Tag Archives: science

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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TV review – Australia: First Four Billion Years

This show actually aired a year ago on PBS, but I just found it on Amazon Prime recently.  It’s a NOVA miniseries, and it covers four billion years of Australia’s history in four episodes.  We just finished the fourth episode tonight and the consensus in our house was that it’s fantastic.  We will definitely be re-watching this one.

The series begins with the formation of the planet and continents, and ends with early human history.  This show has something for everyone to love – both the adults and the four-year-old were completely captivated.  This show has dinosaurs, geology, marine biology, you name it.  Seriously good science-y stuff.

The four episodes are titled “Awakening,” “Life Explodes, “Monsters,” and “Strange Creatures.”  I learned a lot watching each one.  My husband and I frequently found ourselves uttering things like “cool” and “I didn’t know that!” throughout each episode.

The show has great cinematography and really good CG that blend fairly seamlessly.  There are frequent transitions between showing a fossil and a live animation of what the creature or plant likely looked like.  They also do some neat shots where they show a now-dry lakebed or sea, and then a view of what it looked like when under water.

The only irritating thing was this recurring aside where they ‘drove’ through history, complete with cutting to host Richard Smith driving along a dirt road, and nausea-inducing spinning shots of the car to simulate moving through time to the next era.  Could definitely have done without that part.

If you or your kids are fans of geology, history, paleontology, biology, zoology, archaeology, all things Australia-related, or even something more obscure like paleoentomology, this show has something for you.  We really like nature and science shows in our house, and this one was the best we’ve seen since Planet Earth.  And Richard Smith’s voice is almost as captivating as David Attenborough’s.

If you have Amazon Prime it’s free on there, or you can watch on the PBS website here.  It’s also available on iTunes and DVD.

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Review of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Ok, finally managed to get through the episode – it was worth waiting until I could get through it all with my daughter, as she sat totally transfixed in my lap to watch it.

Overall, I enjoyed it.  They have updated the show from the Sagan years with modern CG, and the graphics and music are lovely.   It’s more basic than most adults with any kind of STEM enthusiasm or background need, but far more advanced than some really, really bad STEM-related shows in recent years (I’m looking at you and your oversimplification, The Planets).  It’s not overly simplistic, but presented in a way that’s accessible to everyone, which is exactly the point of a mainstream science show.  I think they found a nice balance – at least in the first episode.

Also, I’m not going to complain at all that a science show is on Fox.  I appreciate how great that is!  It doesn’t begin to make up for canceling Firefly or any of their other terrible decisions, but it shows that maybe, just maybe, they’re taking a step in the right direction.  So, on to the review, of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I liked the ‘cosmic address’ analogy that Neil deGrasse Tyson used to describe how to locate Earth in the Universe.  It works for those who are used to mailing addresses, but also for the younger crowd who speak in IP addresses.

DidI mention the graphics and music?  Boy, we’ve come a long way in computer graphics and animation in the last few decades.  Love it.  They also did a great mix of what is clearly real satellite imagery (I recognized a few famous Hubble shots in there) and computer-generated.  This is a very visually-appealing show.

It can keep the interest of both an adult aerospace engineer and a 3-year-old.  That’s a tough thing to pull off.  My daughter’s main concerns where whether Neil de Grasse Tyson was harmed in the filming of the Big Bang scene, and what exactly happened to the dinosaurs.  Luckily, she didn’t really understand the scene with The Inquisition.

The ‘Cosmic Calendar’ they used to show the scale of the age of the universe was very well done.  It really helped break something that enormous into chunks small enough to wrap the human brain around.

The personal story of Neil deGrasse Tyson meeting and being inspired by Carl Sagan was also a very nice touch.  Adding the current human interest element to stories that can sometimes feel impersonal – like the forming of galaxies and a long-ago story of an early astronomer – helps attract and keep a modern audience.

All that said, what was up with the weird little spaceship thing that flew around in a lot of the space scenes?  It looks a lot like the a bottle opener I have.  I also took issue with the ‘blowing clouds of cosmic dust’ or whatever that was supposed to be that Voyager seemed to be flying through – which is the kind of thing would have demolished the poor satellite decades ago.

The caption is “The Ship of the Imagination, free from the shackles of space and time, can go anywhere.” But the ship is seriously weird-looking. From: http://www.cosmosontv.com/photos/album/standing-up-in-the-milky-way

My OXO bottle opener looks suspiciously like the "spaceship of the imagination"

My OXO bottle opener looks suspiciously like the “ship of the imagination”

The weird cartoon of Bruno’s story with cheesy accents and creepy arrow-shooting cherubs.  And then flying through space scenes with cape and hair waving in the wind.  Just plain bizarre.  Also, the whole thing was a little too drawn out and dramatized with the name-calling and book-throwing and flashes to shots of torture instruments.

The good in this show far outweighed the bad.  I like the new Cosmos, and I really, really hope it doesn’t become another reason I have to buy one of those “I’d rather be watching shows canceled by Fox” t-shirts.  Fingers crossed.

What did you think of it?  How does it compare with your memories of the original?  Will you continue to watch?

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I Miss Carl Sagan – But I’m Still Excited About The New Cosmos

Have you seen the new Cosmos yet?  I haven’t, but I’m about to.  And I’m pretty excited about it – if for no other reason than that there’s a science show on prime-time network TV.  A remake of the show that made so very many of my generation love science and learning about the universe.  Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson = pure awesome.  He’s not Carl Sagan, but if anyone can pull of redoing Cosmos, it’s him.  As long as he doesn’t try to say billions and billions.  No one can do that like Sagan.

If you missed it, you can watch it here:

http://www.cosmosontv.com/watch/183733315515

So I’m off to go watch it right now – it’s been a crazy week and we don’t get TV in our house that doesn’t come free from the internet, so this is my first opportunity.  Stay tuned for my full review of it tomorrow.  With spoilers!

Share what you think about the new version in the comments, or favorite memories of the original.

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The Incredible, Edible Minion

I got home late from work and the house is still full of sick people.  So, without further ado, tonight I give you a very short post showcasing an awesome geeky craft to enjoy with your kids: minion cupcakes!  And yes, they looked better on Pinterest.  But mine are still pretty cute, for a not-very-artistically-talented baker.

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I made these a while back as a thank-you for a friend who was kind enough to pet-sit for us, and happens to love the minions (who doesn’t, right?).  I’ll add that this is the one and only time twinkies have ever been in my house.  Ever.   Also, the twinkies were hard as rocks by the second day so you either need to eat these quickly, or just pull off the twinkie and treat it as one giant, inedible-but-adorable decoration while you enjoy the cupcake.  This will also save you from a mouth dyed black by the somewhat creepy black gel frosting.

You can make these with any type of cupcake and frosting, and twinkies cut in half.  Use a fine decorating tip and your own decorating frosting, or you can cheat like me and buy a little tube of pre-made decorating gel and some sugar eyeballs (these are also great for making Sesame Street Characters).

And remember – baking is not just an art, it’s a science.  Delicious science.

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