It’s Berry Season!

Some of us are in the middle of it, some have seen strawberries come and go for this year, and some of us are still waiting for blueberries. Berries are a favorite for jams, whether a full flavor using one berry, or in combinations that allow our creative streak to show.  Strawberry-raspberry, blueberry-blackberry, or even 3 or more berries in combination.  Yum! As I write this, I’m past my morning breakfast decisions but now my mind is thinking ahead to what I can stir into my yogurt at lunch.

Another way to preserve our delicate, hand-picked berries is by freezing. Now we can start thinking about future pies, cereal toppings, or a quick, refreshing smoothie.

A dry pack is simply placing clean berries in freezer containers, sealing the container, and freezing. Unless they are tray packed (see below), they might clump together and be difficult to separate into individual berries.  Note:  If you do wash blueberries before freezing, 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 remove from the container and separate from each other. This method is called a tray pack because after rinsing the berries, you spread them in a single layer on a shallow smaller_Blueberry tray close-uptray (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.

A sugar pack is like a dry pack but with one extra step – gently mix ¾ cup sugar per 1 quart (1⅓ pounds) berries 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.

IMPORTANT! 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 want to use the fruit in jam later, you can also measure the amounts of sugar and fruit now for a specific recipe and freeze those together; then use the total contents when thawed to make the jam.

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.

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And most importantly, protect your fragile berries with the right kind of packaging for freezing. You don’t want the air inside the freezer to dry out your packs, or for flavors from one food to mingle with others. Freezer-weight plastic bags with good tight seals are a must if going the bag route. Glass jars with straight sides or wide mouth openings, plastic freezer boxes or re-purposed plastic tubs from frozen whipped toppings work well (as long as the seal between the lid and bottom is still intact and not misshapen from use).

Get Ready Now for the Summer Harvest

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If you are thinking about joining the trend in our communities to preserve food this summer, start planning and preparing now! Start by checking your equipment and supplies. Proper equipment in good condition is required for safe, high quality home canned food, for example.

If you’ve not yet purchased your needed equipment, there are two types of canners to consider: boiling water canners and pressure canners. A boiling water canner is used for canning acid or acidified foods like most fruits, most pickles, jams and jellies. Boiling water canners cost about $30-$100, or can be assembled yourself with a large stock pot, secure lid, and rack to keep jars off the bottom of the pot.

A pressure canner is essential for canning low acid foods such as vegetables, meats, fish, and poultry. Temperatures inside pressure canners reach higher than boiling water canners (for example, 240°F and above as compared to about 212°F). This is necessary to follow the tested processes available to be sure and kill the toxin–producing spores of the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.  If not killed, these spores can grow out and produce a deadly toxin (poison) in room-temperature stored jars of the low-acid foods mentioned.

You have two choices for type pressure canner: a dial gauge canner or a weighted gauge canner. Most steps in managing the pressure canning process are the same, but the two styles have different types of gauges to indicate the pressure inside the canner. Expect to spend $100-$150 or more on a pressure canner.

If you use a dial gauge canner, then it’s important to have the gauge tested for accuracy before each canner season or if you drop or damage your gauge. It isn’t as easy as it used to be to get gauges tested. Try a local hardware store or your local Cooperative Extension agent, even though not all still provide this service. For either type of canner, check that the rubber gasket is flexible and soft, and if it is brittle, sticky, or cracked then replace it with a new gasket. Also check that any openings, like vent ports, are completely clean and open.

You’ll also need jars, lids, and ring bands for canning. When getting started, new jars are a worthwhile investment (versus purchasing used jars from a yard sale or flea market) because very old jars may break under pressure and heat. Mason-type jars of standard sizes (e.g., half-pint, pint, and quart) for the tested processes available from science-based sources such as USDA and your land-grant university are recommended. Make sure those jars are manufactured and sold for canning purposes; not all glass and Mason-style jars are tempered to prevent breakage with the extreme heat and temperature swings during canning. When you actually get to canning your harvest, be sure to follow manufacturers’ advice for preparing your jars and lids. In addition to standard cooking utensils like cutting boards and bowls, a jar funnel, jar lifter, lid wand, headspace tool, and bubble-freer are items that you will want to have handy for canning.

If you are freezing your harvest, be sure to use packaging such as plastic bags or rigid containers that are intended for freezer storage of foods.  Not all plastics are the same, and you want materials that will hold up to freezer temperatures as well as protect your goodies from damaging air and mixtures of odors.

Growing your own? You may be lucky enough to have previously started keeping garden records so you remember the name of that great tomato or pepper variety you have liked this past year. If not, think about planning to keep records this year. A garden journal might include variety, seed source, date planted, date harvested, notes on how it grew and resisted disease, and your personal evaluation of the crop.

A final must is reliable, up-to-date canning and other food preservation instructsetp5ions. Specific kitchen equipment or ingredients could be needed to follow directions as they are written for food preservation. And in the case of canning especially, very significant food safety risks by following unsound recommendations. Reliable, up-to-date canning instructions are available at the NCHFP website, the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, So Easy to Preserve, or the county or local area Extension office in your state.

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This entry contains information from Keep A Garden Record Book—Thomas Jefferson Did by Wayne McLaurin.

Be Safe When Using Frozen Foods

hereMany of us use our freezers to put up goodies from the frozvegfresh harvest season. Others use the freezer to put together homemade meals or recipes ready to be cooked or reheated when cooking from scratch just is not on our schedule for the day or week. Freezing prepared foods in advance allows us the satisfaction of homemade meals with the convenience of store-bought ones.

Freezing foods does not improve on poor texture, flavor or quality of foods, so choose your ingredients and products well. The way foods are prepared and packaged for freezing, as well as the temperature of the freezer, will greatly influence how well food will keep in the freezer. Quality in, quality out.

What I would like to emphasize is keeping food safe during thawing and later use out of the freezer. Several options are available for thawing prepared foods. The frozen food can be taken directly from the freezer and immediately placed in the oven for thawing and heating as long as it is in a freezer-to-oven safe container. Some foods are best reheated using a double boiler and can be thawed that way also. Foods that contain fish, meat, eggs or other high protein ingredients should be thawed in the refrigerator or microwave. To ensure the safety of your food, do not allow these potentially hazardous foods to stay in the temperature danger zone (40°F-140°F) for more than 2 hours. Plan ahead because refrigerator thawing can take some time. If you thaw potentially hazardous foods in the microwave, you should go ahead and finish the cooking and not store the thawed food as is.  The cooking can be done in the microwave itself, or using other cooking methods.

Breads, cakes, and cookies without cream fillings that are precooked may be thawed at room temperature. Reheat all prepared foods except non-meat baked goods, sweets and fruits to at least 165°F quickly, within 2 hours. Specifics for different kinds of foods can be found in Freezing Prepared Foods.  Other freezing pointers on thawing, packaging, freezer management, and foods that do not freeze well can be found here.

Planning ahead and freezing prepared foods is a great way to keep homemade food on your dinner table without all of the stress and hassle of last minute preparation. But be sure to keep food safety in mind when it’s time to serve your goodies.

Still Yearning to Can in These Winter Months?

If you are still looking for indoor, easy canning options in these winter months, here is a hot sauce that do not require the fresh tomatoes, vegetables or fruits fresh from gardens. It also makes a nice gift to have on hand. Our previous blog was a quick jelly recipe from frozen orange juice concentrate.

Easy Hot Sauce is another option for winter canning if jelly is not your canned food of choice. Easy Hot Sauce is great for spicing things up by stirring into vegetables or chehotsauceese dips, soups and chilis.  This one uses canned diced tomatoes (undrained), chopped fresh hot peppers, vinegar and dry seasonings; the canning process is carried out in boiling water. This recipe yields four half-pint jars. Wear gloves when handling, cutting and seeding hot peppers or wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before touching your face or eyes.

Start by washing and rinsing half-pint canning jars; keep hot until they are filled. Prepare lids according to the manufacturer’s directions. The boiling water canner should be prepared and the process managed as found here.  Follow directions in the recipe for measuring and cooking ingredients before filling jars. Process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes (15 minutes if 1,000-6,000 ft altitude; 20 minutes if over 6,000 ft). Allow hot sauce to cool, undisturbed, for 12 to 24 hours and check seals. You can remove ring bands after the food has cooled if the lids are sealed.

Enjoy this easy way to add some “heat” and spice to your winter days.