UC Food Blog
Air drying peppers can be a fun activity to do with children. For the best results, select only firm, fresh peppers free of any blemishes or other damage. Wash them thoroughly. Then use a knife to cut a slit in the stems. Using a large crafting needle, thread light string or a heavy thread through the stems of the peppers. Hang the string of peppers in a well-ventilated room since high humidity can cause the peppers to spoil. The peppers should dry within about four weeks.
Peppers can also be sun dried. Drying peppers in the sun requires a minimum temperature of 90°F for several days, with a humidity level below 60 percent. To sun dry peppers, first rinse them to remove any dirt. Then lay them on screen trays made of stainless steel, plastic, or Teflon coated fiberglass. Do not use galvanized metal, copper or aluminum screens. Place the trays on blocks to increase airflow and cover the peppers with cheesecloth to protect them from birds and insects. Once the peppers are dried, pasteurize them to kill any insect or insect eggs that may have gotten on the peppers. To pasteurize them, either seal them in a freezer bag and place the bag in the freezer (set at 0°F or below) for 48 hours, or lay the peppers out single layer on a tray and place them in the oven pre-heated to 160°F for 30 minutes.
If you have an electric food dehydrator, first thoroughly rinse the peppers and remove the stems and cores. Cut the peppers into 3/8-inch disks and place in a single layer on the dehydrator trays. The peppers generally take 8 to 12 hours to dry in a dehydrator.
You can also dry peppers in your oven, although you may not want to heat up your house using this method in the summer. To dry peppers in your oven, first make sure your oven can be set to 140°F. (Any higher temperature will cook, not dehydrate the peppers.) Place washed peppers single layer on an oven drying tray (note: cake cooling racks placed on a cookie tray work well). Make sure the drying tray clears all sides of the oven three to four inches. If you are placing more than one drying tray in your oven, make sure they're spaced two to three inches apart for air circulation. The oven door needs to be propped open two to six inches during the entire drying process. You can place an oven thermometer near the drying tray to get an accurate temperature reading and adjust the temperature as needed to reach 140°F. Since oven drying takes about twice as long as an electric food dehydrator, it will take approximately 16 to 24 hours to dry peppers using this method. Just be sure to let the peppers completely cool before packaging them for storage.
Dried peppers can be stored for several months in a cool dark place. They should be stored in moisture proof packaging such as a glass jar or freezer container. Plastic freezer bags can be used but be aware that they are not rodent proof. Rehydrate dried peppers for use in dishes like casseroles by soaking them in water. Or you may opt to crumble or turn the dried peppers into a powder to use as a seasoning.
Source of information and more reading:
For more information on drying peppers, see Peppers: Safe Methods to Store, Preserve and Enjoy from the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources accessible at https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8004.pdf and Preserving Food: Drying Fruits and Vegetables from the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service accessible at https://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/uga/uga_dry_fruit.pdf.
For more information about the UC Master Food Preserver Program, including the Food Preservation Video Library, visit mfp.ucanr.edu.
Farmers who want to learn organic production practices for California specialty crops can now get training at their convenience on their own computers. The organic farming training is designed by the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Organic Farming Research Foundation and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
“This course includes information from the latest scientific research conducted by our University of California colleagues across the state, and boils it down into practical information for beginning or transitioning organic farmers of fruit, nuts, vegetables and other specialty crops,” said Sonja Brodt, UC SAREP academic coordinator for agriculture and environment.
The training program contains six learning modules: soil health, weed management, irrigation and water management, insect and mite pest management, disease management, and business management and marketing.
“We were able to draw on the expertise of 22 technical advisors, the majority of them from UC Cooperative Extension, UC campuses and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, to ensure the scientific accuracy of the information provided,” Brodt said.
The program provides a combination of written content, videos and do-it-yourself exercises that allow students to follow along at their own pace and test their grasp of the knowledge. Farmers may read or view any parts of the course they choose, in any sequence. No certificate or credit is given at completion.
“While it was developed for California specialty crop farmers, the content is based on foundational principles that are relevant to all organic farmers and our hope is that growers across the U.S. find it to be a useful resource,” said Lauren Snyder, OFRF education & research program manager.
The organic farming training is free. To obtain a link to the training, submit a request at https://ofrf.org/beginning-farmer-training-program.
Funding for this online training program was made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service through grant AM170100XXXXG011. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USDA.
Many students are experienced food preservers, creating delicious jams and jellies for their family and friends. It's exciting to see the ah-ha moments when I explain and discuss the reasons behind the research-based preservation techniques UC Master Food Preservers teach. Just because grandma or mom did something and no one got sick, does not mean that the process is safe by today's standards.
The traditional methods of preserving jams and jellies was to cook the product, put it in a sterile jar, and either pour melted paraffin wax on top or put a lid on then turn the jar upside down to force a seal. Each method has its own set of food safety concerns.
Using paraffin wax to create a barrier between the jam or jelly and the surrounding environment was fairly effective as long as the product was stored in a consistently cool place, such as a root cellar. Not many of us have the luxury of a root cellar. Unfortunately, if the storage temperature of the jar fluctuates, the wax contracts with cold temperature (letting in pathogens and – in my country house – ants) and then expands with warm temperatures to trap the undesirables in the product beneath the wax.
If there was mold under the wax, it was a common practice to scrape it off since it only appeared to be on the surface. We know better now. Molds don't just grow on the surface, they can create carcinogenic toxins (mycotoxins) that remain in the food, invisible to the human eye.
Another common canning practice was to sterilize the jars, fill almost to the top with hot jam or jelly, put the lids on, and turn the jars upside down to force out the air and create a vacuum seal. This is open kettle canning. This method made a more consistent barrier than wax, but there is still a common potential problem with the food inside the jar: there is no guarantee you destroyed all food borne pathogens and spoilage organisms.
When we boil jam and jelly in a cooking pot, we still don't reach a high enough temperature to destroy all spoilage and food poisoning organisms. Plus, the air is filled with floating microorganisms trapped in the jar when we add a lid. When we process a jar of jam or jelly in a boiling water or atmospheric steam canner, there's enough of an increase in the temperature within the jar to destroy the pathogens and enough of a pressure increase to force air out of the jar. When we remove the jars from the canner, the pressure equalizes and the vacuum seal forms over pathogen-free food.
Often people don't realize the purpose of adding (so much!) sugar to a jam and jelly isn't just to add sweetness. Sugar preserves the food and partners with the pectin to form the gel.
When I teach about the purpose of sugar in a jam or jelly, I have students (youth and adult) act out what happens in a jar of jam. Three volunteers at the front of the room represent water, sugar, and pathogens (the bad guy). Foodborne pathogens need water to grow, so if the pathogens have access to the food's water (the water and pathogen volunteers link arms), the pathogens do what they're supposed to do: grow mold, slime, fuzz – all that disgusting stuff you find growing in the containers shoved at the back of your fridge. We need to separate the water in food from the pathogens, so we bring in sugar. At a molecular level, the sugar molecules bind with the water molecules (the water volunteer now links arms with the sugar volunteer, leaving the pathogen volunteer off to the side). This bonding lowers the water activity of the food, making the water unavailable to the pathogen (private party by invitation only). The pathogen wants to join the food party but the sugar acts as a bodyguard, keeping the pathogen away from the food's water and preventing the pathogen from growing (the sugar volunteer blocks the pathogen volunteer from getting near the water volunteer). That's how sugar preserves the jam and jelly.
But what if you want to have a low sugar jam or jelly (aka fruit spread)? First, use a pectin and recipe designed for low-sugar to get a good gel. (Low-sugar pectin uses calcium instead of sugar to make the gel. Regular pectin uses sugar to make the gel, so if you just cut the amount of sugar, you'll make a delicious runny syrup.) Second, process the fruit spread in a boiling water or atmospheric steam canner to destroy the microorganisms. While the jar is sealed, nothing will grow. Unfortunately, once you open the jar, there isn't enough sugar to prevent microorganisms from growing (you have a tiny sugar bodyguard). Even stored in the refrigerator, mold forms within a couple of weeks and you need to toss the fruit spread. I always recommend canning low-sugar fruit spread in small 4-ounce jars to make it easy to finish using the product before it molds.
Knowing why current canning recommendations work is key to ensuring the jams and jellies we serve to our friends and family are safe to consume. UC Master Food Preservers rely on the National Center for Home Food Preservation for their information; you can, too!
For more information about the UC Master Food Preserver Program, including the Food Preservation Video Library, visit mfp.ucanr.edu.
This is one of a series of stories featuring a sampling of UC ANR academics whose work exemplifies the public value UC ANR brings to California.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life for everyone, with information about COVID-19 changing daily. For Californians who aren't fluent in English, obtaining reliable information is particularly difficult. Aparna Gazula, a University of California Cooperative Extension advisor who serves Santa Clara, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties, has been providing COVID-19-related information in Chinese and Spanish for immigrant Bay Area farmers.
In March, when restaurants shut down to curb the spread of the virus, many restaurants and wholesale produce markets cancelled produce orders placed with farmers. Language, cultural differences, low computer literacy and limited access to computers created barriers for small-scale, immigrant farmers in the Bay Area to quickly find new buyers for their perishable produce. Gazula introduced them to food banks, hoping they would accept the produce donations, but the food banks were not set up to pick up donations from small farmers.
Most small-scale farmers lack the financial capital to absorb the revenue shock. To help offset losses from unsold specialty crops, the UCCE advisor and Qi Zhou, the small farm program assistant specialist, have been helping Asian and Latino farmers complete English-language disaster aid applications.
“Since March, we have helped farmers apply for Covid-19-related farmer relief funds,” Gazula said. So far, she said, four of the 17 immigrant farmers who applied to the American Farmland Trust Farmer Relief Fund have received a total of $4,000, and 10 farmers of the 30 who applied to the California Family Farmer Emergency Fund received a total of $42,500.
Recently the U.S. Department of Agriculture expanded the list of specialty crops eligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to include bok choy, daikon and other vegetables with a deadline of Sept. 11. Communicating by phone and the app We Chat, Gazula and Zhou, who speaks Mandarin, notified local farmers, and advised them how to apply for the disaster funds. Zhou, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service rangeland management specialist Ling He and another NRCS staff member assisted 64 farmers in completing applications over the past week.
Bob Kuang, president of the Bay Area Chinese Growers Association, shares UCCE information with the association's growers.
“Most of my members don't understand English so they [UC Cooperative Extension] help, like for policy and safety,” Kuang said, providing information the growers can't find elsewhere in Chinese.”
When she was a girl, Gazula saw how hard farmers work to make a living off the land while spending summers and winter breaks at her grandparents' farm in India, where they grew rice, mung beans and chili peppers.
“Farmers are very hardworking people, and small farmers even more so as they manage everything on the farm,” said the small farms and specialty crops advisor. “Their grit, determination to succeed and hardworking spirit truly inspire me.”
“I'd like to help them be successful as much as I can,” she said, “be it research-based information to farm successfully or bilingual support to help them better navigate regulations or apply for grant funds.”
In addition to helping farmers apply for financial relief, Gazula alerted the farmers to shelter in place rules and is delivering COVID-19 safety information about masks, sanitation and social distancing requirements in Chinese and Spanish to them.
“We also helped farmers implement COVID-19-related protocols on their farms,” she said. “We are currently putting together 200 COVID-19 kits that will help farmers comply with worker health and safety-related protocols on their farms. The COVID-19 kits contain reusable masks, hand sanitizer, bilingual Cal OSHA guidelines for employers regarding COVID-19, and a resources sheet listing where to buy the enclosed items.”
When she's not involved in COVID-19 crisis communications, Gazula continues to conduct research on nitrogen uptake in bok choy and bell peppers and irrigation management. She collaborates with Linda Chu, Guo Ping Yuan, Han Qiang Kuang and other Santa Clara County growers who allow the farm advisor to study crops on their farms.
“They do research, like test irrigation systems for right amount of water for the crop and nutrition – fertilizer – for the crop. They do lot of things,” said Bob Kuang, of the Bay Area Chinese Growers Association, who provides land at his farm in Gilroy for UCCE studies.
Gazula also advises farmers on how to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) on their farms and fulfill irrigated land nitrogen reporting. Fines for not complying with regulations can threaten the economic sustainability of small family farms.
Although the majority of growers she works with regularly have limited English and need assistance filing reports to the government, others consult her for production information they can't get elsewhere for the specialty crops they grow. Farmers of Korean, Japanese, Indian and Vietnamese ancestry and others attend meetings to learn the latest research on Asian vegetables such as daikon radish, napa cabbage, bok choy, on choy and various Asian leafy mustard crops including gai choy and pea shoots.
Gazula, who joined UC Cooperative Extension in 2016, currently works with about 180 small-scale growers in San Benito and Santa Clara counties and hopes to expand her outreach to farmers in Santa Cruz County.
To help small farmers adapt to climate change, Gazula and Zhou partnered with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Healthy Soils Program staff and Santa Clara County Farm Bureau for technical assistance and held workshops during the winter. Zhou helped the farmers apply for grants from the California Department of Food and Agriculture's State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program and Healthy Soils Program. The 22 farmers who received CDFA grants brought a total of $424,111 into Santa Clara County.
The outreach work UC Cooperative Extension does wouldn't be possible without the help of bilingual staff such as Zhou, the scientist Gazula hired with grant funds in September, and some translation support from partner organizations and growers as well.
“Relying on partners for translation support isn't practical,” Gazula explained. “Outreach is most effective when it is targeted. It's not just literally translating words, but translating the information the words convey. Because we provide outreach materials to comply with regulations, the language in these materials is very technical and it's important that the information is presented accurately. We also depend on relationships with the farmers to extend the information within their communities. Long-term, it's easier to do outreach with support from our own staff.”
Competition is stiff for money to serve non-English-speaking Californians because the state is home to so many immigrants with different needs. The majority of the grants she uses for outreach are for food safety. The local Open Space Authority, which promotes preserving land for open spaces, has also provided funds for small and beginning farmer outreach and education.
Gazula draws on the expertise of fellow UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors across the state. For example, she said, Richard Smith, who specializes in vegetable production, and Michael Cahn, who specializes in irrigation and water resources, are always willing to help, even though they are not assigned to serve Santa Clara County.
“Farmers already have tremendous challenges when it comes to being successful,” Gazula said. “I feel language barriers and lack of access to the same resources as fluent English-speaking growers shouldn't be the reason they can't farm successfully.”
If you also found a silver lining to staying/working at home this summer by planting and tending to your garden, did your wish for a bumper crop of tomatoes come true? What happens if your tomato plants are prolific producers?
Preserve those tomatoes!
The easiest way to preserve tomatoes is to freeze them. You don't need to blanch them, you don't need to peel them. Just rinse, dry, core, and put them on a small tray or plate in the freezer. Once frozen solid, move them to a freezer bag, removing as much air from the bag as possible before closing. Pull the bag out of the freezer when you're ready to use the tomatoes. To peel, let them thaw just a little and then run each tomato under warm water to slip off the skins. It's that easy. (They won't have the texture of a fresh tomato, but they'll be perfect to make a fresh sauce for dinner.)
Don't throw away those skins! Or soft tomatoes. If you have a dehydrator, lay tomato skins on the tray, sprinkle with your favorite spice mix (garlic salt works well), and dry until crispy to make a tomato skin chip. Some heirloom tomato skins are bursting with flavor. Or instead of making chips, toss tomato skins and soft tomatoes into a freezer bag until you fill the bag. Thaw and puree the bag's contents and dry the mixture on your dehydrator tray as a crisp leather. Grind up the leather to make a tomato powder to use for camping soup mixes and dehydrated salsa mix. Sprinkle tomato powder on scrambled eggs for tomato flavor without the extra moisture or add to meatloaf, burgers or soups to enhance flavor. Get creative!
If you're a canner, there are lots of options. Many people don't think of tomatoes as a basis for jam or jelly, but with the right spices and some sugar, the flavor profile changes significantly. I served Spiced Tomato Jam in a blind taste test with third-graders a few years ago and they guessed it was apple pie and pumpkin pie because of the nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. It's delicious!
A family favorite is Tomato Apple Chutney. This savory spread is a collection of tomatoes, apples, onions, raisins, garlic, cucumber, red bell peppers, a little sugar and spices. I like to mix it with mayonnaise for a sandwich spread. The first time I made it my husband and I ate sandwiches for lunch and dinner three days in a row. It is one of the first red tomato products I can each summer.
Another family favorite is Roasted Eggplant and Pepper Puttanesca Sauce. The combination of roasted plum tomatoes, eggplant, onions and red peppers with capers, olives, spices, balsamic vinegar and wine make a chunky pasta sauce that smells fabulous when you open the jar. I usually make 3-4 batches and enjoy them all year.
My pantry staple is plain crushed tomatoes. I add spices when I make a meal, cooking them down, adding tomato paste (remember the tomato powder?) and dried veggies. Each jar of crushed tomatoes can become part of a unique meal. The main thing to remember is to add acid to each jar before filling it to ensure there's enough acidity to make the tomatoes a high acid food and safe to can in a steam canner or boiling water canner. I normally use bottled lemon juice, but this year I'm trying a few jars with cider vinegar; rumor has it that after being stored for several months the vinegar flavor mellows and enhances the flavor. I'll label the jars to identify the acid used.
I learned a great tip at one of our public classes a couple of years ago. Often when canning tomatoes, there's watery liquid at the bottom of the cook pot. Don't throw out the tomato water! You can jar and process it with the rest of your crushed tomatoes. Use the tomato water to cook couscous, quinoa, rice or as the liquid in a soup.
This is the first year I've actually put my garden in on time and shouldn't have plants loaded with green tomatoes right before the first freeze. If I do, I'll be thrilled because I'll make Green Tomato Salsa Verde – it's delicious! (It ranks up there with Tomatillo Salsa; I've already made three double batches and plan to make more.) Green tomatoes are more acidic than ripened tomatoes and you can use them in place of red tomatoes in any canning recipe, following standard acidification methods.
I just picked a cherry tomato off the potted plant on my back patio that is purposely within easy snacking distance from my kitchen. If I get too many to eat within a couple of days I'll cut them in half and dehydrate them. The result is as good as candy.
So many tomato possibilities! If you want more ideas, contact the UC Master Food Preserver online help line at Ask a Master Food Preserver.
Visit our website at http://mfp.ucanr.edu/to watch a variety of preservation videos from Cooperative Extension offices around the country, explore recipes, and find out more about the UC Master Food Preserver Program.