Scary Food Preservation Story

Scary StoryStocking up on stories to keep you awake at night? Here’s one just in time for Halloween.

One of the clerks at The Mending Shed in Orem told me of a man who came in to buy some canning supplies. He mentioned he was canning some taco soup—in half gallon jars. Startled, the clerk dug a bit deeper, asking about his pressure canning time for a half-gallon jar. The man responded, “Oh, no! the soup goes in the jars boiling hot, so the lids seal without any processing.”


Taco soup, typically with tomatoes, peppers, ground beef, corn and beans, is low acid—to simply put it in a jar and onto the shelf is an ideal place for botulism to grow. There’s no oxygen, it’s wet, it’s low acid, and it’s a nice, comfortable room temperature. The protein coated spore produced by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria will open up, releasing and multiplying its deadly toxin. It’s not a gas-former, it won’t smell, it will just poison whoever is unfortunate enough to eat it.

Proper pressure canning time at temperatures above 240o F (which takes 13 to 15 pounds of pressure at our altitude) is the only way to destroy the spores of Clostridium botulinum bacteria.

Another FYI: Lids on canning jars will “seal” briefly with simply a change in temperature, but bacteria in the food has not been killed, and the seal will not last.

Don’t “wake up dead” this Halloween! Use research-based canning recipes found on any Cooperative Extension site, the National Center for Home Food Preservation, or Ball Canning.

This article was written by Cathy Merrill, USU Extension Assistant Professor, Utah County


Ask an Expert // Which preservation method should I use?

preserve foodInterested in food preservation, but not sure where to start? Here’s a great overview of the different methods for preserving food. Which one is right for you?

There are many ways to preserve food beyond the traditional bottling most people consider “canning.” All of the methods help you take advantage of seasonal abundance or food market sales.  Here are the Big Four, soon to become the Big Five, with pros and cons attached to help you make your decision

1. Freezing

Advantages: Freezing yields the freshest taste, and has the highest nutrition retention.

Disadvantages: In most cases, product must be thawed or cooked before use. Fruit can be limp when thawed. This can be overcome by serving fruits when still half-frozen.

Level of Preparation Difficulty: Easy— vegetables typically need to be blanched before freezing for highest quality. In most cases you simply put the product in a bag, label it, and put it in the freezer.

Cost: A freezer is a major expense, but they last a long time. Otherwise, cost is minimal: freezer bags or containers and electricity.

Storage time: For best quality, use frozen foods within three to six months. Frozen food is safe to eat as long as it is frozen.

Important food safety note: Freezing does not kill any bacteria, the cold temperature only keeps the bacteria from growing. When frozen product thaws, bacteria starts growing again.

2. Dehydrating (Drying)

Advantages: Dehydrated foods are lightweight, and don’t take up much storage space, making great packable snacks or meals. Home dehydrated foods are healthier than many packaged snacks because they don’t have commercial additives. Dehydrating yourself is cheaper than buying commercially dried fruits and vegetables.

Disadvantages: Lowest nutrition retention of food preservation methods—but still healthier than a store-bought snack. Product shrinks down, which makes for easy storage, but also appears to have a small yield because of that. Rehydrating a dried product does not mean the produce rehydrates to the level of fresh. It will be chewier than a fresh product.

Level of preparation difficulty: Easy— children love to dehydrate. Produce needs to be sliced around 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick.  Most vegetables (excluding peppers and onions) need to be blanched prior to dehydrating for best results.

Cost: Usually under $100 for a small electric dehydrator—at garage sales, even less.  Make sure to wash and sanitize a used dehydrator.

Storage time: Product is best when used within 6 months to a year, and is safe for longer if it is kept dry. Dehydrated products will mold if not kept dry.

Food Safety Note: Dehydrating is like freezing, it does not kill bacteria. It merely puts the bacteria in a state too dry to reproduce.

3. Boiling Water Bath Canning

Advantages:  Foods preserved in a boiling water bath canner do not need refrigeration, and can be used directly out of the jar. This method yields good nutrition retention, fresh taste, and is easy to use in cooking and food preparation. This is what most people think of when considering “canning.” Useful for fruits, pickled products, salsas, jams and jellies.

Disadvantages: This food preservation method can only be used for high acid fruits, jams and jellies, or pickles. It requires both the preparation time and processing time in the water bath canner.

Level of preparation difficulty: Moderate. Follow a research-based USDA or Extension recipe for safety and best results. See  for online instructions and recipes.

Cost: You will need a  3- 5 gallon stock pot with a lid that allows for a trivet to keep the jars from direct contact with the bottom of the pan, and is deep enough to cover the jars with 2 inches of water above the jars. Commercial canners are around $30 – $40. Electric water bath canners are available for around $130. Canning jars are between $8 to $10 per dozen, although garage sales often have canning jars for cheaper. Only real canning jars (Ball, Kerr, Golden Harvest, Mason are typical brands) can be used: Salad dressing or mayonnaise jars are not strong enough. Canning lids need to be bought annually, but the bands and jars can be reused for years. One-piece Tattler lids are not USDA recommended at this time.

Storage time: Foods preserved with this method should be used within 1 to 2 years.

Food safety note: The boiling water bath method kills most yeasts and molds in high acid foods. If you open a jar and smell fermentation or see mold, throw the jar away.

4. Pressure canning

Advantages: This is a great way to can low acid foods for home use. Properly done, it is as safe as commercial products, but there is more personal control over the content.

Disadvantages: Pressure canning must be done according to research-based methods in order to be safe! Canned low acid vegetables and meats are prime targets for the growth of the deadly botulism toxin.  See  for online instructions and recipes.

Level of preparation difficulty: Difficult, mainly because of the time involved. Once the food is prepared for the jars, the pressure canner must be closely watched to make sure the pressure consistently stays at the 13 to 15 pounds of pressure needed to be safe at Utah altitudes for the correct amount of time.

Cost: The cost of a pressure canner ranges from $150 to $300. A pressure cooker is too small to be a pressure canner. Electric pressure cookers that claim to also pressure can are not recommended because they cannot hold 15 pounds of pressure for as long as it needs to be held at our altitude for safe canning. The cost of jars and lids is the same as for water bath canning.

Storage time: Foods preserved with this method should be used within 1 to 2 years.

Food safety note: If properly canned using a USDA or Extension tested recipe, the temperatures reached in a pressure canner should kill botulism spores, which create the botulism toxin. It is recommended to boil any low acid canned product for 15 minutes before eating as an additional safeguard, but anything that seems suspicious of spoilage should be thrown away rather than eaten.

5. Home freeze-dryer

Advantages: This method yields fresh taste, great nutrition retention, and preparation is easy (same as freezing or dehydrating).

Disadvantages: Freeze drying machines are expensive, noisy,  and take up space—they are quite large: the mid-size model is the size of a dishwasher, the small is the size of a student refrigerator. When the vacuum pump goes on, it is noisier than a dishwasher.

Level of preparation difficulty: Easy—the same preparation as for freezing or dehydrating. The time for processing is typically 24 hours or more, but it doesn’t need to be watched to do the processing.

Cost: Freeze drying machines cost $2500 and up, and require special vacuum pump oil.

Storage time: Home freeze-dryers are new, so definitive time studies have not been done. It is estimated the product is safe for around 10 years.

Food safety note: Freeze-drying does not kill bacteria. The same food safety recommendations as for either freezing or drying hold true here: once the product is rehydrated, the bacteria begin to grow again.

Home food preservation is an important skill to have. It saves money, gives control over content, and focuses your mind on healthy eating. Choose a process and enjoy the bounty!

This article was written by Cathy Merrill, USU Extension Assistant Professor, Utah County





Chill Out! Tips for Freezing Fresh Produce

chill outDuring the summer, fruits and vegetables are abundant — so don’t waste the opportunity for fresh produce because you may not have time to bottle it. Chill out: Use your freezer!

Freezing is safe, fast and gives the freshest taste with the highest nutrition of any preservation method. Freezing doesn’t kill bacteria—so make sure you wash and package your produce well–but it does slow or prevent bacterial growth because of the low temperatures.

A few tips:

  • Freezers should be kept at 0º F
  • Package in rigid, freezer-safe containers or freezer bags. Make sure to label them!
  • Vegetables are best blanched and cooled before being frozen. It stops the ripening action.
    • There are a few exceptions: Sweet or hot peppers can be washed and thrown in freezer bags to be used later in salsas or ….whatever! Onions may also be frozen without blanching—but double bag them to prevent odor transfers to other foods.
  • Fruits typically need no pretreatment, but for convenience sake, wash/drain, then freeze the individual pieces of fruit on a tray. Once they are frozen (about an hour), take them off the tray and put them in freezer bags. When you want to eat them, you can take out the amount you plan to use, rather than thawing the entire bag.
  • For small berries, the less handling the better. Wash/drain them and put them in one layer in a freezer bag. Put the freezer bags flat on the tray in the freezer. That way they freeze as individual pieces, but you aren’t repacking and breaking them in pieces.
  • For best quality, do not let frozen fruit totally thaw before eating: the freezing process damages the cell structure and they tend to be mushy. Put them out to eat when they still have ice crystals on them.
  • Tomatoes can be washed and frozen to be used in salsa later with their peelings on. To peel the skins later, pour boiling water over them, and the peelings will slip off. Let the tomatoes thaw a little before trying to chop them for the salsa.
  • Measure any fruit to be used in a recipe while it is still a little frozen to get a realistic picture of how much you are using. Include any liquid from the thawing in the measurement.

For more information, look in the freezing section of the National Center for Home Food Preservation website.

Chill out—and enjoy the fruits of your labors!

This article was written by Cathy Merrill, FCS Extension Assistant Professor, USU Extension, Utah County

Sleep Superheroes

Sleep SuperheroesA light supper, a good night’s sleep, and a fine morning have often made a hero of the same man who, by indigestion, a restless night, and a rainy morning, would have proved a coward.

–Lord Chesterfield

As parents, we know our children need a healthy, balanced diet to perform well in school. However, do we recognize what a vital role sleep plays in student performance? Teenagers extend their waking hours to accommodate school, work, sports and social life, cutting back on hours meant for sleep. Yet, whether they are teenagers or younger kids, even Superheroes need sleep to be at their best! Research shows that:

  • Shortened sleep times seem to cause higher levels of anxiety (Silva, et al. 2017).
  • Shortened sleep times seem to cause an increase in feelings of hunger, but a decrease in food enjoyment (Silva, et al. 2017).
  • A one-hour increase of sleep time is associated with a 14 percent decrease in the odds of being obese (Timmermans, et al., 2017).
  • Teenagers who consistently went to bed late craved more high-sugar foods at breakfast, and then continued to eat 53 percent  more food throughout the day (Asarnow, et al., 2017).
  • These same teenagers, when they altered their habits and went to bed earlier, voluntarily chose healthier foods for breakfast (Asarnow, et al., 2017).

Less anxiety, decrease in obesity, healthier food choices…there’s no question that sleep should be  an important part of your Superhero’s diet!

This article was written by Cathy Merrill, Family and Consumer Sciences, Extension Assistant Professor, USU Extension, Utah County


Asarnow, L.D., Greer, S.M., Walker, M.P., & Harvey, A.G. (2017). The impact of sleep improvementon food choices in adolescents with late bedtimes. Journal of Adolescent Health, 60¸ 570-576.  Accessed at

Silva, A.A.S.C., do Vale Cardoso Lopes, T., Teixeira, K.R., Mendes, J.A., de Souza Borba, M.E., Mota, M.C.,

Waterhouse, J., Crispim, C.A. (2017). The association between anxiety, hunger, the enjoyment of eating foods and the satiety after food intake in individuals working a night shift compared with after taking a nocturnal sleep: A prospective and observational study. Appetite, 108, 255-262. Accessed at  

Timmermans, M., Mackenbach, J.D., Charreire, H., Bardos, H., Compernolle, S., De Bourdeaudhuij, I., Oppert, J.-M., Rutter, H., McKee, M., Lakerveld, J. (2017). Preventive Medicine, 100, 25-32. Accessed at

Slow Cooker Boston Brown Bread

Boston Brown BreadReady or not, school will be starting soon for many Utah kids (if it hasn’t already). When kids walk in the door after school, they are STARVING. Let the aroma of this crockpot bread entice them beyond the cookie jar. It’s ready when they are!

Slow Cooker Boston Brown Bread


  • 2 c wheat flour
  • 1/2 c rye flour
  • 1/2 c cornmeal
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 c powdered milk
  • 1/2 c sugar, honey, or molasses
  • 2 T apple cider vinegar
  • 2 c water
  • optional: 1 c raisins, 1/4 c sunflower seeds


Mix wet and dry ingredients separately, then combine and mix briefly to moisten thoroughly. Place dough in greased #10 can, loaf pan, bundt cake pan, or make a 2/3 batch and grease two spaghetti sauce cans – whatever will fit in your crockpot with the lid on. Add enough water to reach halfway up the sides of the pan, put the crockpot lid on (with tinfoil, if necessary) and cook on low overnight or all day, or on high for 3-5 hours. Let cool before taking the bread from the pans.

Recipe courtesy of Rachel Dittli. Submitted by Cathy Merrill, Family and Consumer Sciences, Extension Assistant Professor, USU Extension, Utah County

Family Reunion Food

Family Reunion FoodPlanning a family reunion? Try these meal ideas to feed a large crowd using safe food handling techniques.

Because our extended family has extended throughout the country, our family reunions extend as well. Last year 66 of us descended on Oriental, North Carolina. It was wonderful! The last thing any of us wanted to do was spend time making food, but an army travels on its stomach!

The first day of the reunion when everyone starts gathering, people often arrive at odd hours. An easy meal to accommodate this is a large taco salad bar. The taco meat can be kept warm in crockpots on low, as well as the corn. The rest of the ingredients are not temperature sensitive and can be in covered containers on the table.

Our next day called for a beach picnic—the ocean was an hour away, but after traveling across the country from Utah, what’s another hour? We made sandwiches to take to the beach, and to finish up the lunch, we had 80 boxes of juice, 75 bags of pretzels and chips, 1/2 a box of apples and 40 clementines.Cut and wrap sandwiches well, then put in coolers of ice to keep everything at a safe temperature. Remember, this was for 66 people, with a fair amount of teenagers among them!

The Day Everyone Arrives Taco Salad

(Serves 66)

For the meat:

  • 16 lb. (80% lean) ground meat
  • 8-1/2 cups of cheap ketchup—about 2/3 of a  No. 10 can
  • 6 cups of taco seasoning mix
  • 1 gallon (approximately) of water
  • 16 cups of drained, cooked black beans

Directions: fry ground meat, drain, then add ketchup and seasoning mix and water. Heat up the beans and add to the meat. Put in crockpots on low. Be careful you don’t overload any electrical circuits—you may need to spread the crockpots around to different plugs.

Taco Bar Toppings:

  • Two No. 10 cans of corn—heat and put into small crockpots on low
  • 8 to 10 heads of lettuce, shredded
  • 5 lb. corn tortilla chips
  • Two No. 10 cans of mandarin oranges
  • One No. 10 can of sliced (not chopped!) black olives
  • 4 lb. green onions for slicing
  • 13 lb. of tomatoes, diced
  • 4 lb. sweet bell peppers, sliced
  • 8 lb. shredded or grated cheese
  • 1 or 2 jars of pickled pepper rings

Put the toppings — except for the corn — in medium-size bowls and keep the bowls filled as they empty. That way the vegetables will stay crisp in the refrigerator while the diners ebb and flow.

Subway Sandwiches for a Crowd


  • 10 loaves of French bread
  • 5 lb. sliced deli ham
  • 6 lb. sliced deli roast turkey
  • 4 lb. sliced deli roast beef
  • 5 lb. sliced cheddar and/or mozzarella cheese
  • 1-1/2 heads of lettuce
  • 15 tomatoes for slicing
  • 1 large jar of dill pickle chips
  • 1 medium bottle of mustard
  • 1-1/2 jars of Miracle Whip or Mayonnaise


Slice the French bread horizontally through the loaf, spread Miracle Whip (or Mayo) on one side of the loaf, and mustard on the other. Layer the cold cuts, lettuce, tomatoes and pickles (or tomatoes and pickles could be kept in separate containers and people can add them later). Put the bread back together, slice it vertically into 8 sandwiches, then wrap four or five times with clear plastic wrap. Get the large, industrial roll of plastic wrap: it’s wider and easier to handle with a crowd. Make sure the sandwiches won’t get wet while in the ice.

This article was compiled and edited by Cathy Merrill, FCS Utah County

Ask the Experts // Family Reunion Tips

Family Reunion TIpsDraw the short straw on family reunion assignments and are suddenly faced with preparing food for the multitudes? Here are some tips from USU Extension family and consumer sciences faculty to help ease the pain.

Keep Food Safe!

Be cautious and observant. Whether at a buffet-style luncheon, a family, community or church dinner or a picnic, just be cautious up front. Do a cursory review of what food is available and how it is being kept hot or cold. Ask yourself, “Does the food look fresh?” “Do I trust that the person preparing the food had clean hands and avoided cross-contamination with raw meats or juices?” “Has the food been held at a safe temperature?”

–Kathleen Riggs, Iron County

I make sure all food is well chilled and packed in a cooler if I’m traveling. Rather than mixing everything together and trying to keep a large container cold, I keep individual ingredients for a salad packaged separately to keep them cold. I pack the dressing separately, then combine it all in a large bowl when I arrive. I make desserts that are not temperature sensitive, such as brownies without frosting (I just sprinkle powdered sugar on top), Rice Krispy treats, cookies or fresh fruit with a fun dip. With meat to be served cold, I keep it well chilled. If keeping it hot, I use a crockpot or a casserole container that can be placed in an insulated bag. Dutch oven meat, vegetables and desserts are a favorite, and since they are generally cooked on site, there is no worry about the food sitting in the danger zone too long.

–Marilyn Albertson, Salt Lake County

Make sure hot food stays hot and cold food stays cold. Place bowls of ice or ice water under salads, etc., and use heat packs or slow cookers for the hot stuff. Make sure food gets put away quickly. That’s a thing in my family that worries me–we all wander away and leave the food out. When making food ahead of time, don’t put super-hot foods in the fridge to cool when they are in very large bowls or pots. Separate for faster and consistent cooling.

–Melanie Jewkes, Salt Lake County

Don’t use home-canned potatoes in your potato salad, or in your funeral potatoes, for that matter, unless you want them to live up to their name

Even if you’re boiling or (otherwise cooking) whole potatoes the night before and plan to finish prep the next day, make sure they’re properly cooled and then refrigerated until you use them. When we talk about C. bot requiring an anaerobic environment, remember that includes microenvironments.

–Karin Allen, USU Extension Food Quality and Entrepreneurship Specialist

One last food safety tip from the USDA: Use a Meat Thermometer!

Food Planning Ideas

Meal-in-a-bag — Pre-bag the entire meal for each person, and they can eat right out of the bag with no fuss or mess. This works well for something like taco salad. You can also put raw ingredients, like omelet fixings, in a bag and then cook the bag in boiling water. The meal is already served out and people just need to pick a bag.  

–Ginger Hack, Juab County

You have to have homemade root beer with dry ice.

If serving homemade ice cream, let family members twist the hand crank ice cream freezer or roll the ice cream in a can or bag. You will need a #10 can with a tight-fitting lid.  Inside that, place a smaller can with a tight-fitting lid filled with the ice cream mixture. Add ice and rock salt and put the lid on and tape it with duct tape. Then roll it on the cement if it is in a shady place (sunny, hot concrete will slow freezing) or in the grass for about 15 minutes. Take lid off, take off lid of small can and stir down ice crystals and repeat the process until ice cream is firm.

–Marilyn Albertson, Salt Lake County

Buy food in amounts that are easy to handle. It may be cheaper to buy a 20-pound chub of ground beef, but have you ever tried to defrost 20 pounds of ground beef in order to use 5 pounds for the taco salad that night?

Have a sign-up sheet — everyone eats so everyone helps! You make the menus, you buy the food, you provide the recipes, but the point-of-contact labor force is the whole reunion population.

Keep the menus very, very simple. It doesn’t mean it has to taste bad, just that it has to have universal appeal. Meals like Hawaiian haystacks where people have an array of topping choices to put on rice make life easy. Rice will feed everyone, and people can choose what they would like to add to it.

–Cathy Merrill, Utah County

From a health perspective–do less salads that are mayo based. They often separate in the summer heat, anyway, and there are way too many delicious veggie dishes to try out (my favorite is a black bean, corn, avocado salsa made with more tomatoes and peppers and raw tomatillos…yummy!). I don’t have a recipe typed up–I change it up each time I make it based on what I have from my garden. This one is very similar to what I start with, But l always add more tomatoes, more peppers, and usually tomatillos and avocados if I have them:

Food $ense Black Bean and Corn Salsa


  • 2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 can whole corn, drained
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 avocado, chopped
  • 1/2 small red onion, chopped
  • 2 fresh jalapenos, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 small can sliced black olives, drained
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 3 to 4 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper


Mix olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a small bowl and set aside. Combine all other ingredients and pour liquid mixture over and stir. Chill or serve immediately.

–Melanie Jewkes, Salt Lake County

There you have it, folks! Tips from family and consumer sciences faculty from around the state. Obviously, what worries us most is KEEP YOUR FOOD SAFE!  Don’t let a reunion memory of a fantastic family meal be spoiled by a food-borne illness report to the Centers for Disease Control afterward!

This article was compiled and edited by Cathy Merrill, FCS Utah County

Ask an Expert // Food Recalls


Food Recalls.jpgWhat do you really need to know about food recalls? Find out what they really mean, what to do if you have a recalled product in your pantry or fridge, and how to keep your family safe from food-borne illnesses.

Another recall hits the news: is any of the food we eat safe?

Not to worry! These recalls ensure our national food supply continues to be the safest in the world. To put it into perspective: There was a massive cheese recall in February of 2017, of cheeses made in a plant that tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes. The recall affected all cheeses produced in the plant from November 10, 2016, through February 9, 2017.  

Roughly 3,640,000 pounds were recalled. However, nearly a BILLION pounds of cheese is produced in the United States per month. So, out of the 3 billion pounds of cheese produced during the same time period, only 0.1% (or, 0.001213) of the cheese was recalled.

Recalls occur for several reasons:

  1. Something is missing or incorrect on the label, such as an allergen alert.
  2. A manufacturer reports a problem they have found in their own product.
  3. Government inspections uncover contamination of some sort in a food product of a food processing facility.
  4. Someone reports a foodborne illness to the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC) that is then traced back to its source.

Our government takes food safety very seriously. Manufacturing plants have long lists of “Critical Control Points.” These are steps in the manufacturing process where a specified time and temperature must be regulated. They are checked frequently. Batches of foods are labeled for tracking, and records are kept as to what batches went where in the world and nation.  Quality assurance scientists have chemical tests to run on each batch to ensure safe food. When a recall does occur, there are records that trace the entire physical pathway of the food product so the “bad” food can be found.

What can we do to be a savvy consumer in the face of these recalls?

Be aware of recalls. If it is something you typically purchase, check your pantry and throw away or return the product.

Practice basic, practical food safety: clean, separate, cook & chill.

  • Clean: keep you, your food, and your kitchen clean.
  • Separate: keep raw meats and poultry separate from ready-to-eat foods—in your grocery cart, on your counter preparing food, and in your refrigerator.
  • Cook: cook food completely. The internal temperature for poultry and ground products is 165 F; whole cuts of meat and pork internal temperature should be 145 F.
  • Chill: Keep foods out of the “danger zone” of 41 to 135 F. Bacteria develops rapidly when foods are left at normal room temperature longer than 2 hours. During the summer months in particular, don’t wait even an hour before getting things refrigerated!

So, what should you “recall” about food recalls? That we have government regulations protecting us, and companies doing their best to follow the law and ensure their product is safe!


By: Cathy A. Merrill, FCS Assistant Professor, USU Extension, Utah County


Thielking, M. (2017, March 9). Why is so much cheese being recalled? Stat. Retrieved from:

Barry-Jester, A.M. (2016, April 12). The US produces about a billion pounds of cheese every month. The Digest. Retrieved from:

White-Cason, J. (2013, August 12). Understanding Food Recalls: The Recall Process Explained. Food Safety News. Retrieved from: