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May kicks off quite an exciting time of year for North Carolina. During this time, you may be planning to cultivate a small garden, already have seeds in the ground, or you may be like me and rely on local farmers for fresh produce.
Both strawberries and blueberries are available this month. These two berries help maintain a healthy heart and are excellent sources of antioxidants. Antioxidants help to fight “the bad guys,” also known as free radicals, in the body to reduce the risk of cancer. Unfortunately, the harvest season doesn’t last long for these foods. Home food preservation may be of interest to you when considering ways to make those foods last throughout the year.
There are a few methods of preserving foods at home: freezing, dehydrating and canning. Dehydrating your own strawberries can make for an excellent snack for children while reducing added sugars in their diets. Just be sure you properly dehydrate the strawberries by dipping them in a citric acid solution, such as lemon juice, to preserve their beautiful color; dehydrate using the correct combination of time and temperature to ensure your berries do not mold. Check the manual for instructions specific to your dehydrator as dehydrators vary. When it comes to freezing strawberries and blueberries, the recommended processes are slightly different.
When freezing strawberries, simply dry pack the fruit into a freezer container or bag, seal and freeze. You may choose to freeze strawberries in a sugar pack or pectin syrup which helps the fruit maintain its texture better than a dry pack without added sugar. An alternative method is to arrange the berries on a single layer tray, place in the freezer, and as soon as the berries are frozen through, immediately package them in a freezer container to avoid freezer burn. You can use this method with blueberries as well, and you’ll likely have a better product when it is time to thaw and eat. With blueberries, however, you’ll want to avoid washing them prior to freezing as washing the blueberries toughens the skins. After you freeze them, be sure to wash them once they have thawed and are ready to eat. More information about dehydrating and freezing can be found at www.nchfp.uga.edu.
Another method to preserving these delicious fruits is to turn them into a breakfast staple —jam! Jams are a great addition to plain yogurt, crafting your own dressing or marinade and even an nice boost of flavor to an ice cream treat.
When it comes to making jam, there are several important considerations. First, consider if you’d like a shelf-stable product or something a little less labor intensive such as a freezer jam. Next, be sure you are using a recipe from the 100th edition of the Ball Blue Book, “So Easy to Preserve” or the National Center for Home Food Preservation to ensure your product is microbiologically safe and doesn’t lead to spoilage after a few months.
When following recipes, be sure not to modify any measurements, don’t add your own twist, and be sure to follow the instructions exactly which includes the processing time for shelf-stable items. Any modifications effect how safe the end product will be as each step, ingredient and measurement has a purpose.
When canning, altering the amount of sugar in a jam recipe will affect the product’s safety and its ability to gel with the pectin. If you choose to reduce the sugar in a recipe, you must keep the product in the refrigerator or freezer for safety. When processing jams in a water bath canner, take a crucial look at the processing time per size of the jar. If a recipe recommends processing pint jars for 10 minutes, but you decide you want to use half-pint jars, the final product will be overly processed, altering the quality of the product. If you do not process jar long enough, this will impact the jar’s ability to press out all of the oxygen and seal. If the jar seals with oxygen left inside, you’ll get food spoilage, and all of your efforts are wasted.
As you can see, all steps and recommendations have a function. If you stumble upon a recipe (from the recommended sources above), that recommends a processing time of less than 10 minutes, the jars need to be sterilized beforehand. This is more than running the jar through your dishwasher. This means placing your jars into the canner and boiling for 10 minutes. This important step kills off microorganisms that can lead to food spoilage.
These are all crucial considerations when choosing a jam recipe. If you prefer a less intense process to make jam, I’d recommend choosing a freezer jam recipe; however, if you want a shelf-stable product in the case of a power outage, follow all steps of the canning process and recipe exactly. For more information about home canning jams, please visit https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can7_jam_jelly.html.
Cassidy Hall is area agent, family and consumer sciences with N.C. Cooperative Extension.