‘Myths’ Out of Cooking Dried Beans

Last spring we decided to plant beans—beans, as in eventual dried beans—for a new garden experience, health benefits, and future use in cooking, or as a meat substitute.  Beans are a rich source of fiber and B vitamins and help reduce cholesterol, decrease blood sugar levels, and increase healthy gut bacteria.

My husband chose five different varieties—Amish Knuttle, Black Turtle, Tigers Eye, Peregion, and Garbanzo (chick peas) to plant.  It was fun to watch them grow, set and fill their pods.  The foliage of the first four looked very much like any other kind of bean or soybean (edamame).  The garbanzo foliage was very different; the lacey, delicate leaves looked more like they belonged in a flower garden than a vegetable garden. 

As fall dawned, the leaves began to yellow exposing the pods which would eventually dry and need to be picked.  Enter the human harvester–me. As I spent long hours picking bean pods and later removing the beans from their pods, I had more appreciation than ever for the dried beans that I so nonchalantly pick up at the grocery store and grateful that bean farmers had mechanical harvesting equipment.  Once my harvest was complete, I couldn’t help but admire the beautiful jars of beans as if they were a work of art! 

Since I had such a high regard for my beans, I felt they were worthy of being cooked properly to show their unique texture and flavor.  In the past, I hadn’t taken much stock in how I cooked beans; my method or lack thereof probably stemmed from a combination of whatever I haphazardly learned from my mother years ago, heard from other advisors in my life, or simply what I had time for.  I soon learned there are as many ways to cook beans as there are people who cook them and many of the methods stem from ‘myths’—soak or no soak, fresh water or not, salt or no salt, lid or no lid, oven or stove top.

I was intrigued by an Epicurious article:  How to Cook Beans: The Epicurious Myth-Busting Guide.  The Epicurious kitchen staff experimented with pinto beans to determine the best method for cooking dried beans, debunking many of the myths surrounding bean cooking.  I repeated their experiment using each of my bean varieties to determine what was best for each; in the end, regardless of variety, I had to agree with their recommendations.  Quick-soaking the beans, cooking in their own water, salting them at the beginning of cooking, and cooking in a pot without a lid on the stove top resulted in beans with great texture and flavor.  (Use the Epicurious link above to read more about the Epi method.)

Once the beans are cooked, they are ready for whatever comes their way.  I usually cook a quantity of beans and freeze in portion containers what will not be used in 2-3 days.  Frozen cooked beans can be used like a drained can of beans.  Thawing is not necessary when they are used in soup or baked beans. If used in a salad, side dish, or baking, they need to be defrosted prior.  Beans keep well in the freezer for about 6 months.  Dried beans will generally stay at best quality for about 2 to 3 years at normal room temperature; they will remain safe to use after that but may take longer to cook and have less flavor. 

How do you cook your beans?

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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Happy Holidays from AnswerLine

2020 has been a year that none of us will forget! As it ends, we thought we would share with you some of the things that have been happening at AnswerLine. We have had the privilege of answering calls and emails from Iowa for the last 45 years and Minnesota for almost 20 years. That amounts to over 18,000 calls and emails received over the last year alone! In addition to the calls we normally receive, this year we dealt with questions on how to keep safe and sanitize with COVID-19, preserving food since so many people were home from work and were growing their own foods, and also helping with the preservation of food when canning supplies ran short all across the country. In Iowa we also were dealt with the deracho and we helped callers with the loss of electricity and all of the food safety questions! It was quite a year!

Our current staff of four home economists have a blend of different backgrounds and interests. We have all worked in professional careers before coming to AnswerLine. We are able to share our knowledge and ability to find research based answers to callers questions. Our specialty area is answering home and family questions but we are proud to be a part of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the University of Minnesota Extension service where we have a wealth of experts whom we can call upon when a question is out of our expertise area. These specialists help us answer questions regarding horticulture, entomology, wildlife, agriculture, farming and child care, just to name a few areas. We are also proud of our other Extension and Outreach hotline Iowa Concern. They are a wonderful resource to help with legal, financial, crisis, disaster and teen issues.

It has been a joy to talk personally with numerous people across Iowa and Minnesota, to help them resolve problems, issues, and concerns that affect their daily lives with research based information. Many people are thrilled that our phones are answered by live people, since so many calls are now answered by computers. Further, we have had the opportunity to share similar information with people around the world through email and Ask An Expert questions that come to our inbox daily. Many of our callers are friends we’ve never met; they call frequently and in doing so we’ve learned something about them and they about us. We love talking to people and NO question is silly or foolish. While there is great satisfaction in helping each individual find a solution that works for them, the greatest satisfaction comes when a caller calls back or there is an email response, saying “you made my day.”

If you would like additional ways to contact us, try using our email at answer@iastate.edu. We also have a blog that we post weekly and Facebook posts on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week.


Thank you to the many consumers, past and present, who have challenged us daily with questions. We hope consumers will continue to challenge us with both calls and emails and that they share with their family and friends that AnswerLine is ready and willing to help should they need us. Our phone lines are available from 9-12 and 1-4 M-F.

We wish everyone a happy and safe holiday season!


Your friends at AnswerLine,
Beth, Marcia, Marlene and Carol

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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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Safe Homemade Food Gifts

Homemade food gifts are thoughtful holiday (or anytime) gifts. But how do you know if the food gift you are giving or receiving is safe to eat? Not everything that is made commercially can be made at home safely.  This is especially true when it comes to canned food gifts—jams and jellies, butters, soups, pickles, salsa, pesto, barbecue sauce, flavored vinegars or oils, and more. 

The National Center for Home Food Preservation offers these guidelines to evaluate the safety of home-canned gifts:

LOW RISK.  Fruit jams and jellies, fruit spreads, and whole fruits like peaches and pears are low-risk because their natural acidity and high sugar content provide an extra measure of safety.  Jams or jellies made with artificial sweeteners or with gelatin would be exceptions.  Those made with artificial sweeteners must be made with an appropriate gelling agent and stored per directions; gelatin based products must be refrigerated or frozen.

HIGH RISK.  Low-acid meats, vegetables and mixtures pose a higher risk because these products can support the growth of the botulism bacteria if improperly prepared and/or processed.  These products must be prepared with a tested recipe and processed in a pressure canner.

HIGHEST RISK.  Mixtures of acidic and low-acid foods such as salsas, some pickled products, pesto, soups, sauces, herb and oil mixes, and cream-based soups are of highest risk for potential botulism if they are not prepared with a tested recipe and properly processed in a jar of proper size. There are NO tested recipes for canning vegetable based butters, such as Pumpkin Butter, pesto, fudge/chocolate sauce, cream soups, or herb/vegetable oils. 

For any home canned product to be unquestionably safe, the product must be prepared using a USDA approved and TESTED RECIPE explicitly followed without exception.  Further, gifts canned in decorative, untested, jars or with unconventional lids should also be suspect. A sealed lid doesn’t mean a canned product is safe.

Another NO in the world of canned gifts are the so called ‘canned breads and cakes.  Referring to a previous blog, ‘Home-Canned’ Cakes and Breads for Gift Giving – A Big NO, these products involve no canning per say and are not safe in any way.  “Many cake and quick bread recipes often have little or no acid resulting in a pH range above 4.6, a pH level that will support the growth of pathogenic organisms that cause foodborne illnesses. Of greatest concern is the microorganism Clostridium botulinum (botulism) growing in the jars. Conditions inside the jar are ripe for hazardous bacterium given that cake and bread recipes may include fruits, liquids, or vegetables which increase moisture content AND the practice does not remove all the oxygen from the jar. The two factors create a rich environment for microorganisms to thrive.”

If you are the recipient of a food gift, be gracious and thankful for the gift as it is the thought that counts.  If you are comfortable, it is appropriate to ask a few kind questions if you know the giver well; it may seem ungrateful to ask the same of a lesser known acquaintance.  If there is any doubt, throw it out and don’t bring up the issue again. 

If you are the giver of a homemade food gift, particularly a home canned food, know without a doubt that the gift you are giving is explicitly safe—it has been prepared with a USDA approved and tested recipe and processed appropriately.  Jarred gifts should also include a clean, rust-free ring to avoid accidental loosening of the flat lid.

Handmade gifts are the best kind, particularly when they’re edible. They are very personal and truly an act of love.  Besides canned products, consider frozen or dehydrated foods, dry mixes in a jar or bag, sweet or savory nut mixes, candy, flavored popcorn, fresh breads or rolls, cookies, crackers, granola, gingerbread anything, or chocolate bark combinations just to name a few and, all of which, would be without the potential of harmful microorganisms to cause a foodborne illness or worse.  

Here’s to keeping the holidays ‘jolly’ with safe food gifts!

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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Clear Jel® vs Sure Jell

We get a lot of questions at AnswerLine about Clear Jel and Sure Jell.  Because their names are so similar there is confusion for two very different products.  Clear Jel and Sure Jell are trade names of two thickening agents used in canning and gelling, respectively.  In addition to having different uses, Clear Jel is not shelf-accessible to most while Sure-Jell is easily found among the canning supplies.  Let’s explore what these two products are and how they should be used.

Clear Jel®

Clear Jel is a waxy maize or corn starch that has been modified to resist break down under high temperatures and different pH levels.  Therefore, it is an ideal thickening agent and is widely used commercially.  Clear Jel is recommended for home canning of pie fillings as it will not break down as the pie filling is cooked in preparation for canning, heated during the canning process, and heated a third time as the pie is baked.  Products, including pie fillings, thickened with Clear Jel also freeze well.

Cornstarch, tapioca, or flour should not be used in canned pie filling.  These thickeners are not suitable because they tend to clump during canning and cloud on the shelf rendering the pie filling unappetizing and unable to thicken when baked.  Pie fillings made with Clear Jel also increase the safety of the products.  Because Clear Jel remains clear and does not clump, heat is better able to penetrate the contents of the jar evenly to kill bacteria and other contaminants during the boiling water canning process.  Jars of pie filling will keep the same consistency after processing, remain shelf stable for at least 12 months, and bake into a perfect pie by simply pouring the filling into a crust and topping as desired.  There will be no starch or flour taste in the filling.

There are two types of Clear Jel, Regular and Instant.  Regular must be used for canning.  Instant Clear Jel will thicken foods without heat; it thickens when liquid is added.  This makes Instant Clear Jel useful for thickening a room temperature sauce or dressing.  Regular, on the other hand, requires heat.  Regular can also be used for thickening fresh pies and everyday foods.  If preparing a gravy or sauce, mix Clear Jel with a small amount of water and gradually add to the hot mixture, stirring constantly.  Or, everything can be mixed together cold and then heated (stirring constantly) to thicken.  Regular Clear Jel can be used to replace cornstarch or flour as thickening agent in cooking or baking, but cornstarch or flour should not replace Clear Jel for canning.

While there is plenty of praise for Clear Jel, it is not readily available.  For those who live near an Amish grocery, it is likely available there.  The best source is to shop online to find a supplier.  Therefore, one needs to think ahead and allow time for purchase and/or shipping if Clear Jel is to be used.  Clear Jel is recommended, but not required for canning.  The thickening can be skipped with the filling canned without; when used, a regular thickener can be added as if preparing a fresh pie.

There is differing information on the shelf life of Clear Jel; most agree that in a tightly closed container, it should be good for 1 year in the pantry but some list up to 2 years. 

Sure Jell

Sure Jell is pectin.  Pectin is a type of starch, called a hetero-polysaccharide, that occurs naturally in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables giving them structure.  Most commercial pectins, made from apple pomace or citrus rinds, are sold as a dry powder or in liquid form.  When combined with sugar and acid, pectin makes jams and jellies develop a semisolid, gelled texture when they cool. 

Pectin is available in various forms for regular, low-sugar, and freezer jams and jellies depending upon the type of methoxyl used.  High methoxyl is the most common type and used for high sugar jams and jellies; it needs to be cooked to a temperature of 220 F in combination with acid and sugar to form a gel.  Low methoxyl is generally the type used for low- or no-sugar preserves as it relies on calcium (provided in the pectin package) rather than sugar to set or gel. (Liquid pectin is only offered in a regular version and is similar to the regular dry pectin.) Because pectins behave differently, it’s best to use the product listed in the recipe being used or follow the pectin insert directions carefully to assure success. 

Sure Jell and other pectin products are readily available where canning supplies are sold.  Sure Jell or other pectin products are not suitable for pie fillings. 

Powdered pectin can be kept in the pantry and is best used within a year; after that time, it may not perform as well.  Unopened liquid pectin is good for a year in the pantry; if opened, it should be refrigerated and used within one month (Still Tasty.com).

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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Safe Canning Amid Canning Supply Shortages

Gardens are at the height of production in the Midwest and food preservation is in high gear.  However, many home canners are finding the shelves stripped of canning lids, jars, pectin, vinegar, and the various spices needed for pickling and canning.  Even canners, pressure and water bath, are in short supply.  Like all other shortages experienced in this year of COVID 19, it is a matter of supply for an unanticipated demand along with a slow-down in manufacturing due to either worker safety or shortages of raw materials.

Jars.  While jars are in demand, canners may be able to find jars in storage among friends and relatives or in second hand stores.  If older canning jars are used, an inspection for nicks, chips and cracks before buying or using them is a must. A damaged or disfigured jar should never be used for canning food because they are not safe or they could break during processing, wasting time and food. While true canning jars are USDA recommended and preferred, the National Center for Home Food Preservation says that commercial glass pint- and quart-size mayonnaise or salad dressing jars may be used with new two-piece lids for canning acid foods (food that might be processed in a boiling water bath). However, one should expect more seal failures and jar breakage. These jars have a narrower sealing surface and are tempered less than Mason jars, and may be weakened by repeated contact with metal spoons or knives used in dispensing mayonnaise or salad dressing. Seemingly insignificant scratches in glass may cause cracking and breakage while processing jars in a canner. Mayonnaise-type jars are not recommended for use with foods to be processed in a pressure canner because of excessive jar breakage. Other commercial jars with mouths that cannot be sealed with two-piece canning lids are not recommended for use in canning any food at home.

Canning lids. Canning lids are designed for one-time use and should not be reused for canning.  The sealing compound becomes indented by the first use preventing another airtight seal. Screw bands may be reused unless they are badly rusted or the top edge is pried up which would prevent a proper seal.  Previously used canning lids can be used to top jars of freezer jam, homemade mixes, dried goods, and other non-canned foods. As long as the lids aren’t rusty, they’re fine to use again and again for any purpose that doesn’t involve canning.  The Jarden (Newell) Company, manufacturer of Ball products, says that their lids, unused, have a storage life of five years beyond purchase; therefore, if stored lids are in that range, they can be used.  Reusable canning lids like those made by Tattler or Harvest Guard may be a desperate alternative; they have mixed reviews by canners and are not yet recommended by the USDA. (A study on Tattler reusable lids began in 2013 at The National Center for Home Food Preservation.  Even with grants received in 2014 and 2015 for the study, it appears that the study is still ongoing as there have been no reported results.) If new lids are not to be found, give consideration to freezing or dehydrating rather than canning. 

Canners.  Canners are of three types, boiling water bath, pressure, and steam.  A boiling water bath canner is a large, deep pot or vessel with a lid and a rack used for high acid food preservation; if a new one can’t be purchased, a second-hand one is fine as long as it isn’t rusty or chipped.  A pressure canner is used for low acid foods and is either a weighted gauge or dial gauge type.  An older pressure canner may or may not be safe.  An older pressure canner should only be purchased or used if it is in excellent condition—no imperfections or warping with a lid that fits perfectly and locks easily. Pressure canners build pressure when they are used, and in extreme cases, could explode if the canner is defective or damaged. More importantly would be their ability to process food safely.  At a minimum, the sealing ring should be replaced and the gauge on a dial gauge type be checked by a trained professional.  Dial gauges on pressure canners need to be tested each year against a calibrated ‘master’ gauge. Weighted gauges do not need to be tested as they do not go out of calibration.  An atmospheric steam canner is newer to the scene and can take the place of a water-bath canner.  According to University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers steam canners may be used safely to can naturally acid foods such as peaches, pears, and apples, or acidified-foods such as salsa or pickles as long as specified criteria is met; a steam canner is not recommended for low-acid vegetables and meat.

Pectin.  Some jams and jellies can be made without pectin.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation has information and recipes for making jelly and jams without commercially prepared pectin.

Vinegar. If the recipe does not specify a particular type of vinegar, white or cider vinegar may be used safely as long as it is labeled as 5% acidity or labeled as 50 grain. Apple cider vinegar will impart a different flavor and color when substituted for white vinegar. Specialty vinegars such as red or white wine vinegar, malt vinegar, balsamic, and other flavored vinegars should only be used when specified in a research-tested recipe.

Assorted Pickling Spices.  It may not be necessary to get fresh seeds and spices if there is some on your shelf.  Commercially prepared and packaged spices, stored properly, such as mustard seed, celery seed, dill seed, allspice, and cinnamon sticks, generally have a shelf life of 3-4 years.  Pickling spice is good for up to 3 years.  Spices do loose potency over time.  To test whether a spice is still potent enough to be effective, rub or crush a small amount in your hand, then taste and smell it.  If the aroma is weak and the flavor is not obvious, the spice should not be used as it will not flavor as intended.  Spices may be available from online sites when no longer available in local stores.

The right equipment (and vinegar) is a must to safely preserve food by canning.  Look to friends and family, online and non-conventional sources for help with acquiring supplies and equipment. Whatever is found, do carefully follow the suggestions contained herein to preserve safely.

Marlene Geiger

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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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 an electric-coil range is replaced with a smooth (glass) cooktop, either radiant heat or induction, and the way of canning needs to change to prevent cracking the cooktop, fusing the canner to the cooktop, or under processing of the canned product posing a food safety risk. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATES: The portable burner that I purchased got a work out during the summer canning season and worked perfectly for all my pressure and water bath canning. Temperature control was easy and very consistent. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I also think it reduced the amount of kitchen heat that comes with canning.

And, since this blog was written, a new option has become available from Presto. This company has developed a digital pressure canner, Presto Precise®. It is the first digital pressure canner that meets USDA home canning guidelines for safely processing meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other low acid foods. Further, it doubles as a boiling water canner for preserving fruits, jams, jellies, pickles, and salsa. It is also said to process more efficiently than processing on a high wattage burner or gas stove thereby reducing kitchen heat. It may be the future of home canning equipment. I certainly am intrigued.

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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