Local Residents Learn about Food Preservation and Cooking with Herbs

MURPHYSBORO, Ill.— Nutrition and Wellness Educator, Mary Liz Wright, spent the day at the Jackson County Extension office to host two programs for local residents. Wright who serves in Clark, Crawford and Edgar counties, is the only Nutrition and Wellness Educator south of Interstate 70. 

During her herb workshop, Wright shared the history, origins, folklores and traditions of various herbs varieties. Ornamental herbs are beautiful plants that can be grown in combination with flowers. They make great accents, dividers and can act as ground cover. Aromatics herbs are often used for their fragrance and scent in aromatherapy or in beauty products, such as soap. Examples are lavender, eucalyptus or lemon balm. It is said that medicinal herbs were some of the first medicines. Even modern drugs are often based on phytochemicals found in many herbs. Culinary herbs are easy to grow as they are mostly disease resistant. With chronic disease being so prevalent, individuals being encouraged to eat less salt to combat heart disease and diabetes. Herbs can make a huge difference in flavoring food.

Wright shared some delicious recipes as well as helpful tips for cooking with herbs. Add small amounts of herbs to dishes at first.  You can always add more but you can’t take away. Start by using one fourth teaspoon of dried herbs per pound of meat or for every four servings. Dried herbs are always stronger than fresh herbs, so you generally use three times as many fresh herbs as you can use dried herbs. Fresh herbs should always be added towards the end of cooking. Unlike dried herbs, fresh herbs are more likely to lose their flavor during extended cooking periods. Add more delicate herbs like basil, chives, cilantro and parsley during the last few minutes of cooking. Less delicate herbs such as oregano, rosemary and thyme can be added the last 20 minutes of cooking.

For those that grow their own herbs, the ideal time to harvest them is in the morning after the dew has dried but before the sun gets too hot. To extend the freshness of herbs, snip off the ends of the stems diagonally. For short-term storage, herbs can be kept for a week or more just as you would fresh cut flowers—standing up in a tall glass of water. Cover loosely with a plastic bag or plastic wrap and keep them in the refrigerator, changing the water daily.

For long-term storage, you can dry or freeze herbs. One easy method to dry herbs is to lay them flat on a cookie sheet and bake them at a low temperature (200 degrees) in the oven with the door slightly ajar. Cook until leaves are dry enough to crumble. Chopped herbs can be frozen in an ice cube tray with broth, as individuals cubes can be taken out an added to recipes.

During the canning workshop, participants were able to learn the basics of food preservation and received the most current food safety guidelines. Individuals that brought in their dial pressure canner gauge were able to get them tested for accuracy. Dial gauges should be checked for accuracy each year as you will need to have the required pressure in your canner to properly preserve food.

When canning, it is important to leave the specified amount of head space in a jar to ensure a vacuum seal. If too little headspace is allowed, the food may expand and bubble out when air is being forced out from under the lid during processing. The bubbling food can leave a deposit on the rim of the jar or seal of the lid preventing the jar from sealing properly. If too much head space is allowed, the food at the top is likely to discolor and the jar may not seal properly as there will not be enough processing time to drive all the air out of the jar.

Salt is used for flavor only and is not necessary to prevent spoilage. If salt is used, it must be canning salt as table salt may make the contents of the jar cloudy. It is best to avoid artificial sweetener when canning fruit as saccharin-based sweeteners can turn bitter and aspartame-based sweeteners can lose their sweetening power during processing. Adding sugar to canned fruit can improve flavor, help stabilize color and retain the shape of fruit. It is not recommended to can herbs and oils as they are both low-acid and together could support the growth of the disease-causing Clostridium botulinum bacteria. Oils may be flavored with herbs if they are made up for fresh use and stored in the refrigerator for use within three days. Canned food will retain optimum quality for up to one year.

For more information on programming and upcoming events hosted by Extension, please visit us at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw

University of Illinois Extension provides equal opportunities in programs and employment. If you need a reasonable accommodation to participate in programming, contact your local registration office. Early requests are strongly encouraged to allow sufficient time for meeting your needs.

News writer: Heather Willis, 618-357-2126, hdwillis@illinois.edu