When I walk outside right now the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, and my cherry tomatoes are overflowing! It’s time to learn how to make sun dried tomatoes!
Have you heard about sprouting? It’s a way to garden without having to leave your kitchen. How cool is that?
I have been experimenting with growing fresh greens in my kitchen for me and my bunnies. It’s called fodder when you do it for livestock and sprouts when you do it for yourself. Either way, you’re making fresh, delicious greens right in your kitchen.
What are sprouts? Sprouts are the stage of a plant between seeds and full-blown plants. The seeds have just shot up into little stalks of greens but haven’t developed true leaves yet. You may have seen bean sprouts on a salad bar. This is that! Although there are lots of different plants you can try.
Why sprout? Because it’s fun and adorable to have little baby plants popping up in your kitchen. Then, it’s convenient to have fresh greens on hand when you want to add a little flavor, nutrition, or crunch to a dish.
(All the following Amazon links in this post are affiliate links.)
What can you sprout? You can grow sprouts of peas, lentils, some beans, radish, broccoli, alfalfa, wheat, barley, or sunflowers. There are some great salad mixes available, too. You could get started with something like this organic mix assortment.
What can you do with sprouts? You can add them to any meal that needs an extra bit of flavor, crunch, or freshness. I tried adding my sunflower sprouts to my salads and in place of lettuce on a sandwich. They were a perfect addition in both cases! You can also add them into your smoothies! Another idea I haven’t tried yet is to use an herb spread on crackers with sprouts on top.
Do they grow in soil? It is possible to grow sprouts without soil, which is what I’ve been doing. However, there are many benefits to using a sprouting soil. You’ll need to use less water and your sprouts will be more robust and tasty.
What other supplies do you need? You’ll need containers with drainage holes and a water collecting tray underneath. I’ve been using simple seed starter six packs, which are available online, or at any hardware, garden, or home improvement store. You can go cheap and simple by growing your sprouts in mason jars. Or you can go all fancy-schmancy with a cute counter-top system..
What do you actually do to sprout things? The simple answer? You soak your seeds for 12 hours, put them in your chosen container, then regularly give them water. A few days later you’ll have a little crop of fresh greens! Check out this page for very complete instructions.
Leave a comment telling me whether you’ve tried sprouts before and what you think you might do with them if you give them a try!
Sometimes, I’m surprised at people’s ideas about cast iron. There’s a perception that it’s difficult to care for or maintain, or that it’s a fragile, finicky form of cookware. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Cast iron is, in almost every respect, a miracle-product. In this post, I’ll tell you all about why cast iron is wonderful and you should use it.
Benefits of Using Cast Iron
- It conducts heat very well, and because of its mass, it also conducts heat very evenly. In short, it is excellent cookware. Cast iron tends not to form hot-spots, meaning that slow-cooked chili or beans are less likely to burn on the bottom of the pot. The high thermal mass of cast iron means that it tends to stay the same temperature as opposed to fluctuating quickly. This is helpful on an electric stove, where the heat source is not constant, but alternates between on and off periodically.
- It is remarkably cheap. A cast iron skillet can be had for between $15 and $30 depending on the size. Compared to thin steel or aluminum pans at the same price, cast iron cooks ten times better. Larger cast iron pieces like dutch ovens can be more expensive, but their cost may be justified by the next point.
- It is nearly indestructible. If need be, you can take sandpaper or a buffing wheel to it, although that is hardly ever necessary. As a last resort, cast iron can be left in the oven while a clean cycle is run. This cooks off everything on the metal, essentially resetting it to “new”. As long as cast iron isn’t broken into pieces and has no holes in it, it’s salvageable.
- It is incredibly versatile. You can use cast iron on the campfire or the grill just as easily as you can on a stove. In a pinch, you can flip a cast iron skillet upside down and use its bottom as a griddle for making pancakes. It can even be used as a quick-thaw device.
- It doesn’t have the potential to leach harmful chemicals into your food, like Teflon does. In fact, cooking with cast iron is rumored to add to your dietary iron intake (although it’s questionable whether it’s a significant amount).
Cons to Using Cast Iron
All that being said, there are some down-sides to cast iron.
- It’s heavy. This is an issue for people who don’t have the hand and arm strength to handle the cookware comfortably.
- It requires some minor maintenance (seasoning).
- Cleaning it is not as easy as some types of cookware.
Seasoning Cast Iron
Seasoning cast iron is the process of building up a layer of carbonized fat and protein on the surface. This serves two purposes: it keeps the metal from rusting and it makes food less likely to stick to the pan.
There are a variety of methods out there on how best to season cast iron. All of them involve coating the cookware with fat, like lard, shortening, or vegetable oil, and then heating it. The fat is sometimes reapplied during the process. The main variance in the recipes seems to be the temperature at which the cast iron is seasoned. My philosophy is that the goal of seasoning is to build up a carbonized layer of fat, so if your oil isn’t smoking, you’re not doing it right. I like to season cast iron on the grill, because it’s more than capable of putting out a lot of heat and all the smoke produced stays outside the house. I coat the cookware in shortening or vegetable oil and then set it over the grill until it starts smoking. After it’s smoked for a while and much of the oil has burned off, I put on another thin coat. I keep repeating this until there is a smooth, black layer of carbonized fat on the pan. If you’ve ever tried to clean off drippings that have cooked onto a roasting pan or something like that, you know how slick and hard to get off they are. That’s what you’re trying to cover your pan in.
Once the pan is seasoned, it requires regular maintenance. This is easy to build into your cooking and cleaning process, so it shouldn’t be too onerous. If you simply cook in the pan without maintaining it, the seasoning will gradually wear off. The most prominent symptom of this is that food will stick to the pan like crazy and it will be very difficult to clean. One step in maintaining the pan is to always wipe the pan down with a thin layer of oil or shortening after you use it. The pan should still be warm when you do this. If you do a lot of greasy cooking, the pan may get enough fat from the cooking process to skip this step, but I think that most modern cooks don’t do that much greasy cooking. It’s said that cooking a mess of bacon in a pan is one of the best ways to give its seasoning a kick.
Cleaning Cast Iron
I have found that properly cleaning the pan is a key component of maintaining the seasoning. Before I settled on my current cleaning routine, I could not keep may pans seasoned, and I have to admit that I questioned the truth of the legendary “cast-iron non-stick seasoning.” What I have found to work is the following:
- I never use soap to clean the cast iron.
- I never use water to clean the cast iron.
- I never use a metal scouring pad or metal scrub-brush to clean the cast iron.
Well, at this point, you are probably wondering how I clean the cast iron, if I don’t use soap or water. The answer is salt. Not table salt, though. Kosher salt.
The image above shows the two types of salt: table salt on the left and Kosher salt on the right. The Kosher salt has much larger grains, which makes it perfect for scouring a cast iron pan. When I’m done cooking, I pour a liberal sprinkling of Kosher salt into the pan and then use a towel to scour the pan well. Sometimes it also works well to scrape the salt around with the end of a wooden spatula. A wooden spatula is okay because the wood is soft enough that it won’t take off the seasoning.
In the beginning, before I built up a good seasoning, I had quite a bit of work to do, scouring out the pans, but now that my seasoning is good, cleanup is relatively easy. I find that the salt is not only an excellent scouring medium, but it also absorbs a lot of the grease that might be left over in the pan. It absorbs a lot of grease, but not all of it, which means that there is often a light coating of grease left when I’m done cleaning, and I don’t have to wipe down the pan with any additional oil.
One note: the dishrag that you use to scour the cast iron will instantly be permanently stained and will also become a bit stiff and greasy. I like to dedicate one or two rags to that purpose, so that I don’t ruin all of my dishrags.
I have heard it said that the best cast iron seasoning can be “as non-stick as Teflon.” I, personally, have never seen anything as non-stick as Teflon, and when I want to make a perfect fried egg or an omelet, I turn to Teflon. Additionally, no matter how easy my cast iron has become to clean, it’s nothing close to the “one-wipe with a towel” of my Teflon pan.
That being said, what makes cooking with cast iron worth it to me is the feeling that I’m working with an almost-living piece of cookware. There’s just something so satisfying about hanging the pan up on the rack, gleaming, black, and clean. Although I’m romanticizing it a bit, it’s almost as if the pan is storing up the memories of the meals I’ve cooked in it.
Issa’s Note: Check out Lodge cast iron on Amazon.
By Joshua Bardwell, originally posted in May 2011 at Jack-Booted Liberal.
Today, I’m making strawberry preserves!
A caveat: Preserving/canning is easy and basically anybody can do it. That being said, if you do it wrong, you can make whomever eats your food seriously ill. If you want to start canning, find a complete set of instructions and follow them closely. This post is not intended to be a complete set of instructions, although it will contain some helpful tips. You can find instructions for canning all over the Internet. A good source of information is the University of Missouri Extension service. The boxes of pectin that you buy also often contain canning instructions. Follow them closely!
Step 1: Start your water boiling with your jars in it. Depending on how many jars you’re going to can, you may need a lot of water, so it’s good to start this going before anything else, so that the water has time to come to a boil.
The number of jars you need will depend on how much fruit you have to preserve. The recipe will tell you how much fruit you need per pint or per half-pint. My recipe, which I got from the back of my jar of pectin, says I need 1 2/3 cups of crushed strawberries per pint of preserves. I determine that I have a total of 9 cups of crushed fruit, so I divide 1.666 into 9 and determine that I am making 5.4 pints of finished preserves. I will need 5 or 6 pint jars.
Some instructions will tell you that you need to boil the jars in order to sterilize them. The Ball Book of Home Preserving disagrees with this. If you think about it, you’re going to process the closed jars after you fill them. That’s when sterilization occurs. Pre-sterilizing is unnecessary. The real reason, I believe, for pre-boiling your jars, is that it avoids temperature shock. If you take a room temperature jar and put it into a boiling water bath, the jar can crack. Any method of pre-heating the jars will work. Some people put them in the dishwasher. Some people even put them in the oven, although that takes longer, because air is a worse transmitter of heat than water. Since I’ve got to get the water boiling anyway, that’s how I prefer to pre-heat my jars.
There needs to be enough water in the pot to cover the jars by at least 1″ when they are full of preserves. Since the jars are empty when they go into the pre-boil, they displace less water than they will when they’re full, so I usually fill the pot just enough to cover the jars during the pre-boil, and then when I fill the jars, they displace enough water to raise the level to 1″ or more over the jars.
The pot you use for canning can be anything that’s big enough to hold the mason jars and have at least 1″ of water over the top of the jars. I have a huge pressure canner that I like to use, because it lets me can many jars at a time. Be aware, however, that with most forms of fruit preserves, you do not need a pressure canner, because they have sufficiently high acid levels to kill botulism spores. Any pot that will hold boiling water will work for high-acid canning, which is what we’re doing here.
You’ll also notice that I’m using a propane camp stove, even though I have a perfectly functional range top. The reason for this is that I have a glass-top electric range, and the weight of the canner and all that water might break the glass. Also, the propane stove puts out more BTUs than the electric stove, so it boils the water faster. A final benefit is that the propane stove can be put outside during the heat of the summer, which is when most canning goes on.
On a side note, I do a lot of camping, so owning a camp stove is a no-brainer, but it’s wonderful from a preparedness perspective as well. We recently had some bad tornadoes in the southeast, and some of my friends were without electricity (and, hence, their electric range) for a week. A propane camp stove would have gone a long way towards increasing their comfort. If you decide to go this route, I highly recommend buying an adapter that allows you to run your appliance off of a 20 lb propane tank. Most small appliances come with a fitting that attaches to a 1 lb tank. 20 lb tanks have a larger fitting that is usually used for gas grills and larger appliances. 20 lb tanks are better in that they are cheaper per pound and they are refillable, so you don’t have the waste of the empty 1 lb tanks. You can find the adapter in the camping section of some Wal-Mart stores, or online (of course). Here’s an example of such an item:
That item has an attached extension hose, so it’s an adapter and an extension. If you just want the adapter (to attach to the hose that came with your appliance), you can buy that as well, and it’s about 1/3 the cost. Just be careful that you’re buying the right adapter, as there are several different kinds (for example, you don’t want the one that will let you run your big gas grill off a small 1 lb adapter. You’re trying to go the other way, and run a small appliance off a big tank.
Step 2: The next step is to prepare the fruit that’s being preserved. In this case, that involves hulling strawberries and then rinsing them. I’ve got compost on the left for the tops and a colander on the right for the rinsing. I like using a grapefruit spoon to hull strawberries, but Issa prefers a knife.
Step 3: Next, I mash the strawberries with a potato masher. I like to have a lot of solid fruit in the preserves, so I don’t mash them very much. After mashing, I pour them out into a measuring cup, to keep track of how much I’ve got, so I know how many jars I need and how much pectin and sugar to put in.
Step 4: Pour the mashed fruit into the pot and add the appropriate amount of pectin. The recipe will say, “for each pint of preserves, you need X amount of fruit, Y amount of pectin, Z amount of sugar,” and so forth. I’ve got the strawberries in a very tall pot because sometimes when you add the sugar, they froth up a lot, and I’ve had it overflow some of my smaller pots.
A word on pectin. Pectin is a chemical that occurs naturally in plants. It is added to preserves, jams, and jellies as a gelling agent. It’s what causes the preserve to “set up” and be thicker than a sauce. You can make no-added-pectin jams, in which case you boil down the fruit until it naturally thickens. Adding pectin means that you don’t have to cook the fruit as long, which makes for a fresher taste and faster cooking. Adding pectin also increases the odds of successful set. That being said, it’s not absolutely essential that a preserve sets. I’ve eaten many a piece of toast with runny jam on it, and it was just as delicious, if a little bit harder to manage.
There are at least two types of pectin: full-sugar and low/no-sugar. Full-sugar pectin requires a lot of sugar in the recipe to set the preserves—perhaps 1 to 1.25 cups of sugar per cup of fruit. Low-sugar pectin is capable of setting the preserves with less sugar in the recipe—1/2 cup of sugar per cup or less. I prefer low-sugar jams for several reasons. First, sugar is the most expensive part of the preserves for me, since I grow my own fruit. Using less sugar means cheaper preserves. Second, when I eat preserves, I want to be eating fruit first and sugar second, both for health and flavor reasons. That being said, I have made strawberry preserves with very little sugar, and I didn’t like the taste at all. Much too tart! I find about 1/2 cup sugar per cup of fruit to be about right.
Step 5: Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. As you do this, the strawberries will release a lot more juice. Keep stirring to keep the mixture from scorching on the bottom and in the corners of the pot. It is necessary to boil the mixture vigorously to thoroughly cook the pectin. Once the mixture reaches a full boil that cannot be stirred down, pour in the sugar. Continue stirring until it comes back to a full boil that cannot be stirred down and boil for one minute. Remove from heat.
During this step, be careful not to let the boiling mixture splash up onto your hand or arm. Boiling hot sugary sticky mess makes unpleasant burns.
Step 6: Remove the empty jars from the boiling water and fill them with the hot fruit mixture. A canning funnel (pictured above) is very useful for this. A canning jar lifter is also very useful for handling the hot jars. One note: when you lift the empty jars out of the water bath, they will be full of boiling water, which you will need to pour out. Be very careful not to accidentally pour it onto your hand or arm. Sounds obvious, but it’s a common mistake.
When filling the jars, it’s important to leave enough headspace (empty space at the top of the jar). The recipe will specify the amount of headspace required.
Step 7: Put on the lids and screw down the rings tightly. The cans are now ready for processing
Step 8: Using the can lifter, return the filled cans to the boiling water bath. Cover it (optional, but it makes things go faster) and return it to a full boil. Once the water returns to a full boil, start the timer, and process (continue to boil) the cans for as long as the recipe says to.
Keep in mind that various things affect processing times. Most notable are altitude (higher altitudes have to process longer) and the size of your jars. If your recipe says to process for 15 minutes in pint jars, you will need to process longer if you elect to use quart jars. It’s best to follow the recipe closely. Remember, we’re talking about food poisoning here!
After processing, remove the jars from the water bath and set them on the counter to cool. As they cool, the lids will “pop”. What’s happening is that the air remaining in the jar (the headspace, remember) is cooling and, as it does, it is contracting, creating a vacuum inside the jars. The lids “pop” down as this happens.
After 24 hours, remove the bands and check the lids. The centers should all be popped down and the lids should be tightly stuck to the jars. If any of the jars did not seal properly, you can simply place them in the refrigerator and consume them within the next few weeks. You do not need the bands anymore; the lids should be quite securely stuck to the jars. If you store the jars with the bands on, they can rust and stick to the lid and the jar, making it very difficult to open the jar and also leaving rust on the threads that is a pain to clean off. Also, one of the signs that a jar has gone bad is that a lid comes un-stuck. What happens is that, if the sterilization process went wrong somehow, micro-organisms inside the jar will start to multiply and feed, and they will produce gases as they do. This will spoil the vacuum in the jar and cause the lid to pop off. If you come across a jar on the shelf with a loose or popped lid, don’t eat it! Throw it out! But if you keep the bands on your jars, you might not notice this.
The process described herein is basically the same for all fruit preserves. The only difference is the ratio of fruit, pectin, and sugar. If this kind of thing interests you, I also heartily recommend looking into canning pickles, which is another high-acid food that’s incredibly easy to do. Maybe I’ll write a post about that in the future.
by Joshua Bardwell
One of the first things I learned when I started canning was that I didn’t have nearly enough mason jars. With a garden of any decent size, it’s easy to fill as many quarts as you can stand to can, and those jars don’t come cheap. Well, okay, the quarts are about a dollar a piece if you order them online, but you’ve got to understand that I canned about twenty quarts of pickles alone this year, and I was hardly trying. Serious canners will easily put up two hundred quarts or more of fruit preserves, pickles, tomatoes, beans, and so forth. One of the bloggers I read strives to keep two years of preserves on the shelf, minimum. So it would be totally normal for a serious canner to have three to five hundred jars of various sizes in his or her collection.
The easiest way to increase one’s store of mason jars is to outlive someone else who cans. You can score hundreds of mason jars from the un-knowing offspring, who’ll practically pay you to clear out the deceased’s cellar, not knowing what kind of bounty they’re parting with. Now, you might think when I say, “bounty,” that I’m talking about all those yummy comestibles that are safely locked up in the jars, but you’d be wrong. You see, canning is the original pack-rat syndrome. Some people whose blogs I read make an intentional effort to move through their stores, never letting them get too big or too small. But more common is the person who, every year, puts up as much food as he or she can possibly can, and then forgets about it for years.
My neighbor’s mother recently passed away, and my neighbor graciously gifted me some of the jars from her stores. The most recent was some green beans from ’06, which were close enough to edible that we actually fed them to the pigs, although we weren’t keen to consume them ourselves. The most dated was some “blackberry preserves” from ’86, which was food in name only. In some cases, the lid of the jar had rusted clean through and the contents had turned into a dry, black mass, the original nature of which was completely indeterminable.
But mason jars are made of glass, and so they are infinitely reusable. Empty them out, give them a good scrub in (very!) hot water, and maybe a bleach spray if you’re still suspicious, and they’re money in the bank. So away I went with a five-gallon bucket for the rejected contents and a trash bag for the rings and lids.
That may look like a milk crate of nasty dirty dishes to you, but it’s money in the bank to me!