"The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me?" ~ Ayn Rand, "The Fountainhead"

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Food Preservation for Self-Reliance - Bonus article

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the July, 2012 issue of the Owl Creek Gazette, placed here with their permission.  For more great articles you can read the latest and all archived monthly editions of the Owl Creek Gazette online!

Food Preservation for Self-Reliance – Dehydrating and Freezing
Bonus article
By Roxanne Bare, owner of Terra Mater

As promised, albeit a month late, here is the bonus article for the series on food preservation.  Even with five articles there are two more methods of preserving foods that I have not been able to squeeze in.  This article will discuss dehydrating and freezing foods. 
Throughout the world, primitive civilizations dehydrated plants, berries, roots, meat and fish by putting them in the sun to dry.   The Phoenicians dried fish in open air, the Chinese dried tea leaves, and the ancient Egyptians dried grains which were found in tombs by archeologists.  Native American tribes preserved fruits, vegetables, and meats for winter months and showed the early settlers how to do so.  By 1795, the French had developed the first dehydrator designed to regulate drying conditions.
While drying is easy and the food takes up less space, it will never replace canning and freezing because these methods retain the taste, appearance and nutritive value better than dehydration.  However, dehydrated foods are an efficient and healthy choice to add variety to meals and snacks.
There are a few different methods of drying foods that include sun drying, oven drying, and a mechanical dehydrator.  In Illinois, conditions are rarely favorable for sun drying.   Temperatures need to be high with low humidity.  In our fair state, when temperatures are about 95° the humidity is usually at 86% or higher, therefore, not good for sun drying.   Electric dehydrators are easy to obtain and are very efficient and easy to use.
Before placing in a dehydrator, most fruits and vegetables need to be pretreated to stop enzyme action that causes the breakdown of cellular tissue in the food.  Depending on the food, this may be steam blanching, treating with lemon juice or some other acid, or sulfuring.  Some fruits and vegetables are not very friendly to dehydrating because they have such high moisture content that by the time you dry that out, there is really nothing left.  Lettuce, cucumbers and melons come to mind.
Herbs are easily dried without pretreatment.  I do dry a lot of my own herbs but I can usually do them by air drying them in a well ventilated area.  The trick is waiting for low humidity days. 
A favorite in our house is making dried meat, also known as jerky.  For this I always use an electric dehydrator so I am assured of sufficient heat and even air flow to keep a safe food product.
An excellent source of further information on drying foods is available at http://www.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/html_pubs/DRYING/dryfood.html.  This is the online version of the same circular I have on my food preservation resource shelf at home. 
The final method of food preservation that I wish to discuss is freezing foods.  The best thing about freezing food is that it is the method that best preserves the nutritional content of fresh foods.  Other benefits are the ability to do small amounts, it generally is less time consuming and there is no need for special equipment.  On the down side, a major power outage can leave you with a bunch of thawed food that must either be eaten promptly or thrown away. 

Freezing does not kill microorganisms that can cause food borne illness but it will stop them from growing or multiplying.  So as long as your food was clean and safe before placing in the freezer, there is little danger of a problem upon thawing and immediate use.
Vegetables generally need to be pre-treated by water or steam blanching before freezing.  This requires a few minutes in a steamer basket over boiling water or a few minutes covered with boiling water, then quick chilling in cold water.  Blanching will preserve color, flavor and nutritive value.  After the food is chilled you just strain off the excess water and put the food into your bags or containers, close them up and place in the freezer.   For a step by step photo essay of freezing broccoli from my garden you can visit my personal blog at http://musingsbyroxie.blogspot.com/2012/06/freezing-broccoli.html
Fruits are generally packed in a syrup pack, a sugar pack or an unsweetened pack.  Most fruit has better texture and flavor when packed with at least a light syrup.   I have found that berries are an excellent fruit to freeze without any sugar though.  For those, I place them in a single layer on a waxed paper covered cookie sheet.  Let freeze solid then pack them into bags.  Many fruits will darken during freezing especially if not packed in liquid.  To help reduce this you may wish to ad ascorbic acid to the fruit during preparation.  Most fruits will freeze well but the texture will be softer than a fresh product. 
It is important to discuss food safety regarding frozen foods.  When thawing foods to cook, one should not leave the package out on the counter to thaw.  Foods should be thawed in the refrigerator.   If you are planning to use fruits they can be kept cold until serving.   Vegetables and meats also need to be kept cold until cooking.   Sometimes you can even keep the foods frozen until putting them directly into the pan for cooking.  Generally you will want to have meats thawed out before cooking to assure even heating and thorough cooking. 
In the case of a power outage or a broken freezer, you may find yourself with accidentally thawed foods.  Two factors determine what happens now: time and temperature.  How warm did the food get and how long was it in the temperature danger zone. If the food still contains ice crystals, it is usually safe for cooking or refreezing.  Keep in mind that refreezing will probably lose some quality of the food and that the storage time should be limited.  If there are no ice crystals in the food but the temperature stayed below 40°F, you should plan to cook the food as you would if you had never frozen it.  If the temperature of the food went above 40°F for even a couple of hours, you should discard the food.  Some bacteria may double in numbers every 15 to 20 minutes in warmer temperatures.
An excellent booklet on freezing foods can be found at http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/foods/fn403.pdf.  This booklet covers all the basics of preparing foods for the freezer and food safety guidelines.
This wraps up my series of articles on food preservation.  Gardens are in full production right now so happy harvest and preserving!

Food Preservation, Part 5, Pickles and Fermenting

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the May, 2012 issue of the Owl Creek Gazette, placed here with their permission.  For more great articles you can read the latest and all archived monthly editions of the Owl Creek Gazette online!

Food Preservation for Self-Reliance - Pickles/Fermenting 
By Roxanne Bare, Owner of Terra Mater
 After a couple weeks of near -summer weather and then a cooling down to more normal weather, my early spring garden is doing well.  An abundance of asparagus, lettuce, radishes and spinach is to be had right now.  Various herbs are growing like weeds (some of them are weeds...more about that another day) and soon warm weather crops will be blooming and producing.

So far in this five part series, we have covered the ‘whys ‘and ‘hows’ of various food preservation methods.  This part we will look at another all-time favorite method of preserving food: Pickling and fermenting. Probably the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word pickling, is the thought of crispy dill pickles or yummy sweet relish for your grilled hot dogs there is so much more that can be preserved in this way though.

There are four general classes of pickled products: 1) Brined or fermented pickles, 2) fresh pack or quick process pickles, 3) fruit pickles, and 4) relishes.

Brined or fermented pickles go through a curing process in a salt and water solution (brine) for one or more weeks. Curing changes the color, flavor, and texture of the product. If the product is fermented, lactic acid is produced that helps preserve the product. If the product is not fermented, acid in the form of vinegar is added later to preserve the food. Sauerkraut falls into this category. It is a fermented product made by brining cabbage but acid is not added to it.

Quick process pickles are covered with boiling hot vinegar, spices and seasonings. Sometimes they may be brined for some hours and then drained, before being covered with the pickling solution. They are easy to prepare and often have a tart flavor. Quick process pickles will have a better flavor if allowed to stand for several weeks after they are sealed in jars. 

Fruit pickles are prepared from whole or sliced fruits and simmered in a syrup made with vinegar or lemon juice. Relishes are chopped fruits and vegetables cooked in a spicy vinegar solution. 

The level of acidity in pickled products is as important for food safety as it is for texture and flavor.  Therefore, you want to make sure to follow recipes accurately so you do not upset the proper balance.  After making the recipe, pickled products are normally canned in a hot water bath canner. Pressure canning is not necessary for pickles. Some recipes call for you to just store the product in the refrigerator.These are not meant for long-term storage. 

Select tender vegetables and firm fruit when choosing produce for pickling. If making cucumber pickles, it is best to use varieties that are meant for pickling rather than slicing cucumbers. For the best quality of product, begin the recipe within 24 hours of picking the produce from the garden .Wash produce well and remove a thin slice off the blossom end of vegetables. There is an enzyme in the blossom end that will cause a soft product. 

Common ingredients in pickling recipes are salt, vinegar, sugar, spices, water and some older recipes may call for firming agents like lime or alum. Use salt especially processed for canning or pickling. Regular table salt has anti-caking additives or iodine added that affect the recipe unfavorably. Vinegar can be white or cider vinegar. Just make sure the label says that it is 5-percent acidity. If you use an older recipe that calls for alum or lime, be sure to follow the directions carefully, especially with lime. The lime must be food-grade and must be completely rinsed out of the pickles after the allotted sitting time.There are also some old recipes that use grape leaves during the fermenting process. Grape leaves contain a substance that inhibit the enzyme the causes softening.  However, by removing the blossom end from the vegetable, you don’t need to add the grape leaves unless you just really want to.

The USDA Home Guide to Canning has a section dedicated to preparing and canning pickled products.  This can be found online at http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html.  Besides a lot of recipes, you should also find a FAQ section that answers why things might go wrong with texture and quality of pickled products. The Ball Co. canning guide also has a nice selection of pickle recipes.

Confession time! I make a mean 14 day sweet pickle but can’t make a decent dill pickle.The dill pickles are always too soft and unappetizing. I have done all the things according to books and recipes but just don’t have success with dill pickles. I know others have much better luck than I do with dill pickles. It’s ok though....sweet pickles are delicious and I can buy a jar of dill pickles when I need to.

14 Day Sweet Pickle Recipe
Into a clean stone jar put 2 gallons of cucumbers, washed and sliced. Regardless of size, cucumbers must be sliced for this recipe. Dissolve 2 cups of salt in one gallon of boiling water and pour while hot over the sliced pickles. Cover and weigh down pickles and let stand for one week. I use a large plate and something for weight to keep the pickles submerged. Each day skim off any scum that may develop. On the eighth day, drain and pour 1 gallon of fresh boiling water over pickles and let stand 24 hours. On the ninth day, drain and pour 1 gallon of boiling water with 1 T. of powdered alum over the pickles. Let stand 24 hours. On the tenth day, drain and pour 1 gallon boiling water over pickles again. Let stand 24 hours then drain again. On the eleventh day combine 5 pints boiling vinegar with 6 cups sugar, 5 tsp celery seed, 3 T. broken cinnamon stick. Pour this over the pickles. Drain off into a pot the next three days, adding one more cup of sugar each day, bring to a boil and pour back onto the pickles. On the third day, (day 14), after draining pickling liquid into a pot, pack the pickles into canning jars within ½” of top. Cover with the hot pickling liquid. Place lid and screw band firmly tight. Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Food Preservation part 4

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the April, 2012 issue of the Owl Creek Gazette, placed here with their permission.  For more great articles you can read the latest and all archived monthly editions of the Owl Creek Gazette online!

Food Preservation for Self-Reliance – Jams and Jellies
Part 4 of a 5 part series
By Roxanne Bare, owner of Terra Mater

Last month, when I was writing my article, I suggested that Spring was just around the corner. Who would have thought that we would have had a couple of weeks of summer coming at us in March?  Makes me wonder what the real summer months are going to bring weather-wise and how it will affect our gardening and food preservation goals.
To summarize what we have covered so far:  Why should you consider preserving at least some of your own food, what guidelines should you follow to keep your food safe from organisms that cause food borne illness, and last month was a brief discussion of canning methods and the proper uses of each.  This month I will discuss making jellied fruit products. 
Jelly, jam, preserves, marmalade and conserves are all basically the same.  All are fruit products that have been thickened, or gelled.    Preserves, conserves and marmalades have bits of fruit in them and are thickened to various degrees while a jelly is gelled fruit juice that has all bits of fruit strained out.  Most of the recipes for gelled fruit products are cooked but there are a few that are made without cooking.  These are usually made in smaller batches and stored in the refrigerator or frozen after the gel has set.
The ingredients in jellied food products are pretty simple.  Prepared fruit or fruit juice, sugar, and pectin are in almost every recipe.  Other ingredients often included are butter, water, spices and lemon juice.   The sugar used is white cane sugar.  Some people report that sugar made from beet sugar often leads to failure of the jelly to set.  Be sure to check the label of your sugar to see that you have purchased cane sugar.  Many times sugar beets are used to make the less expensive sugar sold in stores.  If it just says “sugar” chances are it is from beets.  Cane sugar caramelizes when cooked but beet sugar will often just burn.  
Using fruit at the peak of ripeness is needed.  Under ripe fruit and over ripe fruit will both affect the final outcome of the gel process.  Pectin is a substance that causes fruit juice to gel.  Some kinds of fruits are higher in pectin content, such as apples and citrus fruits.  Other fruits do not have much pectin so the addition of pectin is necessary to get a gelled product.   
Following directions in a recipe is very important.  Getting jelly just right is a practice of chemistry in the kitchen.  The amount of sugar, the temperature and time held at that temperature, the ripeness of fruit and the addition of pectin all need to be in proper balance to get a finished product that is perfect.   Recipes abound for all sorts of jellied fruit products.  The USDA Home Guide to Canning has a section dedicated to preparing and canning jams and jellies.  This can be found online at http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/usda/GUIDE%207%20Home%20Can.pdf.  There are also recipes to be found at www.kraftbrands.com/surejell/.  Sure-Jell is a brand name of fruit pectin.  To make life even easier, you can find complete directions and recipes on the paper inserts that come with your purchased pectin.  However, if you wish to attempt to make jelly without purchased pectin, you will need to look for recipes that do not contain it.  It is possible to make pectin at home and some fruits have enough pectin to create their own gel.  I like to save time though and not take a chance on having a failed jelly so I use purchased pectin.  As a side note, I have found that if you DO have a jam that doesn’t set as much as you would like, it makes a fantastic ice cream topping!
If you are not using a recipe that calls for refrigerating or freezing your finished product, you will need to pour the product into small canning jars and process them in a water bath canner to seal them up.  It only takes a few minutes in a boiling water bath to seal the jars.  You may remember your mother or grandmother sealing jars of jelly with melted paraffin.  While this may have worked it is now known that it is not a safe practice.  Jelly that has not been processed and stored properly may grow mold on the surface.  I can remember being told, “Just scrape it off.”  Ummm…no thanks.  The mold that grows on jelly can send ‘roots’ clear to the bottom of the jar and could release toxins into that lovely food.  So, just a few minutes in a water bath avoids that and you can safely enjoy that summer goodness even during the cold winter months.
While I have been talking about using fruit and fruit juices for jelly and jams, I would also like to mention that there are recipes for vegetable and herbal jellies that are a lot of fun to experiment with.  A dollop of red or green pepper jelly on top of a snack cracker with cream cheese is a sweet and spicy snack that is very tasty.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Food Preservation for Self-Reliance, Part three

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the March, 2012 issue of the Owl Creek Gazette, placed here with their permission.  For more great articles you can read the latest and all archived monthly editions of the Owl Creek Gazette online!

Food Preservation for Self-Reliance
Part 3 of a 5 part series
By Roxanne Bare, owner of Terra Mater

Can you feel it? Spring is just around the corner.  Some people are already planting the earliest crops that can withstand the chilly nights and light frost.  We may be a couple months away from planting the less cold-hardy crops but time flies and it will be summer before you know it.

In the January issue of the Owl Creek Gazette, I started this series with reasons why to preserve your own food.  In February, I talked about food safety and prevention of food-borne illness, particularly focusing on Botulism.  Preventing the growth of Cl. Botulinum, the organism that causes the Botulism, is key to having the safest food possible from your home preservation endeavors. This month we explore the methods of home canning your foods, proper equipment and which are appropriate for what foods. 

The canning methods I follow are the ones that have been studied, tested, and approved by the USDA.  The University of Illinois and other land-grant colleges have put a great deal of research into safe food preservation and it is my humble opinion that this may be the best thing the USDA has ever been behind.  Historically, there have been other methods of canning done in homes that may have worked out ok most of the time, but now we know more about dangerous micro-organisms.  It just makes sense to use the methods that have been proven to be the safest.  The two methods that are used for home canning are the water bath method and the pressure canner method depending on whether your food is low-acid or high-acid.

First, you will need are some canning jars, also referred to as Mason Jars.  The ‘Mason Jar’ was patented in 1858.  The Mason jar was developed to withstand the high heat required for canning foods.   Thinner glass jars and bottles will not take the repeated exposure to high heat and somewhat quick cooling.  Canning jars are still being produced and you can purchase them at many stores.  They can be expensive to buy brand new but you can probably find them at yard sales and estate sales.  Before using a jar it is important to check the jar carefully for cracks and chips.  If there are chips in the rim, the seal will not be made properly.  A crack in the jar will likely lead to leaking or even an explosion in the canner.  I have had this happen!  Let me tell you, it is quite a noise when a jar of green beans blows up inside a pressure canner.  It is a rare occurrence though and easily avoided by inspecting the jars carefully.

 Today’s canning jars use a two-piece lid system.  The first part is a flat lid that has a soft ring of rubber built in that sits on the rim of the jar and creates the seal.  The lid flat is intended to be used just one time then thrown away after opening the jar.  The second piece is a metal ring that screws onto the jar to keep the flat in place through the process.  The ring is not thrown away and can be used many times.  I have rings that are many years old and only throw them away when they begin to get quite rusted. 

For canning high-acid foods, a water bath canner is appropriate.  This is a large pot that is deep enough to have 1 inch of briskly boiling water covering the jars.  It should have a rack on the bottom to keep jars from resting directly on the bottom of the pot and a well fitted lid.  High-acid foods that can be water bath canned are fruits, jellies, and pickles.  Tomatoes are on the line between high and low acid, depending on the variety of tomato. To ensure the safety you may add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to pint jars.  For quarts, add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.  Vinegar can be used instead of lemon juice at a rate of 2 tablespoons to pints and 4 tablespoons to quarts. 

When canning low acid foods, a pressure canner is necessary.  It takes the buildup of pressure to achieve the temperatures needed to destroy spores of bacteria that cause botulism as well as other types of spoilage.  Low acid foods are vegetables, meats, poultry and fish.  Low-acid tomatoes should be processed in a pressure canner as well.  Pressure canners are large, heavy pots with very tight fitting lids that seal tight.  There is a rubber ring that fits just inside the rim of the lid.  There are two types of gauges on a pressure canner; a dial gauge and a weighted gauge.  If you have a dial gauge, it should be checked every couple of years for accuracy.  If you accidentally knock the gauge or drop the lid, you may want to get it checked.  Often, local University Extension offices can arrange the testing for you.  You may have heard stories of pressure canners exploding and food splattering all over a kitchen. There are safety features built into pressure canners that prevent this sort of thing from happening.   Properly cleaning and maintaining the seal, safety plugs and vents will keep your canner in tip-top shape.

There are many books available that have all the instructions for canning methods, recipes, procedures of preparation, and time tables.  The USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning is available online at http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html or can be ordered in print from the link given on that webpage.  The booklet printed by “Ball Corporation” is usually available in stores near the canning supplies and is an excellent resource for the basics of canning.  Their website includes an online version of their guide and it can be located at http://www.freshpreserving.com.  

One of the cons to canning is that there is a lessening of nutritional value of food due to the high heat and longer cooking times.  However, using the freshest foods available and processing the food quickly can help reduce that nutrition loss.  It does take some invest of money to get started.  However, there is something very satisfying about seeing those jars filled with delicious foods lined up on the shelf.  With canned foods, you don’t have to worry about losing all of your hard work to a prolonged power outage.  You can open a jar in a snap and be ready to cook something delicious without additional thawing time.