Category Archives: Seasonal Food Tips

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.

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.

Think sunshine and oranges in winter

We do not have a lot of our home canning recommendations that call for commercially processed ingredients in the recipes. However, here is an idea that does not require the fresh tomatoes, vegetables or fruits fresh from gardens. Just in the last week, I have had two people spontaneously say how much they like this recipe; in one case, it was an educator who said her canning class liked it a lot!

Orange Jelly from Frozen Juice  calls for one
12-ounce can of frozen concentrated orange juice and 1 traditional “box” of powdered pectin and creates a delightful, flavorful orange jelly for toast or biscuits on dreary winter mornings or late afternoons. The recipe yields five or size half-pint jars (we never all seem to get the same quantity for many recipes, do we? Or a final amount that just fills all jars exactly….)

For this one, we recommend using pre-sterilized jars and a very short boiling water process time. To pre-sterilize jars, boil empty, washed and rinsed glass canning jars submerged in boiling water for 10 minutes. (That’s 10 minutes after the water comes to a boil over the jars.) The easiest way to do this is to stand empty jars upright on a rack in a clean boiling water canner filled with clean water. Keep jars hot until they are filled. Prepare lids according to the manufacturer’s directions.

Directions for cooking the jelly are specific as to when to add sugar and pectin, and how long to boil. The process time in the canner is then 5 minutes up to 1000 ft altitude (10 minutes if 1,000-6,000 ft altitude; 15 minutes if over 6,000 ft). Allow jelly 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.

If you don’t want to pre-sterilize your jars, wash and rinse your jars and then keep hot before filling. The process times are then 10 minutes up to 1000 ft in altitude, (15 minutes if 1,000-6,000 ft altitude; 20 minutes if over 6,000 ft).

And enjoy the flavor of your labor, even if it really doesn’t take a lot time!