Category Archives: Seasonal Food Tips

Vidalia Onions Are In!

It’s May in Georgia and that means Vidalia onion season. While these are famous for their sweet flavor, there are numerous varieties and colors of onions. Onions are used in many unique, flavorful condiments – relishes, salsas, pickles, and jams to name some of the most common. Sometimes we just need to preserve onions themselves.

I’m often asked why our University of Georgia So Easy to Preserve book does not have the option of freezing diced onions. Well, I can’t explain why it was never in the early editions and we just haven’t been able to issue a whole new edition since the 6th edition in 2014. This is one of the drawbacks of a large book that you don’t revise or reproduce for one issue at a time.  We have had this additional option on our Freezing Onions page at the National Center for Home Food Preservation for the past few years:
https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/onion.html

Peeled, washed onions can be diced or chopped (1/4-1/2 inch pieces suggested) and frozen without blanching. If you have room in your freezer, it is best to spread the pieces out on a clean cookie/baking sheet in a single layer.  When they are frozen (hardened), promptly remove from the tray and package air-tight in freezer bags or containers while they are still hard.  This keeps pieces separated in their freezer packaging enough that you will be able to remove only as much as you want at a time.  If they are all put into the bag or container at room temperature, they will freeze into one large mass and not as separate pieces. If you are going to remove part of the amount frozen at a time versus using the whole amount, it works best to use freezer bags, so you can push the air out when you re-seal the remaining frozen pieces.  In a hard container, the air left in the box/jar as you keep removing some is not good for quality and can cause freezer burn (drying out of the food).

The National Center for Home Food Preservation also has this webpage with more ideas and tips for preserving onions: https://nchfp.uga.edu/tips/summer/onions.html.  At the end of it, there are links to our Canning Relishes factsheet with several that emphasize onions and others that contain some onion content.

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Play it Safe with Easter Eggs!

If Easter egg decorating is on your list of activities this spring, play it safe when handling fresh and hard cooked eggs! To avoid the possibility of foodborne illness, fresh eggs must be handled and stored correctly. Even eggs with clean, shells with no cracks may occasionally contain bacteria called Salmonella that can cause an intestinal infection. And, once eggs have been cooked, food safety rules apply for proper handling, serving and storing.

 Food safety tips if you plan to eat the dyed eggs later:

  • Start by washing hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after food handling. Wash hands during each step of handling eggs before dyeing them.
  • Hard-cook, dye, and refrigerate the eggs within two hours.
  • Use only food safe natural or commercial dyes.
  • Non-refrigerated Easter eggs that are used as decorations should not be eaten.
  • Hunt eggs for 2 hours or less, 1 hour if the outdoor temperature is 90°F or higher.
  • Hunt only eggs that have been refrigerated with non-cracked shells before hiding.
  • Hide eggs in areas that are clean, protected from dirt, pets and other highly possibly sources of large numbers of bacteria. Make sure the area has not been treated with various lawn and/or insect control chemicals.
  • Wash “found” eggs and refrigerate right away at 40°F or below.
  • Eggs must be eaten within seven days of cooking.

Food safety tips for blown out egg shells used in decorating:

  • Use only eggs that have been kept refrigerated and are not cracked.
  • Before blowing out eggs, wash the eggs in hot water. Then rinse them in a solution of 1 teaspoon liquid chlorine bleach per half cup of water.
  • Be careful not to get any of the raw egg into your mouth or on your lips.
  • The contents blown out of the eggs could be used, but they must be refrigerated right after being blown out and used within 2-4 days.
  • These contents should be used only in foods that are cooked thoroughly before eating, such as breads and cakes.

Freezing eggs:

The contents of raw whole eggs may be frozen for later use. To freeze raw whole eggs:

Thoroughly mix yolks and whites. Do not whip in air. To prevent graininess in the yolks, add 1½ tablespoons sugar, 1½ tablespoons corn syrup OR ½ teaspoon salt per cup whole eggs, depending on intended use. Strain through a sieve, or colander to improve uniformity. Package, allowing ½ inch headspace. Seal and freeze. Another method of freezing whole egg mixture is to use ice trays. Measure 3 tablespoons of egg mixture into each compartment of an ice try. Freeze until solid. Remove frozen cubes, and package in moisture-vapor resistant containers. Seal and freeze. Three tablespoons of the egg mixture (one cube) equals one whole egg

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References: The Incredible Egg website, American Egg Board. Easter & Egg Safety, at https://www.incredibleegg.org/easter/easter-egg-safety/

The Partnership for Food Safety Education. Egg-stra Care for Spring Celebrations, at http://www.fightbac.org/egg-stra-care-for-spring-celebrations/

University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. Freezing Animal Products. Eggs. In So Easy to Preserve, 6th Edition, 2014, p. 298.

 

 

Freezing Soups and Stews A Good Wintertime Activity

It is still chilly and winter in most locations. Even here in Georgia we are still swinging between chilly and warm. Today would have been my mother’s birthday and that reminds me of how she loved to use her freezer for convenience in meal preparation.

There is nothing like a hot bowl of homemade soup or chili on a chilly winter’s day. But not everyone has time or ingredients to make it when the mood strikes or it’s time to eat. Just imagine having a freezer full of delicious, homemade meals ready to be heated and served when you get home from work. Freezing prepared foods in advance allows you the satisfaction of homemade meals with the convenience of store-bought ones. A lot of people have gone the route of instant cookers and fast preparation, but for some, making ahead and just reheating is even a quicker answer.  (Believe me, I also have my favorite stovetop soups that cook up quickly, even with lots of flavor, but that does require I have the ingredients on hand when the mood strikes.)

There are just a few things to keep in mind when freezing prepared foods. Freezing will not improve the texture, flavor, or quality of most food. It simply acts to preserve the quality of the food. Therefore, you should only freeze high quality ingredients. Some ingredients may not hold up well in the freezer, especially if you don’t plan to use it quickly this season only. You can look up some cautions and effects of freezing on spices ahead of time (http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/freeze/dont_freeze_foods.html).  Other tips for freezing prepared foods can be found from the University of Georgia also (http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/uga/FreezingPreparedFoods.pdf).

After cooking the food you plan to freeze, be sure it is cooled quickly to maintain the safety of the food. You can quick-cool your hot soups or stews by stirring in a bowl or pan that is set down into an ice bath.  Never leave perishable food at room temperature more than two hours; if you do not quick-cool it until cold enough to put in the freezer, put the food in the refrigerator to finish cooling.

Be sure to put your soup in moisture-vapor resistant packaging to prevent freezer burn.  Now what does that mean?  We see it all the time. You want packaging that doesn’t allow for moisture from the food to be drawn out into dry air through it.  And you want packaging materials that keep odors inside the pack. Not all plastics and foils are the same in these characteristics, for example. For soups and stews, rigid containers like freezer quality plastic boxes or jars are a good choice; freezer-weight plastic bags can be used, just a little more awkward to fill and seal with runny food.

To make the most of the convenience factor, package your soup or stew in amounts that you will be able to eat at one time.  Be sure to clearly label each package with the name of the food, and date you put it in the freezer. If you have a variety of foods that will look alike and have short names on that label, consider including some ingredients on that label.  Be sure all sealing areas are clean and dry and to leave recommended headspace for expansion inside the package (https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/headspace.html). Once packaged and sealed, and place in the coldest part of the freezer.

Quick, it’s time to eat! You can put your soup or stew in a pan for stovetop or bowl for microwave and cook right from the frozen stage. If you heat in your freezer container, make sure it is intended to be used for the hot temperatures the cooked food will reach. Be sure to stir to prevent burning on the stovetop and to evenly distribute heat with either method of cooking. Thawing in the refrigerator is safe, but takes some planning ahead. You can also thaw in the microwave even if you finish cooking on a stovetop or oven.  And reheat your food to at least 165°F everywhere quickly, within 2 hours of starting.  (If I have a broth-based soup that can be brought to a visible boil, I always do that myself to ensure adequate reheating.) If you want to quick-thaw under cold running water, be sure the package is leak-proof and keep running water moving slowly over the package or place it in a clean pan or bowl and submerge under cold tap water that is changed every 30 minutes. Be sure to reheat as above as soon as the food is thawed enough.  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 at any time.

Planning ahead and freezing that favorite soup, stew or chili is a great way to keep homemade food on your dinner table without all of the stress and hassle of last minute cooking from scratch.

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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)

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