3 Easy Ways to Freeze Your Herbs

close-up of basil plant

One of summer’s underrated pleasures is using your own fresh herbs. Wether from your garden, patio planter or windowsill pots, their flavor-boosting power will enhance your cooking all season long.

If you already have a herb garden, nod along: there is always a point during these few months when you find yourself with more than you can possibly use. Sadly fresh herbs, like summer itself, are but a fleeting moment.

But! While admittedly no storage method can faithfully retain the flavor and texture of fresh herbs, there are some simple techniques to preserve surpluses.

Dehydrating, a.k.a drying is one of those methods. It works best with woody herbs like bay leaf and rosemary however, drying may not be the most effective option with tender herbs like mint or basil. (I’m not saying you can’t dry soft-stemmed herbs, because you absolutely can. It’s just that some methods produce better results than others.)

Freezing is another option, and you know how much I love my freezer. It’s a fast and easy way that retains the taste, smell and nutrients found in fresh herbs long after the growing season has ended – the bounty will stay fresh for up to 12 months. Sadly it’s not perfect either, because there will be a change in color and texture: the formation of ice crystals destroys cell walls, turning the herbs limp after defrosting. Frozen herbs are also prone to freezer burn, this happens when the ice crystals in them go directly from solid ice form to water vapor.

All in all, frozen herbs are ideal in sauces, soups, marinades and stews, rather than thawed as a garnish. Freeze them in small portions and just take out what you need – it’s a great way to have herbs immediately for cooking.

I’ve collected 3 easy ways for you to freeze your herbs:

Chop & freeze. This is the most straightforward thing to do, but also the highest risk of freezer burn. Store chopped herbs in portions in small zipper-lock bags, flattened, with the air pressed out as much as possible.

Frozen, covered with water. Chop herbs and place portions in an ice-cube tray, cover with water. Freeze, than transfer cubes to a zipper-lock bag to store. Tip: I use this method to make what I call lemonade starters – I place lemon slices and mint leaves in my muffin tray, fill holes with water and freeze.

Frozen, covered with oil. Preserving herbs in oil yields the best results in my experience – the method reduces some of the browning and the oil-based cubes also melt faster compared to water-covered cubes. Use the ice-cube tray slots and cover chopped herbs with a neutral vegetable oil or a mild olive oil. When solid, transfer cubes to a zipper-lock bag to store.

You can store the different varieties separate, or you can prepare herb mixes for foods you make often (think pasta sauce).

Have you tried any of these methods? How did they work out for you? Which are your favorite herbs to preserve? Let me know!

Love,

Fruzsi

Title image ‘Close-up of basil plant’ via Freepik

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The Science of Jam Making

apricot jam

Yes, the last snows have just melted and any fresh fruit is still a while away, but being prepared never hurt nobody, right? Read on so you’ll be well-educated and ready when all those lovely local strawberries hit the stands of your farmers market!

Up until recently, I thought jam making was kind of an occult science. Weird, because I watched my grandmother and mother make batch after batch after batch as I was growing up, and it seemed to be the most straightforward thing in the world. Still, I was intimidated to try myself because I could only think of the ways it could go wrong – what if my jam spoils and I food-poison my family?

I don’t think either granny or my mom ever worried about their jar disinfecting practices or pectin percentages, but I am admittedly a bit of a nerd. So if you too are curious about how jam making works, geek out with me for a bit and learn the simple science behind this preserving method. It’s gonna be fun!

First of all, why bother with jam making at all? Two reasons. First, although the quality of commercial jams are improving, those are still just the shadows of a good homemade jam, often containing more coloring, preservatives and artificial flavors than actual fruit. And also because buying jam gives no way near the satisfaction of making it yourself!

Once I made my first batch, there was no stopping me. Pictured above is a vanilla-cardamom apricot preserve from last summer. I have dozens of flavor variations in a notebook that I want to try, and the list is growing.

So what is jam?

The wonderful jams of summers past are actually creative exercises in chemistry. Today, jam generally refers to a spreadable, chunky-textured mix made from the juice and flesh of fruit. A clever balance of pectins, sugar, and acid turns the cooked fruit into our favorite topping for toast.

The fruit

The choice of fruit for jam-making is simply endless. Always try to use seasonal fruit to get the best flavour. Remove leaves and twigs, wash if needed, remove cores and/or stones.

The equipment

You’ll need a wide-mouthed pan big enough that the fruit does not reach more than halfway up the side. Use one with a heavy bottom for even heat distribution – otherwise the jam will catch and burn. Also, a wooden preserving spoon (it has a flat head that helps keep the mixture moving and stops it sticking to the bottom of the pan), a ladle, a funnel, jars, and optionally a food thermometer.

The chemistry

To achieve a perfectly set jam, a number of factors need to be just right. The three key elements that go into jam making are sugar, pectin, and acids. Understanding the chemistry behind why jam sets can also help you identify and fix problems.

The sugar

Sugar imparts a preservative effect: binding water molecules to itself reduces the amount of water available in the jam, to the point at which it is too low for microbial growth. Binding the water molecules also frees up the pectin chains so they can form their network.

Finished jams have a sugar content of roughly 60%. To achieve this, recipes comprise mostly equal weights of fruit and sugar. While you can totally play with this 1:1 ratio, be aware that too much fruit and you may lose the preserving effect, while too much sugar and the jam will be the consistency of set honey, losing the color and aroma of the fruit.

The pectin

Pectins are long, chain-like sugar molecules found in the skins and cores of fruit. These compounds are the ones that turn the wet, sloppy fruit sauce into the semi-rigid, elastic substance of our dreams, a texture referred to as a gel.

Through boiling, pectin is released from the fruit and at one point forms a mesh structure that holds the liquid together. As the pectin content of different fruits varies, some may require an added dose in the form of commercially packed pectin or a pectin-rich other fruit. See this chart for specific pectin contents.

The acid

High acidity makes your jam an unpleasant place for micro organisms to breed, helping to extend the shelf life. Acids also help the pectin branches to bond. Fruits naturally contain acids (the most well-known is citric acid), but often this won’t be enough to reach the desired pH. For this reason, lemon juice or powdered forms of citric acid is added. As a rough guide, the juice of a whole lemon (30-40 ml) will be needed for low acid fruits, half a lemon will be enough for medium acid fruits, and you won’t need any for high acid fruits. In general, fruits with high pectin will also have high acidity.

The process

Heat the fruits slowly, without sugar, until a very gentle boil is reached, then cook until just tender. The heat will break down the structure of the fruit, release the moisture and cause the whole fruit to soften. Add the sugar (it may foam up, so be careful). Allow the sugar to dissolve over a low heat then bring to the boil. If you want larger fruit pieces, avoid stirring at this point. Not only does the texture change by boiling, the water content is also reduced, increasing the concentration of sugar and fruit components. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the setting point is reached.

How do I know it’s ready?

There are simple ways of telling when the pectin network has formed and you are ready to pour the jam out. Get the thermometer: if the temperature is around 104-105°C, the sugar content is high enough to allow the pectin branches to join. A direct measurement can also tell the doneness: pour a small blob of jam on a saucer, let cool in the fridge and then push with your finger. If the surface wrinkles, it means the pectin network has solidified and setting point has been reached.

You can now take the jam off the heat. Note that if you don’t boil it long enough the pectin network will not form properly and you’ll end up with a sloppy liquid. Boil it too long though and you risk having a too thick preserve, losing the fresh flavour and color.

Time to can

Allow the jam to cool and thicken for about 10 minutes before pouring into prepared jars (read how to disinfect jars and lids here). Don’t leave it any longer, as lukewarm jam is a breeding ground for mildew spores present in the air. Each jar should be topped up to just less than a centimetre below the surface. Adjust lids, process, than cool jars.

Don’t forget to test your seals before labeling and putting jars away in your pantry! Gently press the middle of the lids with a finger – if the lid springs up when you release your finger, it’s not sealed properly. No need to throw these out, just keep refrigerated and consume shortly.

Store jars in a cool, dry, dark place away from direct sunlight and accidental freezing. Once a bottle of jam is opened, micro organisms have been reintroduced. The same applies as with unsealed jars: keep in the fridge and consume shortly.

Hope all this makes sense and you’ll try your hand at jam making too! Let me know!

Love,

Fruzsi

 

Preserving 101: Selecting, Preparing and Packing Foods

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Welcome to the third part of the series! This time, it’s all about ensuring the high quality of canned foods. You’ll learn how to select and prepare products to best maintain color and flavor in canned goods, become acquainted with acidity levels and basic packing processes. Let’s get started!

Food acidity. To decide on the suitable preserving process for your goods, you have to get familiar with the acidity of foods. Low-acid canned foods are not acidic enough to prevent the growth of bacteria, while acid foods contain enough acid to block their growth or destroy them when heated. Acidity may be natural, as in most fruits, or added, as in pickled food. Acidity levels can be increased by adding lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar. The measure of acidity is pH; the lower its value, the more acidic the food. Foods that have a pH level of 4,6 or higher are considered low-acid. I find this chart useful:

food-acidity-chart
Acidity of Foods Chart found on fix.com

Selecting products for canning. Either you buy from a grocery store, at the farmer’s market, or pick from your own garden, always examine food carefully for freshness and wholesomeness. Food products are mostly at their peak of quality within 6 to 12 hours after harvest, but apricots, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums can be ripened 1 or more days before canning. Keep fresh produce in a cool place, not exposed to direct sunlight. When preparing, discard moldy food, trim small diseased or bruised spots.

Retaining optimum color and flavor. Oxygen and enzymes are the enemy when it comes to looking good. Most fresh foods contain 10 to more than 30% air, and high quality depends on how much of that air is removed before the jar is sealed. Don’t expose prepared foods to air unnecessarily: while preparing a batch, keep peeled, halved, sliced or diced produce in a solution of 3 grams (1 tsp) ascorbic acid to 4 litres of cold water to prevent discoloration.

And now packing processes, or in other words, the methods used for preparing and placing food in a jar prior to sealing.

Raw-packing is the practice of filling jars tightly with freshly prepared, but unheated food. Such produce, especially fruit, will float in the jars, and the entrapped air may cause discoloration. The juice, syrup, or water to be added to the foods should be heated to boiling before adding it to the jars.

Hot-packing is the practice of heating freshly prepared food to boiling, simmering 2 to 5 minutes, and promptly filling jars. This method helps to remove air from food tissues, shrinks food, helps keep the food from floating, increases vacuum in sealed jars, thus improving shelf life. Use this process whenever possible! Within the storage period, both color and flavor of hot-packed foods will be superior to that of raw-packed.

That’s that for the day. In the next part of the series we are filling the jar!

Fruzsi

Preserving 101: How to Sterilize Jars

preserving101-how-to-sterilize-jars-title

Welcome back! In the second part of the blog series, we are going to discuss jars, lids and the sterilization process.

According to USDA, glass jars are the best choice for home canning because with careful handling, they may be reused many times. When canning properly, you can achieve an excellent vacuum and glass breakage is very rare. Tempered, Mason-type jars dedicated to home canning are sold widely, but most commercial jars may just as well be used. Every glass jar could be weakened by repeated use however. Seemingly insignificant scratches can cause cracking, and lids get tired after a while too. Make sure your glassware is free of nicks, check the condition of rubber seals on the lids.

how-to-sterilize-jars

Before every use, wash jars in hot water with detergent and rinse well (or wash in a dishwasher), let dry upside down on a clean teatowel. After this your jars are not ready to be filled yet! Choose from the 3 methods below to sterilize them. Be extra careful not to burn yourself. Jars and lids will be very hot, wear kitchen gloves to protect your hands.

Oven dry heat sterilization. Put pre-washed jars upright on a metal tray not touching each other, transfer to preheated oven for 45 min. on 160°C, 25 min. on 180°C, or 10 min. on 200°C.

how-to-sterilize-jars-in-oven

Boiling-water sterilization. Put jars right side up in a large pot with a rack at the bottom, fill with enough water to cover them completely. Bring water to a boil and simmer for 10 min. Remove and drain hot sterilized jars.

Steam sterilization. Some modern, top-of-the-line dishwashers have steam cycles (look for `Sanitize´ option) capable of reaching and maintaining 70°C or above. If yours is like that, simply fill it up with jars and let it do the rest for you.

Sterilizing lids. Use the boiling-water method. Dry heat can damage the rubber gaskets and thin out plastic parts, resulting in bad seal.

how-to-sterilize-jars-lids

There! You did everything to make sure your containers are safe to fill with all the deliciousness, and it wasn’t even complicated. And now, onto packing processes in the next part of the series. Stay tuned!

Fruzsi

Preserving 101: Principles of Canning

preserving101-principles-of-canning-title

Summer gardening season is in full swing, and we are starting to enjoy this year’s harvest. For some of us there will be a surplus, and when it comes to what the hell am I going to do with all these {…} (fill in gap), preserving is the answer. I am not an experienced canner, but the women in my family are. Watching the process (and enjoying the outcome) a million times over, I feel the time has come to join the club. Funny, this turning 30 thing. First yeast dough, and now this… 🙂

Home canning is a fulfilling experience and an economical way to preserve quality produce, not to mention a source of pride when the food is enjoyed by family and friends. In order not to let your hard work go to waste, we need to talk about proper canning practices. This topic should not be taken lightly, as all the advantages will be lost when poor quality products are used, seals are failing, and food is spoiling. I’ve read USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning so you don’t have to, and I actually found it fascinating. Am I a weirdo? Sure, but hey, my father is a microbiologist. Certain things just run in the blood I suppose.

And so, I’ve decided to break down the very basics of preserving for you in a series of posts. Preserving 101 is meant to be your (and my) guide for home canning, and I will be referring back to it in future posts. Hope you’ll find it useful!

How does canning work? Due to the high percentage of water in them, most fresh foods are very perishable. Bacteria, mold and yeasts start multiplying quickly on the surface and inside bruised, damaged parts. Enzymes activize, and reactions with oxygen start soon after harvesting. Washing and peeling only reduces the number of germs slightly. Proper canning on the other hand removes oxygen, destroys enzymes and prevent the growth of microorganisms.

Food safety. I cannot stress enough how important it is to ensure the destruction of the largest expected number of microorganisms. Consuming spoiled food may cause health issues ranging from a light tummy ache to lethal food poisoning. Botulism, a deadly form of toxication is caused by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. These spores are harmlessly present in the soil, but when ideal conditions exist (moist, low acidity food and absence of air) they start producing a deadly toxin. Fortunately, health hazards can be avoided by following a few simple routines.

What are proper canning practices? Carefully select and wash fresh, properly matured food, discard of diseased, insect-damaged pieces and bruised parts. Peel, if applicable. Use sterilized, undamaged jars and lids. Always maintain adequate temperatures and processing times. Add preservatives such as citric acid, vinegar, sugar or salt. Form high vacuum in jars to achieve tight seals in order to keep liquid, air and microorganisms out.

If you are not frightened off yet (you shouldn’t be!), drop by later for the next piece on the subject of canning and learn how to sterilize jars. It’s very uncomplicated, you’ll see!

Fruzsi

How to Dry Herbs

close-up green bay leaves

While the herbs from your herb garden are best used fresh, this time of the year there is always more than you can handle. But, there are ways you can make your herb garden last and enjoy the home-grown, summer flavors all year. Read on to learn one of the basic methods: how to dry herbs in a few simple steps. Your own dried herbs will not cost you a dime and will taste better than store-bought because they’ll be newer and more pungent.

If you are interested in preserving foods, dehydrating is the easiest place to jump in. For effective drying, all you need is air circulation and warmth. When herbs are dried, they are safe from bacteria, mold and yeast, and will remain potent for a whole year. It can take a few hours to several days for them to dry fully. Most herbs contain so little moisture that your job is done soon after you’ve harvested them.

What should you dry? Strong leaved herbs tend to be the easiest to deal with. Bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, sage and lavender will usually retain their color and shape without any difficulty. Tender leaved varieties can be a bit trickier. Basil, parsley, mint, tarragon and lemon balm need to be dried quicker to avoid mold.

How to start? Harvest before flowers open. Best time is mid-morning after the dew has dried but before essential oils are burned off by the sun. Washing usually isn’t necessary (if needed, rinse and shake lightly). Remove old, dead, diseased or wilted leaves. Strip large-leaved herbs, such as sage and mint, from their stalks but leave small, feathery herbs like dill, on the stalks until drying is complete.

 And now, 3 methods to choose from:

Air drying. Tie stems in bundles. Use rubber bands rather than string, they will tighten around the stems that contract as they dry. Optional: put the bundles in a mesh bag and tie at the neck. Now find a warm, dry spot and hang them upside down. Avoid direct sunlight and humid places such as your kitchen.

Making a drying screen is also a good idea. Any wood frame will do (even a picture frame), just staple cheese cloth or mosquito mesh to it. If you are not feeling savvy in this area, ask your SO to help. There’s a great tutorial over at The Herbal Academy to give you an idea. From here, it’s as low-tech as placing the screen outside until herbs are brittle (always bring them in for the night).

Oven drying. Not an energy-efficient method, but quicker. Lay out herbs evenly on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Prop door open slightly with a wooden spoon to allow ventilation, set oven on low (below 80°C). It takes 1 to 4 hours for them to dry this way.

Drying using a dehydrator. If you don’t have one yet, it is a very good investment. Most dehydrators have adjustable temperature control mechanisms, a fan to circulate air and multiple stacking trays. Follow your machine’s instructions.

For best flavor, keep the leaves whole until you are ready to use them, then crush or crumble with your fingers. Keep in labeled, dated airtight containers.

It’s all really effortless, I hope you try your hands at it! Be sure to drop by and check the recipes using herbs preserved with this method.

Love,

Fruzsi

Title image ‘Close-up green bay leaves’ via Freepik