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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What is this?

Recently an AnswerLine client spotted these two products on the shelf with the canning supplies and wanted to know what they were and how they should be used. Both are calcium chloride, a generic firming agent that is used in the pickling and canning industry. In recent years calcium chloride has become available commercially as Pickle Crisp® by Ball or Xtra Crunch® by Mrs. Wages. These are both granular products that offer fast results with the same great taste and crispness of lime (calcium hydroxide) but with less fuss.  Calcium chloride does not have the hydroxide component of lime and therefore does not lower acidity of pickled food or pose a food safety risk.  A small amount is added to each jar of pickles before sealing following the manufacturer’s directions.  (It should not be added to the vat during brining or fermentation.)  Calcium chloride is used by brewers and wine makers and has been found to improve the texture of canned apple slices, pears, and peaches.  It has also been used with canning whole tomatoes to hold the tomatoes together.  (I personally have used the Ball product and like it very much with pickled foods; I have not tried it with the fruits and tomatoes as suggested.)  Calcium chloride may impart a bit of a salty taste but adds no sodium.  These products have an indefinite shelf life but will clump and become hard when exposed to humidity so it is important to keep them in as dry of conditions as possible.

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 Summertime Grilling

It has certainly gotten hot out lately and rather than heat up my house by turning on the oven I am using my grill more and more! It is important to remember that food must be handled correctly both in the kitchen and on the grill. Here are some quick reminders to keep the food you are grilling safe.

Remember to keep your cold foods cold. Bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature, so keep your meat in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it. If you want to marinade meat do it in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. If you plan to grill away from home make sure that you transport meat in a cooler with some ice. The goal is to keep meat at refrigerator temperature.


Do not reuse the plate that you use to take the meat out to the grill. Juices from raw meat and poultry are high in bacteria that could contaminate the cooked meat.


Do not use color as an indicator of when meat is done. Recent USDA research studies indicate that some ground beef may turn brown before it has reached a safe internal temperature of 160°F. The only safe way to determine if food is done is to use a meat thermometer. An instant read thermometer takes the guess work out of grilling.

It is not a good idea to partially cook meats. If you must cook ahead, cook the food completely, cool it quickly in the refrigerator in shallow containers and reheat it later on the grill.

Remember these Safe Internal Minimum Temperatures

Whole Poultry 165°F
Poultry Breasts 165°F
Ground Poultry 165°F
Ground Beef and Pork 160°F
Other Pork cuts 145°F (followed by a 3 minute rest)
Beef, veal and lamb(steaks, roasts and chops) Medium rare 145°FMedium 160°F


So get out there and enjoy your grill, knowing that you are doing all you can to keep your food safe.

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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Canning meat

Due to some grocery stores limiting the amount of meat that can be purchased per visit, we at AnswerLine have been receiving calls about canning meat. If you decide to purchase and can meat you will want to follow the directions from the National Center for Home Food Preservation to make sure you have a safe product.

Meat is a low acid food and needs to be processed in a pressure canner. The pressure canner needs to be large enough to hold 4 quart sized jars regardless of whether you plan to can pints or quarts. You may use a dial gauge or weighted gauge pressure canner.

If you have a dial gauge canner it is recommended you have the gauge tested once a year before you use it. Typically your County Extension and Outreach Office can test the dial gauge at their office. Some canner manufacturers will also test gauges if you mail it to them. If you want more information on where to have your dial gauge tested please contact us at AnswerLine. We would love to help! If your dial gauge reads high or low by more than 2 pounds at 5, 10, or 15 pounds pressure, replace it. If it is less than 2 pounds off in accuracy you can make the adjustments needed to be sure you have the required pressure needed for the safety of your product. If you are using a weighted gauge pressure canner you do not need to have the weight tested. You will continue to listen for the jiggle or rock.

Meat can be pressure canned in strips, cubes, chunks, ground or chopped.

Enjoy!

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is here to HELP!

While AnswerLine has been providing information and resources for Iowa consumers with home and family questions for over 40 years, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has been serving Iowans since the early 1900s.  The Mission of ISU Extension and Outreach is to engage citizens through research‐based educational programs and extend the resources of Iowa State University across Iowa. AnswerLine is just one of the entities of extension outreach. Let me introduce you to some of the other resources available to help individuals and families navigate issues that may concern them. 

  1. Stay informed on general ISU Extension and Outreach resources and opportunities through the Extension home page and news feed.
  2. The Iowa 4-H team has at-home learning resources which are publicly available for members and families to use.
  3. Iowa Concern offers free and confidential calls and emails 24/7 to help with stress management, financial issues, legal aid, and crisis resources.
  4. The ISU Horticulture and Home Pest news page offers download publications, how to improve your garden videos, and a Hortline for answers to lawn and garden questions.
  5. Get help with meal planning and food budgeting through the Spend Smart Eat Smart website.
  6. Visit the Beginning Farmer, Women in Ag and Ag Decision Maker websites for updates on programs and helpful resources from the Farm Management team. You can also contact the farm management field specialists with your questions. 
  7. Preserve the Taste of Summer offers a number of publications and resources for safe food preservation techniques.
  8. For great information on home gardens, farmer’s markets and u-pick operations, plant sales, and more or how to become a Master Gardener, the Master Gardener Program site is a must.
  9. When Teens don’t know who to talk to, Teen Line can help with a variety of issues that affect Teens and their families.
  10. Use the ISU Extension Staff Directory when looking for a specific person or persons in a specific area of expertise.  The Contact page offers additional resources and provides a form to send an email with questions, concerns, or suggestions. Ask An Expert is always available for questions; those questions come to AnswerLine where we either answer the query or send it to someone in Extension (Iowa or elsewhere) that can better answer it.

Besides these resources, one can always find help at the ISU Extension and Outreach extension offices located in each of Iowa’s counties, on social media outlets, and the many blogs written by Extension staff on current topics.  At the present time, most ISU Extension and Outreach in-person events throughout the state have been canceled through May 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, ISU Extension and Outreach staff remain committed to serving Iowans during this difficult time; phones and emails are being answered by Extension staff at the county and state levels.  Please check out the resources available that may provide the help you seek and watch for updates on how ISU Extension and Outreach will proceed to serve Iowans after May 31.

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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Steaming Vegetables

Recently an AnswerLine client called with concerns related to the safety of microwaving steam bag vegetables such as those sold under the Birds Eye Steamfresh label. These bags are sold with the vegetables inside as stand-alone products containing just vegetables or with sauces or seasonings. In general, microwaving foods in plastic containers may carry some health risks due to the transmission of BPA and pthalates from the plastic to the food. However, the bags being used for the steamed vegetable products are specifically manufactured for microwave steaming and do not contain BPA or pthalates.  These bags are designed for a one-time use.  If there is any concern, the packages can be opened and the vegetables steamed or prepared by another method.

Whether you purchase the microwave steam bag vegetables or not, there are advantages to steaming vegetables.  Frozen vegetables are usually flash frozen right after picking.  As a result, frozen vegetables may be more nutrient dense than fresh vegetables that have spent time in transit, sitting in a warehouse, or on display at the store. 

Steaming by way of the microwave, stove top, or pressure cooker are healthy ways to cook vegetables to prevent nutrient loss and retain flavor, texture, and color.  Steaming also helps to retain the water-soluble vitamins and minerals that would otherwise leech into cooking water.  Water soluble vitamins are also heat sensitive, so quick cooking times helps to reduce nutrient loss.  Vegetable nutrients along with fiber and phytochemicals, help to lower risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, cancer, and vision loss.

Steam bag vegetables can be used in the same way as any frozen vegetable.  While steam bags do add cost to the vegetables, there definitely is convenience in using the steam bag packaging as there is virtually no clean up involved.  One doesn’t need to be confined to using an entire bag when a smaller amount is needed.  The bag can be opened and a smaller portion taken out and steamed using another method. For additional information on steaming vegetables, check out Cooking Fresh Vegetables by Purdue University.

Steaming is also a great way to prepare frozen vegetables for use in a salad. One should not thaw frozen vegetables and eat them without cooking.  Blanching prior to freezing stops the aging of vegetables but does not necessarily take care of contaminants that may be found in the field such as salmonella, listeria, and E.coli; contaminants can penetrate the tiny cell walls which are broken when the vegetables are blanched.  All vegetables are packaged as ready-to-cook, not as ready-to-eat. Therefore, vegetables should be cooked to 165 degrees for that reason. In most cases this temperature can be reached by steaming the vegetables to tender-crisp and then letting them sit in a closed container for 5 minutes before serving.

Bottom line is that the best cooking method for frozen (and fresh) vegetables is steaming.  If accomplishing that is by using pre-packaged steam bag vegetables, know that it is safe when package directions are followed.  Besides nutrient retention, steamed vegetables will have better flavor and more desirable textures.

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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