Monday, October 9, 2017

Pressure Canning Part II - How It Works

A couple of weeks ago, I did a Pressure Canner 101 post that was helpful in answering a lot of questions posed in the Food In Jars Facebook community, a group of which I'm a member.  There have been a couple more questions about choosing a pressure canner and whether or not to purchase a vintage or used one, so I thought it might be helpful to do a second post.

Pressure Cooker or Pressure Canner?

The question often comes up about what the difference is between a pressure cooker and a pressure canner.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) has some rather strong thoughts on the matter, but this is the short version:
  • At their core, they operate the same and can have identical features.  They can be made of aluminum or stainless steel, though aluminum tends to be more popular for canners (probably because it's cheaper and lighter when full of jars and water).
  • Some (not all) canners contain a pressure dial that indicates the pressure in pounds per square inch (psi) inside the pot.  Cookers generally do not.  This allows for more flexibility and insurance of accuracy.
  • Only canners that can hold 4 quart jars upright with the lid on have been tested by the NCHFP for proper heat penetration of the food inside the jars.  Since most stove top pressure cookers are 5 quarts or less, they can't be recommended for use as canners, even if their technology is identical.  Also, the time it takes the canner to come up to pressure and go back to normal pressure is considered part of the processing time in tested recipes and that time might be shorter with smaller pots.
  • No electric pressure cookers or multi-cookers have been tested by the NCHFP and as such, they are not recommended, even if the manufacturer claims they are a canner.  The concern is that the size and/or the heating element and electronics might not maintain pressure consistently throughout the processing time.

How do They Work?

As mentioned in my previous post, pressure cookers and canners work under a pretty simple premise.  If you trap steam inside a tightly sealed pot, the steam gains pressure and as the pressure rises, so does the boiling point of water.  In an open pot, water boils (and maxes out) at 212 degrees.  In a pressure cooker at 10psi, it boils (and maxes out) at about 240 degrees.  This means you can achieve much higher temperatures than you ever could in an open boiling water bath.  It's why pressure cooked food cooks faster and also why a pot with a lid on it boils faster (there's a small pressure increase, even under a loose-fitting lid).

Here are the parts of a pressure canner that make it work:

Lock and Gasket

In order to hold steam in, you need some way to lock the pot closed and trap the steam inside.  This is typically done with a lid that twists and locks like the Presto model shown below or a series of crank-down screw clamps like those on an All American canner.

Presto Pressure Canner Lid Lock and Rubber Gasket Seal

All American Canner With Crank-Down Clamps
Routine maintenance of the locking mechanism typically involves replacing the rubber or silicone gasket whenever it becomes cracked, brittle, or starts leaking steam or air during processing.

Steam Vent (aka Petcock or Stem)
The steam vent, also known as a petcock or stem, is like a tiny smoke stack in the lid.  Its job is to vent excess air out of the pot and then serve as part of the system that regulates the pressure inside the pot, letting out just enough steam to keep the pot at the desired pressure (mine clearly needs a good scrubbing).
Steam Vent / Petcock / Stem
Routine maintenance of a steam vent involves keeping it clean and free of crud and debris as well as replacing it if it seems to be corroding or can no longer be cleaned.

Regulator (aka Jiggler)
In most, if not all all pressure canners, the regulator is a metal weight with a hole in the bottom that fits onto the steam vent.  The metal weight is designed to be heavy enough to keep a certain PSI of pressure inside the pot (typically, 15psi).  When the pressure builds such that it will go over the target PSI, the regulator will tilt to the side or spin to allow excess steam to escape.  This constant rocking or spinning and allowing excess steam out keeps the pressure inside the pot where it should be.

An assortment of pressure cooker and canner jiggler-style regulators
Shown above are, from left to right:
  • The original 15psi regulator from my 23 quart Presto pressure canner.  This also fits the 16quart Presto canner.
  • A 15psi regulator from my generic Chinese-made 5 quart pressure cooker.
  • A replacement Presto pressure canner regulator that contains metal rings that let you choose the PSI you wish to maintain.  With both rings, it regulates to 15psi.  With one ring off, it regulates to 10psi, which is suitable for most canning recipes.
  • A 15psi regulator from my grandmother's 1940's Presto pressure cooker
Maintenance on a regulator is almost none, since it's just a weight.  Keep the hole clean of debris and gunk and try not to lose it in the bottom of the kitchen drawer.  Without it, your pot is useless.

Many modern pressure cookers (not canners) contain other pressure regulating mechanisms that are spring-loaded.  They also might have buttons that allow you to evacuate the pressure quickly for a "quick release" instruction in a recipe.  Quick release is rarely, if ever, used in canning so it's an unnecessary feature on a canner.

Pressure Gauge
This is a pressure gauge much like you might see on the heating and system in your home or an automotive air compressor.  Few, if any, pressure cookers come with a gauge since pressure accuracy isn't a high priority in cooking.  However, quite a few canners have them.

Pressure Gauge
If a pressure canner comes with a gauge, it will often come with only a 15psi regulator/jiggler.  This is unfortunate, since the great majority of pressure canning recipes call for 10psi.  This means you will have to stand at the stove and fiddle with the heat until you get the pot to stay around 10psi.  Since the weighted regulator is designed to "jiggle" at 15psi, it will likely hiss but never actually rock back and forth.

On the other hand, pressure needs to be adjusted if you live far enough above sea leavel and a dial gauge with a 15psi weight allows you to make those adjustments.  The NCHFP makes specific recommendations about PSI for certain elevation levels and styles of canners.

If you live at sea level and have a Presto pot, I highly recommend purchasing the three-part weighted regulator, as it buys you extra peace of mind and lets you more easily multi-task in the kitchen as your jars are processing.

As far as maintenance goes, the NCHFP recommends taking your dial off and having it tested professionally at the beginning of each canning season.  If you have an active Cooperative Extension office in your state (often attached to a public university), they can often do it for free or a small fee.

Safety Plug or Valve
Perhaps the most important, yet simplest feature of your pressure cooker or canner is the safety plug.  On canners and simple cookers, this is typically nothing more than a rubber plug in the lid.  Should the steam vent become clogged with food and the pressure rises to unsafe levels, the plug will blow, allowing steam (and food if you're cooking something like stew) upward, away from the cook.  The downside, of course, is that escaping food will get all over the cabinetry, range hood, or ceiling.

Vent Plug and Hole on a Presto Pressure Canner
Vent Plug and Pressure Indicator Pin on a 1940's Vintage Presto Cooker
Safety Release Valve on a Generic Chinese-Made Cooker
Notice that the modern and the 1940's vintage pot both use a rubber plug but the generic Chinese-made pot contains a spring-loaded vent valve.  In the event that pressure is too high, the black plastic knob, which is spring-loaded, would rise and vent steam to either side of the valve instead of popping a plug out.  Many modern pressure cookers contain similar safety valves to prevent food from redecorating the kitchen.

Maintenance of the safety plug is as simple as replacing it on a routine basis or when it becomes old, brittle, or appears to leak steam or water.  This is the piece you want in the best working order and since it only costs a few dollars, it's well worth having extras on hand.

Pressure Indicator
The pressure indicator is another optional, yet useful item.  On the Presto pots, it's simply a metal button that will pop-up when there is pressure building in the pot.  This indicates the pot is under pressure and you should not attempt to open it.  When it pops-down (and it makes an audible clank), you know it's safe to open the pot.

Notice above that on my grandmother's 1940's vintage cooker, the pressure indicator is a metal pin in the center of the safety plug.  The pin rises when the pot goes under pressure and the whole plug would blow out should the pot go over safe pressure.

Pressure Indicator Button on a Presto Pressure Canner
Jar Rack
The last and final feature, which I did not photograph, is a thin metal or mesh plate that fits in the bottom of the canner to raise the jars just slightly off the bottom of the pot.  The purpose is to shield the jars from the direct heat of the burner and, more importantly, stop them from bubbling and clanging against the bottom of the pot, which would promote breakage.

What About Vintage or Inexpensive Canners?

Many people are weary of purchasing vintage canners or cookers from consignment stores, thrift stores, etc.  The fact, however, is that this can be an inexpensive way to get into pressure canning and, as long as the pot has been well cared for and is in good repair, it'll work just as well as any new pot you could buy today.

Money doesn't always equate to more safety, either.  The main difference between a Presto pot and an All American pot, aside from a $179 price difference, is the locking mechanism.  Those screw-down clamps may look more imposing and safer, but the fact is that if the pressure is too high, both pots will just blow their safety plugs.

In the course of this post, I've shown you three pots (two cookers and one canner) that I personally own and have used.  Two of them are quite unexpected, but work beautifully:

Vintage WWII-Era Presto Aluminum Pressure Cooker

This was my Grandmother's and I snagged it when she moved into assisted living.  She's maintained it in immaculate condition over the years, right down to the original user manual and handwritten notes about how to obtain replacement parts.  I brought it home and immediately put it into service cooking some corn on the cob and it worked beautifully!

Notice that this pot, which is over 70 years old, has exactly the same features as my 7 year old pressure canner.  The technology hasn't changed!

1940's Vintage Presto Pressure Cooker

Cheap No-Name Brand Chinese Import

I bought this pot from a third-party seller on Amazon for about $25 when I was new to pressure cooking.  When it came in, I found it packaged in a happy meal style box with broken-English labeling on the box, throughout the user manual, and even on permanent safety decals on the cooker itself.

Off-Brand Inexpensive Pressure Cooker

ATTENSIONS: Before cooking, turn the lighten button to fit the ear of the pot vight after feeling it unloose then move it one more and a half ring orso.  (360 degrees for one ring).  When it Will be ready to use it there [...] around the cover.  Please refer to instructions carefully.
As comical as this pot and its instructions are, it has served me over 10 years without failure and is my everyday pressure cooker.  I occasionally have to tighten the screws holding the locking knob and handles on, but I've never had to replace the gasket or any other parts (and likely wouldn't be able to find spare parts, anyway).

Buying a Vintage Pot

If you do choose to buy a vintage or off-brand pot, here are the things to consider and be aware of:
  • Look the pot over and make sure it doesn't have any large dents or cracks.  Scratches are usually part of normal wear and tear.  Black or brown discoloration and mild pepper-like pitting on aluminum is unavoidable, but doesn't damage the pot.
  • Make sure all the components are included or you know you can purchase replacement parts for missing components.  Typically, the loose parts are the regulator, safety plug, and jar rack.  For the All American, a clamp screw could be missing.
  • When you get it home, scrub all the pieces with soap and water.  Replacing the sealing gasket and safety plug is a good idea.  Have the dial gauge tested or purchase a new one.  Most parts are available online, many of them right on Amazon with Prime shipping.  Some old-school hardware stores and independent kitchen supply stores also carry parts in-stock.
  • Read the instructions cover-to-cover and know the features of your pot and how it works.  If it doesn't come with instructions, use Google to locate a user manual online.
  • Fill the canner 1/3 full with water and take it for a test drive with no jars in it.  Make sure it has no obvious leaks and comes up to pressure as expected.  Allow to drop pressure naturally until the pressure indicator (if you have one) shows it is no longer under pressure.

Is it Less Safe Than My Electric Cooker or Insta-Pot?

A lot of people might feel safer with the push-button electric pressure cookers and instapots because the electronics seem to be doing all the work for you.  The fact is, they operate much the same way as a stove-top model and the risks are probably about the same:
  • Electric pots are regulated by spring-loaded valves and electronic pressure sensors instead of jigglers and plugs.  Theoretically, these can break easier and may not even be possible to clean properly or replace.
  • When you close the pot and hit a pre-set button like, "Rice," the pot's computer chip is programmed to know how many minutes of pressure cooking rice needs and takes care of getting the pot up to pressure, counting the cook time, allowing the pressure to drop, then switching to warming mode.  It's convenient, but just as easily done with a kitchen timer on the stove top.
  • Electric pots are just aluminum pans inside a housing with a tight-fitting lid that are powered by an electric coil, similar to a hot plate or slow cooker.
  • As mentioned above, the NCHFP does not recommend electric multi-cookers as canners because they have not been tested and it's unclear whether they would maintain proper temperature for the proper amount of time or whether the pressure-up and cool-down cycle would be too short for tested recipes.
 That's it!  I hope this post helped you.  Happy Canning!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Pressure Canning 101

Corn Chowder (un-thickened) and Tomato Soup
I've mentioned that I recently became a member of the Food In Jars Facebook Community.  Food In Jars (and its author, Marisa) is one of the best and most comprehensive resources for beginning and advanced canners aside from Ball and The National Center for Home Food Preservation (the USDA-sanctioned organization for canning safety in the US).  If you're looking to get into canning, I highly recommend Marisa's first book, Food In Jars.

One of the questions that has come-up on the Facebook Community over-and-over is, "How do I get into pressure canning?"  As an experienced pressure canner (and pressure cooker), I'm usually the one to pipe-in with an answer.  This post is an expansion on my usual response and I hope it's helpful to everyone.

Is It Safe?

Everyone has heard tales of Grandma's pressure cooker "exploding" and sending food up all over the ceiling. Combine that with the idea of broken glass jars and people are naturally scared.  The truth is that there's very little to be scared about.  All pressure cookers and canners--even ones built during WWII--have safety devices that prevent actual explosions and it's nearly impossible to open a pot under full pressure.  What Grandma probably experienced was the backup device, a pressure relief plug (essentially, a rubber cork) doing its job.  The unfortunate side effect is that the contents of the pot comes streaming upwards.  While it's thankfully projecting away from your face and body, it does redecorate the ceiling.

If you're still worried, consider this fact.  The rubber tires on most cars are inflated to about 35psi (pounds per square inch).  Pressure canners are made of metal and operate at 10 to 15psi.  That means your tires are under more than double the pressure and made out of a much more likely material to puncture.  You've more of a chance of your tire bursting and causing a traffic accident than you have of a pressure canner exploding.

The important part is to know your canner.  Read all the instructions.  Know how all the features work.  Keep it clean and in good repair.  Do all that and you'll have no problems.

Quarts of Homemade Chicken Broth

How Does It Work?

Pressure canners and cookers work under a pretty basic principle.  You have a large pot with a tight-fitting lid with a locking mechanism and a silicone or rubber gasket to trap steam inside.  The steam builds-up, increasing the pressure inside the pot.  When pressure increases, so does the boiling point of water.  At a pressure of 10psi, water boils at about 240 degrees instead of the usual 212 degrees.  This higher temperature is enough to kill botulism spores, which produce a nerve toxin that can be fatal (212 is not).

Vegetable Soup
The second component of your pot is a pressure regulator (often called a jiggler).  The regulator sits atop a straw-like pipe in the lid of the pot (called a stem).  When the pressure goes over a certain psi, the regulator will tilt slightly and let some of the steam out.  This gentle back-and-forth rocking motion allows just enough steam out to keep the pot at the desired pressure (usually, 10psi for canning and 15psi for cooking...more on that later).  Some pressure cookers have spring-loaded regulators instead of jigglers but most pots specifically designed to be a "canner" have an old-fashioned, tried-and-true jiggler.

The last component of your pot is a safety relief valve.  There are any number of designs for this, but the most simple and common is a basic rubber plug in a hole in the top of your pot.  Should the stem become clogged during cooking and the pressure were to rise above safe levels, the plug would shoot out of the hole and release steam (and food or water) to relieve pressure.

Okay, so Which Canner Should I Buy?

The Cadillac of all pressure canners is widely known to be the All-American.  It's an imposing-looking device with crank-down clamps that make people feel safer.  However, it has a hefty price tag at close to $250.  If you're looking to get into pressure canning without committing your kid's college fund, the Presto 16qt Pressure Canner is a great alternative.  At $71, it's much more affordable and I've seen them regularly for $15-20 less at Walmart and on, especially during the end of canning season.  That said, I have two additional recommendations:

#1 - Buy yourself this replacement 2-part regulator for the Presto canner.  Most canning recipes call for 10psi and the pot ships with a 15psi jiggler.  This means you need to regulate the pressure by watching the gauge and tinkering with the stove dial to adjust the heat throughout processing.  The three-part jiggler allows you to take one ring off the weight and it will keep your pot at a constant 10psi, even if the heat is a little too high.  It's great insurance, especially if you're working with an electric stove.

#2 - I don't recommend the 23qt pot unless you know you're going to be doing full two-layer batches of jars at least 95% of the time you can.  And keep in mind, you can only fit one layer of quarts and a 2nd layer of pints or two layers of pints.  When you do smaller batches in the bigger pot, you have to fill the empty space with steam before the pot comes up to pressure, which means a much longer time spent processing.  A 16qt pot is perfect for most people.  And, it's smaller and easier to store.

How Do I Get Started?

With a tested recipe, of course!  You can find recipes and how-to's on the NCHFP website and the Ball website.  As far as books go, I recommend the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving as a starter.  The last chapter is dedicated to Pressure Canning recipes and covers all your basics (tomatoes, soups, stews, broths, etc.).  Another good resource that's sadly out of print is The Joy of Cooking All About Canning and Preserving.  If you can find yourself a used copy, grab it.  It's a great book.

Homemade Marinara Sauce

Can I Pressure-Can My Own Recipes?

This is probably the most common question.  The NCHFP and Master Canners everywhere usually strongly discourage this.  A common answer is, "No.  Absolutely not!  Always use a tested recipe from a trusted source."  That's excellent advice, and new canners are wise to follow it.  However, when it comes to pressure canning, even the NCHFP is a little more relaxed on the subject.  They've published a small set of guidelines for canning your own soups (Hats-off to Benita from the FIJ community for pointing me to this reference).  Also, I'm going to let you in on an unofficial secret...

If you flip-through the tested recipes in the Ball Complete Book, you'll notice that the processing times fall into a few basic camps (with some exceptions):
  • Recipes with meat or meat broth in them or very varied ingredients, such as soups and stews (~75-90 minutes).
  • Vegetable-based soups with a variety of vegetables (55-85 minutes).
  • Recipes with a single vegetable like green beans (~20-25 minutes)
  • Broth (20-25 minutes)
The specific ingredients are mostly irrelevant within each category because it's the high-temperature that's killing and warding-off the bacteria and spores, not acidity (as with Boiling Water Bath canning).  As long as you don't produce a product that's substantially more dense than the original, you can borrow processing times from a similar tested recipe and apply it to your home recipes with a fairly low safety risk.

Disclaimer - Let me's up to YOU to decide what level of risk you can live with for you and your family and it's good practice to always tell someone you've shared a jar with if you've deviated from NCHFP safety practices and tested recipes.  Botulism is serious's a nerve toxin that can kill you and it's colorless, odorless, and thrives in low-acid oxygen-free environments (like the inside of a canning jar).  I feel comfortable with the above recommendations for me and my family.  You need to make the same call.

With that said, here's my general rule of thumb for adapting recipes:
  • Whenever possible, start with a tested recipe and modify it slightly.  You'll always be safer this way.
  • If you really want to can something that you can't find a tested recipe for, find the closest tested recipe.  For example, beef stew in place of your homemade chicken stew.  Borrow the processing times from that recipe and try not to alter the ratios of ingredients (meats, veggies, liquid) so much that you affect the density of the finished product.
  • Stay away from the usual "no-no" list of ingredients for canning, including: flour, corn starch, pasta, rice, dairy, and large amounts of oil or butter (a little bit to saute onions is fine).
  • Don't try to can puree'd pumpkin or winter squash.  NCHFP has determined the density to be too inconsistent to recommend processing times, even for pressure canning.  The only tested and approved recipe for squash is one from the Ball Complete book for cubed squash in water and frankly, it tastes awful.  I've tried it.
  • If canning tomato products, there's no harm in still adding a little extra lemon juice to acidify the product (in fact, NCHFP recommends it).  Belt AND suspenders.
So that's it.  That's all I have for now.  Go buy yourself that a canner and get canning!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Summer Squash Sweet Pickles

It's been awhile since I've done a canning post.  The truth is, I haven't done a ton of exploratory canning lately.  Last summer, it was all I could do to put-up a couple of batches of a few of our favorite items and that was about it.

This summer has been equally as busy, but three things have contributed to a slightly renewed interest in canning.  First, I've been a member of the Food In Jars Facebook Group, which is doing a monthly "Preserving Challenge" that encourages people to try new preserving techniques.  While I haven't been able to cook and submit something for most months, I've loved being a part of the group, helping out with questions, and watching what everyone else is doing.

Second, I've been participating in a CSA and planted a pretty large garden this year so I'm inundated with produce that we haven't been able to eat fast enough.  That's caused me to do a little bit of preserving all summer.

And third, my parents have been traveling and my Dad loves just about anything pickled, so he's been bringing all kinds of things home and going, "Hey, think you can make this?"

And that's where this recipe was born.  As they were passing through western Kentucky, he picked-up a jar of, "The Hitching Post & Old Country Store Squash Pickles," made with yellow summer squash.  It's a sweet pickle, similar to a bread and butter pickle, which is totally not to my taste, but they seemed fun enough to try to make and I had some yellow squash that needed using-up.  The ingredients label was simple and I was able to use another squash pickle recipe as a base.  Plus, it had the added advantage of being a Low Temperature Pasturization recipe, which was one of the new techniques I'd been wanting to try.  Win-win!

So without further ado, I give you the recipe.

Summer Squash Sweet Pickles

This recipe can be made with either yellow squash or zucchini.  I've provided alternate instructions for traditional boiling water bath canning if you don't want to try the low-temp method.  Also, the turmeric is completely optional.  It's only really there to give them that pretty yellow color.  The crinkle-cut knife is also optional, but isn't it neat?

2 1/2 lbs Yellow Squash, sliced into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 lb yellow, white, or sweet onions, sliced
2 Tablespoons pickling salt
3 cups white vinegar
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
1 Tablespoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/8 teaspoon pickle crisp per jar (optional)

  1. Toss the squash and onions with the salt in a colander and set over a bowl.  Cover with plastic and place in the refrigerator for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.  This will allow some of the moisture to weep out of the squash and leave a less mushy product.
  2.  Blot, but do not rinse the vegetables (you want to keep the salt).  Discard any liquid that drained off.  Select 4 clean pint jars and add 1/8 teaspoon of pickle crisp (if using) to each jar.  Pack each jar with the squash mixture, leaving about an inch of head space.  If you use small-mouth jars, the shoulders will help minimize floating.
  3. In a non-reactive saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, mustard seeds, turmeric.  Bring just to a boil, remove from heat, and let cool slightly.
  4. Ladle pickle brine into each jar, leaving 1/2-inch head space.
  5. Clean the rims of the jars, add flat lids that have been soaked in warm water, and rings tightened to just finger-tight.
  6. Process using one of the methods below.
Boiling Water Bath
Prepare a water bath canner and process for 10 minutes (processing time taken from a Food In Jars recipe for Pickled Zucchini).

Low-Temperature Pasturization
Fully submerge jars in water that has been heated to 120 to 140 degrees.  Bring water temperature up to between 180 and 185 degrees.  Using an accurate thermometer or an immersion circulator, keep water temperature between 180 and 185 for 30 minutes, adjusting heat as necessary.  Remove jars and allow to cool overnight.  For more information on low-temperature pasturization, see here.  Generally speaking, it is considered safe for most pickle recipes.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

No, Your Eyes Won't Go Square

Once in awhile, I like to take a break from food and talk about general home maintenance, housekeeping, or parenting.  Today is one of those days.  :-)

When you become a parent, you suddenly find that there's no shortage of people, organizations, and "experts" who are right there telling you what's good or bad for your child, whether you asked them or not.  This is even worse today thanks to social media, which also carries a lot of misinformation.  One of the loudest organizations in this shouting match is the AAP.  And while their research and recommendations are very helpful and valid, I find that oftentimes, they're a bit over-the-top and they tend to flip-flop on subjects that frankly, they just don't have enough scientific data yet (or ever) to make good decisions about.

One such topic is the subject of "Screen Time."  This is a modern parenting buzzword for the amount of time that your child spends in front of a screen (Tablet, Cell Phone, TV, Computer, etc.).  If one were to follow the recommendations of the AAP and other experts to the letter, a child shouldn't be exposed to screens until at least 18 months old and for children 2 years and older, limit screen time to an hour a day.

An hour a day?  Seriously?

Don't get me wrong.  I'm all for setting limits and encouraging good habits early-on, but few adults are going to have less than 8 hours of screen exposure a day in the modern world, and that's assuming you work with a computer at your daily job and watch a couple of hours of television at night.  Expecting a child to restrict his or her screen time to just a single hour (equivalent to two episodes of PBS programming) is akin to teaching them screen time is off-limits and "bad for you."  In my opinion, it's not setting them up for a lifetime of healthy digital consumption habits.

My main complaint is that not all screen time is bad.  In fact, there are lots of great opportunities for screen time to be a great learning experience and it's a great opportunity to teach your child about good and bad behaviors when it comes to the digital world.  Setting limitations should be less about quantity and more about the quality of the screen time, provided you do set SOME sort of time limitations to encourage plenty of time for non-screen play and learning.

Here are some great, educational, tablet-friendly ways that I like my daughter to spend her screen time:

  • Real Educational Games - There's no shortage of great age-appropriate educational games in the App Stores and many of them are inexpensive.  One series we like in particular is the "Endless" Series from Originator.  These are perhaps the most complete reading/spelling/phonics and number/math apps I've seen for the toddler+ crowd.  They ask your child to recognize letters and sounds (letter recognition, phonics), put them into words (spelling), use the words in a sentence (word context, reading), and encourage building vocabulary by using "bigger" words than most other apps.  Plus, the animated monsters and the letter sounds are absolutely adorable.  These apps are worth spending money on and are better than any free ones out there.
  • Kids Podcasts - Podcasts are a great way to have electronics time without actually staring at a screen and they've come a long way with kids content recently.  NPR and Tinkercast have teamed-up to create a fantastic show called Wow In The World that that's geared towards the Kindergarten+ crowd.  It chooses a topic from the current world of science and explores it at an age-appropriate level with a heavy dose of goofiness and fun.  My daughter will literally sit in the backseat of the car giggling as we drive to school listening to it.  Another great show geared towards slightly older kids is Brains On.  There are also a bunch of podcasts where the hosts read popular books and fairy tales, including book adaptations of popular Disney movies.  I consider this akin to reading because it helps develop imagination (as opposed to movie-watching, which shows you what you should see) and it's great for long car trips.
  • Read-Along Digital Books - There are many of apps and services that provide books with accompanied audio so your child can read-along as the narrator reads the book to them.  Once your child begins to read, you can disable the audio to encourage them to sound out the words on their own.  The Disney Story Central app is a great one.  The app is kid-friendly, easy to use, and the books are inexpensive.  You can either pay for a subscription or buy batches of "tokens" that you or your child can use to purchase books.  Amazon also offers read-along children's books that can be used with a Kindle Fire or the Kindle App for iOS.
  • Puzzles - My daughter has loved puzzles ever since she could wrap her hands around one of those chunky wooden ones.  Now, she likes to play the Magic Jigsaw Puzzles App, often with her Grandfather who also loves puzzles.  This particular app has crappy navigation and a lot of in-app ads and purchases, but the features make it worth the aggravation.  You can choose a photo (many free ones), choose the number of pieces you want in your puzzle, and set whether you want them to be rotated or not (for an extra challenge).  If you purchase one of the feature packs for about $5, you get a pile of extra photos and the ability to make puzzles out of your own photo library.  My daughter loves this feature.
  • Familiar Board Games - Sometimes, when we're somewhere where there's a long wait and coloring books aren't available, quick and challenging strategy and board games are appropriate.  Plus, they can be played against the computer instead of Mom or Dad if you need some adult conversation time.  Most of your childhood favorites are available as apps, from Checkers to Hungry Hungry Hippos, Connect-Four (for when you're tired of Tic-Tac-Toe on the back of a restaurant place-mat), Solitaire, Chess, Scrabble, etc.
Things to Discourage:
  •  No-Longer Age Appropriate Apps - Once an app is no longer appropriate for your child, remove it from the device.  Kids tend to keep playing things over and over out of familiarity, even if they're mind-numbingly unchallenging.  You can discourage this by removing old apps and downloading newer more challenging ones.
  • Kid's YouTube - I'm going to be honest...I put this on our family tablet figuring it couldn't hurt and maybe she could use it to learn new things.  What I discovered was that there are plenty of video bloggers out there who are making content designed to sell toys to kids (and probably getting kickbacks from toy manufacturers in the process).  We're talking 20-something women playing with dolls and talking in high squeaky voices.  If you thought watching hours of cat videos was a great way to rot your brain, this is a new an innovative way to rot your kid's and he or she will want ALL OF IT for Christmas.
  • Wandering About Netflix or Amazon Video Freely - Sadly, the parental controls on most video streaming apps are quite minimal.  Netflix, for example, lets you set-up a kids account but only lets you select certain age ranges, not specific content.   You can't even create a watch list.  Generally, there's nothing "bad," but there's a lot of "rot your brain" content (like physical humor cartoons with no educational message) and I'd prefer my child make better choices of what to watch.  Also, they don't use passwords, so there's nothing stopping your kid from using your "adult" account anyway.  Even though I trust my daughter to make appropriate choices most of the time, I'm usually aware of what she's watching and will say, "Don't watch such and such.  How about this instead?"  Oftentimes, I'll switch something to the big TV so I can watch a long and gauge whether it's appropriate or not.  There's no substitute for good parenting.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Carbon Steel Pans - A Replacement for Teflon?

About 6 months back, there was a lot of hub-bub on the web and in various food media about Carbon Steel (sometimes called Black Steel) pans.

Carbon steel pans are nothing new, actually.  Traditional round-bottom woks are carbon steel and many commercial kitchens use carbon steel saute pans.  Carbon steel has also been a beloved material for chef's knives, though not so much in the home kitchen because it tends to turn a blotchy black-brown color.  But for some reason, carbon steel became visible to the home cook and suddenly, everyone was talking about them.

If you've never seen or worked with one, it's a heavy-gauge steel pan, often with a long steel handle (instead of plastic or silicone).  New, they have a dull gray polished finish.  Once well used and loved, they develop a dark black patina of carbonized polymer that's virtually nonstick, just like your favorite cast iron pans.  The difference is that they're lighter and thinner than cast iron, allowing you to do much of the same things you do with your trusty nonstick skillets like flipping the ingredients around or pouring them out onto a plate without the use of two hands (depending on how large your skillet is).

Interested in this new fad, I put a large one on my Christmas list and sure enough, Santa Claus came through and put this one, recommended by America's Test Kitchen, under my tree.  Around the same time I received mine, I happened to hear a podcast segment on Local Mouthful about how to season, use, and care for them.  There was also quite a bit of advice being put-out by Milk Street, including one tidbit about heating oil in it and discarding the oil before adding new fat to cook with.

So what's the verdict?

After using my pan for several months, I'm happy to report that it works well and has all but replaced my nonstick (ceramic or Teflon-coated) pan.  However, it wasn't without quite a bit of trial, error, and some frustrated fowl language.  Here are my thoughts on the matter:


This pan was by far more difficult to season than even an unseasoned cast iron pan.  With cast iron, you can jump-start the seasoning by generously coating the pan in vegetable shortening, placing it upside-down on the rack of your oven, placing a tray to catch drips on the rack below it, then removing the smoke detectors (an important step) and cooking the crap out of it.  Wash, rinse, repeat until you have a nice initial layer of seasoning.   You can also roast-up chickens and fatty meats in it.

With the carbon steel pan, not so much.  I tried this method and all I got was a pan coated in a sticky, blotchy mess.  I then had to get out a steel-wool cleaning pad (Brillo or SOS) and scrape all the gunk, goo, and blotchy seasoning.

I also tried this method with the potato peels, which is endorsed by America's Test Kitchen and also came on an instruction card with my pan.  I can't say it worked particularly well for me, but I didn't have standard brown potatoes.  So that may have been a factor.

Unfortunately, the best way to season this pan is to use it and baby it.  The advice Milk Street gives of heating it with some oil, discarding the oil, then adding fresh oil to cook with goes a long way towards this process.  When you're done, immediately scrub it with soap and water, heat it again, and rub a thin layer of oil on it...preferably flax seed oil.  Let it heat a bit more til it smokes, buff out the finish, then store.  If you do this for dozens of uses, it'll gradually build-up a nice seasoning.


I'm not going to lie.  This pan is going to look ugly for a very long time before it gets to that nice dark patina all over.  For some reason, it seasons in a very blotchy way, so you get areas where it looks like you've damaged the pan and areas where it still looks new-ish.  Keep at it and it'll eventually all start to blend into a muddled brown/black.  But it might take up to a year or so.  Mine still isn't there, yet.  I do think part of this problem is that I have a glass-top electric stove and the pan heats very unevenly.  If you have gas, you may not have as much of a problem with this.

Nonstick Ability 

I think the turning point was when I realized that this pan is not nonstick on its own.  You can't just spray it with cooking spray, toss in an egg, and fry it up like you can with Teflon.  This pan works in conjunction with a fair amount of oil to provide its nonstick properties, even after it's fairly well seasoned.  Check-out this video I did early on of eggs sliding around on a nice thin grease slick.  I don't think I could do this even in my best-seasoned cast iron pan or my Teflon pan.


What it DOES do over time is start to release caked-on gunk easily when being washed.  For example, I often make "cheesy eggs" for the family (scrambled eggs with American cheese melted into them).  If you've ever made these, you know that the cheese and egg protein bakes-on hard to the pan surface...even Teflon and needs to be soaked to get it off.  Once my pan had been sufficiently seasoned, this is what it looked like after cooking a batch of 6 eggs with 3 slices of cheese in them:

Not a lot of soaking or scrubbing to be done there.  I like to use one of these blue Scotch-Brite scrubbing sponges, which are specifically made so they won't scratch Teflon coatings.  They don't scratch my hard-earned seasoning, either.  Any regular dish soap will work fine as long as you don't use an abrasive scrubber.

Be sure to dry the pan well and re-season often (using the oil, heat, buff method above) before storing.  If you don't dry it well, it will leave rusty rings on whatever surface you put it on, which isn't good for your pan or your counter top.


What Not to Do

One of the selling points of carbon steel is that it can safely go from stove top to oven.  While that's technically true, I wouldn't recommend doing it with anything that has a sticky finish or anything that will overbrown on the bottom.  I did it with a honey-based glaze and I ended-up ruining my finish trying to get it off and had to re-season the pan all over again.

If you're going to use carbon steel in the oven--especially before it's entirely black, stick to thin pieces of meat, fritattas, and other things that will be in there a short time and don't have a lot of sugar.


The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that I have grown to love this pan.  It takes some getting used to and a bit of finesse to get it seasoned-enough to work with, but once you get it right, you'll love it and keep reaching for it over and over again.

Disclaimer: I'm now a member of the Amazon Associates program, in which Amazon will share a small portion of their profits with me if you buy anything on Amazon from one of the above links.  All of the products I've linked to, I've purchased or received as a gift and my opinions are my own.  I fully support your seeking-out a local source for all items, but if you do choose to purchase from Amazon, it helps support this blog and I thank you.