Tag Archives: chemistry

The Art and Science of Home Preserving- AKA fun with fruit lava

Definitely worth the effort

Definitely worth the effort

It’s apricot season here.  Last year I missed it because I didn’t realize the season is only a few short weeks.  So this year, the second I saw apricots showing up at the farmer’s markets and roadside stands, I pounced right away.  Why?  Because the relatives almost rioted when there was no apricot jam in with their Christmas presents last year.  Apparently after three years of our living in California – land of produce-a-plenty – it had come to be expected.  And berry jams just weren’t cutting it.  So this year it was get the apricots or have some disappointed and upset relatives on my hands (starting with my apricot-loving spouse).

So last weekend before the wrist surgery there was a bit of a frantic jam-making day with some probably-not-as-ripe-as-ideal apricots before I had to try to do jam-making while one-handed.  Working with one, non-dominant hand is a lot less than ideal when you’re dealing with what I fondly refer to as ‘fruit lava.’

I love home preserving.  It makes me feel like I have one more valuable skill in case of the apocalypse, the products tend to be way better than storebought, and it’s an inexpensive (albeit time-consuming) way to make some very nice gifts.  Especially if people send you back their empty jars.  Also, it involves a whole lot of science, whether you notice it or not.

I first started preserving about five years ago, when we lived in Monterey.  We had joined a CSA and I just couldn’t keep up with the bounty, even with us getting the “small” boxes each week.  Even with a lot of it being turned into homemade baby food (another post on the ease and cost-effectiveness of that later!), there was just so much produce.  I’d always adored the fresh jam my aunt made when I was growing up, so I decided to take a stab at it.

After all, people have been doing home preserving for millennia.  How hard could it be?  I learned that while it’s not that hard, it does take a lot of time.  And work.  And a bit of trial-and-error.

Naturally, I bought books on the subject.  My two favorites are The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (AKA the bible of canning), and Canning for a New Generation, recommended to me by a friend.  The Ball book is put out by the Ball company and is very user-friendly.  After all, it’s in their interest to make it easy for people to use their products.  Ball is pretty much synonymous with jars.  Even though there are several other companies on the market, you mainly see Ball on the shelves at grocery stores.

Speaking of Ball, I also like to support their jar division because it probably helps keeps their aerospace division afloat in the lean times of the aerospace industry.  No kidding, Ball Aerospace is part of the same company.  And they make really nifty parts for spacecraft.  The specialize in things like moving parts, sensors, and small satellite buses (platforms that host payloads), and I got to tour one of their really cool facilities in Colorado once.  Neat company – and seriously, all the same company.  So buying Ball jars, in a tiny, roundabout way, helps support the space industry.

Back to the jam-making.  It involves science on many levels, and once I trust my kid around fruit lava I think it’s going to make for some awesome ‘kitchen lab’ lesson time.  Here are just a few of the areas in home preserving that directly relate to serious science:

1) Killing and keeping out germs – you sterilize the jars, cook the snot out of the fruit, put the jars through a nice water bath, and seal them really nicely.  There’s also the sugar and the acid to help preserve and keep those nasty germs at bay.  Because if you screw up the sterilization part, your lovely Christmas gift could turn into botulism, and no one wants that!

2) Pectin – Whether you use storebought packages of pectin, or throw in some slices of apple in a cheesecloth, or just cook your fruit down forever and use the pectin already in there and hope it gets thick enough for your liking, it’s not technically jam if you don’t thicken it up (it’s just preserves).  And good luck making jelly without a lot of pectin.  There’s a lot of chemistry involved in turning your fruit from solid to liquid to a gel.

3) Sealing – why do you need head space in the jar, and what causes that satisfying little pop when your jars seal?  This is a great chance to talk about gases heating and expanding.  You leave that head space so there is a little bit of air.  Then when you put the jars through the water bath, that air heats up and some gets pushed out.  Pull the jar out to cool, and… as it contracts, you get a little bit of vacuum to suck that lid down nice and tight – and it makes that lid button go ‘pop!’ and tell you it has sealed.

4) The states of fruit lava in the lab – why does fruit break down and ooze juice when you add sugar to it (technical term: macerating)?  Why does lemon juice keep the fruit from turning brown (oxidizing)?  How long does it take your fruit to break down before slowly turning from solid to rolling-boil fruit lava to glossy, lovely jam?

5) Dealing with frustration in the lab – sometimes your best efforts are not rewarded.  Something goes wrong with the recipe.  Your jam foams, or it sticks to the bottom, or your pickles turn out soggy instead of crispy.  A jar fails to seal.  This is a great lesson opportunity for budding scientists – failed experiments are ones to learn from and start over.  Also, if the jar doesn’t seal you can still stick it in the fridge and eat it within a few weeks (or put it in the freezer for a few months – just don’t try to give it to grandma for Christmas).

6) One of these days I want to get a pressure canner and branch out even more.  Beyond what you can do with fruits, tomato sauce, and pickles using just a water bath, canning most (low-acid) vegetables safely needs more heat.  Short of getting industrial equipment, a pressure canner is the best I could get at home.

Bottom line, canning is both an art and a science.  I’ve gotten better with practice.  I’m still working on keeping my strawberry from foaming/bubbling, and those perfectly crisp pickled squash chips are still eluding me, but I’m getting closer with every experiment – er, batch.  And my daughter will slowly move up from fruit-washing assistant through the ranks: fruit cutter, sugar measurer, assistant stirrer, pot washer, and someday, when she is ready… wielder of the jar grabber.

What science experiments do you like to do with your kids in the kitchen?  Have you ever tried home preserving?  Do you think it’s worth the effort?

If you’re looking for an easy way to get started, I recommend starting with freezer jam.  It’s low-effort, delicious, and pretty much impossible to screw up.

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Irene Curie-Joliot

photo from nuclearfiles.org bio

Just about everyone has heard of Marie Curie and her contributions to science.  But not so many have heard of her daughter.  Irene Curie-Joliot was a tremendously successful scientist in her own right.

Born in Paris in 1897, Irene Curie was the daughter of already-famous Marie and Pierre Curie.  Irene served as a nurse radiographer alongside her mother in WWI before finishing her doctorate in 1925 and marrying chemical engineer Frederic Joliot in 1926.  The two of them collaborated in life and science until her death in 1956, sometimes working on separate projects, sometimes working together.

In 1935 Irene Curie-Joliot and Frederic Joliot won the nobel prize in chemistry for their work on synthesizing new radioactive elements.  This was monumental in that they had managed to turn an element into something else, a feat out of the old myths of alchemy.  They achieved it by bombarding naturally occurring elements with alpha particles, making it possible to achieve radioactive isotopes from lighter elements.  This discovery was especially critical to nuclear medicine research.

Irene worked in research, as a lecturer, in politics, and as a mother.  She started lecturing in 1932 and became a full Professor in the Faculty of Science in Paris in 1937.  She and frederic had a daughter, Helene, and a son, Pierre, both highly regarded scientists in their own rights –  Helene in nuclear physics, and Pierre in biochemistry.

Irene Curie-Joliot also worked to advance nuclear power in France, serving as a Commissioner for Atomic energy.  Her efforts in this area led to the development of France’s first atomic pile and the many efficient plants that would follow.  Fearing the weaponization of their work on nuclear fission and development of nuclear reactors, she and Frederic sealed their notes on that subject in the vaults of the French Academy of Sciences until 1949.

In addition to all those efforts, she was the Director of the Radium Institute, which was started by her parents, and she worked on improving education infrastructure in her field and served as France’s Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research starting in 1936.  She was also a champion for women, both socially and academically.  She served on the World Peace Council and Comité National de l’Union des Femmes Françaises.  The Jolie-Curies involvement with socialism and communism in the French resistance during WWII did cause them later troubles during the cold war.  This could partially explain why they are so much less well-known than Irene’s parents.

While the Nobel Prize is arguably her biggest achievement, she received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and prestigious memberships to foreign academies and scientific societies, even serving as an Officer of the Legion of Honor.

After contracting tuberculosis during WWII and frequently convalescing in Switzerland, Irene succumbed to leukemia in 1956.  If you would like to know more and can manage to find it anywhere (let me know if you do –  none of the links I found worked!), PBS put out a film in their Women of Science series called Out from the Shadows: The Story of Irene Joliot-Curie and Frederic Joliot-Curie

Sources:

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1935/joliot-curie-bio.html

http://www.famousscientists.org/irene-joliot-curie/

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1353203/Frederic-and-Irene-Joliot-Curie

https://www.aip.org/history/curie/2ndgen1.htm

http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/library/biographies/bio_curie-irene.htm

http://www.nndb.com/people/410/000100110/

http://www.wgbhinternational.org/index.php?sid=yvktsfgceb5msb4ykwjngev1rqpmlnwa&lang=english&page=search&query=irene+curie&advanced=on&title=on&description=on&producer=on&dle_pp=0&dle_od=asc&pr_act=details&pid=542

http://www.wgbh.org/programs/Out-From-the-Shadows-The-Story-of-Irene-and-Frederic-Joliot-Curie-330

http://www.mphpa.org/classic/HF/Biographies%20-%20Women/i_curie.htm

http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/online-resources/chemistry-in-history/themes/atomic-and-nuclear-structure/joliot-curie-joliot.aspx

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Cooking with science!

Cooking can be a fantastic teaching tool for kids in many ways.  Cooking is science, math, and art all rolled into one.  It’s also a good way to make kids more self-sufficient, get them to try new foods, and teach a useful life skill.  Spending time together in the kitchen is a great bonding experience as well.

Starting off small, toddlers can help stir, measure out ingredients, prep ingredients, and come along to shop for the necessities.  It helps develop motor skills, and most kids love getting to be a “little chef.”  Especially if they get their own cool apron.

As kids get older, they can learn to read the recipes, practice fractions to measure out 2/3 of a cup, learn weights and measures by figuring out that whole confusing pints, quarts, gallons mess, and practice basic math skills by having to double or halve a recipe.

Chemistry comes into the mix when you learn the hard way what happens when baking soda is left out of the chocolate chip cookies, or when you use too much or too little of different thickeners such as corn starch, arrowroot, flour, and agar agar.

Older kids can learn good research and planning skills by finding and choosing the recipes, making the shopping list, and figuring out when they will need to start cooking to have dinner on the table at the usual time.

If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can check out some molecular gastronomy kits and add even more science to your cooking.

If you’re not into cooking or just way too busy to cook, a lot of these skills can be learned even from making a dinner consisting of microwaved burritos (read directions, figure out timing) and a bag of pre-made salad.  Or you could encourage math skills development by figuring out the exact change needed to buy lunch together.  You could also watch some Good Eats together, which if you haven’t seen it is sort of Bill Nye the Science Guy-meets-cooking-show.

Here are some of the favorites for cooking with my preschooler to date.

Age 2:

  • Stir scrambled eggs while they are cooking (with close supervision)
  • Stir bowls of ingredients for baking
  • Mash the bananas for bread or muffins
  • Wash produce
  • Use the salad spinner
  • Hold the grocery list

Age 3:

  • Fill a measuring cup of dry ingredients and pour it into the bowl (having them use a spoon to fill the measuring cup helps)
  • De-stemming mushrooms
  • Slice bananas, avocados, and other soft foods with butter knife
  • Cracking/opening eggs
  • Going through cookbooks/searching for internet recipes together to help choose what to make
  • Pour the ingredients into the bowl/pot/pan (with close supervision)
  • Help unload the dishwasher – she puts away all the silverware, which builds sorting skills and keeps my plates and glasses intact
  • Counting and sorting skills – put three carrot sticks on each plate, for example.
  • Clear the table and put dirty dishes in the sink
  • Pour batter for pancakes, waffles, muffins, etc.

I’ll periodically come back and update this list as she gets a little older and we get more adventurous in the kitchen.  Parents with older kids, please chime in with what your kids love to make and help out with in the kitchen.

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