By Leslie Shallcross
Freshly back from judging the preserved food entries at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, I am pleased to report that people are still preserving at home with good results.
Proud preservers entered colorful, delicious Alaska berry and floral jellies and jams, pickled spruce tips, dried morels, smoked fish, fruit leather, bright orange carrots, rosy rhubarb sauces, tangy pickles and relishes, and beautiful, fragrant dried teas and herbs. With more than 420 entries, there are now many brightly beribboned, prize-winning jars on display.
Prize-winning entries have adhered to proper canning times, jar sizes, headspace (the space between the lid and jar contents), U.S. Department of Agriculture-tested recipes and proper canning methods. Entries should have clean, rust-free jars, rings and flat lids, no jar contents on the inner surface of the lid, and should follow best practices (i.e. peeling carrots before jarring removes traces of dirt and mold).
If you are entering in a fair, choose your most attractive product because products should also look good — this is a sign of following best practices to the letter and using top-quality raw materials. Some people will take time and make a few products just for fair competitions.
Taste, which many believe is the defining criterion, weighs less in the scoring than one might believe — in fact, some fairs don’t taste products due to concerns about foodborne illness. Bold judges are often happy to taste properly jarred high-acid products such as jellies, jams or pickles; but, don’t try to slip a vegetable broth jelly in among the other jams and jellies. There is no tested, safe method for canning a low-acid broth jelly — vegetable broth or chicken/meat broth can be canned in a pressure canner.
My time with volunteer judges and entrants revealed that many home preservers still don’t realize that USDA-published food preservation guidelines assure both safety and quality. This is true whether you are drying, freezing, fermenting, pickling or canning. Judges will ask about processing methods, times and even recipes to determine that entries represent safe, properly preserved products.
Safety is achieved by sufficient drying, sufficient heating, fermenting or adding an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice, and by proper processing in either a boiling water bath canner or a pressure canner as appropriate for the product — the amount of time cannot be reduced from the current published recommendations. Incorrectly or insufficiently processed products may contain the potentially fatal toxin botulism or they may contain mold or bacteria. Canned products such as pickles, chutney, salsa or barbecue sauce are only safe when they contain the correct amount of acid; you cannot make up these recipes at home without technical guidance and the ability to measure the pH or the acid level.
Quality is maintained by using the best handling techniques, including a precise “headspace.” This may make the difference between a product that your family will eat and one that looks too unappetizing. This may also determine whether you go home from the fair with a ribbon. Believe me, the judges can tell quality by the appearance of the product.
Summer is still providing ample cultivated and wild berries and vegetables. While you may preserve these by canning, freezing might be a quicker and easier method if you have an abundance of berries or vegetables and little time. And, you can use previously frozen products for canning later — people often do this with fish and berries. We don’t judge frozen products at the fair. But, if we did, my concern would be less about safety and more about following proper technique to maintain quality. I’ll talk more about freezing in a future column.
Whether you are entering in your local fair or preserving food for your family, proper techniques can mean the difference between a safe and delicious product and one that is unsafe, unappealing or inedible. Be sure to review research-based food preservation methods from the USDA before preserving or call your local Cooperative Extension office to get the latest guidelines.
Leslie Shallcross is the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at 907-474-2426 or firstname.lastname@example.org