Author Archives: nchfp

Holiday Dinners Often Mean Leftovers

We have just finished one big U.S. holiday centered around big family meals and celebrations.  What comes with those times might be a table full of leftovers.  You may be happy with the way you managed the Thanksgiving leftovers or wish you had done some things better.  Since another holiday season with many food-filled activities and events is upon us, I thought I would review some food safety advice for handling leftovers.

One really important task is to get the “perishable” leftovers into the refrigerator or freezer and cooling within two hours of the cooking.  By perishable, I mean those foods that require cold storage to be held safely. And yes, that means conversation and games at tableside might have to be cut short for the person or people who put up the leftovers!  But if someone gets sick from eating leftovers not stored safely, future good times will be cut off, too.  Time-temperature abuse as well as possible post-cook contamination during the meal means even well-cooked foods can be future hazards.  Cooking doesn’t remove all bacterial concerns from foods; they still have to be kept at recommended temperatures.

To get started on those leftovers, make sure you have clean hands, work surfaces like cutting boards and counters, food storage containers, and utensils.  A clean apron can help protect you as well as the food you work over. It would be best to start with a clean apron and dish towels or wipes and not those you used in meal preparation and now have been sitting around dirty with food residues at room temperature themselves.

To prevent bacterial growth, it’s important that food will cool rapidly to the safe refrigerator-storage temperature of 40°F or below. For example, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. Cut or slice roasts, hams and whole turkeys into small pieces and fill into small containers. Legs and wings can be left whole. Other larger items like big casserole dishes should be packaged in smaller portions if you have a lot leftover. It is best to separate the turkey, stuffing and gravy into separate shallow containers.

Package your leftovers in tightly sealed containers or wraps for best quality. For freezer storage, packaging should be moisture-vapor resistant materials to prevent freezer burn. Plastics should be “freezer-weight” or composition, glass jars that are meant for freezing, and all sealing areas should be tight-fitting. For freezing, be sure all sealing areas are also clean and dry and to leave recommended headspace for expansion (https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/headspace.html). Moisture left on sealing surfaces can expand when it freezes and create air gaps in your seals. Clearly label each package with the name of the food, ingredients, and packaging date. Package foods in amounts you will be likely to use at one time.

Do not overload the refrigerator or freezer with warm leftovers causing the temperature to rise above the recommended storage temperature. The small containers of your warm food can be spread out until cooled or frozen; you can then go back and stack or organize them differently if desired.  A large stack of warm containers will cool more slowly, as if you had used a large container instead of many shallow ones. The refrigerator temperature should keep foods at 40°F or below, so you might need the interior cabinet temperature to be around 38°F. The best freezer air temperature should be 0°F for best food quality and storage times.

Use turkey and stuffing within 3 to 4 days for safety; gravy might be best used within 1-2 days. It is safe to refreeze leftover cooked turkey and trimmings even if you purchased them frozen. Frozen typical turkey meal leftovers are best used in 3-4 months; although safe if kept frozen longer, they start to lose noticeable quality when kept longer in the freezer.

When it’s time to enjoy the leftovers from the freezer, the safest way to thaw them is in the refrigerator. If foods are then to be reheated, reheat leftovers to at least 165°F and check the internal temperature of the thickest part with a food thermometer. Bring gravies, sauces, and soups to a rolling boil as added safety.

Food safety steps for correctly storing the turkey and trimmings are critical when preparing your favorite sandwiches, casseroles, and soups from leftovers. Avoiding illness is important so don’t take short cuts or waste time in getting to this task quickly at the end of the meal!  Remember, harmful bacteria grow rapidly between the temperatures of 40°F and 140°F. Even recommended cooking temperatures can result in some bacteria still contaminating the food. Some pathogens contaminate food in a heat-resistant “spore-form that survives cooking.  These spores do not make us sick if ingested in that form, but temperature abuse during serving and holding food will result in those spores germinating to forms of bacterial cells that can make us sick or even produce toxins that will make us very sick if ingested.

After food is safely cooked, enjoy your meal, but within 2 hours of cooking food or after it is removed from an appliance keeping it warm above 140°F, leftovers must be refrigerated.

Additional resource: You can see more about recommended food storage times and tips for safe preparation in the FoodKeeper.app. The database is searchable online or available as a mobile app for Android and Apple devices. (https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/foodkeeperapp/index.html)

###

Advertisements

That Leftover Pickling Brine

A frequent question lately has been about re-using that leftover pickling brine when making homemade quick pickles.

Sometimes quick pickles are made by heating cut pickbrine
or sliced vegetables in a vinegar solution to acidify them. If this is done prior to filling jars, we refer to that as a hot pack method for canning: heating vegetables in the pickling liquid before filling them into your jars and covering with the hot liquid. Other times, quick pickles are made by the raw pack for canning: prepared raw vegetables are placed directly into the jars and then the hot pickling liquid is filled over them into the jars.

Once you heat, or even soak, your vegetables in your pickling solution, pH changes start to happen. (Heating makes the interaction happen faster.) The vegetables become more acidic, which is what we want to happen in pickling. However, the pickling solution then becomes less acidic. So if your recipe is a hot pack for canned pickles, and you have heated your vegetables in the pickling solution (“brine”), then you should not use leftover brine from filling jars for another round of the recipe. The expected ratio of acid to low-acid ingredients and ultimate pH adjustment in the next recipe will not be the same.

If you are making a usual raw-pack recipe for canned pickles and have leftover vinegar or pickling solution, then that could be used for another round of the recipe if you have a significant amount left over. An example of this type of raw pack would be pickled dill green beans, or quick dill cucumber pickles. The beans or cucumbers are never combined with the vinegar solution until it is filled over them in the canning jars.  The initial boiling may have concentrated the vinegar (and other ingredients like salt or sugar) just a little, but that does not make it less safe.  If you boiled it quite a bit to concentrate the mixture, you may not want to use it for its effect on flavor, however.

In some recipes, sliced raw cucumbers are soaked for hours in the pickling liquid (vinegar, sugar and/or salt, for example). Then the liquid is drained off the cucumber slices into a pan. The soaked raw slices are filled into jars while the liquid is then heated and poured over them. Even though this is a raw pack in terms of filling jars, this vinegar solution had its original pH (acidity) altered from that initial soaking before it was heated and poured into jars. It should not be used again for a canned pickle recipe since it is now of unknown acidity.

Leftover solutions from preparing a canning recipe could be used to flavor some veggies that only get stored in the refrigerator. This would be similar to marinating for flavor. Not knowing each recipe and situation, I cannot give you a definite storage time for this new mixture in your refrigerator.  I would treat it as a fresh vegetable salad and consumer it within several days in most cases.  And remember, home refrigerators should keep foods at 40 degrees F or lower!

Unfortunately some of our “legacy” USDA pickling recipes, as well as those from other sources, and especially those using whole pickling cucumbers, do result in some leftover brine after filling jars. Different varieties of pickling cucumbers have varying diameters and lengths and will not always fit into canning jars to the same degree. Therefore, there are more uncertainty and variable results in issuing recommendations for general use.

Do realize that the safety of pickle recipes for home canning in boiling water will depend a great deal on the ratio of ingredients and preparation steps including piece size. And not all pickle recipes produce the same final, equilibrated, pH in the vegetable and brine. Even though safe for boiling water processing, the length of the process time needed for keeping them on the shelf at room temperature can vary depending on the actual acidity.

Our Pickled Products recommendations for home canning can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website or in So Easy to Preserve, 6th edition, from the University of Georgia. The University of Georgia Extension also has two factsheets that can be downloaded for free, Pickled Products and Canning Relishes. Please be safe in choosing your pickling recipes for canning!

###

Orange Marmalade to Brighten Your Day

Sometimes new is better than the tried and true older version of something.

We took a look at the long-standing original Orange Marmalade procedure in the University of Georgia’s So Easy to Preserve book and decided to make it easier (and better?). The book version has a 12 to 18 hour standing period of the fruit and water ingredients before continuing with adding sugar and cooking. We found this wait to be unnecessary in affecting the outcome of the final product so we were able to shorten the procedure. Also, the book directions have you measure the fruit and water volume in cups after this standing period and then calculate the amount of sugar to add. That was a bit messy (and dirtied more dishes to wash!), so after some repetitions to figure out a specific amount of sugar to use with each batch, we eliminated that step, too!

Of course this will not get changed in the book until there is a new edition (a totally unknown date at this time, by the way) but our National Center for Home Food Preservation website makes it possible to bring it to you right away. The recipe is posted here: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_07/orange_marmalade.html. We used navel oranges in our recipe development, and left all of the white albedo attached. See notes at the bottom of the recipe page.

This is still a traditionally very sweet marmalade that gels from correct cooking with the right proportions of sugar and pectin as well as acid. It is partially preserved for the recommended short canning procedure by the sugar content as well as acidic fruit, also. We recommend cutting the orange peel into very thin strips; it is “chock-full” of orange peel. However, the sweetness makes it not too bitter. (I will admit, I have never been a marmalade fan, but I do really like this one!)

The pectin comes from the citrus fruit albedo (the white pith or tissue right under the outer peel) that is included. As with all cooked jams, jellies or marmalades that gel without added purchased pectin, but only with the pectin found in the fruit, cooking to the right temperature for gelling will be a little variable depending on your actual fruit and pectin content, speed of boiling and size of cooking pot. Our yield is usually just the 7 half-pint jars or in one batch, at least another partial jar. It is important not to overcook, also, or you pass the point where the pectin will gel.

Brush up on your measurement of determining “doneness” if you need to! Temperature might work well with this one, or get a small glass plate cold in the freezer while you cook. When you are ready to test for doneness, take the plate out and drop a few drops of the marmalade onto the cold surface. It should hold its shape pretty well. If you use the Spoon Test, be sure you are capturing the jelly part of the marmalade on your spoon and not fruit or peel. You have to work  quickly with all these, and take the pan off your burner. You don’t want to overcook, either, and get a marmalade that is too stiff or gummy. This stage makes these methods a little less precise than cooking jams or marmalades with added pectin, but also makes them more special as you work to perfect your product!

If marmalade is something that can help brighten your morning or other meals with a little addition of flavor and color, enjoy!

###

Why do you recommend processing jams and jellies?

puttingjarinBWBUSDA and the Cooperative Extension recommend a boiling water canning process for jams and jellies even though some entrepreneurs or small batch processors are told to just fill the jar hot and close it. Why? Some other sources say processing isn’t necessary for any home canning of jams and jellies — just fill the jar hot and close it. Some others will say to invert the jar (turn it upside down) after putting the lid on, with various numbers of minutes recommended for this inverted position. Why?

A “process authority” advising someone packing jars for sale may indeed not recommend a boiling water process, but then other controls should also be specified for the particular recipe and full preparation procedure, such as a measured minimum hot fill temperature with every batch, specific acidity levels that would allow for no process with that specific product, perhaps measured and documented water activity control or degrees Brix for each batch that allows for no processing, and/or specific processing steps that would support this recommendation. Home canning recommendations for the general public have to cover a wide variety of recipes and methods of cooking the jam or jelly.

Even with a very acid fruit jam or jelly that has good water activity control, there can be some benefits to even a short boiling water process if food safety isn’t the reason. For one thing, molds can be airborne and settle into your jars at filling. The retained heat from filling jars in many home situations may not be enough to kill airborne mold spores. The goal in this case for a boiling water process would be to minimize the risk of spoilage during storage and thereby prevent “economic loss” by product having to be thrown out. Many larger scale commercial operations, in addition to tighter batch-to-batch cooking and filling temperature controls, have equipment systems that force an injection of superhot steam into the headspace before the lid is placed on the jar. This helps with closing temperature, but also forcing air out of the headspace.

So that leads to a second benefit to the home boiling water process. With a properly applied lid, the processing helps force some of the retained air of the headspace in jar. When the jar then cools after processing, this evacuated headspace can lead to better vacuums in the sealed jars (if lids are applied correctly) than just hot filling. Not all vacuum seals are equal. A jar may seal with a weak vacuum. A weaker vacuum is related to more occluded (trapped) air, and therefore oxygen, in the headspace of sealed jars. That oxygen can lead to discoloration and possible flavor changes over time, so quality retention is often better with a processed product than one just hot filled at home.

Finally, one of the considerations discussed when USDA was making recommendations is the potential for burns or leaking jars with the inversion process vs. a boiling water process. Although not in published journals or other sources, there are documentations from some research experiences that leaking and failure to seal are higher risks with inversion than processing. I have read one journal article using inversion that caused the researchers to abandon it in their future studies because of leaking and needing better control of temperature for safety reasons with their particular recipes. Other concerns with inversion include individual variation in practicing this procedure or that unexpected interruptions can result in delays between filling jars, getting lids screwed on, and inverting the jars. If the product cools down too much, the temperature of the product can become low enough to no longer be effective in sealing jars or preventing spoilage. Not ALL jams and jellies/spreads even fit criteria for even a 5 or 10 minute boiling water process; they might need a longer process!

USDA made the decision to recommend processing for all jams and jellies and very acidic foods for reasons of preventing economic loss and physical injury from burns as well as food quality during storage, even if it might not be needed for food safety.   We in Extension consumer education firmly believe the best practice to recommend even for very high acid foods is a boiling water process vs. hot fill only and inversion even though the other may be successful and safe for some food products.