Brrrrr Berries

various frozen strawberriesDo you like berries in pies, on top of oatmeal, in baked goods, in smoothies, in sauces, or as a refreshing snack?  By following proper preparation steps, you can freeze berries so that they maintain flavor, color, and nutrients for all of these uses and more.  Remember the idea of “quality in, quality out” in selecting fully ripe, firm berries that are not too soft, under-ripe or damaged.

Depending on how you plan to use the berries, you might want to use any one of these packing methods:

A dry pack is simply placing clean berries in freezer containers, sealing the container, and freezing. Unless they are tray packed (see below), they most likely will clump together and be difficult to separate into individual berries. Note: Dry blueberries completely after rinsing, or else the moisture on the blueberry skin will cause tougher skins.

A tray pack works well to help maintain the shape of each individual berry and keeps them easy to tray pack strawberriesremove from the container and separate from each other. This method is called a tray pack because after rinsing and completely drying the berries, you spread them in a single layer on a shallow tray (like a cookie sheet), then carefully lift the tray into the freezer without causing berries to touch each other. As soon as they freeze, seal the berries in an airtight container and place them back into the freezer so they don’t get freezer burn.

Okay, we know not every source recommends washing blueberries before freezing them. It is your choice; we just like them to be as clean as possible and completely ready-to-eat when it’s time to take them out of the freezer.  But, they do need to be completely dry before freezing for best quality.

A sugar pack is like a dry pack but with one extra step – gently mix ¾ cup sugar per 1 quart (1⅓ strawberries with sugarpounds) clean berries. Let sit a short time until the juice is drawn out and the sugar dissolved before filling into freezer containers, sealing, and placing in the freezer. You can view step-by-step directions and photos for a sugar pack by selecting the PowerPoint presentation under “Strawberries” on the National Center’s ‘Freezing’ page.

A syrup pack surrounds the berries in a sweetened liquid, changing the sweetness and texture of the berries quite noticeably. Based on the natural sweetness of the berries and your own preference, you can decide the proportion of sugar to water from very light syrup (10% sugar) to very heavy syrup (50% sugar). More tart berries may produce the most desirable flavor from using a 40%-50% syrup. Exact proportions for the range of syrups are listed on this Syrups chart, along with directions to make the syrup and notes about replacing part of the sugar with corn syrup or honey.

Crushed or puréed is an option for berries like blueberries and huckleberries that you might use an ingredient in other recipes. The berries can be crushed, pressed through a fine sieve or puréed in a blender or food processor. Mix 1 cup (or 1⅛ cups) sugar with each quart (2 pounds) of crushed or puréed berries.

If you add sugar to the berries before freezing (as in the sugar pack, syrup pack, or crushed/puréed), then label the container with exactly how much sugar you add, so that you can include that quantity as part of the amount of sugar called for on the ingredient list of your final product recipe.  If you know you will use your berries for a jam or other recipe, you can mix just the right amount of fruit and sugar together before freezing.

For all types of pack, remember to leave at least ½-inch headspace (more for some styles of pack; see chart for exact measurements) between the berries and the lid of each container so that the containers don’t break open while expanding in the freezer. Also make sure the sealing surfaces of your lid and bottom are completely clean and dry, if you don’t use a plastic bag. Any trapped food, sugar or syrup can expand when frozen and separate the tight seal that should be in place.

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Fresh, Not Frozen

frozen lettuceSome foods just don’t freeze as well as others. Why not? Crispy, crunchy fruits and veggies like celery, lettuce, cucumbers, and apples that we usually eat raw are more likely to disappoint when frozen because they will be much softer and limp when thawed. These foods have high water content combined with fragile cell walls in their tissue, and when they are frozen the water expands, breaking cell walls and turning the texture to mush. Similarly, citrus fruits, watermelon, grapes, and tender-leafed herbs like basil also become unpleasantly mushy after thawing. (Frozen grapes, however, are worth trying as a sweet frozen treat, yum!)grapes

Cooking fruits and vegetables also softens cell walls, so foods that we are used to eating cooked are good candidates for freezing, such as tomatoes (so long as you aren’t planning to slice them onto a sandwich after freezing).

High-starch vegetables like corn, peas, and lima beans are less affected by textural changes from freezing.DSC_0122

Undesirable flavor changes also occur in some foods when they are frozen. Green peppers and garlic become overly strong and even bitter, whereas onion tends to lose flavor. Spices and seasonings may also be affected; for example, cloves, pepper, and celery seasoning get stronger and bitter, curry develops and off-flavor, and salt loses flavor. Adding salt also runs the risk of increasing rancidity if added to foods containing fat. To avoid these flavor changes, season prepared foods when reheating for serving instead of prior to freezing, or just season them lightly before freezing.

For much more information about freezing foods, visit the NCHFP website, General Freezing Information.

Making the Most of Mint

mintIf you have seen mint growing in the ground then you know – give it an inch, and it will take a yard…and perhaps the sidewalk too. What to do with all that mint? After sipping a cup of fresh mint tea, you can harvest all those leaves to make delicious mint jelly and dry them for a year’s worth of refreshing mint tea. (You may also want to dig up those plants and re-plant them into containers – mint does well in pots.)

potted herbsClassic Mint Jelly requires the addition of a strongly acidic ingredient in order to produce a gel-structure, as you’ll see in our recipes for Mint Jelly (with cider vinegar) and Mint Jelly (with lemon juice). These two recipes are very similar, but the quantities of mint and water vary slightly to adjust to the required proportion of a strong acid ingredient (i.e. more vinegar than lemon juice, so less water added to the version with vinegar). Green food coloring is listed in the ingredient list for the version made with cider vinegar, but it is optional, and note that it is also optional in the recipe made with lemon juice. Mint Jelly is traditionally served with roast lamb, and it can also be mixed into other sauces and gravies.

Mint is a tender-leaf herb, which means that it has high moisture content and therefore will mold if not dried quickly. To dry mint, try hanging it inside a paper bag that has holes torn in the sides for air to circulate through. Use a rubber band to secure the base of the stems to the top do the bag. The bottom of the bag will catch the dried leaves as they fall. If you live in a region with high humidity and/or don’t have a location where air currents can pass through the bag, then you may get better results from drying leaves individually. To do so, remove leaves from the stems, space them apart on a paper towel, cover with another paper towel and layer up to 5 layers. Place the layers of paper towels and leaves in a cool oven – the oven light of an electric range or pilot light of a gas range will be enough. (Higher heat could easily burn the leaves, and the paper.) The finished, crispy dry leaves can be left whole or crumpled into an airtight storage container. Dried mint is can be substituted into recipes that call for fresh mint, using 1/3-1/4 of the amount listed.oven light onFor more information about growing and using mint, read this publication from UGA Extension: Herbs in Southern Gardens.

Homegrown Tomatoes — Not just a Daydream

IMG_0092This winter was a cold one for most of us, making that next round of fresh homegrown tomatoes seem a distant daydream.  Did your supply of home-canned tomatoes from last year get low or even emptied?  Well, it’s not too early to start thinking of your next harvest.  Tomato plants can go in the garden once any danger of frost has passed, so sooner than later those ripe tomatoes could be a reality.

In southern states, tomato plants are now going into the ground. In more northern climates last frost may still be a few weeks away, but tomato plants Spring calendarcan already be started indoors. If you start them indoors from seed, you’ll wait four to seven weeks before they are ready to be planted outside.

A few tips from University of Georgia Extension will help your chances of success in starting your homegrown ‘maters:

  • Establish an indoor location near a south-facing window that receives a lot of sunlight. If you cannot do this, then you might need to use a supplemental grow light with a spectrum that mimics natural light.
  • Use a light soil mix for planting tomato seeds.
  • Select a seed variety that is adapted to your local area.
  • Remember to harden off the plants before transplanting by gradually exposing them to sunlight a little bit more each day for about a week before carefully tucking them into their garden beds.

Are your tomato plants already ready to go into the garden? Follow the planting, mulching, fertilizing, and watering tips from UGA Extension: Georgia Home Grown Tomatoes.

If you plan to preserve your upcoming bounty of homegrown tomatoes, then remember that there are options for both boiling water bath canning and pressure canning tomatoes. Make sure you follow tested recommendations, and have citric acid or a bottle of lemon juice ready! (Directions for canning tomatoes call for adding a small amount of citric acid or commercially bottled lemon juice in order to ensure the acidity and safety of the final product.)

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