Q: I had some margarine that melted in the tub. I just put it back in the refrigerator. It solidified, but now there’s a bright yellow layer on top, a creamy layer in the middle and some watery stuff on the bottom. I’ve never seen this before! What happened? Is is OK to use?
Answer: I can almost surely guess which brand of margarine you have from this information. First, what happened is just that the different kinds of fats and oils in the margarine separated when it melted. Then, when it solidified again, they solidified as separate layers.
It’s perfectly safe to use. If you’re using it for baking, try to get all of the layers and cream them together again before you use it. It might not give you the best quality product, but it should be acceptable.
Many brands of margarine use just one kind of oil. The oil itself is treated — hydrogenated — to stiffen it from liquid to semi-solid. Some brands use a mixture of various oils and fats to create the semi-solid texture we want in margarine. Many of them will treat the mixture chemically to make all of the oils stick together. This is called esterification. At least one brand — Smart Balance — doesn’t do any of these treatments. It simply mixes a special blend of liquid oils and solid and semi-solid vegetable fats to create the right texture. So unlike most margarines that turn into liquid when they’re heated, then solidify again in a uniform texture, Smart Balance will separate. Others may as well, but I’m not familiar with them.
It is perfectly safe. You’re just seeing the different kinds of oils that they started with.
Q: With all of these pumpkins around, I’d like to can some pumpkin butter for the holidays. I have a delicious recipe, but can’t find directions on how to can it. Can you help?
Answer: No, sorry, but there are no reliable recipes for canning pumpkin butter anymore. The only way you can preserve it safely at home is to freeze it. With new varieties of pumpkins and the variety of recipes around, the National Center for Home Food Preservation did some research on them some years ago to update the procedures. They ended up removing the recommendations completely.
The problems weren’t necessarily in the recipes, but in how we prepare the pumpkin. It turned out that there is too much difference in how thick we like our pumpkin butter. There is also too much difference in how thick different varieties of pumpkin will be when they’re pureed. And even if we all started with the same variety, if you boil, steam, bake or microwave the pumpkin, each will make different puree.
The problem is that it takes too long for the heat to get into the middle of the jars if the butter is very thick. Pumpkins don’t have enough acid to keep botulism from growing. So in jars, it must get hot enough long enough to guarantee that the spores are killed. If we can’t do that, then we can’t can it safely.
Runny pumpkin butter might be safe; thick would not be. But how can you know when yours is runny enough to be safe? You can’t. So make your butter and freeze it. It will be delicious and safe.
There no longer are directions for canning pumpkin pie filling, either, for the same reasons. Plain pumpkin may be canned safely only as cubes. Hot water can circulate around the cubes easily enough to get them all safely hot in the jars. Then you drain off the water, mash the pumpkin and make your pie filling safely when you’re ready to use it.
Mary A. Keith, a licensed dietitian and health agent at Hillsborough County Extension, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.