Blanching Fresh Veggies to Freeze

It’s summer and while gardens and farmers markets across the country are full of fresh and tasty vegetables, it’s sure to come to an end soon. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying them – not if you have a vacuum packaging system from VacMaster! Freezing veggies to enjoy during the winter is a great way to preserve that summer freshness year ’round.

You don’t want to just put them into back and start sealing though. Raw vegetables contain enzymes that will, over the course of time, begin to break down the vegetables and destroy color, texture and most importantly nutrients, even while frozen. Blanching is an easy process that will stop the enzymes from doing their dirty work! It’s basically just scalding vegetables in boiling water or steam for a few minutes, followed by a rapid cool down in an ice bath to stop the cooking process.

There are three methods to blanch vegetables: water blanching, steam blanching and microwave blanching. For our purposes here, we will not address microwave blanching as it is not as effective as the other two and studies show that some enzymes are not destroyed by microwave blanching, leaving your veggies at risk of losing nutrients, color, flavor and texture.

Water blanching involves dropping raw vegetables into a large pot of boiling water for a few minutes, followed by removal and dunking in an ice water bath for an equal amount of time. You can purchase a blancher but it really isn’t necessary as long as you have a large (2-3 gallon) pot with a lid and a basket or colander that will go down into the pot. You’ll want to use one gallon of water (or more) per pound of vegetables you’re blanching. The reason is you’ll want the water to return to a full rolling boil as quickly as possible after adding vegetables. Optimal time is one minute or less. Once the water returns to a full boil, start your timer and blanch for the appropriate amount of time. See our list below to find out how much time for many of your favorite vegetables. Once the time has elapsed, quickly remove from the boiling water and add to an ice bath. I put about two gallons of water in a large pan, along with about two pounds of ice. This will quickly cool the vegetables.

Steam blanching is recommended for some vegetables, including broccoli, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and winter squash. In this process, the vegetables are placed into a pot approximately 2-3 inches above boiling water and a tight lid is placed on the pot. Timing begins as soon as the lid is placed on the pot. Ideally, vegetables should be placed in a single layer and halfway through the steam time, move them a bit to ensure they are not sticking together. I have also used a kitchen steam cooker to accomplish the same thing. In most cases, steam blanching takes twice the amount of time as water blanching, although some more delicate vegetables will blanch sooner. Again, a quick ice water bath stops the cooking process and readies the vegetables for vacuum packaging and freezing.

It is important to note that blanch times are important. Obviously blanching for too long ruins the texture and strips nutrients from the vegetables. If you don’t blanch for long enough, the enzymes are not deactivated and deterioration will happen while frozen. Pay close attention to the recommended times in the chart below.

After ice baths, be sure to drain and pat dry as much as possible prior to vacuum packaging so that you’ll have less ice in the bags. Load VacMaster bags with amounts that best serve the needs of your family and use your VacMaster machine to vacuum package your vegetables for the freezer. Be sure to date and label. Your fresh vegetables will be tasty and full of vitamins for your family to enjoy throughout the coming winter months!

Blanched Veggies Vacuum Packaged

Vegetable Blanche Time – Water (minutes) Blanche Time – Steam (minutes)
Artichoke hearts (Globe) 7 12
Artichoke – Jerusalem 4 8
Aparagus – small stalk 2 3
Asparagus – medium stalk 3 5
Asparagus – large stalk 4 6
Beans (green, snap, wax) 3 6
Beans (lima, butter, pinto) 3 6
Beets until cooked and tinted until cooked and tinted
Broccoli florets 3 5
Brussels Sprouts – small heads 3 6
Brussels Sprouts – medium heads 4 8
Brussels Sprouts – large heads 5 10
Cabbage / Chinese Cabbage (shredded) 1 1/2 3
Carrots – small 5 8
Carrots – diced or sliced 2 4
Cauliflower florets 3 6
Celery 3 5
Corn – on the cob, small 7 12
Corn – on the cob, medium 9 14
Corn – on the cob, large 11 18
Corn – whole kernel or cream style 4 7
Eggplant 4 7
Greens, collard 3 4
Greens – all others 2 3
Kohlrabi – whole 3 6
Kohlrabi – cubes 1 2
Okra, small pods 3 5
Okra, large pods 4 7
Onions, whole 3-7 5-9
Onions, sliced rings 1/4 3/4
Peas, edible pods 2 3
Peas (field), black eyed peas 2 4
Peas (green) 1 1/2 3
Peppers, sweet – halves 3 5
Peppers, sweet – strips or rings 2 4
Potatoes – new 5 8
Pumpkin until cooked until cooked
Rutabaga 3 6
Soybeans, green 5 8
Squash, summer 3 5
Squash, winter until cooked until cooked
Sweet Potatoes until cooked until cooked
Turnips and Parsnips, cubes 2 4

May is National BBQ Month

In celebration of National BBQ Month in May, I’m going to share some tips for better barbecue. We’ve gotten by the April showers and with the longer and warmer days on the horizon, May is the ideal time to get out and cook! After being cooped up indoors for many cold months, the smell of hardwood smoked meats coming from my smoker is almost hypnotizing. For me, it is relaxing to put a brisket or ribs on the cooker and hang out on the deck with some good music, a cold beer and a couple of friends, talking about baseball, summer vacations or the good food we’re smelling. Before you start your smoker, be sure to brush up on your barbecue knowledge so you’re putting out meats that knock the socks off your friends and family! We all have our favorite little tricks we use. Here are some of my favorites …

Chicken

If you’re cooking white meat, brining is almost a necessity. Barbecue is low and slow, often being on a smoker for many hours. Chicken, while not requiring as long a cook, will tend to dry out, especially if it’s white meat. To combat the drying effects of heat, white meat should take a bath in brine for several hours prior to smoking. It’s sort of complicated but the salt pulls the liquids into the meat and helps it retain those liquids during cooking. Your meat will not be too salty due to brining. There are many recipes out there but there’s really no need to get too carried away. A simple salt brine with sugar mixed in to offset the saltiness is really all you need. For every gallon of water, add 3/4 cup of salt (I prefer to use Kosher salt) and 1/4 cup of sugar (you can use any but I like turbinado sugar – a brand name you might recognize is Sugar in the Raw). Some people add rosemary, garlic, onion and other seasonings to add to the flavor. I find that these are often hidden by the flavors of your rub and sauces, along with the smoked meat and are a waste. To brine, add salt and sugar to warm water in a container that will hold at least two gallons and stir until dissolved. Refrigerate it until cool. Add your chicken and keep in the refrigerator for two hours for skinless breasts, four hours for bone-in pieces, and four hours to overnight for whole chickens. Drain and pat the chicken dry before cooking. One gallon of brine is enough for approximately six pounds of whole chicken or bone-in chicken pieces, and up to ten pounds of skinless, boneless chicken breasts.

Ribs

I have to start out with the fact that ribs were not meant to be boiled! Any true barbecue expert will cringe at the thought of boiling ribs prior to cooking them on the smoker. Boiling ribs comes from people who thought they were difficult to cook and could not get them tender! A purist will come unglued over boiling ribs! Ribs are simple really. One thing that will make your ribs more tender is to be sure to pull off the membrane on the back of the slab. There are many ways to do this but a table knife to start the removal and a paper towel to grasp it to pull it off are good starts. Do a Google search to find other ways. Left on, this membrane makes any bite tough to chew through. With it gone, not only do you get an easier, more tender bite, but you also get more smoke flavor as the smoke cannot penetrate the membrane from the back. And to make the ribs really tender, I use the 3-2-1 method at home: Three hours in the smoke, two hours wrapped in foil in the smoke and one hour resting in a warm cooler before serving.

Brisket

Brisket may be the most difficult barbecue meat to smoke correctly and get right. Once we achieve perfect brisket, many of us refer to it as achieving “brisket nirvana”. The key, in my opinion, to a good brisket is to focus on not drying it out. I like a lot of garlic and black pepper as well as a little cayenne but reduce the amount of salt I use. And when I season a brisket, I don’t have the rubs on it any longer than three hours before cooking so that it doesn’t dry out. Beef takes smoke really well when room temperature and it will quickly get TOO much smoke. After it reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees, it stops taking most of the smoke. Therefore, letting the brisket come up to almost room temperature prior to placing in the smoker will prevent it from becoming over smoked.

These tips will help you out this spring as you fire up the cooker. For complete details on how to turn your grill into a smoker, read more here. For a list of meat and wood combinations that work well, see this. If I can be of any help, look me up on our Facebook page or email me here through our blog. And be sure to watch our Facebook page and Twitter for more barbecue tips all May during National Barbecue Month! Happy cooking to you!

What Wood Do I Use for Smoking BBQ?

There are many different woods that work well with all sorts of meats. Whether you’re cooking brisket, pork, chicken, ribs, ham or sausage, the possibilities are varied! Some of these woods are more widely available than others. Woods like hickory, apple, pecan, cherry, oak and maple can be purchased anywhere that grilling and barbecue supplies are sold. The rest on this list may require a little work to locate or check with barbecue specialty stores in your area.

You can typically find these woods in many sizes, ranging from good sized split logs like fireplace wood and fist-sized chunks to small, coin-sized chips that burn too fast and should be soaked in water before placing on the coals.

Always use caution with your smoke – too much of even the most mild wood can ruin your food. Because it’s all a matter of personal preference, it’s often a trial and error process to find out what woods you prefer and how much to use.

Almond give a nutty, sweet flavor that is good with all meats. Almond is similar to Pecan but not as widely available.

Apple has a very mild and gives food a slight sweetness. Use with poultry and pork.

Apricot works well with poultry and pork. It’s similar to hickory but sweeter and milder in flavor.

Ash has a light, unique flavor. This wood burns fast. I’ve never tried it personally and don’t know anyone who has.

Black Walnut has a heavy flavor that should be mixed with other wood because of the bitterness it gives food.

Birch has a similar flavor to maple. Pairs well with pork and poultry.

Cherry has a sweet, mild flavor that goes great with virtually everything. It’s readily available and highly popular.

Chokecherry has a bitter flavor and is not highly recommended.

Citrus woods like lemon or orange have a moderate smoke that gives a light fruity flavor that is more mild than apple or cherry.

Cottonwood is very mild in flavor and should be used with stronger flavored woods. Avoid green wood.

Crabapple is very similar to apple wood and can be used in the same manner and with the same meats.

Grapevines make a lot of tart smoke and gives a fruity but sometimes heavy flavor. Use it sparingly with poultry or lamb.

Hickory adds a strong flavor to meats, so be careful not to use too much. It’s especially good with beef and lamb.

Lilac produces a good supply of mild, sweet smoke. A popular wood for smoked cheese, but also good for poultry and pork.

Maple gives a sweet flavor that is excellent with poultry and ham.

Mesquite has been very popular of late and is good for grilling, but since it burns hot and fast, it’s not recommended for long barbecues. Mesquite is probably the strongest flavored wood and should be used in very small amounts.

Mulberry is sweet and very similar to apple.

Oak is strong but not overpowering and is a very good wood for beef or lamb. Oak is probably the most versatile of the hard woods. I prefer white oak over red and use it mainly for heat with other woods mixed in for flavor.

Peach is great for poultry and pork. This wood is similar to hickory but is sweeter and milder in flavor.

Pear is similar to apple and produces a sweet, mild flavor.

Pecan burns relatively cool and provides a delicate flavor. It’s a more subtle wood than hickory, although characteristics are similar..

Plum is great for poultry and pork. This wood is similar to hickory but is sweeter and milder in flavor.

Learning the Ropes

If you cook some awesome barbecue, no doubt you’ve had friends, family and neighbors urge you to enter a barbecue competition. They’re quite sure you could win awards with your fantastic ribs and melt-in-your mouth brisket. The thought has crossed your mind, hasn’t it? If you have been thinking about giving competitions a try, you aren’t alone. Barbecue competitions are springing up everywhere these days – and with good reason. They are fun and exciting events and most are family-friendly. You won’t have to travel far to find one in the United States either. My family and I have been competing in professionally sanctioned barbecue contests for nine years and have enjoyed some pretty positive results. With eight grand championship titles since 2009, numerous category wins, two perfect scores and an invitation to the Jack Daniel’s World BBQ Championship in Lynchburg, Tennessee, I can safely say we have done well. But back in 2004, I was where you might be right now – my friends loved my barbecue and often said I should enter contests. I decided this was a great idea but didn’t know where to start. It took me awhile to find all the details I needed to get involved. The goal of this blog post is to help you to shorten that learning curve about how to get started in competition barbecue.

Before you start buying equipment and perfecting recipes, I highly recommend that you find a sanctioned contest near you and go visit. You can locate one in most states by going to www.kcbs.us. Click on the “Events” tab and start searching. Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctions over 400 contests across the United States each year. You’re very likely to find a contest fairly close to you. Use some caution about when you actually go. You most definitely do not want to approach teams during the window of time when they’re finalizing their entries and getting them to the judges. This could be Saturday or Sunday, depending on the contest, and is most commonly from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm. If you’re there during these times, watch from a distance but do not approach and ask teams any questions. This is a highly stressful time and all teams are extremely busy as the contest reaches its culmination. Instead, I recommend you visit on Friday afternoon and evening (or Saturday if the contest is judged on Sunday). Don’t hesitate to approach a team during this time and introduce yourself. Let them know that you’re considering getting into competition barbecue yourself and would like to ask a few questions. Most barbecue competitors are extremely friendly and more than happy to talk to new teams or people wanting to find out how to get started. You may even be offered a few samples and a cold beverage. If you’re lucky, you might even be invited to come back during the turn-in time to watch what goes on. If you are, go and watch and listen and be as out of the way as possible. I recommend offering to help the team clean up and tear down their site in return for their hospitality and shared information. You’re likely to learn something more during this time. Most teams discuss their entries with each other and friends on other teams who stop by. Then go to the awards ceremony and see how your new friends do. The excitement you observe among those who win will no doubt spur your desire to start even sooner.

Now what? Well, there are many places to learn barbecue techniques but fewer places to learn how to compete. That’s the big thing – you already know how to cook pretty good food. Now you need to learn things like what judges are looking for, flavor profiles to impress them and how to turn in your food. I recommend taking a class in your area or even traveling to another location to take a good class from a successful pitmaster. Most of the people who hold classes have enjoyed multiple championships in barbecue and know their stuff. They’re “figured it out” and now share what they know for multiple reasons. One of the bigger reasons is to fund their continued participation in this addiction we all have. Most people – ok NO ONE gets rich competing in barbecue events. And it’s not cheap. Depending on where you live, between fuel to get there, meats, seasonings, entry fees, etc., you may spend $500 to $750 per contest. Some pitmasters cook over 20 per year with some of the busier teams cooking in excess of 30 contests!

In addition to taking classes, I recommend getting into some of the online barbecue communities out there. When I first started thinking about competing, I joined the forum known as the BBQ Brethren. This is a very popular forum. You’re likely to see some of the teams out there who participate at the Brethren site and you’ll know them by their banners containing the smoking pig from the website. This is a great place to learn and ask questions. Just be forewarned – you will love the place and once you learn the ropes of competition barbecue, you should return the favor and answer questions from other new folks too.

While you do not have to be a member to compete in the sanctioned contests, I highly recommend becoming a member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS). The site lists several member benefits and discounts and you’ll be supporting an organization that provides certified judges, a consistent scoring system and a fair and level playing field for all competitors. In short, regardless of where you are in the country, you’ll know what to expect when it comes to the rules for the contest you’re cooking.

When you’ve come this far and still want to compete, it’s time to start purchasing your equipment. There are many items you’ll see that really aren’t necessary. Others are, at least in my opinion, essential to a successful contest. Some of these are a good quality smoker; instant pop-up canopies (I use two 10′ x 10′ EZ Up brand canopies and recommend the heavier ones – it gets windy and sometimes stormy out there!); two or three 6′ plastic tables (and cut some PVC pipe to put on the legs to raise them to counter height – it’ll save your back!); insulated coolers with old towels to keep food hot (if your budget permits, consider a Cambro or a Carlisle instead); a Coleman Hot Water Heater; a Thermapen (I have literally turned around to go home and get it when I have forgotten this item) and a good quality meat slicer knife. I like the Wüstof 12 inch slicers. There are numerous places online where teams have published their lists of contest equipment. Some are over the top and others may skimp on some things. Just Google it – you’ll find plenty of suggestions. I would be less than honest if I did not recommend purchasing a quality vacuum packaging machine as well. I carry the portable VacMaster VP112 chamber machine. This unit uses chamber technology that enables you to vacuum package all foods, including liquids. This makes marinating easier and packaging meat leftovers after a competition is a breeze.

Finally, you’ll need to practice – a LOT. Perfect your methods and recipes for each meat and then put it all together in your driveway. Set up like you were at a competition and work through it all on your timetable. See where you’re lacking. Find out of there was anything else you needed. What did you not use that you can leave home when you go compete? I have found that competing in barbecue requires precise timing for everything. The better you get that down, the more successful you’ll be. So if you’re considering competing in barbecue, give it a shot – but be prepared first – then step up to the plate and hit it out of the park! Believe it or not, there are teams who have done their homework well and won contests their first time out. Maybe that’ll be you. Let me know if it is … I want to take a lesson from you!