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AUSTIN, Texas — You don't have to be a canner to appreciate a well-made Mason jar.
The weight of the cool glass in your hand. The way the slightly raised patterns that adorn the sides feel. The sound of the metal ring screwing just so, tightly on the threads.
Ushered in by our renewed interest in canning and all things homemade, glass jars are back in a big way. Restaurants hoping to evoke a sense of home and history are serving wine, water and cocktails in small jars instead of traditional glasses or tumblers.
People have long packed cookie and bread mixes into jars for gifts, but do-it-yourselfers are now using jars of all shapes and sizes to make soap dispensers, candy machines, chandeliers, candle holders and even plant terrariums. On Etsy.com, you'll find a subculture of entrepreneurs who have turned Mason jar crafting into an industry of its own, and one Pinterest search will give you enough jar ideas to last a lifetime.
The term “Mason jar” comes from its inventor, John Landis Mason, who patented the glass jar with a threaded neck and screw-on lid in 1858. Just after the turn of the century, both the Ball and Kerr companies were producing the jars on a wide scale. (By then, the Ball brothers had moved their company to Muncie, Ind., and the university in that town still bears their name.)
Now, the Jarden Corp. owns both Ball and Kerr brands, and their jars, lids and rings are manufactured in Indiana, says company spokeswoman Lauren Devine-Hager, who adds that though canning and food storage are still the primary uses for their jars, she's seen a spike in recent years for nontraditional food uses and nonfood projects.
“It's amazing what people are doing with the jars,” she says, citing creative posts she's seen on Pinterest with layered birthday cakes or even a to-go salad jar, with the dressing in the bottom and lettuce and vegetables on top so the greens don't get soggy.
“Social media platforms help foster the creativity for how people use (the jars),” she says. (But before you think the canning trend is over, consider this: Traffic to the company's website, freshpreserving.com, is up 83 percent from a year ago.)
Taking a cue from jam, jelly and sauce companies that have been the backbone of the jar industry for generations, other food businesses, such as Austin's Tiny Pies, which sells frozen pies in jars, have discovered that jars are a creative way to package their products in individual, sealed and reusable containers.
“It's kind of nostalgic,” says Tiny Pies owner Amanda Ogden, who launched the jarred pies last year. “We needed to be able to sell a product that is frozen, and the shelf life of our baked pies is not very long.”
By packing an unbaked pie into a small jar with a lid on it, Tiny Pies figured out how to offer a way for customers to bake the pies at home in individual portions. They sell 10 flavors of frozen pies in jars, including several savory varieties, through their website, tinypies.com.
“It's that shabby chic thing that everyone is going for right now,” Ogden says. “It makes us think of a time where everything was easier and more simple.”
Minnesota blogger Shaina Olmanson recently turned her love of jars into a cookbook, “Desserts in Jars” (Harvard Common Press, $16.95). Olmanson says it's the combination of durability, design and versatility that makes jars so appealing. She keeps her pantry staples like flour, sugar and oats in big jars with lids on them.
“When they are all lined up, they catch the light when the door opens,” she says. It's easy to see what's in them, sure, but it looks much nicer than a pile of plastic or paper bags and boxes.
Even with four kids younger than 12, Olmanson says they use glass jars for cups and storage containers because they don't like to use plastic vessels.
When it comes to special occasions such as weddings and birthday parties or even dinner parties, jars are an excellent way to prepare individual portions of desserts that you can travel with and serve easier than, say, a large cake that has to be cut and plated in the middle of the celebration.
Olmanson's always on the hunt for interesting jars. You can often find jars at flea markets, thrift stores and antique stores, but the best bargains are usually at garage sales. “I look for sales that have tons of kitchen stuff outside,” she says. She's found a box of 24 jars for $5, a far cry from what you'll spend buying them individually at craft and hobby stores.
The best jars might just be the ones that everyone else throws in the recycle bin. “We save jars from anything we buy,” she says. A friend of hers collected a set of tall, smooth jars to use as drinking glasses that were jars of alfredo sauce that had been cleaned and repurposed.
Marisa McClellan, who recently turned her popular canning blog, Food in Jars, into a book of the same name (Running Press, $23), says that her love of canning started with her love of jars. She started collecting them in college and hasn't stopped, and though she detects a hint of jar overload (have you seen “hillbilly wine glasses” — jars glued to thick glass stems — yet?), she likes seeing new products and projects that help people incorporate more jars into their lives.
“As a culture, we're looking for ways to reconnect with things that have durability,” she says. “It's something people can feel and touch that gives them a larger connection to food and history.”
She really likes a product called ReCAP ($6.99, recapmasonjars.com), which is a reusable screw-on lid with a flip-top spout that turns a jar into a sports bottle. Another popular jar accessory is the Cuppow ($7.99, cuppow.com), a little plastic lid with a hole in it that turns a jar into a travel mug.
“As gimmicky as some of these things are, anything that supports jar culture is fine by me.”
We might start to see some of the everything-in-a-jar frenzy taper off, but “the jars aren't going away.”
Basil Strawberry–Lemonade Granitas
1 cup sugar
1 handful fresh basil leaves
1 cup water
4 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
Juice and finely grated zest of 2 lemons
Lemon slices, for garnish
Combine the sugar and basil leaves with the water in a medium-size saucepan. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool. When the simple syrup mixture is cool, remove and discard the basil leaves.
Combine the strawberries, lemon juice and lemon zest in a blender or food processor. Pulse until smooth. Pour the cooled simple syrup into the strawberry mixture and blend well.
Fill 10 8-ounce jars three-quarters full with the strawberry mixture. Cover loosely and place in the freezer for 30 minutes. Scrape down the edges of the jars with a fork and stir the scrapings into the centers. Return the jars to the freezer for 90 minutes, and scrape them down again. Freeze for an additional 3 hours until frozen through.
When you are ready to serve the granita, use a fork to stir the granita mixture one more time. Serve ice cold, garnished with lemon slices. Serves 10.
— From “Desserts in Jars,” by Shaina Olmanson (The Harvard Common Press, $16.95)
Mo's Famous Whole Grain Pancake Mix
Ask anyone of his acquaintances and they'll tell you that my father is a pancake expert. During his early 20s, he worked as a short-order cook at IHOP, and after eating yet another doughy pancake, he determined that he could do better. So, for a period spanning multiple years, he devoted himself to the creation of a better pancake mix.
By the time I was born, he had worked out the bones of this recipe. It's so good that it became our family's holiday gift for friends, family and neighbors. Packaged up and combined with a jar of jam or maple syrup, people are always delighted to receive their annual batch of Mo's Famous Pancakes.
Don't let the long list of ingredients scare you off. They're nearly all available at the grocery store, including the wheat germ, which you can buy pre-toasted. If giving this mix as a gift, print the cooking instructions below on a tag and include it with the jar. — Marisa McClellan
2 cups whole-wheat flour
3 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
2 cups toasted wheat germ
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup millet, toasted (see note below)
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. salt
3 Tbsp. baking powder
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and gently whisk to combine. Divide the mix between 2 clean 1-quart jars and store in the refrigerator (cold storage will greatly extend the life of all those whole grains).
To make the pancakes, whisk 3 large eggs in a medium bowl, then mix in 1 cup milk and 2 tablespoons light vegetable oil. Fold in 2 cups of the pancake mix. If it seems too thick, add a splash more milk. Lightly oil a griddle and set over medium heat.
When the griddle is hot, spoon approximately ¼ cup batter per cake onto the griddle and watch for bubbles to form around the edges of the cakes, about 3 minutes. When some of the bubbles pop and stay open, flip the cakes and cook another 1 to 2 minutes.
Serve with maple syrup (real only, please), jam and yogurt or honey. This will yield about 12 pancakes. Makes enough to fill 2 1-quart jars.
Note: To make toasted millet, spread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Watch carefully as it toasts, as it can go from barely cooked to burnt very quickly. Let it cool completely before adding it to the mix. It introduces a wonderful, nutty crunch.
— From “Food in Jars,” by Marisa McClellan (Running Press, $23)