Peel Tomatoes Before Preserving

Tomatoes can be preserved by freezing, canning, or drying with good results. For best results, remove the skins of all varieties of tomatoes before preserving them.

Removing tomato skin, sometimes called peeling or skinning, means removing the outer covering or skin from a fruit or vegetable, usually with a knife—like peeling an apple or a potato. My grandma said, ‘slip the skin,’ which seems more appropriate for removing the skin from a tomato. The process is simple: 

  1. Dip tomatoes in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds until the skins split or wrinkle.
  2. Dip into cold water, slip off the skins, and remove the cores.

It is recommended that the skin of all varieties of tomatoes be removed before canning, including cherry tomatoes. If you have a lot of tomatoes and time is short, they may be frozen with skins on (or removed). When the tomatoes are thawed, the skins will slip right off. Tomatoes that have been frozen and thawed may be used in place of canned tomatoes in any recipe or canned following a tested recipe.

Removing the skins is important for these reasons:

  • Most tested recipes for tomato products were prepared and tested with skins removed. Therefore, the processing time is based on a peeled tomato unless stated otherwise. Skins may interfere with the necessary uniform heat penetration in the canning process resulting in underprocessing and an unsafe product.
  • The skins of fruits and vegetables are sources of bacteria, yeasts, and molds. Some of these contaminants are removed when produce is washed with cool water, but removing it all is impossible. The bacterial load is reduced by peeling or slipping the skins, resulting in a safer final product.
  • The texture of the skin may be undesirable in the finished product. Tomato skins do not break down well, often leaving chewy bits in the product.
  • The flavonols in tomato skin impart a bitter taste.

So bite the bullet and slip those tomato skins. While skinning the tomatoes might take time, it is an important step when canning tomatoes. That extra time ensures that the product is safe to consume when the jar is opened and tastes good.

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

Updated 8 June 2023, mg.

Sources:

Marlene Geiger

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

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Choose a Safe Canning Recipe

vintage recipe box
Recipe box.

Consumers have unlimited resources for canning recipes—cookbooks, websites, family recipe boxes, friends sharing recipes, magazines, and more. How does one know if the recipe will result in a safe product? Iowa State University Extension and Outreach recommends following scientifically researched and tested home canning recipes to ensure a safe, quality product.

The biggest concern with home canning is the prevention of botulism, a deadly toxin produced by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which can thrive in an oxygen-free, vacuum-sealed jar if the product has not been prepared or processed correctly. To avoid the potential of botulism, it is important to determine if the recipe is safe before gathering the ingredients and proceeding.

Considerations to ponder before using a recipe

Generational or Historic Recipe? Home food preservation is an ever-evolving science. While Great Grandma’s recipe may be a family favorite, it may have been developed by trial and error or not meet today’s safety standards. Open kettle canning (heating the food to boiling, pouring it into jars, applying lids, and allowing the heat within the jar to seal the lid) was common practice in bygone years and is no longer recommended. Further, a sealed jar does not indicate that the product is safe if proper techniques have not been used. Oven canning and jar flipping are other unsafe practices of yesteryear. The only safe home canning methods recognized today are processing in a boiling water bath, atmospheric steam canner, or pressure canner for a specified time. When used properly, these methods provide adequate heat to destroy harmful or spoilage organisms and drive air out of the jar for a strong vacuum seal. Using an old cookbook or the recipe book that came with a canner purchased many years ago may also be out of date with current standards. Recipes or instructions before 1994 are considered outdated unless formulations match new research-tested formulations.

Testing Source? Who did the testing? A great deal goes into scientifically testing a recipe; testing should be done in a laboratory where pH (acidity) and processing time/product density are measured and considered. Testing involves measuring the temperature of a product inside the jar with thermocouple sensors to derive a safe product based on the pH and the time it takes to heat the product to the proper temperature throughout the entire jar while still maintaining product quality.

Processing Procedure? Any food placed in a jar to be vacuum-sealed must be processed in a boiling water bath, atmospheric steam canner, or a pressure canner, unless it is dried or to be frozen, to destroy microorganisms that can cause spoilage or illness. It is not acceptable to pour hot jam or pickles into a jar and allow the jar to seal while cooling, open-kettle can, or use paraffin wax as a sealant. High acid foods (most fruits, pickled vegetables, preserves) with a pH of less than 4.6 can be processed in a boiling water bath or atmospheric steam canner because botulism does not grow in an acidic environment. Low acid foods (vegetables, meats, soups) with a pH greater than 4.6 must be processed in a pressure canner to raise the temperature from boiling (212⁰F) to 240-250⁰F to destroy Clostridium botulinum spores that cause botulism.

Starch Additions? Thickeners such as flour, starches, gelatin, pectin and even Clear Jel®, should not be used in canning recipes unless the recipe has been tested for such. Thickeners slow the rate of heat penetration into the product and may result in under processing and an unsafe product. Flours and starches also tend to clump and break down in the canning process; Clear Jel® is an exception and can successfully be used for pie fillings and some jams. Adding more processing time to accommodate the use of added thickeners is unsafe. Thickeners should be added to the product at time of use.

Added Ingredients? It is not safe to add extra ingredients to a recipe; adding beans or corn to a canned salsa recipe is not safe. It is also not safe to add extra vegetables to low-acid products, like extra onions, chilies, or peppers to tomato products or salsas. Additions may decrease the acidity and/or increase the density of the product resulting in an unsafe product. Some safe substitutions or exchanges may be allowed for dietary reasons, preferred taste, or spiciness.

Acidification? Tomatoes are borderline +/-4.6 on the pH scale due to several factors. Therefore, tested recipe sources will specify bottled lemon juice or citric acid use to provide adequate acid levels. The recommended amount is 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice or ½ teaspoon citric acid per quart or half the amount for pint jars. Tomatoes that are not acidified could harbor the botulism toxin, whether processed in a boiling water bath, atmospheric steam canner, or pressure canner.

Using current, researched-based recipes from reliable sources is the best advice. The most recent USDA updates to home canning were made in 2015. Additional research has shown that elderberries and white peaches should not be canned due to safety concerns. Recipes from the following sources have been carefully tested in university laboratories. When recipes from these sources are prepared as directed and processed as recommended, the product will be safe and of the highest quality possible. 

Choose your recipes prudently. Follow the recipe carefully and adjust for elevation. Preserving food using the most updated research-based methods is imperative for your safety and the safety of those you feed. If you have questions about a recipe or the canning procedure, call or email AnswerLine to receive help from a trained professional.

Sources:

Marlene Geiger

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

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Preserving by Home Freeze Drying

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 a more recent option for home food preservation due to the advent of home freeze dry units. HarvestRight, a company in Salt Lake City, Utah, introduced a freeze drying unit for home use in 2018, opening new opportunities for home food preservation. Early in 2023, a second company, Prep4Life, introduced a slightly different freeze drying unit for home use known as THE CUBE; Prep4Life is also a Utah-based company.

Freeze drying unit on retail display
Freeze drying unit exhibit at retail location – Photo: mrgeiger

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 battlefield.  In the 1950s–1960s, freeze drying was viewed as a multi-purpose tool for pharmaceuticals and food processing and became a major component of space and military rations. Freeze drying has been widely used in the food industry for some time to extend the shelf-life of food while maintaining quality (think berries in commercial cereals that feature real berries) and offer consumers fast meal prep, emergency preparedness, and portable food. Freeze-dried foods also offer convenience as some foods can be eaten “as is” (except for raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs), added directly to recipes, or rehydrated and used as fresh food.

In a nutshell, freeze drying works by dropping the product temperature to <-40F, then reducing the pressure and adding heat to allow the frozen water in the product to change directly to a vapor (sublimate). Per HarvestRight, the process removes 98-99 percent of the moisture in food yet retains 97 percent of the nutrients, natural enzymes, and original flavor and color, making it a superior method for preserving food [1]. Additionally, freeze-dried foods are easy to use; food returns 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 10-pound bag of fresh apples weighs about one pound after freeze drying. Further, freeze dried foods supposedly have a 25-year shelf-life under proper storage conditions.

To date, very little university research has been done on in-home freeze drying; specifically research on how long the food retains quality and nutritive characteristics [3] as well as bacterial studies. Utah State Extension staff has been experimenting with the HarvestRight dryers. In a recent webinar, they stressed that freeze drying produces high quality foods that are safe as long as they are handled properly prior to freeze drying, dried thoroughly, packaged appropriately, and used or prepared correctly 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.

Nearly any food item can be freeze dried—fruits, vegetables, herbs, meats (cooked and raw), eggs, dairy, meals, casseroles, desserts. Utah State recommends that vegetables be blanched prior to freeze drying to prevent discoloration. Food high in fat content, high in sugar content, and baked goods such as breads, cakes, muffins, etc do not freeze dry well and should be avoided. Sugar causes foods to expand.

To ensure the safety and quality of freeze-dried foods, basic food safety principles must be used in preparation, product must be completely dried (crisp), and product must be stored properly. Proper packaging is crucial to extend the shelf life of freeze-dried foods and prevent contamination or spoilage. The storage container must eliminate oxygen, light, and moisture. In order of long-term to short-term storage, the following containers may be used: Mylar® bags, vacuum-sealed canning jars, #10 cans, vacuum sealed bags, and PETE re-sealable containers. An oxygen absorber must be enclosed in the container to remove or decrease the available oxygen in the package to help maintain product safety, quality, and extend shelf life. Foods should be stored in a cool, dark place. 

For long-term storage, PET or PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate) food grade, non-toxic plastic pouches, also known as “mylar bags” are excellent. The opaque (silver) 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® bags with a clear side are not long-term air tight [3]. Mason canning jars can be used if they are vacuum sealed with a vacuum sealing machine capable of using a jar sealing device. Metal cans have a zero oxygen transfer rate and are great for long-term storage [4]. However, a #10 can contains a large amount of dried food which must be used at the time of opening or resealed in another container. Vacuum bags and re-sealable containers have short-term oxygen barrier qualities. 

Oxygen absorbers do not have a long shelf life; as soon as they are exposed to air (oxygen), they start to absorb and are spent when they become hard. They are available in different sizes (measured in cc’s); contents and container size should be considered when purchasing absorbers. The smaller the container the less cc’s needed. There is no harm in using a larger than needed absorber and would be preferred to one that is too small [3]. When a container is opened, the absorber should be replaced before resealing.

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 food [5]. While dehydration is a very acceptable means of food preservation, it differs from freeze drying in several ways: 
– foods shrink up and develop a leathery feel and appearance;
– foods do not return to their natural state;  
– foods retain less of their nutritional value;
– foods have a 4 months to 1 year shelf life;   
– fewer foods are successfully dehydrated;
– foods rehydrate slowly.

There are many advantages to freeze drying. Besides holding nutritive value, it allows one to utilize garden produce at the peak of harvest, buy in bulk, save money over commercially prepared freeze-dried foods, offers a long shelf life, preserve foods that cannot be typically preserved, and offers compact, lightweight storage. Some disadvantages pointed out by Utah State Extension include unit size, noise, time for drying and allowing freezer to unthaw, cleaning, sanitation, and maintenance, small batch sizes, and cost—cost of the machine as well as machine accessories, packaging supplies, sealers [10], and electricity. In addition, reconstituting freeze-dried foods is somewhat experimental. Utah State Extension specialists suggest starting with a small amount of water and giving ample time to reabsorb; there is no need to rehydrate herbs, onions, or bell peppers as they can be added directly to foods and will absorb moisture from the food. Buying a Home Freeze-Dryer: What to Know Before You Go and Let’s Preserve:  Freeze Drying offer more information.  

The options for food preservation are many. Each method offers pros and cons to preservation and storage. If long-term food storage or portable food storage is the goal, freeze-drying is an option to consider. HarvestRight machines are available at several retail outlets. The Cube is available from the Prep4Life company. Imagine rehydrating lasagna on a camping trip!

Sources:

Reference to any commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporate name is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement, recommendation, or certification of any kind. Persons using such products assume responsibility for their use and should make their own assessment of the information and whether it is suitable for their intended use in accordance with current directions of the manufacturer.

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

common morel fungus growing in the forest
Two morel mushrooms.

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

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

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

white button

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

Cremini/Portobello

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

shitake mushroom

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

Oyster

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

Maitake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: 

Marlene Geiger

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

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What About Date Sugar as a Sweetener?

With concerns of the high consumption of sugars or need to eliminate sugar from their diet, consumers are seeking alternatives to sugars, high-fructose syrups, processed and artificial sweeteners.  While there are a variety of alternatives, perhaps it is time to rediscover an ancient fruit, the mighty DATE, as a sweetener.  Besides being a highly sweet fruit, dates provide numerous health benefits, are readily available, available in many forms, versatile, and easily incorporated into recipes as an alternative for granulated sugar or enjoyed on their own or added to food.

Date cluster atop a date palm
Date clusters atop a date palm. Photo source: Canva.com

Dates are an ancient stone fruit with beginnings in the Middle East dating back to BC days.  Dates grow on trees known as date palms (Phoenix Dactylifera) in clusters like bunches of grapes.  The big difference is that the date clusters are some 50-85 feet above the ground and require considerable labor to produce and harvest.  An article by Food and Nutrition gives a brief description of date production and harvest.  While dates continue to be a major crop in the Middle East, they are grown in other regions around the world where conditions are right for them.  In the US, dates are grown in California, Arizona, and Florida with the largest production in California’s Coachella Valley, northeast of San Diego.  Here, 95 percent of US dates are grown due to ideal conditions:  high temperatures, low humidity, and an abundant supply of underground water for their love of wet feet.

There are hundreds of date varieties grown around the world.  Twelve varieties are found in the US with the two most common being the Medjool and Deglet Noor varieties.  Dates are classified as soft, semidry, or dry. Dates have a sweet, caramel-honey like flavor.  Fresh picked, they are sweet and succulent becoming sweeter and chewier as they dry.  Each variety has its own flavor profile.

Dates are packed with minerals, vitamins and dietary fiber (soluble and insoluble).  One date (8g) provides 23 calories, 0.2g of protein, 6g of carbohydrates, and 0g of fat. Dates are a rich source of potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron, copper, B Vitamins, Vitamin K and zinc. In addition, dates provide a high amount of antioxidants in the form of polyphenols, flavonoids, and carotenoids. Despite their sweetness, dates are considered a low glycemic food and do not spike blood sugar levels.  All of this ‘goodness’ makes them effective at relieving constipation, lowering the risk of chronic disease, lowering LDL cholesterol, improving brain function, boosting bone health, and improving our immune system along with other benefits still being studied. 

Dates are an excellent sugar substitute.   In addition to naturally sweetening food, one gets the added benefits of natural fiber and dense nutrients.  Beyond the whole fruit itself, dates come in other forms or products:  date molasses, syrup, vinegar, sugar (crystals and powder) and paste.  University of Wyoming Extension suggests using these products in the following ways: “Date molasses or syrup tastes like molasses but with a less bitter edge. Use it as a liquid sweetener. Date vinegar, fermented from dates, is dark and fruity and an excellent substitute for balsamic vinegar. Date sugar, date powder, and date crystals are dehydrated ground dates. Use them in baking to replace white or brown sugar. Date paste is a smooth puree of pitted dates. It can replace butter, sugar, or eggs, depending on how it is used.”

Despite its name, date sugar is not really sugar. Date sugar is simply ground dried dates containing all the fruit’s nutrients — vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber—resulting in a product that is granular but somewhat fibrous.  However, the intensely sweet granules do look a lot like brown sugar made from sugar cane or beet.  It can be used to replace white or brown sugar 1:1 in many recipes for baked good but some experimentation may be necessary to adjust for sweetness or flavor.  Date sugar granules can also be used to sprinkle on cereal, fruit, yogurt, etc., but may not be desirable for liquid beverages as it does not dissolve well; date sugar powder is a better choice for these uses.

Since date sugar is different from sugars made from sugar cane or beet, it is no surprise that it creates a product slightly different than something made with sugar in baking and cooking. There are numerous websites that share tips and recipes for using date sugar in cooking and baking including how to make your own date sugar and paste. It may be necessary to increase liquid or decrease dry ingredients as date sugar is hydroscopic and absorbs moisture.  Date sugar burns easily so lower temperatures may also be needed.  For more specific tips and recipes, visit the PurDate website. Date sugar should not be used for canning. Presently, there are no tested, safe recipes for using date sugar in canning fruit or jams/jellies.  

Date sugar should be stored in an airtight container.  Being naturally hygroscopic, date sugar readily absorbs moisture and tends to clump together and may even form a solid brick. For this reason, some manufacturers mix other ingredients with the ground dates to prevent clumping.  Bob’s Red Mill uses a small amount of oat flour.  If date sugar does harden, Bob’s Red Mill suggests placing the date sugar in the microwave for a few seconds until it begins to soften.  Because date sugar is dried fruit, watch it for spoilage as it does not have an indefinite shelf life like sugar.

In summary, date sugar is a nutrient-dense sweetener containing beneficial fiber, minerals and antioxidants making it one of the healthiest sweeteners or sugar substitutes on the market.  It is not a highly processed, empty calorie food so it may be perfect for those who are diabetic or are trying to reduce refined sugar intake, add healthy nutrients to their recipes, or eat more natural foods. However, date sugar packs a significant punch of simple carbohydrates and calories, so use it with caution as you would with sugar or other sweeteners.

_________________________________________________
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. 

Sources:

Marlene Geiger

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

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Time for Spring-Dug Parsnips

As the days get warmer and the ground thaws, it is time to dig spring-dug parsnips. Characterized by some as ‘the cream of the crop’, spring parsnips come from seeds sown in the spring of the previous year, grown during the summer, allowed to die back in the fall and freeze in the ground over the winter.

Parsnips
Parsnips.

Parsnips can also be dug in the fall after a frost or two, but those left over the winter are sweeter and more flavorful. 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, 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. Use cooked, refrigerated parsnips within three days.  Parsnips can also be frozen 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.

Sources:

Marlene Geiger

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

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Monk Fruit Sweeteners – Q&A

Monk fruit sweetener is currently trending as a popular consumer choice as an alternative to sugar.  Accordingly to market analysis by Data Bridge, the monk fruit sweetener market is expected to witness market growth at a rate of 5.40% in the forecast period of 2021 to 2028 and is expected to reach USD of 0.30 billion by 2028. The market is driven largely by health conscious consumers’ demand for a naturally derived sweetener, diabetic patients, and the awareness of negative health effects of sugar: obesity and diabetes. The added functional properties—anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic—are also driving the growing popularity of monk fruit sweeteners.

Monk fruit, whole, halved, and extracted powder
Monk fruit- whole, halved, and extracted powder. Photo: Canva.com

What is Monk Fruit Sweetener?

Monk fruit sweetener is derived from monk fruit, a small, green melon, actually a gourd, known as luo hang gu; it is native to southern China. Growing as a vine, monk fruit is an ancient fruit thought to have been cultivated by monks as early as the 13th century in the misty mountains of Guilin and used as a medicinal herb in traditional Chinese medicine. The fruit itself is unpleasant to eat. Instead, it is dried and used to make extract, granulated sweetener, powdered sweetener, and syrup.  Monk fruit is marketed under a variety of labels ranging from pure sweetener to added ingredients such as erythritol which may cause digestive issues for sensitive individuals.

The sweetness of monk fruit does not come from glucose or fructose; rather it is from mogrosides, an antioxidant extract of the fruit. Containing zero calories, zero carbs, and paleo-safe, monk fruit sweeteners are approximately 100-250 times sweeter than traditional table sugar. Monk fruit sweetener is less sweet than stevia which is approximately 300 times sweeter than table sugar.  When added to foods and beverages, a little goes a long ways.

Are Monk Fruit Sweeteners Safe?

Monk fruit was “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA in 2010 for use in food and beverages.  While no human studies have been done, monk fruit is said to be safe for diabetics, children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Monk fruit sweeteners have not been studied for weight-loss.

What are the Benefits or Drawbacks of Monk Fruit Sweetener?

In addition to the aforementioned benefits, monk fruit is said to be more palatable as it does not have the aftertaste that many users detect in other sweeteners.  Further, it does not raise blood glucose levels or have side effects like gas or bloating that are often associated with some sweeteners.

Monk fruit sweetener is pricey due to the expense of processing and importing from China.  The price, however, may be offset by the fact that only a small amount is used.  For example, only a pinch of pure monk fruit sweetener may be needed for sweetening beverages and smoothies and if used for baking, 1-2 teaspoons may be equivalent to 1 cup of sugar.  While it is not readily available at many supermarkets, it can be ordered from various websites. Some consumers have noted that it does not dissolve easily and they do detect a slight aftertaste.  The sweetener tends to become sticky when exposed to air so storing in an airtight container avoids this problem.

How is Monk Fruit Sweetener Used in Cooking, Baking, and Preserving?

Monk fruit sweeteners should not be substituted 1:1 for sugar unless the manufacturer indicates so. Some monk fruit sweeteners are made with a mix of sugar alternatives and/or fillers, so be sure to read the label.  Recipes and tips for cooking and baking can be found on the website of some of the monk fruit sweetener labels.  Available as a granular, powder, and syrup, each type works best in different applications.  Stable at high temperatures, the sweetener does not burn or give a sour taste when used for baking and cooking.

Baked products made with a sugar substitute may have different characteristics than those made with sugar.  Using a sugar substitute may affect the texture, color, volume, structure, flavor, and keeping qualities. Sugar, like every ingredient, serves a purpose in baked goods beyond adding sweetness and flavor. Sugar contributes to moistness by binding water, provides structure and leavening, aids in browning and crispness via the maillard reaction, and acts as a preservative by slowing bacterial growth.  While some functions and characteristics can be replaced by sugar substitutes, others are unique to sugar. 

When used for baking, pure monk fruit sweetener may be less desirable as it does not have the bulk that sugar provides to a recipe. When mixed with erythritol, baking is more successful as erythritol adds bulk to the recipe resulting in a product that looks and tastes more like a product made with sugar.

Monk fruit sweetener should not be used for canning.  To date, there has been no testing with monk fruit sweeteners to determine their effects on pH in home canned foods. Utah State Extension offers this explanation:  “The sweetness of monk fruit does not come from the traditional fructose sugar molecule in the fruit. The monk fruit sweetener chemicals are extracted from the monk fruit and then blended with something to bulk it up. Each product might be different regarding pH and what is called the pH buffering capacity.” For this reason, canning with monk fruit sweeteners is currently not recommended.

Freezer jams and jellies can be successfully made with monk fruit sweeteners along with a freezer pectin.  Monk fruit can also be added to fruits prior to freezing.

Monk fruit sweetener is a safe alternative to sugar and one way to reduce consumption of added sugars and/or manage caloric intake.  It is important to do your research and know what you are buying for your intended use.  Be sure to read the label and use the product correctly.

Sources:

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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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Small-Batch Fermentation – AnswerLine Team Gives It a Try

Large head of cabbage and two jars of fermented sauerkraut
Large head of cabbage and two jars of fermented sauerkraut – Photo: mrgeiger

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

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

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

Two women cutting cabbage
Two women cutting cabbage – Photo: bmarrs

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

Woman massaging cabbage
Woman massaging the cabbage – Photo: bmarrs

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

Two women packing cabbage into jars
Two women packing massaged cabbage into jars – Photo: bmarrs

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

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

Five women and one child holding jars of cabbage ready for fermenting
AnswerLine Team (Rachel Sweeney( and child), Marlene Geiger, Beth Marrs, Marcia Steed, and Carol Van Waardhuizzen) show the jars of cabbage ready for fermenting. Photo: bmarrs

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

Here are the team takeaways from this experience:

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

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

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

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

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*Brine – ½ teaspoon salt to ½ cup water

Reference to any commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporate name is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement, recommendation, or certification of any kind. Persons using such products assume responsibility for their use and should make their own assessment of the information and whether it is suitable for their intended use in accordance with current directions of the manufacturer.

Marlene Geiger

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

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Can’t Beat Beets and Beet Chips

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

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

Dried beet chips
Dried beet chips in a cup – Photo: mrgeiger

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

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

Oven Baked Beet Chips

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

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

Air Fryer Method

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

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

Updated 9-18-2023, mg.

Marlene Geiger

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

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Canning Mistakes: “But, My Jars Sealed”

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

Sealed jar of pickle relish
Sealed jar of pickle relish – Photo: mrgeiger

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

IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE, ACT QUICKLY.

Canning mistakes (process deviated from the recipe instructions, incorrect processing time, canner water incorrect for pack) can only be rectified or re-canned in the first 2 hours*.  Within that window, they can be reprocessed, frozen, or refrigerated for quick use.  After 2 hours, the food needs to be disposed as it is no longer safe. 

Safely processed (recipe followed without deviation) home canned food can be re-canned within 24 hours if a jar does not seal.

Reprocessing means following the same processing that would have been done if starting with fresh food—remove the lid, empty and wash jars (check the jar rim for tiny nicks), change jar if necessary, reheat, re-fill jars, use new flat lids, and process with correct time and weight (pressure canning).   Most foods do not tolerate reprocessing very well.  Quality is diminished as they usually end up soft and mushy.  Soft foods, such as applesauce, handle reprocessing better than foods with structure.

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

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

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

*National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Reviewed and updated, 4-2024, mg.

Marlene Geiger

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

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