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Ask Jackie Online
By Jackie Clay

April 3, 2006
Jackie Clay
Jackie Clay answers questions on any aspect of low-tech, self-reliant living.
Click Here to learn how to Ask Jackie a question.

Cleaning cast iron pans

I would love to know if there is a way to get iron skillets really clean so that they may be re-seasoned. I have a couple that I purchased at thrift stores - they are wonderful old skillets with the really smooth cooking surface but they look just awful (slight surface rust on the inside and thick, chunky, cooked on grease all over the outsides). Also I have a very large iron skillet I purchased new that was inadvertently left in the oven when a fruit pie was baked and the filling ran down and into the skillet to be seemingly baked onto the cooking surface of the skillet forever! Any suggestions you have for cleaning and re-seasoning would be so welcomed! Thanks!

Angela
Pinkytoeang at juno.com

Yes, Angela, you can save those cast iron cooking pots and pans! The easiest way is to build a nice campfire out in the backyard. And when the flames go down a bit and the logs turn to red coals, place a pan or two right in the middle. Let it cook. That yucky burned on grease and gook will bubble, burn and stink. And when the fire goes out they will cool. When you take them in, you'll see that they are now nice and smooth. No more chunky gook. Now wash them well with hot water and detergent to remove any soot, charcoal and debris.

When the pans are clean and dry, wipe them well with olive oil, on the inside, and place them in a very slow oven 250 degrees or less. You don't want them to smoke, only heat well so the oil will be absorbed. I often leave them on the oven rack of my wood kitchen range all evening, with the oven door open.

Then take them out and wipe them off with a paper towel and let them stand a day or two before use. The first use or two, make a "simple" use, say frying hamburgers or making stew. To clean after this use, skip the detergent and wash with only very hot water. You can even boil them a bit to remove stubborn food. Do not let food dry on your newly seasoned pans!

That's all there is to it. If you should get or have pans that have rusted, fire them as above, then use a very fine grit sandpaper to remove any clinging rust. Then wash and season. Just like new. Better than most new, today, as the modern cast iron has a coarse finish and is not as nice as the older iron.

—Jackie

Reusing canning jars and lids

I was wondering if it were possible to reuse the jars and lids store bought jellies and spaghetti sauces come in for canning. Thanks,

NASNISQUID at aol.com

Yes and no. Yes, you can reuse store jars for canning, but NOT the lids. And you can only reuse the jars that will accept regular sized canning lids and have the rings screw down firmly tight. You have to be careful because some jars LOOK like they will work, but when you try to tighten down a ring on a jar lid, the ring just goes round and round. It MUST tighten snuggly.

—Jackie

Canning in cans

I was wondering can you tell me where I can obtain the supplies for putting my product into tin cans? I have looked all over the internet today and I think you're the best resource for this type of question. I want to use the metal cans because I sometimes ship them in the mail and glass can smash even if I bubble wrap it really good. Any help is greatly appreciated.

Thank You

Joe Banaszewski
Collegeville, Pa

Sorry, Joe, I don't can in tin and don't know of a place you can buy these supplies. My suggestion would be to contact a Mormon (Church of Latter Day Saints) church or canning kitchen in your area and ask. Some folks do use tin cans (obviously companies that process store food do!), so there must be sources. Any readers out there have an answer for Joe and me?

—Jackie

Recycling dressing jars

I have saved all the jars from my favorite salad dressing (Litehouse brand), which I routinely use to freeze leftovers because they hold exactly two cups and are wide-mouthed, unlike traditional salad dressing containers. Is it also possible to use these jars for canning? Although they come with plastic, screw-down tops, the opening appears to be the same size as that on a standard mason jar and the sealing portion of a standard mason jar lid, when pressed to seal, appears to fit. However, the threads are of a different size than those on a mason jar, so the screw-down portion of a mason jar lid doesn't fit. If canning with these jars doesn't seem possible, what other types of store-bought products (spaghetti sauce, pickled items, jams etc.) come in jars that could be reused for canning?

Lisa Eidson
Greenough, Montana

I've had this trouble for years, Lisa. For instance, Miracle Whip salad dressing used to make glass jars that you could re-use for home canning. It was the only salad dressing I bought because I COULD re-use the jars. Then, suddenly, the jars looked like the old ones, but you couldn't screw down the ring no matter how many times you turned it!

Then again, you COULD use the Miracle Whip jars. The threads had again been changed back! But now they often put it into plastic jars. It's a never-ending battle! I feel good recycling jars and refuse to buy anything in a glass jar that I can't re-use.

Because different companies change jars so often, about the best advice I can give is to study each jar carefully before you buy it and try to buy ones that you can use. Then when you empty a jar, try a lid and ring on it before you put it away with your canning jars. If it doesn't fit and you don't have another use for it, put it in your recycling bin. I use a lot of these jars for dehydrated food, seeds and spices. But DON'T mix 'em up with your canning jars during washing or you'll swear when you've later filled it with a food ready to process…and the ring or the lid won't fit!

—Jackie

Reusing lids

Dear Jackie,

I would like to start by saying my heart goes out to you and your son at this time. I love your column and read it religiously. I have question about the seal on my canning lids. On several of the lids that I used with the hot water bath, the seals sealed perfectly, but when I removed them they look "NEW," the food or jam is fine. Have you ever reused a canning seal?

Cybele Connor
Hammonton, NJ

I would not use a "used" lid on anything canned in a pressure canner (i.e. vegetables, meat, poultry or combinations thereof). In an emergency, I HAVE used "used but pristine" lids for such things as jelly, pickles, preserves; foods that will mold if the seal fails, not grow deadly bacteria. Of course, it is not a good idea to re-use lids. All canning manuals will tell you this. And I would NEVER reuse a lid that I had to pry off with a can opener as it dents the lid and damages the seal.

Any lids that I have reused, I have simmered for several minutes to ensure that the gasket material on the lid is nice and soft. A good compromise is to reuse the lids, but as lids on jars of dehydrated foods, seeds or spices. In this way, you reuse the lid, putting it to good use. But you are not depending on it to keep your home canned food fresh, tasty and safe.

—Jackie

Wild sugar

How are some ways that I can harvest sugar in the wild? Jackie, my sweet tooth really acts up sometimes and I need something sweet! Thanks,

Rex Shirley,
Texas

Sugar is one food that, although you can certainly harvest in the wild, is not easily or readily available. The two most accessible sources are wild honey and maple syrup/sugar. The first depends largely on skill and a good deal of luck. You must develop the woods skill to find, observe and track wild bees, and then you need the luck to successfully find their hive.

A wild beehive is usually located in a dead tree. But I have found them in cracks in rocky cliffs, abandoned houses and brush piles as well. The easiest way to track a bee is to find one gathering pollen on flowers, with his legs heavily laden. (He's about ready to fly "home" with his load.) Simply sit and watch him until he zips away in a straight line. Mark his course by locating a landmark near where he flew. Then go sit there. When you spot the next bee flying in a straight line, do the same. Keep this up until you see them entering their hive.

Some wild hives are easy to get to; others are impossible. Don't destroy the hive by tearing about unless you are quite sure you can harvest the honey. The easiest time to get into a hive is on a cold morning following a cool night.

Wear a bee suit or at least tuck your pants cuffs into your socks, tie your shirt sleeves shut, and wear a light colored heavy sweat shirt and pants too, if you have them. Also wear a hat to protect your head from stings; a net over your face and neck and thick gloves are a help.

Build a smoke in a small tin bucket (or use a bee smoker if you can borrow one); Indians just built a good thick smoke beneath the hive and fanned it into the entrance. You want thick smoke; use leaves, green grass or damp wood on top of your fire. You don't want to cook the bees, only calm them.

Work as quietly and gently as you can to enter the hive. This usually entails sawing the tree down. Sometimes you can use a length of rope to pull the dead tree apart or over. Remember you don't want to destroy the honey by crashing the whole thing many feet to the ground and splattering honey and bees everywhere. No amount of smoke will calm them then!

When the hive is exposed, fan more smoke onto the now-thoroughly-p'd off bees. If you get stung in the process, DO NOT KILL THE BEE! Just wipe him gently away or you'll have the whole swarm down on you. (You probably will get a sting or several; it's part of wild-gathering, and won't damage you unless you're severely allergic to bee venom.)

Scoop up the honeycombs into a container and leave the area. To extract the honey, you can slice the top of the comb open and simply invert it to drain. This works best on a hot day, when the honey is thin. Once your combs are empty, you can gently warm the honey, then strain it through a double layer of cheesecloth to remove debris.

You will find wild bees in nearly every climate. Unfortunately, syrup/sugaring trees are not so widely spread. You CAN harvest syrup from other-than-maple trees, but the trick is that you'll spend days, weeks and countless hours harvesting the sap, boiling down the syrup and making your sugar. Sugar maple sap contains the most available sugar in a batch of sap. In other words, you'll have to work much less for your syrup and sugar using sugar maple sap as opposed to using, say white birch sap.

You can find sugaring information in many places. Unfortunately, I don't have the space to go into it in detail here. Basically, you need to drill holes in the trunks of the trees and insert a hollow piece of wood or tap. (Indians used to cut slashes in the bark on a downward slant to direct the sap into birchbark containers.) You will hang a container on the tap or place it directly below it to catch the sap.

It takes several gallons of sap to make even one quart of syrup, as the sap must be slowly simmered in flat, shallow pans, so that the water evaporates, leaving the thickening syrup. Remember, too, that maple (or other tree syrup) can only be made in the early spring when the sap is rising into the tree.

Other ideas are to dehydrate fruit for your sweet tooth. This was a common Native American method of satisfying the sweet tooth. These fruits can vary from cactus fruits (prickly pear, saguaro and others), with the spines removed, of course, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, paw paws, persimmons, wild cherries, wild plums and more. Use whatever wild fruits are available in your area.

Once dehydrated, fruit is much sweeter than it is raw, so it will taste like candy to you…..especially in a survival situation when you have had NO sweet food for weeks!

—Jackie

Storing honey

Saw your commentary on honey storage and thought I'd pass on our experiences.

I like honey in my coffee, and my wife uses it in cooking, so we go thru a pretty good amount of it. We got a good deal from a local "honey guy" on five gallons (60#) of honey, so we grabbed it up. Came in a white plastic food-grade bucket with sealing lid, but that's a little hard to handle on a regular basis. We decanted it into quart Mason jars, as you suggested, and that works well for storage. We then funnel individual quart jars into a 1.5 quart plastic jug that some store-bought honey came in. It resembles a half-gallon milk jug, has a handle and a screw-on lid. This is handier to work with on a daily basis than a Mason jar as you can neatly pour from it. Don't see why you couldn't in fact use a half-gallon milk jug for this. I use one of the little plastic "honey bears" to measure honey into my coffee.

As far as "re-liquefying" honey that has gone to sugar, we found another neat way to do this. Just put your closed Mason jar of "solid" honey into a black open container (we use a big black plastic flower pot) and set it in the sun. In a couple hours it has "melted" back to its original form, and all you have used is free solar power.

We never miss your monthly stuff in Backwoods Home Magazine. Keep it up.

Best regards,

Dick Rinehart
Kentucky

Sounds like a good idea, Dick. For daily use, I've got a small pottery honey jar, complete with a wooden honey drizzler. With most things, whatever works for you is the thing to use!!! Life is full of so many options. I love your idea of sitting your honey jar in a black plastic container to re-liquefy it. I usually just sit the jar in my warming oven of my wood kitchen range as its permanent "home". The warm honey is easy to pour or drizzle and tastes great, too!

—Jackie




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