Freeze Drying – A New Option for Home Food Preservation

Canning, pickling, freezing, drying, and fermenting are well-known methods of preserving fruits and vegetables for future use.  These processes have been used for generations and made simpler and safer over time with the help of science and innovation.  Freeze drying (lyophilization) is now an option for home food preservation.  HarvestRight, a company in Salt Lake City, Utah, introduced a freeze drying unit for home use in 2018 that has excited the curious of food preservers.  While still an uncommon home appliance, freeze drying is becoming a sought-after means for preserving food at home and the units are showing up at some retailers [1].

Freeze-dried vegetables for soups made from carrots, leek, celeriac, lovage, parsnips and parsley

Freeze drying is not a new process.  The process may date back to the 13th century with the Incas using a simple process to preserve potatoes in the Andes.  The first patent was issued in 1934.  During World War II it was used to safely transport blood serum and penicillin to the battle field.   In the 1950s–1960s, freeze drying began to be viewed as a multi-purpose tool for both pharmaceuticals and food processing and became a major component of space and military rations. Freeze drying has been widely used in the food industry to extend the shelf-life of food while maintain quality. Freeze-dried foods have been available commercially for some time and offer consumers fast meal prep, emergency prepardeness, and portable food. Freeze-dried foods also offer convenience as they can be eaten “as is” (except for raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs), added directly to recipes, or rehydrated and used the same as fresh food.

In a nutshell, freeze drying works by freezing the material, then reducing the pressure and adding heat to allow the frozen water in the material to change directly to a vapor (sublimate).  The process removes 98-99 percent of the moisture in food making it a superior method for preserving food. (An example of a freeze dried food are the berries in commercial cereals that feature real berries.) Freeze dried foods retain 97 percent of their nutrients and natural enzymes and original flavor and color [2] .  Additionally, freeze-dried food is really easy to use; food comes back to its original pre-freeze dried state by just adding water.  Since nearly all water has been removed, freeze-dried food is light making it a favorite for camping and backpacking.  A bag of apples that weighed 10 pounds when fresh, weighs about one pound after being freeze dried [3].

Freeze drying produces high quality foods that are safe as long as they were handled properly prior to freeze drying and once the packaging is opened.  It is important to note that freeze drying does not kill bacteria or other microorganisms; they remain viable, but dormant, despite the extreme conditions of freeze drying.  Any bacteria or microorganism on raw foods prior to freeze drying will reactivate upon rehydration. Therefore, food items that are traditionally cooked before eating must also be cooked before eating as a freeze-dried food.

A freeze dryer is not a fancy food dehydrator. While a freeze drying unit and a dehydrator both remove moisture from food so that microorganisms cannot grow and enzyme action is slowed down, a dehydrator uses low heat and a fan to remove 80-90 percent of the moisture content from food1.   As food is dehydrated, it typically shrinks up and develops a leathery feel and appearance; rehydration is slow and foods do not return to their natural state. Dehydration doesn’t change the fiber or iron content of food. However, dehydration can break down vitamins and minerals during the preservation process and retain less of their nutritional value when compared to freeze-dried food. Dehydration tends to result in the loss of Vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. [4]. With a lower moisture content, freeze-dried foods offer a shelf life of 25 years [2] compared to 4 months to 1 year for dehydrated foods [5]. Freeze-dried foods rehydrate faster and also retain their original shape, texture, and color. A far greater variety of foods can be freeze dried than can be dehydrated [6].  Both dehydrated and freeze-dried foods store best in airtight containers with an oxygen absorber for long term storage.  Because dehydrated foods rehydrate slowly, they do not readily absorb moisture if exposed to less than optimal conditions; freeze-dried foods, on the other hand, are like a sponge and can go quickly from crisp to soggy when exposed to moisture.

A home freeze drier puts you in control.  Commercially prepared freeze-dried foods are pricey and often have added ingredients.  HarvestRight suggests that home freeze-dried food is one-third the cost of store bought. Freeze drying versatility also allows for the preservation of dairy, meat, produce, and complete meals. 

Display at a local store featuring the medium-sized unit.

Investment in freeze drying equipment is an important consideration, too.  Be prepared for ‘sticker shock’ as the units are expensive and require considerable space in the home.  Equipment cost ranges from four to eight times more than conventional drying equipment and the energy required is almost double that of conventional drying.  Buying a Home Freeze-Dryer: What to Know Before You Go by Utah State University Extension and Let’s Preserve:  Freeze Drying by Penn State Extension explain this in more detail. Besides the initial investment in a freeze drying unit, packaging after drying is another consideration.  When correctly packaged, freeze-dried items can be stored safely for many years.   To increase shelf life, properly sized single-use food grade oxygen absorbers—small packets that attract and retain the oxygen in a package—must be included in whatever type of packaging is chosen.  While glass jars, cans, zip bags, and vacuum sealed bags can be used, opaque Mylar® bags are preferred; they block out air and light during storage, can be resealed once opened and take up less space than glass jars or cans. Mylar® must be used with an oxygen absorber and heat-sealed with an impulse (heat) sealer.

The options for food preservation are many.  Each method brings something different to the table. The flavors and textures are different and how we use the food preserved is different. If long term food storage or portable food storage is the goal, freeze drying is an option to consider.  Imagine rehydrating lasagna on a camping trip!

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1Andress and Harrison. 2014. “So Easy to Preserve” 6th ed. Bulletin 989, Cooperative Extension Service. The University of Georgia, Athens.

Guide to Freeze Drying – The Miracle of Food Preservation, HarvestRight.

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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Sweet Corn – A Summertime Treasure

The long-awaited summer treasure, sweet corn, will be available from local growers very soon.  I am fortunate to have sweet corn growing in our garden but if I didn’t, sweet corn would be at the top of my list to buy only in season from local growers.  Getting a variety I like and biting into an ear of plump kernels bursting with that sweet, corn flavor is well worth the wait. 

Sweet corn is an old food. The specific time when sweet corn originated cannot be pin-pointed.  However, Spanish explorers in the early 1500s found Indians growing corn in East Texas, and the Spanish carried on corn culture in the Rio Grande valley settlements and Texas missions. They ate the grain as a basic ingredient in tortillas, tamales, posole, and atole.  The first known variety, Papoon, was acquired from the Iroquois Indians in 1779 by European settlers. Sweet corn has been ever evolving. Over time, plant breeders have developed sweeter cultivars as well as cultivars with better keeping qualities, flavor, tenderness, vigor, and other characteristics. Sweet corn now comes in several hundred varieties of five genetic types and is available in three different colors: yellow, white and bi-colored (yellow and white).

Genetic Types and Characteristics

The long-grown or older varieties of sweet corn are known as Standards (su).  These cultivars have the traditional sweet corn flavor and texture with sugar levels generally between 10 and 15 percent at harvest. Unfortunately, standard cultivars retain their high quality for only one or two days and don’t generally store well as sugars quickly convert to starch after harvest [1]. Honey and Cream, Silver Queen, Sterling Silver, Jubilee, and Merit are some well-known names.

The first breeding improvement was the introduction of Sugar Enhanced (se) cultivars. Sugar enhanced cultivars contain the sugar enhancer (se) gene that produces ears with sweet, tender kernels. Sugar levels are slightly higher than standard sugary cultivars. The harvest and storage life of se types are slightly longer than standard sweet corn [1].  Well-known SE varieties include Bodacious, Ambrosia, Sweet Temptation, Delectable, and Miracle.  SE varieties are typically used for freezing.

Then along came the Supersweet (sh2) corn varieties.  These cultivars contain the shrunken-2 (sh2) gene. Supersweet varieties have smaller, crisper kernels with high sugar levels and convert sugar to starch slowly, allowing for a longer harvest period and storage life [1] of about three days1. Candy Store, Florida Staysweet, Sugar Loaf, Sweet Time, and Sweetie are some of the Supersweet varieties.

With further development, the Synergistic (syn) cultivars possessing the su, se, and sh2 genes entered the sweet corn scene. These cultivars are sweet, creamy, and tender and have an excellent storage life [1] remaining at their peak for five days before converting to starch1. Allure, Inferno, Providence, and Sweetness are examples of Synergistic varieties.

Lastly, an improvement on the Supersweets are the Augmented Supersweets (shA). They are sweet, tender, and have an even longer storage life [1] offering a ten day window where sugars are at their peak before converting to starch1. Anthem, Obsession, and Patriarch are examples in this group.

Of course, when you’re buying corn, you often only have one choice and it’s frequently not labeled as anything but fresh corn. If you really want a particular variety or want to know the characteristics of what you are buying, talk with the producer at a farmer’s market; they will likely be able to fill you in on the variety or other details.  A seller at a local stand may or may not know the variety and simply sell the corn by a popular or recognized name.  One that I often see used for bi-color corn is ‘peaches and cream,’ a sugar enhanced (se) bicolor that has been around for some time. For a short listing of suggested cultivars of each each gene type, see Sweet Corn by Iowa State University Extension horticulturalists.

Get It Fresh – Keep It FreshEnjoy It Fresh

Despite all the genetic improvements, the trick to getting good corn for eating is to get it as fresh as you can and cook and eat it promptly. When choosing corn, look for ears with moist, fresh-looking husks free of insect damage. Feel the ears to assess the plumpness of the kernels and whether the rows of kernels are fully formed. (Quick fact:  the average ear of corn has 800 kernels, arranged in 16 rows. There is one piece of silk for each kernel.)  Refrain from pulling the husks back to check out the kernels as it is not only bad manners, but spoils the corn for others; opened corn dries out quickly. Once home, store sweet corn in the refrigerator with the husks on or off in a plastic bag; husk on is best but shucked corn may fit in the fridge better. Remember, depending on cultivar, the sugars in corn begin to convert to starch so purchase only what you can use in a few days.

Fresh sweet corn can be prepared in a variety of ways—boiled, steamed, microwaved, grilled—and even raw. The key thing to remember is that today’s sweeter and fresher varieties do not require the cooking time of yesteryear.  Sweet corn can be cooked anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes, depending on how “done” you like it.  Once cooked, it can be eaten directly off the cob or sliced off and used in recipes.

Fresh corn kernels are also great to keep on hand for tossing into salads or other side dishes. Raw corn cut off the ear will last only a day or two in the refrigerator before turning sour. To preserve the freshness, cut the kernels off the cobs and blanch them in boiling water for 1 or 2 minutes. Drain, let cool, and store in a covered container in the fridge for up to five days. Another option is to blanch, cool, and freeze the kernels in a single layer on a baking sheet until hard, and then store in an airtight container in the freezer where they will retain best quality for up to three months.

Lastly, when sweet corn is in season, it is a great time to freeze or can it for eating throughout the year. Corn is one of the best vegetables to freeze because the quality of home-frozen corn is superior to commercial products. Purdue Extension [2] says most sweet corn varieties are acceptable for canning and freezing but recommends the following varieties:
Yellow -Bodacious and Incredible
Bicolor – Temptation, Delectable, and Providence
White – Silver King, Silver Princess, and Whiteout.

For specifics on canning and freezing corn, see the National Center for Home Food Preservation website for details:
Freezing Corn,
Canning – Whole Kernel Corn,
Canning – Cream Style Corn.  
Or
Let’s Preserve Sweet Corn by Perdue Extension
Freezing Sweet Corn:  Whole Kernels by University of Minnesota Extension.

Enjoy and make the most of one of summer’s treasurers.  It’s only a matter of days!
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1
Rupp Seed Inc, 2021 Vegetable Resource Guide:  Sweet Corn Genetic Types

Marlene Geiger

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

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Containing Strawberry Freshness

It’s strawberry season!  Those lush, first fruits of summer are starting to appear in home gardens, farmer’s markets, and u-pick patches.  How do you keep them fresh and enjoy them at their prime?

There is nothing worse than having fresh strawberries go bad within a day or two.  Because it happens all too frequently, consumers have shared their ‘secrets’ or methods to thwart this disappointing situation.  Any number of recommendations on keeping strawberries fresh can be found by perusing the web.  One site, thekitchen.com [1], put seven popular methods of storing strawberries to the test with the hopes of find the best method of storing strawberries longer.  The test findings revealed that rinsing the strawberries in vinegar water prior to storage proved to be the best.  Having heard that method several years ago, I tried it and did not find it to be as successful as touted.   According to food scientists, moisture is the enemy of strawberries.  So what do the experts recommend?

Rinse the berries and remove caps when you are ready to eat or use them.    

University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension [2] says that “strawberries are like small sponges and soak up all the water they come into contact with.  Once they have soaked it up, they are quick to turn to mush and mold even if they have been thoroughly patted dry.” This is also the reason that strawberries should not be picked when they are damp.  The same holds true for berries that have experienced heavy rain or several days of wet weather even though they are dry at the time of picking; they are on moisture overload and will not keep long regardless of how they are cared for or stored.

Therefore, strawberries should only be washed before eating or using to remove dirt and any potential bacterial contamination.  To wash, rinse the berries thoroughly under cool running water, drain in a clean strainer, and pat dry with paper towels.  For any berries showing signs of dirt, gently rub the berry under running water.  Linda J Harris, Food Safety Expert at UC Davis [3], says “Washing strawberries in a sink filled with water is not recommended since the standing water can spread contamination from one berry to another.  The use of soap or detergent is also not recommended or approved for washing fruits and vegetables because the produce can absorb detergent residues.”

Refrigerate if not used right away.

Strawberries do not ripen after picking so putting them in the refrigerator does not slow the ripening.  It does, however, slow the progression of mold growth on or between the berries if they will not be used for eating or cooking shortly after picking.  If they will be used or eaten after picking, they will not deteriorate sitting on a counter for a couple of hours at room temperature.  Cold temperatures suppress the flavor of the berries so they will taste sweeter if you let them come to room temperature before eating.

The optimum storage temperature for strawberries is 32⁰ to 36⁰F with humidity at 90 to 95 percent.  Therefore, the refrigerator fruit crisper drawer is the best place to keep them.  Purchased berries can be stored in the plastic clamshell containers they are usually sold in. However, the containers should be opened and the berries checked for any that are crushed or spoiling and removed before refrigerating.  For fresh picked berries, consider placing them in layers between paper towels in a covered container.  The purpose of the paper towels is to soak up excess moisture from the strawberries and to allow air circulation between the berries.  I’ve had very good luck storing my freshly picked strawberries in clamshell containers that I’ve saved from purchased berries.  Stored properly under optimum conditions, fresh strawberries should last 7 days but their shelf life also depends on how ripe the berries were when purchased or picked.

Berries that have been cut or sliced should be covered and refrigerated if they are not eaten or used within 2 hours of preparation. [3]

For longer term storage, freeze, dry, or preserve (jams and jellies). 

For best quality, strawberries should be preserved on the day they are harvested.  Select berries that are firm, brightly colored, sweet-scented, and have hulls (green caps) attached.  On average, 1 pound of fresh berries yields 1 pint of frozen berries. One pound of fresh berries is approximately 2/3 – 1 quart of fresh berries. A quart container of fresh strawberries is approximately 1½ pounds or 4 cups sliced berries.  Wash the berries as indicated and remove the caps.

Freezing strawberries is quick and easy and perfect for making smoothies, sauces, and jams at a later date.  Frozen berries are also great for baking.  Further, a lot of berries are not needed at any one time to freeze.  There are different methods for freezing—sliced or whole, sugar or no sugar, container or bag—all are acceptable personal choices.  What is important is that the berries are protected from freezer burn.  My favorite method is to spread whole prepared berries on a tray and freeze.  When frozen, remove them from the freezer, package (I like the zipper bags), and quickly return to the freezer.  The fruit pieces remain loose and can be used in whatever quantity is need. 

Drying strawberries reduces the amount of space needed for storage.  Berries can be left whole but dry better if sliced ¼ to ½-inch thick; they can also be pureed for a fruit leather.  A food dehydrator produces the best quality dried strawberries.  Strawberries should not be dried in a microwave oven as they are prone to scorching and burning.  Proper drying temperature is 135⁰ to 140⁰F. The amount of time it takes to dry strawberries depends on their initial moisture content, the volume being dried, the size and thickness, humidity of the ambient air, and the dehydrator. Berries are dry when they are pliable but not sticky or tacky.  Cool the dried berries thoroughly and package quickly.  Dried strawberries can be rehydrated.  I like themas a snack food; they can also be added to yogurt and cereal.  For additional information on drying strawberries, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has a publication, Drying Fruits and Vegetables.

Preserving strawberries in the form of jams, jellies or fruit spreads are rewarding ways to use ripe strawberries.  Preserves made with commercial pectin products are quick and easy to do; package directions should be carefully followed for success.  Jam can also be made without added pectin.  A good recipe can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.  Freezer jam is another option.  It is made with a modified pectin as freezer jams do not require cooking.  Freezer jam tastes more like fresh strawberries.

Enjoy those succulent strawberries while at their prime!

Marlene Geiger

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

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Vinegar Shelf Life and Safety

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

Almost Indefinite Shelf Life

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

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

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

Common and Harmless Changes in Vinegar

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

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

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

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

Canning and Pickling

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

Past Its Prime – No Need to Toss

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

Marlene Geiger

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

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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.

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

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

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DIY Corned Beef

Corned beef brisket sliced on a cutting board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene Geiger

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

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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

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

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

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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