Expiration Dates

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I love fermented pickles; much better than those canned in vinegar – easier, too!

I opened the last jar of the 2016 fermented pickles this morning, which got me thinking about expiration dates. The pickles were still crisp, juicy and had excellent flavor, despite being almost two years old. Obviously, the one-year expiration date common in the food industry didn’t mean anything to these pickles. Ever given much thought to expiration dates? They really aren’t worth the time to think about – you can ignore most of them, whether you’re talking about food, medicines or seeds. Expiration dates have little to do with safety or even with quality. Not only that, they’re confusing: expires; sell by; use by; best by. What do these even mean?
Let’s talk medications first. With a very few exceptions, most medications are good for years beyond the expiration dates. Beginning in 1979, drug manufacturers were required to place expiration dates on their products. Blame the FDA for that one. To determine the expiration dates, drugs have to go through two tests. Three batches are stored at 77°F and 66% humidity. Three additional batches are stored at 104°F and 75% humidity. Then they are tested for potency. This takes several years, so most manufacturers just use dates between 12 and 24 months. A couple of years after the FDA regulation was put in place, the military, which wanted to stockpile all kinds of stuff to “be prepared,” starting asking questions about expiration dates. Eventually, they commissioned a study. They found that some drugs would last up to 15 years. Other studies have found many drugs last at least five to 10 years. There are three definite exceptions – nitroglycerin, insulin and liquid antibiotics. Tetracycline is a “maybe.” This assumes, of course, that the drug is properly stored – relatively cool temperature – usually around to 60 to 80°F – and low humidity.
With foods, it’s even more confusing. In general, food expiration dates mean absolutely nothing. “Best if used by” refers only to food quality, not safety, and even those don’t mean much. “Use by” is an estimate of when a food will no longer be good. Neither of these is worth a tinker’s you-know-what if the food is not handled correctly during harvest and kept in the proper storage conditions during processing, transport and on the grocery shelves. I bet every person reading this has had the experience of opening milk with an expiration date at least a week in the future, but the milk is curdled to the point of rancidity. “Sell by” is for the market, not the consumer, and has nothing to do with safety or quality – it’s a target date to move food off the shelf or put it on sale to promote faster turnover.
So don’t hesitate to use that “old” aspirin. When it comes to food, use your own senses– does the food look OK, smell OK? Americans waste millions of tons of food each year by following expiration dates on perfectly good food. As for me, I’m going to go have a pickle.

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When Canning Jars Won’t Seal

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Canning Easy-Peasy Grape Juice.


Anyone who cans food has had the experience – you make your jam or jelly, or process fruits and vegetables, and one or more jars don’t seal. Frustrating but not unexpected. Canning is an organic, biological practice. It cannot be cut and dried and you have to expect variations. Here are some of the common problems and reasons why jars won’t seal.
Getting a perfect seal depends on several factors. These include the quality and thickness of the sealing compound, damage to jars, lids or rings, cleanliness, the temperature of the food and whether you tighten the rings properly. Whether you water-bath or not, in the case of jams and jellies, has nothing to do with getting a good seal.

Making applesauce with a food mill.


I’m as frugal as the next girl, but I also recognize that when I’m working with non-standard canning jars, the chance of something not sealing is a little higher. That’s because those jars don’t necessarily have a perfect fit with a standard canning lid and ring. Don’t let that stop you, just be prepared for a failure or two. Jar rims must be perfect – the slightest chip means a seal may not occur. The same applies to a lid or ring that is even slightly bent. You can still use these jars and lids for storage or make fermented veggies in them (fermented foods don’t have to be canned – a huge time-saver during a busy processing time). And as an aside, you can reuse commercial jars with lug tops for jams and jellies. Again, that means a slightly increased risk of jars not sealing – about one in 20, in my experience.

No water bath required.


User errors are the next most likely problem. If you don’t tighten the rings properly, you won’t get a good seal – tighten to the point of resistance. A drip of jam or piece of whatever you’re canning that lands on the jar rim will interfere with a seal – always wipe clean or, as I do for jams and jellies, use a pitcher to pour in the liquid. Leave the right amount of head-space if you are water-bathing or pressure canning so food doesn’t bubble up. This also helps prevent exploding jars. Air bubbles can also affect the seal – they’re more likely with dense foods like squash or pumpkin. Use a clean knife to pop bubbles and let them escape before putting on the ring.

Please note the date! This picture was taken in 2015. Thirty-plus years and still sealed.


The heating and cooling processes are also important to a good seal. While you don’t have to water-bath jams and jellies, you do need to make sure the liquid is at a full boil when you pour it in the jar. Work quickly, so the jar and filling remain as hot as possible. If you’re processing, make sure the temperature is correct and that you leave it in for the right amount of time. Once your jars are out and cooling, leave them alone until completely cool – this usually takes 24 hours. Always check seals before storing. If the center button isn’t depressed, store in the refrigerator and eat soon. Jams and jellies will store for a few weeks, but veggies and meats should be eaten within a week or so. You can also freeze jars with failed seals, but in most cases, filling to the proper level doesn’t leave enough room for expansion during freezing, so I don’t recommend it unless you have an inexhaustible source of jars and don’t mind cleaning up a mess in the freezer.

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Old-Fashioned Cooking: Meatloaf

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This is how cows should be raised; on green grass.

In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.
Meatloaf is one of those quintessential comfort foods. It conjures up visions of gingham aprons, milk with the cream still on and new-laid eggs. It’s an ancient recipe, included in the classic Roman cookbook Apicius. Mind you, that author recommended using cooked brains in the concoction, which – just guessing – most people these days would not want to include. In other respects the recipe is very similar to modern versions: eggs, herbs and broth to moisten. Meatloaf is found in nearly every country and culture. Some recipes include various chopped or ground vegetables, while many include hard cooked peeled eggs tucked into the middle of the loaf. Meatloaf may also include ham, cheese, sausage, breadcrumbs or rice, depending on the origin of the recipe. It is served hot or cold and nearly always with some sort of sauce or gravy. Mashed potatoes are the classic accompaniment in many cultures.
Since meatloaf is such a simple recipe, the quality of the ingredients really matters. Grass-fed ground beef and home-raised pork are the best choices. If you use venison, it may need some added fat (tallow or lard are the best choices) as venison is typically lean. Fresh ranch eggs also make a difference. Making good meatloaf is rather like making good bread – the mixing makes a difference. I’m firmly of the opinion that in both cases, you need to mix with your hands to get the best sense of the proper texture. It’s also more effective to use your hands on meatloaf to distribute the ingredients properly without over-mixing the meat, which makes it tough. Here’s a good recipe for meatloaf, adapted from a variety of recipes including the version in Cook’s Illustrated.

Meat Loaf

2 pounds of meat – all beef or venison or a mixture of one or both of these with an equal amount of ground pork (I suppose you could use sausage, too, although I’ve never tried it, and some recipes use veal)
2 large eggs
¾ to 1 cup of old-fashioned rolled oats
½ to ¾ cup of tomato ketchup
1 small yellow onion or 1 medium red onion, very finely diced
A good sprinkling of garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Crack the eggs into a large bowl and sprinkle with garlic powder. salt and pepper. Mix in the diced onion. Cook’s Illustrated recommends you saute the yellow onion first for about five minutes. I’ve found that if it’s finely diced or you use red onion, sauteing is an unnecessary step. Add the smaller amount of ketchup and stir. Now begin mixing the meat into the egg/ketchup mixture. When it’s about half mixed, sprinkle in the smaller amount of rolled oats. Continue to mix gently. If it seems dry, add more ketchup; if too wet, add more rolled oats. Pack into a 9X5 loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for about one hour. Don’t overcook – you want it pink in the middle, which means an internal temperature of about 130 degrees. It should stand for about 10 minutes after you take it out of the oven to redistribute the juices. I also double the recipe and bake in a 9X13 pan. Expect it to take about 10 minutes less to cook. This is good for a crowd or for making ahead – cut into single servings and freeze on a flat pan, then pack into zip lock bags and take out as many servings as you need for a meal. Reheat in the oven or microwave after defrosting. If you want to fancy it up, saute a chopped medium onion and two cups of mushrooms in a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat, lard or coconut oil. Use as is or turn out of the pan, add a couple more tablespoons of fat and make a simple cream gravy. Dollop some mushroom mixture and gravy over the top of each slice.

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