Chocolate – Shelf Life, Storage, and Bloom

Does chocolate go bad? That is a question with a long answer. The type, quality, and storage conditions of chocolate affect its shelf life. Let’s dig in and learn more about chocolate.

Chocolate bar and cocoa
Pieces of chocolate and cocoa powder – Photo: Canva.com

SHELF LIFE

The shelf life of a food product is the period of time during which it will retain acceptable appearance, aroma, flavor and texture. Chocolate comes in various forms—cocoa, unsweetened, dark, semi-sweet, milk, ruby, white. Because each type of chocolate contains varying amounts of chocolate solids, cocoa butter and additives, the shelf life varies. 

Chocolate is derived from the chocolate liquor of cacao beans and is rich in flavanols, a type of flavonoid specifically found in cocoa and chocolate. Flavanols are a natural preservative, preventing chocolate from going bad in the way that other perishable foods spoil. Further, the risk of microbiological growth in chocolate is very low as the water activity (aw), the amount of free water in a product which promotes microbial growth in food, is low and ranges between 0.3 and 0.4.

Chocolate usually comes with a “best buy” date which is a reflection of best quality, not food safety.  While chocolate quality (texture, color, or flavor) may be affected after that date, it is safe to consume unless there are signs of spoilage—off odor, flavor, or appearance (mold).

Here’s a look at the various kinds of chocolate and shelf life of each:

Cocoa powder – Cocoa powder is the processed and ground product of the roasted cacao bean. The powder contains no fat or additives giving it a long or nearly indefinite shelf life. However, it may lose its potency. If properly stored, an unopened package of unsweetened cocoa powder has an indefinite shelf life.  Once opened, cocoa powder will retain its best quality if used within 3 years of opening, provided it is stored properly and packaging is tight. The same is true for “Dutched “or Dutch-process cocoa.

Unsweetened, bitter, or baking chocolate – Chocolates by any of these names are pure solid chocolate liquor containing 50-58 percent cocoa butter with no added sugar or milk. When stored properly, the cocoa butter in baking chocolate is very stable, as it has undergone tempering which stabilizes the cocoa butter. Thus, baking chocolate has a long shelf life but is at best quality for 2 years. 

Dark, semi-sweet and sweet chocolate – Chocolates in this group are dark chocolate and contain varying amounts of cocoa butter with the main difference being the amount of sugar and cocoa butter (15-70%) in each. The label may indicate a percent of cacao; the higher the cacao, the darker and more bitter the chocolate. Like baking chocolate, these chocolates, including chips, have a best-quality shelf life of at least 2 years. The higher the cacao percentage, the longer the chocolate tends to keep due to no- or less- milk and other perishable ingredients.

Milk chocolate – Milk chocolate contains at least 10 percent chocolate liquor plus milk solids and fats and sugar to give a sweet and creamy taste. For best quality, the shelf life is 1 year. The main reason milk chocolate has a shorter shelf life is because milk fat oxidizes and becomes rancid faster than cocoa butter.

Ruby chocolate – Made from ruby cacao beans, ruby chocolate has the most robust berry flavor in its first year but is safe to consume unless it molds. Ruby chocolate is sensitive to light, moisture, and heat causing fading and greying.

White chocolate – White chocolate consists of sugar, milk solids and fat, and 20 percent cocoa butter. Because it does not contain chocolate solids, it is not a true chocolate. Further, it does not contain the natural antioxidants of true chocolate, thereby making it prone to oxidation or rancidity when expose to light and air. As a result, white chocolate has a shelf life of about 6 months for best quality.

STORAGE

The shelf life of chocolate is dependent upon proper storage to preserve its flavor and appearance. These storage tips will insure the longevity of chocolate:

  • Store in an airtight container. Cocoa butter has an affinity to absorb odors and flavors of whatever is nearby. Further, an airtight container blocks out oxygen that causes chocolate to oxidize and lose flavor.
  • Store in a cool, dry environment. To maximize the shelf life of chocolate, store at room temperature between 65°F and 70°F and with a relative humidity of lower than 50-55 percent. Under these conditions, the cocoa butter and cocoa solids stay stable. 
  • Store in a dark location (pantry). Light, like oxygen, contributes to oxidation.
  • Refrain from storing in the refrigerator. Ideally, chocolate should not be refrigerated, as doing so may cause the chocolate to absorb odors from other foods and/or develop a moist surface when brought back to room temperature resulting in bloom. If refrigeration is necessary due to high temperature/high humidity, tightly wrap the chocolate to prevent both scenarios.
  • Freeze chocolate with care. Chocolate can be stored in the freezer for up to a year but does not significantly change the shelf life. Place the chocolate inside a covered, airtight container or a heavy-duty freezer bag to preserve flavor. Freezing chocolate may induce bloom due to temperature shock. Freezing is a good option for chocolate that will be used later for baking or melting.

BLOOM

Chocolate bloom describes chocolate that appears dusted or streaked with grey on the surface. Bloom does not affect either the taste or shelf life of chocolate nor does it render chocolate unsafe. Bloom only affects the aesthetic appeal of chocolate. Two types of bloom occur in chocolate: fat bloom or sugar bloom.

Fat bloom is a result of chocolate exposed to warm temperatures. Heat causes the cocoa butter to soften, separate, and rise to the surface leaving grey/white streaking. When running a finger gently over the surface, fat bloom feels smooth.

Sugar bloom is a result of exposure to humidity or moisture. The sugar particles in the chocolate absorb moisture. When the moisture evaporates, sugar crystals left on the surface leave a blotchy or dusty look and rough feel to the touch. Sugar bloom is most likely to occur with refrigerated chocolate.

Chocolate bloom is not reversible but it can be remedied by melting. By heating the chocolate, the fat or sugar goes back into the chocolate and when re-hardened, is without bloom. Melting works especially well with fat bloom; heating sugar bloom must be done with care as the chocolate may seize or change to a grainy form. Chocolate that has bloomed may also be used in baking.

Temperature shock can also cause bloom. If chocolate is to be frozen, place it in the refrigerator, unwrapped, for 24 hours prior to freezing. Wrap generously and freeze in an airtight container. At the time of use, thaw the wrapped, frozen chocolate in the refrigerator for 24 hours before bringing it to room temperature. Unwrap the chocolate after it reaches room temperature.

Chocolate is a shelf-stable product that does not become inedible or unsafe like other perishable foods.  It may lose potency over time. Proper storage and handling are the keys to the longevity of this delicious treat. 

Sources:

What is the Shelf Life of Chocolate (Products)?, Puratos
The Ultimate Shelf Life Guide, Still Tasty
Storing Chocolate for World Chocolate Day, University of Florida Extension, Sarasota County
Does Chocolate Go Bad?, WebstaurantStore
Death or Health by Chocolate? , University of Wyoming Extension
Does Chocolate Go Bad? , Southern Living

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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Start a Canning and Preserving Notebook/Journal

With gardens and orchards coming to their seasonal ends, food preservation is wrapping up.  Now is the time to make a note of it!  Better yet, start a preserving notebook if you do not already have one to get ready and organized for coming seasons.

Cover of Preserving Notebook – Photo: mrgeiger

A few years ago, I had the brilliant idea to start a notebook of safe canning recipes so that I did not have to look them up or remember where they came from when I was ready to preserve. Since that time, that notebook has become my go-to for all things food preservation and includes recipes, tips, notes, answers to questions, quantities made and used, dates made or put into storage, new equipment to check out, and more–anything that I need to jog my memory.  I only wish that I had started my notebook and journal many years ago; it would have saved me so much time, saved me from making mistakes, kept me organized, prevented food waste, and made sharing and preserving so much easier and more efficient. It would also be a wonderful history of my canning and preserving life.

The notebook, a 3-ring binder, started with recipes copied or printed from reliable sources for all of the usual things—tomatoes, green beans, fruit juice, strawberry jam, salsa, etc. As time has gone on, more recipes have been added, expanding the kinds of things preserved as well as helpful information including updated methods. Another valuable part of my notebook is the annual journal listing the foods preserved, how much, when, recipe, etc. At first, it was just a piece of notebook paper with columns.  Since then I have made a page using Excel on my computer that can be printed each year and penciled in as preservation takes place. 

The best time to start a notebook or journal is NOW while you may still have memories of what you did in the past season and prepare for a new canning or preserving season. Besides making preservation more efficient, it can also be a way to be creative making it your own like a scrapbook. If you are not crafty, there are ready-made and even handcrafted personalized canning and preserving journals available to purchase. Most of these are available on various online sites.

Preserve what you have learned or have done. Keep track of all your canning and preserving projects for future seasons and perhaps posterity! You’ll be glad you did!

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 Food Storage Containers

Vegetables stored in glass storage containers
Stack of food storage containers with food – Photo: Canva.com

Safe storage practices are just as important as knowing how to safely prepare, serve, or preserve food. Most kitchens contain an assortment of containers, wraps, and bags for storing food either short- or long term. These items may be glass, plastic, silicone or metal. How do we know if a container is appropriate and safe for storing our foods?

To begin, all food products should be stored in food-grade containers. Food-grade is a regulatory term used to specify materials and products that are suitable and safe to come into contact with food and beverages at any point in the field-to-consumer chain. To be certified as a food-grade, food-safe material, the material undergoes extensive testing to insure that the material does not affect the color, odor, taste, or safety of the food or leach substances into the food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the regulatory agency responsible for determining the safety of materials for food use. It is important to note that a food-grade material is only considered food-safe if it is utilized per its intended use.

Safe Food-Grade Container Options

Glass, stainless steel, and ceramic – These materials are non-reactive and non-toxic. They are easily sanitized and offer the most longevity. These materials are sturdy and heat-tolerant and do not release chemicals or toxins into food. Further, they are inert and do not react with natural chemicals or dyes found in food. Food and beverages stored in these containers stay fresh longer. Glass and ceramic can be microwaved; all three can be heated in the oven and placed into the dishwasher. These materials are eco-friendly; glass is especially so being 100% recyclable. Some cons of these materials include weight, breakability (glass and ceramic), cost, bulk, and lack of portability. 

Plastic – There are many reasons to use plastics: inexpensive, lightweight, hard to break, stackable, and readily available. While there are many plastic choices, one must choose wisely. Experts caution us against using plastics in general, and in particular older plastics, or re-using one-time-use plastics from purchased foods. Although plastic containers are convenient, many may contain BPA (Bisphenol A), a chemical that blocks and interferes with hormones leading to health issues. BPA is a big concern in older plastics or plastics that are scratched or heated in the microwave.

Any plastic used should be microwave safe, dishwasher safe, and BPA-free. Plastic products are typically labeled with a number surrounded by the recycling symbol. These numbers and labels identify both the type of resin used to make the plastic and the product’s recyclability. Associated with the different types of resin are potential health risks. The Smart Plastics Guide provided by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) summarizes seven different types of commonly used plastics, product examples, recyclability, and potential health risks.

Safe plastic numbers include 2, 4, and 5. These containers can store food without any toxic chemical infiltration and include the HDPE, LDPE, and PP materials. Containers with the number 7 are made of polycarbonate (the category that includes BPA), so should not be used with food. Plastics bearing numbers 1, 3, and 6 are single-use-only containers or bottles.

So what about those easy-to-pick-up plastic containers available at retailers or our long-held Tupperware®? Check to make sure they are labeled with one of the safe plastic numbers, BPA-free, and dishwasher and microwave safe. According to its website, Tupperware® items sold in the US and Canada have been BPA-free since March 2010; containers prior to 2010 should be disposed of as should any other older containers that do not display numbers 2, 4, or 5, contain BPA, and are not dishwasher and microwave safe.  

Since plastic does not have the longevity of glass or stainless steel, food safety experts encourage swapping out plastic containers frequently and especially if there is any discoloration, odor, or a change in taste when using the container. When plastic containers become scratched, stained, or damaged, they begin to pose a food safety risk by harboring bacteria and other harmful microorganisms that can contaminate food.

Silicone – Per the FDA, food grade silicone is safe and will not react with other materials or release hazardous compounds or fumes when heated. Food-grade silicone is safe to store food, put in the microwave, freezer, oven, and dishwasher without hardening, cracking, peeling, or becoming brittle as it is resistant to extreme temperatures. It is made without petroleum-based chemicals, BPA, BPS, PVC, latex, lead, phthalates, or fillers. It will not leak, break down, or degrade over time.  Silicone containers are available in many forms, lightweight, easy to transport, and considered a non-hazardous waste.

Cautions with silicone storage containers include limited studies on the long-term health effects of using silicone products as they are fairly new to the market. And while silicone is not a hazardous waste, it can only be recycled at special recycling centers.

All containers should provide a secure, air-tight seal.

As we strive to provide fresh, flavorful, and safe food for our families, it is important to store our food properly. Make choosing an appropriate food-grade storage container a priority to keep your food safe and fresh in the pantry, freezer, or refrigerator.

Sources:

Marlene Geiger

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

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Alert For Consumers Using Digital Payment Apps

Digital payment apps, also called nonbank or peer-to-peer (P2P) apps, such as Venmo, PayPal, Cash App, and many others, are being used widely by U.S. consumers at an ever-increasing rate. With a few clicks on a computer or mobile device, the apps allow payment from a linked account to another party without writing a check, handing over cash, or giving a credit card number. Money can also be received and stored inside the app. The speed, simplicity, and convenience of transactions with payment apps have made these everyday tools for millions of Americans. However, these apps also come with some consumer risks.

hand using mobile phone with online transaction application
Person using mobile device – Photo: Canva.com

In June, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued an advisory to consumers regarding using payment app accounts. The advisory headlines read: Your money is at greater risk when you hold it in a payment app instead of moving it to an account with deposit insurance. Money stored in nonbank payment apps is likely not protected by federal deposit insurance groups such as a FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation–a government agency that protects against loss on deposits of up to $250,000 per account if an insured bank fails) bank or NCUA (National Credit Union Administration–a federal government agency that is the equivalent of FDIC for credit unions) credit union, meaning there is no protection if the app company fails.

According to the CFPB, money held in digital accounts is not automatically swept into the user’s linked account. Instead, the funds are held in the app company’s account, which may or may not be an insured financial institution, OR funds may be invested by the payment app company for its own financial gain. Both situations should raise questions for app users should the app company, the financial holding institution, or the investment organization fail.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s consumer advisory article provides more information on what may be missing in the user agreements in case of failure.

To eliminate worry, the CFPB recommends that app users set a reminder to regularly transfer their P2P funds into a linked FDIC-insured bank account or NCUA-insured credit union account. 

Consumer Reports (CR) also evaluated four P2P payment apps and identified potential consumer concerns. The evaluation examined fund protection and security practices. Fund protection looked at ways consumers can lose money using the apps, with the most common being through user-error authorized transactions and unauthorized (fraud or scam) transactions. In either case, it is not common practice for P2P apps to reimburse users or intervene for fraudulent use. CR offers an imperfect solution for loss due to error or fraud: “Connect your P2P service to a credit card instead of your bank account. In this way, your payments are as protected as they would be with any credit card transaction. Credit cards are subject to the Electronic Fund Transfers rule, which requires that users be held liable for no more than $50 in the event of fraud or a payment made in error.” The downside of linking to a credit card is that some apps do not allow payment this way, and those that do allow it require a 3 percent fee. Also, look for payment protection for non-personal transactions. Experian also offers tips for protecting P2P payments.

Like CFPB, CR found that most payment app companies provide little information to consumers regarding protection for stored funds or how users may be able to obtain FDIC coverage through some apps by various means. And, like CFPB, CR confirms that many P2P users should be concerned.   

Digital payment apps can be a secure, fast, and easy way to send and receive payments, but consumers should be aware of the risks and take appropriate precautions.

Resources:

Blog reviewed by Barb Wollan, Human Science Specialist, Family Wellbeing, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

 

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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Welcome Jennie Savits to AnswerLine!

AnswerLine is pleased to welcome Jennie Savits as our newest team member. Jennie joined AnswerLine on June 1 and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the team. Further, she is no stranger to Iowa State University or Extension and Outreach.  

Jennie holds BS/MS degrees in Food Science from Iowa State University and completed 11 years with the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at Iowa State University. While with the Institute, Jennie held various roles in the lab and in the field. She worked on extension and outreach activities and research projects to support the local grape and wine industry in Iowa and throughout the Midwest. Jennie also has experience with the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University as a lecturer, where she taught food science laboratory courses and oversaw laboratory renovations.

Jennie’s interest in food science stemmed from participation in the 4H and FFA organizations. Growing up in rural Boone County, she was a member of the Harrison Happy Hustlers 4-H club and the Boone A&M FFA Chapter. Jennie enjoyed completing 4H projects in the areas of food and nutrition, horticulture, and livestock. Food science became a key area of interest after she competed on a team that won the inaugural Iowa FFA Food Science Career Development Event (CDE). Their team went on to place 2nd nationally and directed Jennie’s career path toward food science.

Jennie says that she really enjoys the opportunity to help people find answers and solve problems, especially on topics related to food safety and food preservation. Jennie has developed strong relationships within the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach organization and looks forward to helping disseminate research based information to those we serve.

Savits family – Photo: jsavits

Jennie lives with her husband, Paul, and their 5 children on a farm near Ogden. She enjoys spending time with family, helping out around the farm, and gardening.

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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Steam Juicing Grapes and Other Fruits

America’s favorite juice and jelly grape, the Concord, is ripe now. Extracting a clear juice from grapes or any fruit for a jelly or juice can be a daunting task. A steam juicer makes juicing fruit easy and results in a clear juice ready for making jelly or saving the juice. The prep work is minimal; steam does all the work.

Three-piece steam juicer – Photo: mrgeiger

Steam juicers are a four-part stacked cooking unit–a water reservoir bottom pan, a middle collection pan with a funnel opening in the center, a steam basket pan, and a lid. Water is placed in the bottom pan and boiled gently. As it boils, steam funnels up through the hole in the middle pan and heats the fruit in the steam basket pan. The lid prevents the steam from escaping. As the fruit heats, the fruit releases its juice which drips down through the holes in the steam basket and collects in the middle pan. As the collection pan fills, the juice begins to run out of the unit through a silicon tube on the front of the middle collection pan into a heatproof vessel placed below the unit. The juice is clear, free of pulp, and is ready to drink, gel, can, or freeze after it comes out of the steamer. So easy!

The steamer saves so much time and effort. For a step-by-step ‘how to’, see Steam Juicing: Extracting the Juice, by UCCE Master Food Preservers of El Dorado County, CA. There is no chance of over steaming the fruit; one just needs to be mindful of keeping sufficient water in the lower pot so that it doesn’t boil dry.  Extraction is complete when the fruit has completely collapsed; it is a good idea to let the collapsed fruit sit for awhile after steaming as juice will continue to be released. If there is a need to move on with another batch, the collapsed fruit can be placed in a colander on the counter and allowed to drain while steaming goes on with additional batches.

While many internet sites suggest that the juice can be drained right into hot sterilized canning jars, capped, and left to cool on the counter, this is not a safe practice. To be shelf safe, fruit juices need to be processed in a hot water bath. (See directions at National Center for Home Food Preservation.) Jelly can be made directly from the extracted juice. The juice may also be frozen for future use. Sugar may be added prior to canning or freezing, if desired.

Just about any type of fruit works with a steam juicer; cherries, plums, apricots, blueberries, cranberries, apples, and pears are just some suggestions. Fruits like apples or pears should be cut in half before steaming while all small fruits can be left whole. Steam juicers can also be used to extract juice from vegetables. When not being used for juicing, the bottom pan makes a great cooking vessel and when combined with the steam basket, it becomes a great steamer for steaming vegetables and other food items or steam blanching vegetables before freezing.

Some fruit and vegetable juices do well to sit for a period before using or preserving to allow any sediment to settle. Grapes, in particular, are prone to tartrate crystal formation. To learn more about preventing tartrate crystals, see Preventing Crystals in Grape Jelly, Jam, Syrup, and Juice, blogs.extension.iastate.edu/answerline/?p=10143.

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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Preventing Crystals in Grape Jelly, Jam, Syrup, and Juice

jars of grape jelly and grapes
Fresh grapes surround grape jelly.

The last things that anyone wants to find in homemade grape jelly or syrup are granular or crunchy bits or a hard crystal formation at the bottom of a jar of juice or intermingled in jelly. After the effort of foraging wild grapes or picking domestic grapes, juicing the grapes, straining the juice, and making and processing juice, syrup, or jelly/jam, these finds are discouraging. The hard formation or crunch bits are crystals—crystals formed from tartrate acid, sugar, or evaporation. 

What Are Tartrate Crystals?

Tartrate crystal formed at the bottom of grape juice.  Photo by M Geiger.
Tartrate crystal formed at the bottom of grape juice. Photo by M Geiger.

Grapes differ from many other fruits in that they contain tartaric acid, a unique, natural compound. When juice is extracted from grapes and cooled, the tartaric acid reacts with potassium, the mineral of highest concentration in most grape juices, to form harmless potassium bitartrate crystals, also known as tartrate crystals or tartrates. While the crystals pose no food safety risk, they are certainly unwanted when preparing grape juice, syrup, jams, jellies, and even wine. Tartrates in wine are known as wine diamonds and may appear as salt crystals, glass shards, or fine dust in a bottle or glass of wine—visual defects that the wine industry works hard to prevent. Tartaric acid is used in the making of cream of tartar.

Preventing Tartrate Crystals

Regardless of the grape variety or color, preventing tartrates is easy to solve with time and filtering materials. 

Begin by extracting the juice from the grapes by traditional methods or a steam canner. Let the freshly extracted juice sit undisturbed overnight or for 24 hours in the refrigerator. Oregon State University Extension suggests two to five days. My personal experience is that longer is better if one has the time and space, as crystals have formed in my juices after sitting overnight and even after 24 hours. When the juice is warm, the tartaric acid is suspended; as the juice cools, the tartaric acid binds with the potassium to form solid crystals that sink to the bottom of the container along with any other sediment.

Remove the juice from the refrigerator, being careful not to disturb the juice. Clarify the juice by pouring the juice into a clean container through cheesecloth, a jelly bag, or a fine strainer before beginning any further preparation. As you near the bottom of the container, avoid pouring the sediment and crystals into the container. The sediment and crystals should be discarded. It is also an option to filter the juice a second time, if desired. 

Free of tartrates and sediment, the juice is ready to be used for jelly, syrup, or juice. Recipes for jellysyrup, and juice can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation. The juice can also be frozen to be used later for making jelly or enjoying as juice.

What are Sugar Crystals?

Sugar is made up of tiny sucrose crystals which prefer to remain in their dry, undisturbed crystalline state. Even when sugar is dissolved in liquid, as when making jams and jellies, the sugar molecules like to congregate into groups or crystals. All they need to start the process is a “seed,” such as a lone undissolved sugar crystal as a nucleus to draw other sugar molecules towards it. Sugar crystals are not unique to grape sweet spreads. Regardless of the fruit, the sugar must be completely dissolved with no traces of crystals to provide a “seed” when making sweet spreads or syrups.

Preventing Sugar Crystals

Crystals in sweet spreads may be caused by excessive sugar, undissolved sugar sticking to the sides of the kettle, or a mixture cooked too slowly, too long, or too little. To prevent crystals from forming:

  • Follow the recipe exactly. Do not add or decrease the sugar or double the recipe.
  • Wipe the side of the pan free of crystals with a damp cloth before filling the jars. This will prevent a seed point from forming.
  • Cook with a rapid boil. Remove from heat immediately when the jellying point is reached.
  • Cook until the sugar has completely dissolved and mixed with the fruit juice.

Learn additional tips to prevent crystals from this Penn State Extension video. Sweet spreads exhibiting sugar crystals are safe to eat.

Evaporation Crystals

Crystals that form at the top of a jar of jelly or sweet spread that has been opened and allowed to stand are caused by evaporation of liquid. Over time, these crystals may also work their way down through the spread. This is usually due to long-term refrigeration or a poorly capped jar kept in the refrigerator. Fruit spreads exhibiting evaporation crystals are safe to eat. White, fluffy mold on the surface of a sweet spread is a sign of spoilage and should be discarded.

Sweet spreads that have crystallized due to evaporation can sometimes be saved with a gentle rewarming to melt the crystals, as one might reheat honey that has crystallized. Place the jar in a pan of hot water or carefully microwave until the crystals melt. Stir as needed. If melting is successful, a fresh jar should be used to prevent recrystallization from the crystals that may remain on the walls of the jar. Adding a small amount of lemon juice or corn syrup may also fix it. In all cases, it is usually a temporary fix as the product may crystallize again if not used in a timely manner. A tight-fitting lid is the best prevention.

With just a little patience and careful preparation, crystals of all types can be prevented in grape products.

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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It’s Salsa Time!

Tomatoes – peppers – onions – spices! GO! It’s time to make salsa! 

jars of home canned salsa
Jars of various kinds of salsa.

Salsa is a great candidate for fresh, frozen, or canned preparations. Any combination of ingredients may be used for fresh or frozen salsa without concern for foodborne illness. Canned salsas, on the other hand, must be made with care to prevent botulism poisoning. Most salsa recipes are a mixture of low-acid foods like onions and peppers and acid foods like tomatoes or fruit. Salsa can only be safely canned in a boiling water bath IF the recipe meets the acidity levels needed to prevent the growth of botulism bacteria.

The following caution about using original salsa recipes is emphasized in the Pacific Northwestern Extension publication, Salsa Recipes for Canning: Because salsas are a mixture of acid and low-acid ingredients, they are an example of an acidified food appropriate for boiling water canning if–and only if–the level of acidity is adequate to prevent the production of the botulism toxin. If the mixture has less acidity, it needs to be treated as a low-acid food, which requires additional laboratory testing to develop the processing recommendations for the elimination of botulism risk. To avoid this serious foodborne illness, follow the directions carefully of tested recipes. Never can salsas that do not follow a tested recipe.

The best way to ensure a safe home-canned salsa is to carefully follow a tested recipe. Below are a few sources for finding a safe canning recipe that suits your taste. A popular recipe is Choice Salsa from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, featuring more flavor from peppers and onions. Links to other recipe sources include:

Corn and black beans are ingredients used in some commercially prepared salsas; currently, there are no research-based recipes for home canned salsas using these ingredients. Add these ingredients and others at the time of use. Tomato-Based Salsas by the University of Minnesota Extension has additional excellent tips for making salsa safely.

While it is important to follow a research-tested recipe, some substitutions or changes can safely be made to tested salsa recipes. Safe substitutions or changes include:

  • Change tomato variety or color. Any color or variety of tomato can be used. Paste tomatoes such as Roma have firmer flesh and produce thicker salsa than slicing tomatoes. Seeds or juice should not be removed unless the recipe specifies such action. Tomato quantity should not change.
  • Substitute sweet peppers for hot peppers, and vice versa, measure for measure when preparing home-canned salsa using a tested recipe. The same is true for onions, as red, white, and yellow onions are interchangeable, measure for measure.
  • Reduce or eliminate the sugar or salt in any tested salsa recipe.
  • Reduce the amount of low-acid ingredients such as onion, celery, or green peppers in a tested salsa recipe. Do not substitute corn, black beans, or any other low-acid ingredients for an ingredient being reduced.
  • Substitute tomatillos for tomatoes as long as the total amount remains the same.
  • Change types and amounts of dried spices and herbs, but do not add extra fresh herbs to recipes.
  • Replace 5% acidity vinegar with bottled lemon or lime juice but not vice versa.

For safety, you may not:

  • Add ingredients such as corn or black beans to any salsa recipe, or substitute corn or black beans for other ingredients such as peppers or onions.
  • Reduce the type or amount of acid, such as lemon or lime juice, or vinegar, in a tested recipe. If it tastes too tart, add a bit of sugar.
  • Increase the amount of fresh herbs or garlic in a tested salsa recipe. Fresh herbs may be added to the salsa just before serving.
  • Do not thicken salsa with any thickening agent. If salsa from a tested recipe is thinner than you prefer, strain the salsa before serving or using it as an ingredient.

Freezing is the only safe long-term option for preserving untested or original salsa recipes. A salsa that has been frozen may be watery when thawed. The excess juice may be drained off or thickened with a starch or tomato paste just before serving. Frozen salsa containers should be opened upon removal from the freezer to create an aerobic (with oxygen) environment to deter the potential growth of Clostridium botulinum.  Fresh salsas may be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Salsa may only be water-bath canned in pint jars; there are no tested recipes for quarts or for pressure canning.

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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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Conditioning Dried Foods

The dictionary defines ‘conditioning’ as a means to change a behavior or strengthen muscles.  In the realm of food preservation safety, ‘conditioning’ is the process used to equalize moisture left in food after dehydrating to decrease the chance of spoilage or mold growth.  While conditioning could be used for all dried foods (herbs, vegetables, and fruits), conditioning is most important for fruit including tomatoes.

Dehydrated foods in jars – Photo: Canva.com

The moisture content of home dried fruit should be about 20 percent1 or less when removed from the dehydrator or oven.  However, due to the size of the pieces, location in the dryer, or uneven drying, the remaining moisture may not be evenly distributed among the pieces. Even drying can be hard to obtain in a home dehydrator and naturally some pieces will likely have more than a 20% moisture. Because there is no sure way to test for moisture at home, conditioning becomes necessary and is the last step before final storage.  Conditioning is not necessary if the fruit is dried for immediate snacking rather than storage; dried fruit for snacking should be stored in the fridge and eat within 3-4 days.

Conditioning is easily done following these steps:

  1. Cool foods on trays and test for dryness. Dried fruits should be leathery and pliable when cool. Squeeze a handful of the fruit. If no moisture is left on the hand and pieces spring apart when released, they are dry.2
  2. Place the food into non-porous, food grade containers (glass or clear plastic jars work great) filling about two-thirds full.  Seal the container with a lid.
  3. Shake or stir the contents daily for 10-14 days.  During this time, the drier pieces will absorb the excess moisture of the less dried pieces.
  4. Check for condensation on the lid or sides of the container or food pieces sticking together.  Also, look for signs of spoilage.  If condensation is noted, return the food to the dryer for additional drying time followed by another conditioning. If there is any sign of mold, discard the product.

If drying the same food in successive batches, freshly dried fruit may be added to a conditioning batch within the first five days with conditioning time lengthened to accommodate the additional food.3 Conditioning is also recommended for fruit leathers.

What about conditioning vegetables and herbs? It is easier to tell when vegetables and herbs are thoroughly dry. Dried vegetables should be hard and brittle. For more information on individual vegetables, check out Drying Vegetables – 9.308 to help determine dryness. Herbs are dry when they are crisp and crumbly. Conditioning of vegetables and herbs is an option to reduce concern.

Once fruit is conditioned, it is ready for packaging in glass jars, food-grade plastic containers or plastic food-storage bags.  The packaging used should provide an airtight seal.  An oxygen or moisture absorber may be added but is not necessary.  Packaging in smaller amounts is recommended as once the package is opened, quality begins to deteriorate; the food may lose flavor or absorb moisture and odors from the air.  Storing in a cool, dry, dark location is best. The same packaging recommendations apply to vegetables and herbs.

So while the dictionary doesn’t define the conditioning of dried foods, perhaps a third definition should be added. Conditioning is an essential step in the safety of dried foods, particularly fruits and tomatoes.

Sources:

Marlene Geiger

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

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Calcium Chloride for Crispness

Calcium Chloride is a firming agent that can be used in quick-processed pickles for crispness. It works by firming the natural pectin of the vegetable. It should not be confused with table salt, which is sodium chloride.

Calcium chloride products – Photo: mrgeiger

Currently, calcium chloride is available to consumers as a granular product under the labels of Ball Pickle Crisp® and Mrs. Wages Xtra Crunch®. Regardless of the label, both are pure, certified food-grade calcium chloride. (Non-food-grade calcium chloride should not be used for home canning.) Calcium chloride is a safe, non-toxic food additive that has been tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Calcium chloride may be used in place of food-grade lime (calcium hydroxide) to firm pickles. However, it does so with less fuss and offers the same great taste and crispness. Firming with lime is traditionally done by soaking fresh cucumbers in a lime-water solution before pickling them; during the soaking, the calcium hydroxide binds with the pectin in the cucumber making it stronger. Excess lime absorbed by the cucumbers must be removed by additional rinsing to make pickles safe; pickling lime raises the pH (more alkaline) and has been linked to botulism. Because calcium chloride does not have the hydroxide component of lime, it does not change the pH (acidity) of pickled food or pose a food safety risk. No soaking and rinsing is involved when calcium chloride is used. Rather, a small amount of the calcium chloride granules is added to each jar of pickles before sealing, following the manufacturer’s directions. (Calcium chloride should not be added to a vat during brining or fermentation of pickles.) 

Calcium chloride will not replace the crispness that is lost from fresh produce. That crispness comes from the vegetable’s natural pectin, so starting with fresh-picked, top-quality produce is best.

There are other uses for calcium chloride beyond pickle crispness. It is used by brewers, cheese- and wine-makers and has been found to improve the texture of canned apple slices, pears, and peaches. Consumers report using it when canning whole tomatoes to hold the tomatoes together. Calcium chloride may impart a bit of a salty taste but adds no sodium. 

Calcium Chloride products have an indefinite shelf life but are sensitive to moisture and will clump and become hard when exposed to humidity, so it is important to keep the granules as dry as possible; store the products tightly sealed in a cool, dry location.

Sources:

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

Marlene Geiger

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

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