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!

________________________________________

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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Get Fired UP! Tips for Grilling Meat

Nothing says summer quite like the smell and sound of food sizzling on the grill.  Of all the foods that can be prepared on the grill, meat is king with everyone’s goal to cook it to perfection.  Whether it is steak, pork chops, chicken, or fish, knowing how to grill each type of meat is crucial for success. There’s nothing worse than overcooking or undercooking the priciest part of the meal! Meat, chicken, hamburgers, or seafood must be fully cooked to a safe internal temperature before serving to prevent falling ill after eating from food poisoning. 

Grill Safely to Prevent Foodborne Illnesses

Before starting any grilling, care needs to be taken to prevent foodborne illness.  The risk of foodborne illness increases during the summer months because disease-causing bacteria grow faster on raw meat and poultry products in warmer weather. Bacteria also need moisture to flourish and summer weather, often hot and humid, provides the perfect conditions. Follow these four USDA recommendations to keep friends and family safe from foodborne illness:

  • Clean – Wash hands and surfaces often.  Prior to placing food on the grill, wipe the grill surface or clean the grill grates with a stiff brush. If a stiff brush is used, inspect the grill surface to ensure there are no bristles left behind; bristles can cause physical contamination if it sticks to the food.
  • Separate – Don’t cross-contaminate. Keep raw meat and poultry apart from cooked foods.  Place grilled food on a clean plate, not the plate you used to carry the raw meat to the grill.
  • Cook – Use a food thermometer to ensure meat and poultry are cooked to a safe temperature to kill harmful germs. When smoking, keep temperatures inside the smoker at 225oF to 300oF to keep meat at a safe temperature while it cooks [1].
    145oF – whole cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and veal (stand-time of 3 minutes at this temperature)
    145oF – fish
    160oF – hamburgers and other ground beef
    165oF – all poultry
    135oF – all pre-cooked meats, like hot dogs
  • Chill – Refrigerate or freeze left-overs promptly – within two hours of cooking (one hour if above 90oF outside.).
    For more food grilling safety tips, see Food Safety Tips to Grilling Pros and Beginners provided by the USDA .

Tips to Ensure Your MEAT Masterpieces Come Off the Grill Flawlessly

  • Prepare the grill by cleaning the grill grates as previously stated. Oil the grates. A great tip I learned from a program on IPTV is to slice an onion in half, stab one half on the onion with a long fork, dip the onion in oil and rub the grates with the onion. It not only does a great job on getting oil on the grates without flare up, but also seasons the grates a little.
  • Pat meat dry using paper towels to remove any excess moisture that would otherwise steam-cook the meat or inhibit caramelization.
  • Liberally rub the meat with a dry brine or salt and pepper to help keep the meat from drying out.  For steaks and chops, season just before grilling.  Salt pulls moisture to the surface so seasoning when the grill is ready keeps that process from drawing moisture out of the meat and making it wet. It helps to rub the meat with a little bit of olive oil prior to seasoning as it helps to hold the seasoning in place.
  • If possible, establish a two-zone cooking area in the grill.  One area should be hot for searing (cooking briefly over high heat) the meat and the other at a cooler temperature for cooking the meat to the desired doneness after searing.  If this is not possible, turn the heat down on the grill after searing. 
  • Once the meat is on the grill, resist all urges to touch or lift it until it releases from the grill naturally. This will aid in solid grill marks which lend flavor and keep the meat from tearing. Once the meat releases, turn it often to allow even cooking.
  • Use a meat thermometer to gauge when the meat is done using the USDA’s Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart, updated in 2020.  After grilling, hot foods should be kept at a minimum of 140⁰F.
  • After the meat has reached temperature, allow it to rest before slicing or eating so the meat has time to reabsorb its favorable juices and make the meat soft and moist.  Cover with foil and let rest a minimum of 3 minutes before serving. The meat temperature will also rise a small amount while resting.
  • Slice the meat against the grain. Cuts made perpendicular to the grain results in short meat fibers which gives a tender bite of meat.

Meat Grilling Specifics from the Pros

For specifics on grilling the various meat types see the following:
Grilling Pork by the National Pork Board.
Grilling Basics for Beef or Expert Grilling Advice from Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Also, How to Grill Steaks Perfectly… For Beginners by Omaha Steaks.  
Poultry Grilling Guide by Weber, B&G Foods, Inc.
How to Grill Fish by the Institute of Culinary Education.

Grilling is more than throwing some meat on a hot grill.  Whether using a gas or charcoal grill, following a few steps when grilling and knowing how to cook and how long to cook the particular food will help assure a successful outcome. The Get Fired Up! grilling tips continues with Grilling Sides–Fruits and Vegetables and Baking on the Grill.

This blog was reviewed by Anirudh Naig, Associate Professor in Hospitality Management & State Extension Specialist for Retail Food Safety at Iowa State University.

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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Deciphering Produce Labels and Codes

The produce department at the grocery store is the most shopped department.  Usually located at the front of the store, the brightly colored fruits and vegetables and eye-catching displays welcome shoppers to the store and the opportunity to explore nutritious options.  As shoppers peruse the aisles and refrigerated cases to make selections, one is sure to also find produce labels and stickers on the many selections. What do these stickers and labels tell us?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced domestically, as well as foods from foreign countries.  The laws require that labels on food be truthful and not misleading, but the laws don’t regulated definitions for all of the labels that one may see.  Here’s some help with deciphering what each label or sticker means.

FDA Regulated Labels

Country of Origin: Perishable produce must be labeled with the country where it was grown.

USDA Organic: This label indicates that the produce was produced on a certified farm that follows defined organic procedures, such as non-use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Nutrition Facts Label: If packaging makes a claim about nutrients, the Food and Drug Administration requires a nutrition label. So if the spinach is stamped with “good source of potassium,” it must carry a Nutrition Facts Label [1].

Excellent Source Of/High In: A label bearing this claim must contain at least 20 percent of the daily requirement of that nutrient in a serving.  A Good Source Of label indicates that one serving has 10-19 percent of the daily dose of the named nutrient.

Fresh: Fresh means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation.  Fresh does not address when the produce was harvested or if the produce was washed in a mild chlorine solution prior to packaging or shipping.

Unregulated Claims

Washed/Triple-Washed/Ready to Eat: Most produce gets a rinse prior to marketing.  However, a washing claim may only mean that the produce has had dirt or grit removed; it is not a guarantee that it is bacteria-free.

Pesticide-Free: This label could mean one of two things:  1) no pesticides were used during growing; or 2) pesticide residue has been washed away. There’s no real way to know unless it bears an organic label.

Hydroponically Grown/Hydroponic: This label generally means that the produce was grown in a greenhouse using a nutrient solution instead of soil.

Non-GMO:  The only possible GMOs to be found in the produce aisles include potatoes, squash/pumpkins, papayas, sweet corn, and soy beans (edamame). If this label were to appear on a package of greens, for example, it would be a misnomer.

Gluten Free:  Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten free.  This is a true claim but misleading in meaning.

No Preservatives/Free from Artificial Ingredients: Preservatives or artificial ingredients are not usually added to fresh produce making this label misleading on nearly all produce. 

Produce Code Stickers

Besides the labels, there are also stickers found on many fruits and vegetables.  Sometimes labels and stickers are one in the same.  The stickers on produce are for more than scanning the PLU (price look-up) number at the checkout. They may share information about the produce; no matter where you shop, the produce code for any particular fruit and veggie will be the same.  However, it is an imperfect system (no governing or regulating laws) that is voluntary on the part of the producer who could opt out of using the codes or telling the whole truth.  Here’s what those stickers are supposed mean.

Four Digit Code:  Produce with a four digit code beginning with a 3 or 4 means the produce was probably conventionally grown with the possible use of pesticides.  For example, the code for conventionally grown bananas is 4011.

Five Digit Code beginning with “9”:  Fruits and vegetables grown organically have a five digit code starting with a “9”.  An organically grown banana’s PLU would be 94011, for example.

Five Digit Code beginning with “8”:  Genetically modified produce (it has genes from other organisms) stickers also have five digits, but these codes begin with the number “8.” Remember there only five items likely to be found in the produce aisles that have been genetically modified so this is a rarely seen code.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, take a look at the labels on your produce!  Understanding what the labels and codes mean will help you choose what is right for you.

Marlene Geiger

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

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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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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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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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50 Shades of Gra-vy

At this time of the year, we are usually talking turkey with lots of questions about how to make the perfect turkey gravy.  Gravy is often the star of a turkey dinner, the condiment that ties the meat, potatoes, and veggies together.  While making gravy is nearly the same for all meats, for the purposes of this blog, we’ll zero in on turkey gravy.

In its basic form, gravy is a thickened sauce made from meat drippings with perhaps the addition of stock and seasonings.  It starts as a roux or equal parts of fat and flour cooked in a skillet until it is golden brown and bubbly.  (Cornstarch and potato starch are other options for thickening gravy when flour cannot be used and will be addressed later.)  The best fat is found in the drippings rendered by the meat during roasting found roaming at the bottom of the roasting pan. Drippings are flavor packed and add a depth of flavor to any gravy.

When the turkey reaches temperature, remove it from the oven, tent, and let rest for 20 minutes.  During this time, the turkey will continue to rise in temperature and leak additional drippings.  Remove the turkey from the roasting pan and drain the drippings through a colander or strainer to remove the coagulated bits of this and that.  Discard the bits and save the strained drippings to make the gravy.

Separate the fat from the liquid drippings with a separator or with a spoon.  If there is sufficient fat, use the separated fat to make the roux.  If not, use butter or any other fat preferred (coconut oil, vegetable oil, olive oil, margarine, or bacon fat).  For each cup of gravy desired, use a ratio of two tablespoons of fat, two tablespoons of flour, and a cup of liquid to produce a rich and thick gravy. (This ratio can be doubled or tripled as needed.) In a skillet (or roasting pan), whisk the flour into the fat over medium heat.  Let the mixture bubble and brown slightly.  Slowly add the defatted drippings or a combination of drippings and broth or other liquid, whisking vigorously to dissolve the roux into the liquid and prevent lumping.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently until slightly thickened.  Stir in desired seasonings—salt, pepper, herbs (dried or fresh) such as sage and/or thyme.  Go lightly on the salt if salted broth is used or the drippings are already salty.  Taste as you go.  Allow the gravy to simmer and thicken for about 10 minutes longer adding more liquid to thin if needed. 

There are unlimited recipes for making turkey gravy; many family recipes have been passed along for generations and may be made with cream, giblets, cream soups, broth only, variety of seasonings, wine, cognac, and other unique ingredients.  There is nothing wrong with going outside of a basic gravy recipe.  Whether basic or otherwise, sometimes things go wrong and other than scorching, most gravy can be rescued.  Some quick cures:

Bland – add a little more salt or herbs, a drop or two of soy sauce, or sautéed onions or mushrooms

Lumpy – blend in a blender or with an emulsion blender until smooth

Too thick – add more drippings, broth, or even water to thin (I’ve even seen orange juice used.)

Too thin – make a slurry of flour and water and slowly add to gravy bringing it to a boil OR make a small roux (equal butter and flour) and add to the gravy

Too greasy – use a slice of bread to soak up the grease as much as possible; add a little more liquid, whisk briskly and serve quickly

Gravy is perishable. Bacteria grow rapidly at temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F. Therefore, homemade turkey gravy should be discarded if left for more than 2 hours at room temperature. To maximize the shelf life of homemade turkey gravy, refrigerate in airtight containers.  Properly stored, homemade turkey gravy will keep for 2 days in the refrigerator.  To further extend the shelf life, it can be frozen in airtight containers or heavy-duty freezer bags.  In the freezer, turkey gravy will maintain best quality for about 3 months, but will remain safe beyond that time.  When reheating homemade turkey gravy, always bring the gravy to a slow rolling boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, before serving.

When flour cannot be used, cornstarch and potato starch are the best options for gravy.  Avoid arrowroot and tapioca starches because they can get “stringy” and look artificial in gravy.  Cornstarch gravy is more translucent than flour based sauces. Potato starch gravy is more opaque than cornstarch, but less opaque than flour. Gravy made with starches require less simmering than flour based sauces. Avoid boiling as overcooked starch based gravy will lose some of its thickness.  Keeping time in the refrigerator remains the same but know that starch based gravy does not freeze well.

A delicious homemade gravy is easy to make but shouldn’t be hurried even though it might be the last item made to complete the menu.  Some like to make their gravy ahead of time. If made ahead, bear in mind refrigerating, freezing, and reheating precautions.  An electric gravy boat, thermos, or slow cooker (warm) is a great way to keep gravy at serving temperature and consistency after reheating or while waiting for dinner to be served.

Marlene Geiger

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

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Clear Jel® vs Sure Jell

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

Clear Jel®

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

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

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

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

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

Sure Jell

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

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

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

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

Marlene Geiger

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

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Safe Canning Amid Canning Supply Shortages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene Geiger

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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