Science and the MOOC

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at

Have you heard of the new Massive On-line Open Courses that are both exciting and terrifying universities around the world? Heralded as a fundamental challenge to the university education system, these courses are being offered free by some of the world’s best teachers from leading universities.

Yes that’s right – you can get a certificate from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford and hundreds of other universities without paying a cent or leaving your desk.

MOOCs are available to anyone with an email address and password. Some courses offer a verification option with a small fee and an identity check each time you submit work. I took a verified ‘Signature Track’ course with Coursera, registering by using my computer’s camera to photograph my driver’s licence, my face, and by typing a short phrase. Then each time I submitted work, I again photographed my face and typed the same phrase to verify it was still me. The programming was excellent, so this was all very simple and quick.

Coursera is the world’s biggest MOOC provider. EdX is another big, high-profile MOOC with many prestigious partner universities. Udacity is also noteworthy, since it first popularised MOOCs. The graphs here show the recent growth for these three. Other MOOC providers are also on the rise, including CourseSites, Open2Study, Stanford Online, and Allversity.

I’m interested in this pedagogical revolution, and so I completed four MOOCs from four universities and three providers during the last three months. These included:

  • Networked Life, University of Pennsylvania, Coursera.
  • What a Plant Knows, Tel Aviv University, Signature Track, Coursera.
  • Our Energetic Earth, University of Toronto, EdEx.
  • Charles Darwin, Evolution and Tropical Australia, Charles Darwin University, CourseSites.

Overall I learned that studying MOOCs is fun. They are berries of education. Exciting, enticing and moreish with quick rewards and no calories.

Most course structures are simple, and forums suggest we like it that way. A generic pattern is three 10-minute lectures, 10-question tests, and readings, each week over the 4-12 week life of the course. Sometimes there are ‘peer reviewed’ assignments, where you mark others’ work and they mark yours. Sometimes there are final exams, and some MOOCs have webinars.

Classes are obviously much bigger, but drop-outs also proportionally higher than in traditional courses. About 10% of the 32,000 enrolled in one I took received a final certificate, and 2% met the 95% distinction level.

Can you learn science this way? The big MOOC providers quote research showing that on-line learning methods are about as good as face-to-face. I’ve been impressed with the quality of science teaching which has covered research methods, failed and successful experiments, flawed and quality hypotheses, and truly significant discoveries. We were asked to do simple, safe experiments and students discussed their results in the forums. I’d say yes – science can be learned through MOOCs.

Many students take MOOCs for the lifelong learning. I also like the certificate even though on the non-verified option the disclaimer is longer than the acknowledgement. They don’t affirm that I was enrolled, confer a grade, credit or degree, and don’t claim to know who I am. The verified version is far more confident that I am who I claim to be.

And finally, what do MOOCs mean for traditional university education? I think MOOCs can be powerful advertisements for universities, showcasing great teachers and courses. I think they can have a role in filtering students into the degrees that best match their interests. And MOOCs simply don’t offer small-class interactions that for many alumni seem to lead to life-long friendships and close professional networks. But MOOCs do seem like a threat to boring lectures and restrictive pedagogical options. And as MOOC providers continue expanding, and begin offering degrees, universities will need to move quickly and creatively or they may well lose their dominance in higher education.

Curious? Check out the offerings and have a go. It turns out I love MOOCs and I continue to enrol. Tell me what you are taking and I’ll look for you in the forums.

Comparing Providers

Between the detail and the deep blue sea: Optimising formal and informal science education

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at

Five percent of our lives are spent in classrooms. Most of our science is learned in the real world. What are the implications for best practice science education?

Australia’s formal science education system is the subject of much current debate. Gonski famously reported recent declines in Australia’s educational outcomes, and after much capitulation, the incoming Coalition Government has committed to continuing the Gonski reforms. The new government also seeks world’s best practice teaching, and particularimprovements to the science taught in primary schools. But they also controversially lack a science ministry, and won’t be extending NAPLAN to science.

My daughter recently started high school and I wonder how much of the detail under the science education microscope will make it through to her beakers and Bunsen burners. I suspect not much. So I’m glad to know that informal science education (ISE) will have at least as much influence as her class time.

ISE is the learning you get from everyday settings and family activities as well as museums, zoos, aquariums, parks and structured activities outside of schools. There is a growing and vibrant body of evidence showing that ISE cultivates interest and understanding in science, and other disciplines that are losing ground in universities.

Perhaps the real question is not how to improve classroom teaching, but how to optimise its relationship with ISE.

It seems to me that ISE is ideal for stimulating the desire to learn, for generating questions and creating excitement. So when my daughter asks “why is the sea blue” she likes to hear that “its mostly water, which is blue in large quantities”. Then she’ll ask “why?” So I need to be ready with “water filters out the red light from the sky”. Being curious, she’ll ask why the sky is blue, and I’ll tell her that molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than red light. All of this will lead to questions about the nature of light and molecules and so on.

This is where the benefits of a formal scientific education are clear. My ability to answer children’s questions, and indeed, my experience of the real world are vastly enhanced by the science I learned at school. The periodic table, photosynthesis, genetics and geomorphology all rank with the most exciting concepts I’ve ever learned, and I see them in action in the world all the time. Classroom teaching helped me to grasp the basic building blocks that became interesting through ISE. The combination of informal and formal learning ideally synchronises natural curiosity with substantive knowledge.

The costs of scientific illiteracy are also obvious. Scientists know that our method investigates phenomena empirically and acquires new knowledge by extending, correcting and integrating previous conclusions. So for instance, an IPCC report that anthropogenic climate change is increasingly certain, even while atmospheric warming is slower than was previously thought is the embodiment of good science as well as a reinforcement of the call for emission mitigation. But lacking a basic understanding of the scientific method, denialists mistakenly see such reports as proof that global warming is a lot of hot air, and fuel for their business-as-usual fire.

How do your curiosity and knowledge work together?

Fighting the Waspocalypse

dead wasps

Wasp nest plugged with petrol-soaked rag, displaying dead wasps on the doorstep. Intervention plus 1 night. Photo by Su Wild-River

By Su Wild-River

A version of this story was first published at

My home town is under attack. Yellow-and-black striped European Wasps are zooming around our district, hanging around food and chasing us indoors. Thankfully I haven’t been on their pointy end, although my son has twice. Individual wasps can sting several times, each time worse than a bee. They can also swarm and deliver many stings at once.

The wasps are attracted to sweet food and meat, so cleaning up and sealing rubbish will discourage them. The wasps will fly straight from their food to a nest, making the nests fairly easy to find.

Nests are usually small holes in the ground, about 4-8cm wide. Nests can house up to 100,000 individuals which stream in and out all day.  Stay well back because if a nest is threatened, the wasps release a chemical which triggers the colony to attack the threat.

Maybe it was the moist summer, and perhaps the great apple season which has left fruit rotting around the trees. Whatever the reason, there are more of these wasps now than in the past.  The local pest controller says he previously only had 1-2 call-outs for nest removals in a year, but he’s getting 3-4 a week at the moment. One of our local rural supply shops got 5 cans of wasp spray in last Friday and sold out in a single day.

The pest controller says we need to keep on the lookout for nests. If we find one, the best and safest option is to find the local pest controller in the Community Directory and arrange for him to destroy the nest. Autumn is a critical time since now the queens and laying eggs for the next generation of queens. Every nest we kill now could reduce the problem significantly for next year.

The Museum of Victoria publishes tips for “Do it yourself European wasp extermination”, and like me, takes no responsibility for injuries incurred using the information. But I’ve destroyed some nests, and talked to many others around town who have done it too, so here’s what I’ve learned.

* Don’t risk it if you are allergic to wasp stings,

* Make sure someone knows where you are and what you are doing.

 * Treat the nest at night when activity is low,

* Wear loose clothes and fully cover your body, head, eyes etc,

* Put red cellophane over a torch, because they can’t see red light, and don’t alert them by shining it right at the hole,

Locals are having success with several different treatments. The pest controllers are licensed to use a high strength powder which will knock out a nest in one go. Other premethrin, propoxur or carbaryl dusts are available, although not in Braidwood. Both local rural suppliers carry propellant cans of wasp killer. Petrol is another option, and though the experts advice is that it doesn’t work well, it did the trick on my nests. Either pour 1.5L down a nest on two consecutive nights, or soak a rag in petrol and plug the hole with it. The fumes kill the wasps, so don’t light the petrol. Check treated nests in the following days, and be prepared to retreat to finish the job.

The Department of Primary Industries in my home state of New South Wales also has a fact sheet with useful information.

Killing whales is bad science

By Gillfoto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsBy Su Wild-River

This blog was first published at

I love whales. So I was thrilled when the ICJ ruled against Japan’s controversial whaling program in the Southern Pacific Ocean. But what are this case’s lessons for scientists?

Catching whales for food and other products is traditional in many cultures, including Japan. But over the last century, human population growth and modern fishing methods loaded the odds against the cetaceans. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 to prevent overhunting, provide for conservation of whale stocks and the orderly development of the whaling industry.

To achieve its objectives, the IWC sets catch limits for whaling, and in 1985/86, it established a moratorium on whaling that is still in place today. Since the moratorium, 22,721 whales have been caught commercially by countries objecting to the moratorium, 9,393 have been caught for Aboriginal subsistence harvest and 15,563 have been caught under special scientific permits. Of the latter 14,643 were caught by Japan under scientific programs called JARPA and JARPAII. 10,476, or 22% of the total whale catch, have been Southern Pacific. This whaling was the focus of the recent court case.

Australia claimed that Japan’s annual Southern Pacific hunt was not “for the purposes of scientific research”. It argued that scientific research needs defined and achievable objectives, to use appropriate methods, be properly peer reviewed and avoid adverse impacts on the stocks being studied. Lets have a look at some of these claims.

The research objectives, clearly and reasonably stated in the latest JARPAII Research Planare monitoring of:

  • the Antarctic ecosystem,
  • krill abundance and the feeding ecology of whales,
  • the effects of contaminants on cetaceans, and
  • cetacean habitat.

With regard to the methods, these take up most of the JARPAII Plan, but just two short paragraphs justify the killing of 14,643 whales for science. The reasoning is that age and stomach content surveys are essential for meeting the objectives because “meal size, blubber thickness and age at physical and sexual maturity strongly suggested inter and intra species competitions” (p.20). Therefore lethal sampling is necessary. This makes little sense to me, and I note that other cetacean research projects use alternative, non-lethal methods to gain research results consistent with the JARPAII objectives.

JARPAII researchers have ticked the box of peer reviewed publications based on their lethal research. One example is a paper reporting a 30% decline in Antarctic minke whale stomach contents by weight over 20 years, and suggesting that reduced krill abundance may be to blame. This longitudinal study would indeed have been difficult using the more common non-lethal method of post-mortems on beached whales. But to me it seems unnecessary to kill whales to learn about krill decline when this phenomenon and its implications are well established by other research.

Perhaps the lesson here for scientists is that if you do controversial research, you had better do it well, or risk international outrage and potential legal action.

But the IWC was not convinced by Australia’s case for JARPAII being unscientific on the basis of its objectives, methods and publications. And Japan for its part, argued that the court had no authority to decide what was and wasn’t science. Instead, the court focused on the lack of feasibility studies into a smaller lethal intake and an increase in non-lethal sampling to achieve its objectives. And indeed, this is a significant gap in the JARPAII research plan, since the potential for stock loss is not addressed in its discussion of sample sizes.

A big lesson for scientists is that ecological ethics are implicit in this ruling. It recognises that scientists have duties and obligations to ecosystems as well as to science and the public welfare. And interestingly, although human ethics, and biological ethics are relatively well established, ecological ethics are not. Ecological ethicists drawing on the precautionary principle have suggested that ecologists could take an equivalent of the Hippocratic Oathand vow to “first do no harm” in their research practices. JARPAII would clearly fail this test.

The ICJ has not insisted on strong ecological ethics in its ruling, just that non-harm be clearly considered. And just one day after the ruling, Japan has flagged that it may devise a more persuasive research program requiring whale killing. But let’s at least note the wake-up call for scientists to fully justify ecological research with dubious ethics.

What did you learn from this case?

In Search of the Climate Change Monster

Climate Change Monster

The Climate Change Monster Image Credit: Artwork by Thomas Bonin,

By Su Wild-River

This article was first published in No Funny Business on 18/10/2013.

If you are a climate obsessive like me, you spend a lot of time reading the science, watching the weather and taking action on climate change mitigation and adaption. Each new off the chart heatwave, warmest winter on record and extreme flooding event just reinforces the message that we are already feeling the personal effects of climate change. So why is the world backing offon action?

According to Cass R. Sunstein, the barriers are partlypsychological. Action would be easier if climate change caused a recent and repeatable crisis, had a clear and hateable perpetrator and posed an immediate threat. Extreme weather events have some of these features, but by definition, climate change doesn’t. It’s the bigger, slower trend surrounding and influencing weather, exacerbating the extremes, but never fully explaining them. The USA came up with Frankenstorm to help mobilise action on Hurricane Sandy. Does Australia need to name its weather demons to gain more traction against the Climate Change Monster?

The Climate Commission named Australia’s record-breaking heatwave of 2013 the “Angry Summer”. This weather demon attacked me directly – although I got off more lightly than others. I spent the catastrophic fire danger day cleaning up my rural property, spraying water on the chickens, and watching as the smoke from a bushfire 100km away came quickly closer before being halted by fire fighters and a creek. But even dangerous weather demons have several faces, and for many, the Angry Summer was a great day at the beach.

Weather demons like the Angry Summer are a powerful drawcard for science communication. Every time there’s an extreme weather event, the Bureau of Meteorology’s website is snowed under. In 2010-11 the BoM received 3 billion hits for its 30,000 warnings and 140,000 forecasts. The Climate Commission also has great graphics and regular updates, but while ‘weather deniers’ are unheard of ‘climate denial’ is still a most popular Australian spectator sport.

I was touched by the Climate Change Monster in 2014. The hateable perpetrator was the tiny, invisible Irukandji Jellyfish, perhaps the most venomous creature in the world. A fluther of these monsters were nearly 1000km outside of their normal rangewhen they stung and killed two friends of mine at Ningaloo Reef. The repeatability of the event and its potential threat is evident when I see elegant tropical fish while snorkeling in ‘temperate’ waters. It seems likely that the presence of Irikandji where they weren’t expected was due to the Very Much Above Average ocean temperatures in Australian oceans. But even though this event was more ‘climate’ than ‘weather’, climate change was not mentioned in the news reports on the tragedy.

The scientific consensus tells us that climate change is real and growing ever more dangerous. Scientific knowledge is essential for understanding and tackling climate change. But if we are psychologically hardwired to not see the climate for the weather, then solving this global crisis will take more than science. We need to find new and creative ways to focus public attention on climate change.

My Climate Change Monster is a giant, invisible and many-tentacled Climate Change Monster that creeps slowly then suddenly spits out deadly weather and venomous pestilence. How does the Climate Change Monster appear to you?

How I became Su Wild-River

To say that people often ask me about my name is an understatement. It is extremely rare that I meet anyone who doesn’t ask me about my name. So here are a bunch of true stories about my name, just in case you are curious. Go on, you know you are.

The most common question is also the most tedious. “Is that your real name?” The short answer is “Yes” and so that’s what you get if this is your only question. But even that is not strictly true. In fact, my legal name is Su Wild River (without the hyphen), which is the name I took on at 16,when computers were mythological beasts and the internet not even a dream.

My favourite part about the question of my “real” name is its resemblance to the Monty Python skit where a man uses his cat licence to justify getting a fish licence. When he produces the licence, it’s criticised because it’s “a dog licence, with the word ‘dog’ crossed out and ‘cat’ written in in crayon”. That’s what my birth certificate looks like. There’s a stamp in the margin saying “for Section 1a, read “Su Wild River”. It seems like a beautiful way to wreck a perfectly good form and I love it.

A slightly better question is “Did you change that by Deed Poll?” which shows some prior knowledge of name changing shenanigans. No, I didn’t change it by Deed Poll, but by Instrument. Deed Poll is the expensive option, where a lawyer stands up in court and announces the name change, since a name change must be publicly declared. Deed Poll is expensive because you have to pay the lawyer and the court. You bypass both of these expenses by making the announcement using the Instrument of a classified ad in the local newspaper. Then you just need to pay the relatively small cost of the ad, which you take in and show to the good folk at Births Deaths and Marriages.

You need some patience in dealing with BDM, because none of the desk staff know about changing names. So they keep insisting that it’s not allowed, and you have to ask to see their boss, and then their boss, and then their boss, until finally, someone very senior comes in an says “of course. Just use this form under the counter here”. When I did it, my very senior person loved my name and signature so much, that when a once-in-a-decade brand new 1,000 page, leather bound register of births, deaths and marriages started up a week after I came to get the magical form, he decided that I was to be the first entry in the sparkly new book. Not knowing this, I took my time getting the paperwork together and it was four weeks later that I came back in with my Instrument. The junior desk clerk immediately called this boss of bosses, who arrived white-faced and grateful. There were already about 50 names below mine in the book, and he had been terrified that it was all a lark, and I would leave him with an incomplete, and quite crazy first entry to explain to even more senior bosses.

I added the hyphen so that my name would match my first URL, (, having learned that spaces confuse computers. By then, all the databases were having trouble deciding if I was really called “Su River Wild” or “River Su Wild” or “Su WildRiver” or even “Su Wildriver” which is the worst of the lot, because that surname phonetically reads “Wild Driver” and people don’t get in cars with me. Once in Western Queensland I hired the only rental car for a 500km radius, and laughed when I saw they had me down as Wildriver. “It’s OK”, I said, “I’m really a river, not a danger behind the wheel”, and they laughed back nervously, then gave me a detailed lesson in finding the brakes in an automatic car.

I received an original, great question during a recent trip to the white water mecca of Tasmania. The manager of a climbing gym asked “do you even own a kayak?” Thankfully, the answer was “yes, I own five kayaks”, as otherwise he would have been outraged by my false pretences.

In fact, my name was partly responsible for my very many wonderful and terrifying white water trips. On Open Day at my first week studying Environmental Science at Griffith University, I joined the Griffith Uni Bushwalking Society (GRUBS), which owned and used a bunch of kayaks. The president took one look at my name and said “we have to get you kayaking”, and so it started. I loved my first trip so much that when everyone else was waiting their turn to use the good boats on a particular “play wave”, I found a beaten up, leaking and unwanted vessel so that nothing would stop me from repeatedly going in, and then washing out for yet another swim. I was hooked.

Before learning to kayak, I’d struggled with my name. My first problem became apparent in my first days with my new name, when I realised that a mild speech impediment meant I couldn’t pronounce it properly. I have trouble with “R” sometimes, and when I said my new name aloud it sounded something like “WurlWoower” – especially on the phone. It took about a decade for me to learn to say my name so that people could understand it. Then there was the trouble of being quite an undeveloped person with a very iconic identifier. This was most apparent in university classes, mostly because of the perfect match between my name and environmental degree. I was always a high achiever, and I struggled to be invisible in crowds so I wouldn’t stand out any more than I had to. Imagine my horror then, when a new lecturer walked into my class of 200 people and said “Hello, this is Agricultural Ecosystems and where is Su Wild-River?”

When people can’t work out what to ask about my name, I tell them that the best question is “how did you become Su Wild-River”, which is also a kayaking story. Once, after several years of paddling every flooded creek, stormwater drain and giant wave I could get my paddle into, I had the opportunity to tackle the Gwydir River in North Western New South Wales. The Gwydir is one of the toughest in Australia, featuring two grade six rapids (certain death…. We portaged those), many grade fives (I walked around those too), heaps of grade fours (which I paddled some of) and a bunch of grade threes and below (all of which I shot, and several of which I swam). I had approached this trip with much fear, and a very real feeling that I may not survive. One of my clearest ever memories is of pulling up on a steep rocky beach after 12 hours of joy and terror thinking “I’m alive. And I AM Su Wild-River. And I’ll ALWAYS BE Su Wild-River”. My name and I were finally a match.

It’s been an interesting journey to have a name that matches my profession. Although in the first decade of my professional life I worked mostly on ‘brown’ environmental issues of pollution prevention and risk management. I would joke that I should really have been called “Su Stormwater-Drain” or “Su Sludge-Puddle” or even “Su Sewerage-Treatment-Plant”. I never really gelled with the brown issues until a particular brown consultant (strangely actually called “Brown”) said that I could never work with industry with a name like that. The challenge was on, and in fact, industrial workers loved it. I’d write to them saying I was coming around to do a site inspection, and when I arrived, they were fully primed, expecting me to “ride up bareback on a bronco with feathers in my hair”. Having expected something interesting, they were willing to take me as I really was – an earnest young woman respectfully asking good questions.

I once told a colleague from this era of my life that I felt my name had given me an advantage as an environmental scientist. He disagreed and made a touching argument that anyone could have a great name, but it was me that had made the name great. Thanks DougY.

Why I changed my name is another question with a bit of value. The thing is, as a woman, your name means very little, and from birth there’s the possibility of it changing to the name of a different family if you happen to get married and take on your husband’s. I changed my name so that it would really be my own. I’m about to get married, and I offered my name to my spouse, who has seriously considered it (it’s pretty cool after all). But no, we’ll keep our own. Even my children don’t have my name. They are simply “Wild”, since I was worried that I might pass on my speech impediment, and give them a name they couldn’t say. No need for this caution as it turns out, as Wild-River rolls of their tongues easily. I tell them they can decide what sort of Wild Thing they want to be when they “come of age” (whatever that means), but for now, they just love when tickets usually list them as “Wild Child”.

The only time that my name really confused me was during anthropology classes, where we learned all sorts of difficult rules and associations of naming conventions. My constant question was “why didn’t they just change their names?” to which the answer was “you can’t change your name”, and then a double-take by the lecturer when he saw who had asked. Can’t you? I followed in my mother’s footsteps since she changed hers when I was 15. And have been an inspiration many others’ name changes. So obviously you can change your name if you want to. I don’t understand why some people live their lives with terrible, embarrassing or insulting names. If you have one, have you considered ditching it and starting again?

What would you change your name to and why? How you grow into your new name, and how would the change change you?

10 beginners tips for practical food preserving

By Su Wild-River

Have you ever wished you were ‘one of those people’ with colourful cupboards full of bottled tomatoes, jams, pickles and fruits? Are you scared off by advice on the hazards of preserving? Here are some tips to make the transition so that you can make all the preserves you desire without fuss or stress.

But first, let us consider the costs and benefits of preserving food.

1) The only equipment you need is a saucepan and some metal-lidded jars

The professionals use custom-made products like Vacola and Kilna and perhaps one day you will too. But to make a start, all you need is some metal-lidded jars. So the next time you are in the supermarket, choose products in metal lidded jars. When you have used the product, clean the jar carefully and store it for your preserves. Build up your collection more quickly by asking friends to do it too.

Preserving food in Autumn for Winter and Spring.

Preserving food in Autumn for Winter and Spring.

2) You don’t have to grow it to bottle it

My entire fruit crop was taken out last year by a severe, late frost, but that didn’t stop me from making preserves. Buy bulk, in season, direct from farmers if you are lucky enough to have a farmers’ market or street stall in your area. Although it doesn’t have the same inner glow as food you grew yourself, it’s still fresh, probably cheap, and certainly has low food miles compared with supermarket fruit and vegetables.

3) Learn the basics

There are many wonderful recipes on the web and in books, and I won’t repeat them here. But its helpful to know the basic options available to you. The essence of preserving is to slow the decay of real food so that you can eat it long after it was fresh. This is achieved by removing the elements that make it decay and also by adding other ingredients that help keep it edible longer. The main elements that cause food to decay are moisture, air, bacteria, light and heat. Some common ingredients that help keep food longer are salt, sugar, acid (vinegar).

Here are some of the main options:

  • Simple bottling: Just as the name suggests, this is the easiest option and a good way to start. It generally involves just one type of fruit or vegetable (eg peaches, plums, apricots, tomatoes), optionally with a preserving additive. This method works by removing bacteria and air and is achieved by boiling the produce until it is well cooked, and bottling it while it is very hot. Avoid bacteria by using clean, sterilised jars. Avoid air by filling them to the top and banging or pushing out as many bubbles as possible. Because the jar and produce are hot when the lid is sealed, the small remaining air pocket forms a vacuum, and this essentially removes the air. You can easily check that there is a vacuum, because the lid will ‘suck in’ when the jar is cool. Some of the professional bottles allow you to cook food in the jars, and seal the lids when you are done. The big advantages is that the cooking process kills all bacteria in the jar, ensuring that the bottle is sterilised. I choose not to do this with my gathered metal-lidded-jars, because I’m not sure that the sealant will cope.
  • Bottle mixtures: Bottled mixtures include jams, pickles and sauces. All of the same principles apply as with simple bottling, so jars need to be clean, sterilised and full. Recipes for bottled mixtures include preserving ingredients like sugar (for sweet things), salt, vinegar, mustard seeds etc for savoury, along with a range of flavours.
  • Smoking and drying: These methods work by removing the water from within the cells of food. The food will last longer if it is kept dry, cool and dark and the more you achieve all three of these, the longer it lasts. So a smoked trout will last a very long time (years?), while one in the cupboard may last several days.
  • Freezing: This method works by cooling food down to avoid decay. Its very common for vegetables like peas, beans and corn. Its often good to boil before freezing, partly to kill any bacteria, partly because it makes the colour brighter, and also because they retain their fresh flavours and shape better that way.

4) Get on a roll

Preserving doesn’t have to be a big event. I have learned to bottle up tomatoes every time I have enough to fill a saucepan. That’s a few times a week in the mid-season. I just cut them up and put them in a pot with a little salt when I’m starting to make dinner, and then leave them cooking until bed-time, because the longer you cook them the better they are. At bed-time, I take them off the boil and ladle them into clean jars (see ‘clean your jars’ below) and presto – preserved tomatoes for winter.

You can get on a roll most easily for simple preserves with one main ingredient, but once you master jams, pickles and other preserves, you’ll find you can do it with them too. A friend of mine regularly cooks up one or two jars of raspberry jam.

5) Treat it as an adventure

Your preserves don’t have to win awards, or be textbook perfect every time. The beauty of practical preserving is that every batch has its own personality. My very best jam was the ‘burnt heatwave apricot jam’ of 2013, which was burnt on the stove, not by the heatwave. I’m down to the last jar now and everyone is mourning it. But my ‘runny apricot jam’ from 2012 was great as a topping for pies, and the chooks eventually enjoyed ‘crystallised apricot jam’ of 2011.

The thing is, we are not preserving food to make products like the mass produced stuff of supermarkets. We do it for the love of good, local food that contains delight as much as nutritional value.

6) Label your preserves

Since each batch will be a bit different, you probably get the message its a good idea to put labels on your preserves stating the date they were made, and naming any special features. I don’t bother with the tomatoes, as I end up with so many jars each season, all pretty much the same. But jams are individuals, and so are pickles. Make your last, half-filled jar the taster, and name the batch a few days after cooking, once you have tasted and evaluated your results.

7) Look after your food needs

Preserving your own is the perfect way to avoid the foods you can’t eat, while favouring those you can. Last year a health practitioner advised me to slow down on the sugar….. just at the start of the stone fruit season. I wondered how I could preserve the abundant local peaches without sugar. I did some research and it turns out that the trick to making preserves without sugar is….. don’t add sugar. The peaches aren’t as sweet as they would have been with sugar, and they are not as brightly coloured. Apparently they won’t last as long either, but luckily I know how to deal with that (see ‘check your preserves before eating them’ below).

8) Clean your jars

If your jars have any bacteria on them, the preserves will go off very quickly. So make sure your preserves go in spotlessly clean jars.

Most importantly, you need to clean them well before putting them away for storage, since that’s the easiest time to clean them. The trick is to check that all of the ‘bits’ are gone. Check the inside of the lid, and all the way to the bottom corners, and be meticulous. If you can see, feel or smell anything that isn’t part of the jar then the jar isn’t clean.

Sterilise the jars again before you put in the food. A simple approach is to collect up the jars you plan to put your food into while your preserves are cooking, then boil the jug and pour boiling water into both jars and lids. Wear some rubber gloves and be careful to avoid burning, swirl the water around and then discard it into the sink. Be careful not to touch the inside of the lids or jars after this sterilisation process, and also to keep the rims up so that they don’t touch the benches. The remaining water will evaporate, and you’ll have a sterilised jar.

9) Keep them in the dark

Yes, they are beautiful. And they are a source of pride. But if you have them on display the light, and variable temperature within a living room will cause the food to decay faster. Better to keep them in a dark cool cupboard.

10) Check your preserves before eating them

OK, so there is a risk that your food may go off before you open the jar to eat it. This happens every so often, for the same reason that shop-bought preserves can go off. Maybe you left them too long and the few bacteria that were alive in the bottle grew babies. Whatever happened, the thing to remember is that it is within your power to make it safe.

When you first remove your preserve from storage, check it thoroughly. Can you see any mould? Has the lid popped out? Is there a discharge from around the seal of the container? When you open it, continue to check for mould, but also assess the smell. In particular, take a good, big sniff of it the moment you open it up. It should smell pretty well the same as when you put it away for storage – that is, delicious and totally edible. If there is a bad smell, or a release of air from a jar (like when you open a carbonated drink like beer or soft-drink), then its probably no good and to be on the safe side, you should throw it away and reach for another jar. I will occasionally still eat produce that had a tiny amount of mould on the top, but only ever after I have scraped off a good inch, and then repeated the sniff test and tasted a bit as well.

The thing is that one of the definitions of REAL food is that it CAN go off. Any food that doesn’t go off needs serious questioning about whether indeed it actually is food. So the mere fact that your preserves can, and sometimes do go off is a source of celebration, not distrust. Use your senses and your smarts to decide whether to eat what you have preserved, and you will be able to keep yourself, your friends and your family safe and healthy.

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