September is National Honey Month

‘Tis the month to celebrate all things HONEY!  The National Honey Board declared September as National Honey Month in 1989 to promote the beekeeping industry and honey as a natural and beneficial sweetener.  Honey is a great sweetener for many reasons.  However, it is important to note that honey is more than a sweetener and has a long history so let the celebrations begin!

Honey History

Honey dates back centuries.  In 2012, archaeologists discovered what is believed to be the world’s oldest honey in a ceramic jar in Georgia (Eastern European country) which is estimated by scientists to be about 5,500 years old.  However, honey was used long before this and may have a life of millions of years.  Beekeeping apiculture dates to at least 700 BC.  Documentation has been found showing that ancient Egyptians sacrificed honey to their river gods, Roman’s slathered honey on wounds, Alexander the Great was embalmed with honey, and honey was used as a form of currency in Europe.  There are also numerous ancient references to mead, or honey wine, which is the world’s oldest known fermented beverage.

Honey Uses

Honey, as a sweetener, has many health benefits.  Besides being loaded with minerals, vitamins and important enzymes, honey is a natural, healthy energy booster. It is an immune system builder and has both antioxidant, anti-bacterial and anti-tumor properties. Honey has a healthy glycemic index which means that can be absorbed into the bloodstream gradually resulting in better digestion.  For more detailed information on the nutritional value of honey over table sugar, see Benefits of Honey by Michigan State University.  Honey is denser than sugar. One tablespoon of honey has 69 calories compared to 48 calories in one tablespoon of processed white sugar.  When using honey as a sweetener begin substitutions by replacing the amount of sugar called for in the recipe with half the amount of honey.  Honey can be substituted in equal measure for other liquid sweeteners such as sorghum, molasses, or maple syrup.  Learn more about cooking with honey from All About Honey.

Bee pollen is another important substance found in honey. Bee pollen may provide some relief for those who suffer with seasonal allergies since it contains trace amounts of pollen. Daily trace amounts of pollen may help reduce the symptoms of pollen-related allergies by inoculating the individual.  When used as an inoculant, it is very important that the honey be purchased locally since that is where the allergens are located.

While some of the health benefits of honey have been discussed, the many uses of honey is extensive.  For more honey uses, take a look at some suggestions for honey outside of the kitchen by Sioux Honey™.

Honey Safety and Storage

The primary food safety issue related to honey is infant botulism. Because infants have an immature geostatistical tract, the spores of the Clostridium bacteria (the causal pathogen of botulism) are provided
the amount of time needed and the environment to produce toxins. Babies under the age of 1 should not eat honey.

In general, honey is safe for adults and children older than the age of 1.  Those allergic to honey should avoid it.

Honey has a very low water content and high acidity, which usually inhibits the growth of bacteria.  However, honey is hydroscopic, which means it draws in moisture. Moisture in honey can create favorable conditions for mold and yeast growth.  To prevent such, honey should be stored in a clean, airtight container and preferably away from light.  When stored properly, honey will remain safe indefinitely. Honey may crystallize or granulate as it gets older, is refrigerated, or is frozen. This is a natural process and does not harm honey in any way. To convert crystallized honey to a liquid form, place the opened honey jar in a heat-safe container of approximately 1-2 inches of hot (not boiling) water. Crystals will begin to disappear; stir as needed. Be careful not to overheat honey; excessive heat can cause honey to change color and flavor.

According to National Honey Board trivia, a single worker honeybee produces approximately 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. That means around 22,700 bees are needed to fill a single jar of honey!   So celebrate the benefits of honey, the bees that make it, those who work in the honey and bee industry, and enjoy the seet nectar of their labor!

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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Score a Safe Tailgate with Wings

Wings are ubiquitous with tailgates!  They are easy to prepare (or pick up), budget friendly, an easy-to-eat finger food, incredibly fun to try with different sauces, and when cooked properly, tasty and satisfying.  Sadly, many tailgates have been spoiled by food poisoning due to improper cooking or care of the meat.  Unlike other types of meat, chicken meat can host harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, and Escherichia coli (E. coli).  By using safe food handling practices and proper cooking techniques, there is no need to worry.

What are wings?

Wings are the forearm of the chicken and are part of the breast muscle which runs along both sides of the breastbone. Chicken wings are considered white meat, even though they’re juicier than white meat and have a more concentrated poultry flavor, like dark meat.  The wing of the chicken consists of three sections, the wing tip, the wingette (or flat wing having two small bones in it), and the drumettes (the part that looks like a mini-drumstick).  At the supermarket, wings are usually sold as the whole wing, wingettes, drumettes, or the wingette and drumette attached (no wing tip). 

The drumette is the part of the wing that is attached to the breastbone and usually considered the most desirable because it is meatier.   Many people think of Buffalo wings when they think of this part of the chicken.  (Buffalo wings, originated in Buffalo, New York, around1964, and became famous for the tangy, hot sauce-coated, deep-fried drumettes served with blue cheese dip and celery sticks.)

Be a Tailgate Wing MVP and Score a Winning Tailgate

The best offense is a good defense.  Have your food safety plan in place before the tailgate starts and know your opponent—harmful microbes—and deal with it using these tips for a worry-free tailgate:

Clean.  When preparing any food, start with clean hands, work surfaces and utensils.  DO NOT WASH the wings.  Rinsing meat or poultry under running water, results in splashing of water droplets onto other surfaces, kitchen utensils or food, causing contamination with harmful microorganisms.  Skip the wash, but instead pat-dry the chicken with paper towels, like many professional chefs do.  Dispose of the towels safely. Season as desired.

Separate.  If it is necessary to cut the whole wing or wingette and drumette apart, use a separate cutting board from any that would be used for fruits and vegetables.   Cross-contamination of utensils, cookware, cutting boards, countertops and anything else that has been exposed to raw chicken can put one at risk for salmonella. Thoroughly wash hands and any items that may have come into contact with the raw chicken with hot, soapy water before using for any other purpose.

Cook.   It doesn’t matter what cooking method* is used to prepare wings; it is essential to make sure that the chicken wings are thoroughly cooked to a final temperature of 165°F (74ºC). If not, you might have to deal with a bout of food poisoning. Salmonella and other bacteria are killed when subjected to a temperature of 165° F (74ºC). Use an instant-read digital thermometer to check the temperature by inserting the probe part of the thermometer into the thickest part of the wing, avoiding the bone.  Check several wings in the batch.  Use a clean thermometer for each and every temperature check.  Visual color is never a reliable indicator of safety or doneness.  Precooked frozen chicken wings, must be reheated to 165°F (74ºC) as well.

Place cooked wings into an insulated container or slow cooker for transporting or keeping hot during the tailgate if electrical outlets are available. Or use disposable foil pans and reheat on the grill. If prepared at the tailgate, bring wings chilled ready to cook on the grill and eat them as soon as they can be handled easily.

Chill.  Bacteria can multiply rapidly if left in the “Danger Zone” (40°F-140°F, 4⁰C-60⁰C).  Get wings and other perishable foods into coolers within 2 hours. If the food is exposed to temperatures above 90°F (32⁰C), chill within 1 hour. Sauces may be kept chilled by placing them above a cold source like a bowl of ice.  If foods have not been exposed to Danger Zone temperatures for more than 2 hours and chilled properly, they may be reheated for halftime or after the game treats. Before reheating, use a thermometer to check the temperature of the food.  If food is at 40°F or lower it may be reheated. Be sure to reheat wings and other originally hot foods to 165°F (74⁰C) and check the temperature with a food thermometer. Do not reheat in a slow cooker; rather use a grill, or if at home, an oven or microwave.  Any food left in the Danger Zone for more than 2 hours should be discarded.

Other tips include having a serving utensil for each item and plenty of paper plates so everyone can use a clean plate when getting more food.

Be a Tailgate Wing MVP! Go for the win! Follow basic food safety principles, properly handle raw chicken meat, cook wings to an internal temperature of 165°F (74ºC), and chill as needed to keep you and your guests safe.

*Wing Cooking Methods

With any chicken wing recipe, it’s important to follow the instructions carefully to ensure that you have cooked them properly.  Cooking times are approximate; always use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature.  Wings may be prepared by oven baking, air frying, grilling, or deep fat frying following these general directions or your favorite wing recipe.

Oven – Place wings in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Bake at 400⁰F (204⁰C) for approximately 40 minutes.  It is a good idea halfway through the cooking time to turn the wings over to allow both sides of the wings to get crispy. 

Air Fryer – Spray the air fryer basket with cooking spray. Pat the chicken wings dry. Place the wings in the fryer basket so they are not touching. Set the air fryer to 360⁰F (182ºC) and cook for 12 minutes, then flip the wings with tongs and cook for 12 minutes more. Flip the wings again, increase the heat to 390⁰F (199ºC) and cook until the outsides are extra-crispy, about 6 minutes more.

Grill – Turn the wings every 4-6 minutes to ensure that they are cooked evenly throughout the grilling process.  Cooking time should be about 25-30 minutes.

Deep Fat Fryer – Heat oil to 375°F (191⁰C). Fry wings in batches until skin is crisp and meat is tender, 8-10 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

Marlene Geiger

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

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Preserving Summer Squash

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

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

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

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

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

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

FREEZING

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

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

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

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

PICKLING

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

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

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

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

DRYING

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

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

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

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

References

Marlene Geiger

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

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Tray Pack for Freezing Food – Why and How

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

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

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

Foods that can be Flash Frozen with the Tray Pack Method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene Geiger

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

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Peel Tomatoes Before Preserving

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

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

Removing the skins is important for these reasons:

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

So bite the bullet and slip those tomato skins.

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

Marlene Geiger

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

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Freezer Burn and Food Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene Geiger

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

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Meat Thermometers – A Grilling Essential

Steaks on the grill with thermometer to check internal temperature.

Grilling adds a fun element to picnics and summer but it can also be a time of danger for food borne illness. It is not possible to tell if a food is fully cooked by simply looking at it. The only way to accurately measure if a food product is cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature is to use a food thermometer.  This is especially true when grilling meats; meat and poultry tend to brown quickly on the outside but may not have reached a safe internal temperature to prevent harmful bacteria from causing foodborne illness.

Know the Safe Internal Temperature

To insure cooking is both SAFE and GOOD TASTING, follow the guidelines below for safe minimum internal temperatures and rest time for meat, poultry, and seafood.

Date last reviewed: March 11, 2022. Source: FoodSafety.gov

Calibrate Thermometer for Accuracy

A properly calibrated meat thermometer is key for achieving both meat safety and quality. Imagine the indignation of serving undercooked meat followed by food borne illness because the thermometer didn’t read correctly or wasn’t in calibration.  Neither is a viable excuse for a food safety misstep.  Thermometers should be checked and adjusted on a regular basis using the ice-water method.  For a video demonstration of thermometer calibration, view How to Calibrate a Meat Thermometer courtesy of the North American Meat Institute and University of California Davis Cooperative Extension. 

Insert Thermometer Properly

To get a correct temperature reading, the thermometer must be inserted in the properly location.  Usually, this in the center of the thickest part of the food away from bone, fat, or gristle.  Use these guidelines on finding the right location: 

BEEF, PORK or LAMB ROASTS. The food thermometer should be placed midway in the roast, avoiding the bone. Irregularly shaped foods, such as beef roasts, should have their temperature checked in several places.

THINNER FOODS such as MEAT PATTIES, PORK CHOPS and CHICKEN.  The USDA encourages the use of digital instant-read thermometers for thinner foods as digital thermometers don’t need to be inserted as deep as dial thermometers and may be inserted sideways in the thickest part.    

Regardless of thermometer type, manufacturer’s instructions should be followed regarding depth of insertion to give an accurate reading.  If instructions are not available, check the stem of the thermometer for an indentation or “dimple” that shows the end of the sensing device. The probe must be inserted the full length of the sensing area. For dial thermometers, this is usually 2 to 3 inches and less for digital instant-read thermometers where the heat sensing device is in the tip of the probe.  About 15 to 20 seconds are required for the temperature to be accurately displayed with a dial thermometer and about 10 seconds is needed for a digital thermometer.

Additional Thermometer Tips

  • Use a clean thermometer for testing each time it is inserted into the food.  Follow manufacturer’s directions for washing before and after each use.
  • To prevent overcooking, begin checking the temperature toward the end of cooking but before the food is expected to be “done.”
  • Wait until toward the end of the cooking period before inserting a thermometer to prevent the possibility of transferring possible bacteria from the outside to the inside.  This will also help to prevent loss of moisture.

Use that food thermometer and grill 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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Defrosting Trays

With the arrival of warmer weather and holiday weekends, you may be thinking about firing up the grill. Grilling is a great way to enjoy a variety of proteins, vegetables, and even fruits! Sometimes when grilling we are looking for a quick way to defrost items before putting them on the grill. However, it is important that food safety is also considered when you think about thawing these items.

Raw meat on defrosting tray

A caller recently posed a question about a defrosting tray she had used to thaw meat on her counter. This was the first time I had heard of this equipment, so I did some research. Defrosting trays are made from a material that has a high ability to conduct heat, such as copper or aluminum. When these trays are placed on your kitchen counter, they will quickly come to match the temperature in your kitchen.

Many defrosting trays are advertised showing how quickly they can melt an ice cube. However, the trays aren’t as efficient at melting dense items, like a steak. When a frozen food item, like a steak, is placed on the tray, the surface temperature of the steak will warm up at a slightly quicker speed as compared to being just on the counter, but the interior of the steak will remain frozen. Ultimately, this method for thawing will not result in significantly faster thawing as compared to just having the item on your kitchen counter.

The kitchen counter is not where we want to be thawing our frozen items, regardless of whether a defrosting tray is involved. This is because the temperature of our kitchen falls within the Temperature Danger Zone (40° – 140°F), which is the temperature range where bacteria multiply rapidly.

So, what is considered a safe way to thaw food? Frozen items can be safely thawed in the refrigerator, in cold water, in the microwave, or cooking from the frozen state.

  1. Refrigerator: place frozen items in a tray to catch any juices while thawing and place on the bottom shelf in your refrigerator. Food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.
  2. Cold water thawing: food must be placed in a leak-proof package or plastic bag and submerged in cold tap water. The water needs to be changed every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw.
  3. Microwave thawing: after thawing food in the microwave, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during the thawing process.
  4. Cooking without thawing: it is safe to cook foods from the frozen state, just keep it mind it will take approximately 50% longer than the recommended time.

References:

  1. Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Defrosting Trays https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-is-a-defrosting-tray-4782382
  2. What is a Thawing Tray https://enewsletters.k-state.edu/youaskedit/2018/04/16/what-is-a-thawing-tray/
  3. The Big Thaw – Safe Defrosting Methods https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/big-thaw-safe-defrosting-methods#:~:text=There%20are%20three%20safe%20ways,water%2C%20and%20in%20the%20microwave.

Rachel Sweeney

I graduated from Iowa State University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Dietetics and Exercise Science. I enjoy gardening, cooking and baking, food preservation, traveling, being outside, and spending time with my family.

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Remember to Vent

A critical step to achieving proper pressure inside a pressure canner is allowing it to VENT. What does this mean?

Venting is also “exhausting” the canner, a process of letting steam (and air) come out of the canner through the vent pipe for a period of time before beginning the pressure processing time.  Air trapped in a canner lowers the processing temperature and results in under processing of low-acid foods.  To be safe, the USDA recommends that all types of pressure canners must be vented 10 minutes before they are pressurized.

WHY VENT? 

It is STEAM, not water, that does the processing in a pressure canner. Low-acid foods (foods with a pH of 4.6 or higher such as all vegetables excluding tomatoes, meats, seafood, soups and sauces) are not acidic enough to destroy bacteria, their spores, and the toxins they produce or prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria in a vacuum.  The heat-resistant spores produced by C. botulinum can only be destroyed with the correct combination of temperature, pressure, and tested time. Temperatures in the range of 240°F to 250°F (115°C to 121°C) are needed to kill spores (USDA 2015). Water can get no hotter than the boiling point (212ºF, 100ºC), but steam can. Steam trapped in the canner increases the atmospheric pressure inside the canner causing the boiling point of water to increase to 240ºF-250ºF, the temperature needed to destroy bacteria and C. botulinum, that would otherwise be free to grow in a vacuum sealed jar.

In order to reach the optimum temperature to destroy botulinum bacteria, air inside the canner must be exhausted to allow space for a pure steam environment to build. There is a vast amount of air in a canner due to the space between the water level and the lid as well as the air that escapes from inside the jars and from the water. The most “jar air” comes from those with raw-packed foods.

Image Source: USDA Complete Guide to Home CAnning

HOW TO VENT

The vent or petcock is a short hollow pipe that sticks up above the canner lid.  When open, it allows air and steam to escape from the canner.  When closed, it holds steam inside. To vent a canner, leave the vent port uncovered or manually open the petcock (some older models).  After placing jars inside the warm canner and securing the canner lid, set the burner on high. Watch for steam to escape from the vent pipe. When a strong, visible, funnel-shaped steam cone emerges, set a timer for 10 minutes and let the canner continuously steam. After the 10 minutes, add the weight or counterweight to the vent or close the petcock to pressurize the canner.

WHAT HAPPENS DURING VENTING?

As the water boils inside the canner, the empty spaces become a mixture of steam and air. As steam increases, it pushes the air out creating a pure steam environment.  USDA processing times are based upon a pure steam environment which makes venting so very important.

In addition to venting, remember to adjust for altitude. Most recipes list processing time based on altitudes near sea level. To ensure the health of those who enjoy your foods, always use a tested recipe and follow instructions. Remember to VENT for 10 minutes to ensure that any and all microorganisms are destroyed.

Source: National Center for Home Food Preservation and USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning (2015)

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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Are You Prepared for a Power Outage?

Spring often brings unsettled weather.  This year has been no exception as Iowa and other parts of the country have already experienced unprecedented winds, powerful storms and tornadoes causing personal loss, major damage and power outages. While personal loss and damage are devastating, power outages can be a major inconvenience.  To prepare and stay safe, it’s important to know steps you can take before, during and after a power outage.

Power outages can be over almost as quickly as begun, but some can last much longer — up to days or even weeks. This depends on the severity of the storm and what damage has been done to power lines and systems. A power outage disrupts everyday life as it shuts down communications, water, transportation and services, closes businesses, causes food spoilage, and prevents use of medical devices.

Before a Power Outage – Prepare

Preparation can keep the most important people in your world safe when bad weather hits.  Here’s some quick tips on how to prepare:

  • Have a plan that all family members know and understand. 
  • Take an inventory of items in the home and keep it up to date.
  • Plan for alternative power sources and test in advance—batteries, portable generator (fuel), power banks.
  • Build an emergency kit that includes 3-days of non-perishable foods and bottled water; important medications; blankets; personal hygiene items; first aid supplies; flashlights.
  • Talk to your medical provider about medical devices powered by electricity and refrigerated medicines. Find out how long medication can be stored at higher temperatures and get specific guidance for any medications that are critical for life.
  • Place thermometers in freezers and refrigerators to monitor temperature when power returns.  A container of water (or ice cubes) in the freezer is also a good indicator of temperatures going above 32ºF.
  • Remove or secure items outside of the home that can blow or become weapons.
  • Trim tree branches overhanging a house and clean gutters.
  • Get a weather alarm with battery backup (keep batteries fresh) and/or sign up for weather alert notifications from local radio or tv stations.
  • Have your phone charged.
  • Freeze jugs of water.

During a Power Outage Stay Safe

The lights are out, appliances, and all electrical equipment without battery or power backup have stopped running. Now what?

  • Report downed power lines. Do not touch down lines nor attempt to remove trees which may be tangled in downed lines.
  • Turn off and unplug all unnecessary electrical equipment, including sensitive electronics. Leave a lamp or night light connected to indicate when the power does come back on.
  • Turn off or disconnect any appliances, equipment or electronics you were using when the power went out. When the power comes back on, surges or spikes can damage equipment.
  • Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed. Food is safe in a securely closed refrigerator for up to 4 hours. In a freezer it depends on how full it is — the fuller your freezer, the longer it can last. A full freezer can last up to 48 hours, and a half-freezer can last up to 24 hours. Place frozen jugs of water in refrigerator to help maintain coldness.
  • Avoid using candles and your phone more than necessary.
  • Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning when using generators, camp stoves or charcoal grills; these items should always be used outdoors and at least 20 feet away from windows. Never use a gas stovetop or oven to heat your home.

After a Power Outage – Assess

Recovery begins.

  • Throw out any unsafe food, particularly meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers that have been exposed to temperatures higher than 40-degrees F for two hours or more or that have an unusual odor, color or texture.  When in doubt, throw it out. For additional help with food after a power outage, visit Play It Safe With Food After a Power Outage .
  • If the power is out for more than a day, discard any medication that should be refrigerated, unless the drug’s label says otherwise. Consult your doctor or pharmacist immediately for a new supply.
  • Plug in appliances and electric equipment including sump pumps. Check to make sure each is working properly.  Note anything that is not working properly and report to your insurance agent.
  • Note damage done to home or property and report to your insurance agent.
  • Call AnswerLine at 800-262-3804 with food safety questions or water/mold clean up should water get into the home.

For more helpful information and tips, visit Ready.  For a quick visual reminder, see this short YouTube video prepared by Farm Bureau Financial Services. One can never be reminded too often or be too prepared when storms strike and the power goes out.

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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