If you are reading Wise Traditions I imagine your home must have at least a few (and more likely, a few dozen, or perhaps, for some readers, a few hundred) Ball or Kerr brand Mason jars in full service. From storing fresh raw milk and yogurt, nuts and dried fruits, bone stocks and ferments, stacked in the freezer and on pantry shelves, most real food enthusiasts find endless uses for these ingenious jars.
Mason jars have quite a history. Invented by Pennsylvanian tinsmith John Mason in the mid 1800s, the sealable glass jars quickly became available to the masses for home use thanks to the advances in manufacturing brought about by the industrial revolution.
Modern use was mainly driven by their importance during the two world wars, especially the second, when the government, to conserve limited resources for the war effort, specifically food, fuel and metal, encouraged home gardening, small animal husbandry and home food preservation. (What a contrast to our times, when growing a vegetable garden or keeping chickens is a crime in many locales!)
The Mason jar boom was on, with over three million jars sold in under a decade. Not long after the war, home canning (along with gardening and a number of other traditional self-sufficiency skills) declined significantly throughout the late 1900s as food companies jockied to hook Americans on their “modern” convenience products. Ironically these convenience foods had also been designed to meet the needs of the war effort as an efficient means to feed troops. It was a matter of slick marketing propaganda to sell the same products to civilians in peacetime by virtue of the “freedom” they purported to offer from domestic drudgery.
Today we find ourselves on the cusp of a mini-renaissance in kitchen arts, largely driven by the local and real foods movements. And thus Mason jars, canning and home food preservation are once again in the spotlight, showing up on the pages of newspapers and TV shows.
SHOULD YOU DROP THE BALL?
Mason jars are endlessly useful, and overall, exceptionally safe (except for breakage) since they are made of non-reactive glass. Unlike metal, which corrodes, leaches, cannot handle acidic items and requires dangerous chemical coatings to ensure proper sealing and shelf life, single-piece glass jars are safer and easier to use by almost any measure. Yet, the glass-style jars have a couple of major drawbacks. Their lids often contain BPA and other chemicals in the sealing ring. Ball and many other companies claim that their lids and containers are BPA-free, but this isn’t quite accurate.
Some manufacturers make this claim by adding an extra, BPA-free lining over the BPA lining. This is akin to painting a lead-free paint over existing lead paint instead of removing the lead paint layer. The contamination is still there, waiting for a scratch or some other unlucky circumstance to set the chemicals free into your food. Given the very high temperatures that canning requires, and the fact that chemicals love high heat and liquids to get mobile, an extra coating on the lid does not strike me as adequate protection against potential contamination of food.
Some makers swap out BPA for another, generally less well known or understood chemical. But how reassuring is this really? It’s like our paint analogy: “Hey, look at this lead-free paint, which now contains trans-hydroxy-carbopolymer!” Wonderful strategy.
Fermentation presents a second problem for metal-lidded jars. We have often seen the metal lids degrade and even disintegrate into ferments and food. A distinct turn-off. The lids can also corrode and degrade even in storage if proper precautions are not taken, something home canners have long known and something I witnessed firsthand in my grandparents’ basements and root cellars.
DON’T BE A TATTLER TALE
Because of the inability to reuse Ball lids coupled with the BPA concerns, Tattler created an alternative to the standard metal rims and lids Ball offers. These lids are reusable, BPAfree, and if reused, very affordable on a per-use basis. They are made from hard plastic (hence no plasticizers needed) and have genuine rubber rings. Since they are non-metallic, they resist corrosion and rusting, even in storage, and thus are advantageous for use when fermenting in Ball jars. Note that the jars do use the Ball metal rims, and are a two piece (plastic lid and rubber gasket) replacement for the integrated standard metal lid.
The BPA-free solution with these lids is identical to the BPA-free approach I have described above: getting rid of BPA only to replace it with potentially hazardous XYZ is not necessarily an improvement. Also, the limited testing done on estrogenic activity (EA) of these various BPA-free products and plastic polymers is not encouraging.
George Bittner, founder of the plastics testing company CertiChem, released results from a recent study testing plastic packaging materials designed to come in contact with food. “The testing showed that more than 70 percent of the products released chemicals that acted like estrogen. And that was before they exposed the stuff to real-world conditions: simulated sunlight, dishwashing and microwaving, Bittner says.”1
To make sure this is clear to readers, BPA-free does not mean safe, nor free of, other similar or even more dangerous chemicals that act similarly or even worse than BPA and other estrogen mimickers.
The second issue to consider with the Tattler lids is performance. Our own personal experiments (though we are no master canners, and generally prefer other methods to preserve our foods) have resulted in less success than with traditional canning jars lid/rim combos. Others report results that run the gamut from astounding to so-so. Most of this may be because nearly everyone is accustomed to using the traditional Ball/Kerr metal canning lids, as are most resources that provide canning instructions and advice. Thus, if you switch over to Tattler, expect to encounter a learning curve, take the time to read up, watch videos, and learn from those who have mastered their successful use.
TO WECK OR NOT TO WECK?
The original Mason jar had one major alternative: glass jars with metal clasps to hold a glass lid with rubber gasket in place for canning. This was known as the Lightning closure (taken from the name Lightning embossed on the side of the jars), but is more commonly called the bail closure. While the Mason-style jars took root in the States, the bail-style became more popular in Europe. If you are going to can, but are concerned about the chemicals used in the standard Mason jar lids, the bail-style jars are finally once again widely available in the United States.
Weck (Glaushaus) has introduced a line of canning jars that use glass lids with rubber seals and metal clamps in the traditional design. First, note that their products are durable, beautiful, versatile. . . and expensive. The Weck jars cost two to three times more per jar than the standard Mason jars of similar size. My hunch and hope is that these attractive and well-designed jars will come down in price as demand increases. Second, their jars are easy to use and highly versatile. We have enjoyed easy success using them for both types of canning (water and pressure), but also for fermenting, where their closure style lends itself to allowing ferments to self-vent excess gasses.
DON’T GET CANNED INTO A CORNER
As most people know, Mason jars are very versatile. Jarden, the owner of Ball and Kerr brands, sells far more Mason jars than are actually used for canning purposes each year. So what are people doing with them?
So many things! Storing food (and pencils and flatware, and a hundred thousand other things…), doing science experiments, and saving seeds, among so many other applications. Even better, of late a number of companies have produced all sorts of accessories to make Mason jars even more versatile and valuable. Below, I want to highlight a few.
Ever cry over spilt raw milk? Cry no more! ReCAP has created a lid for Ball jars with a pour spout, turning the potential for spilled and dribbled messes of milk, maple syrup, and so on, from the storage jars into a dripless delight! The only small grievance we have to make with these wonderful contraptions is that they sometimes seal very tightly onto the underlying Mason jar, which means no leaks, yet requires strong hands to remove.
CUPPOW AND ECOJARZ
While they are separate companies, these two manufacturers offer very similar products that turn any Mason jar into a drinking vessel. The cognoscenti may protest that they already drink directly out of Mason jars. True enough, but how often did you spill all over yourself? Now, spill no more!
The designs by both companies are made to work with straws, with Ecojarz specifically made to work with glass and stainless steel straws that the company also sells. The main distinction between the two companies is that the Ecojarz line is made from all metal and glass and silicone, whereas Cuppow accessories are plastic. Both use the metal rim made for the canning jars to secure their lids in place.
With these many variations on the glass jar theme, the home food preservationist has versatile options to choose from in the pursuit of so many do-it-yourself activities in the kitchen and beyond. This introduction provides some direction and perhaps even inspiration to help point the way to the vessels and capping systems best suited for all the tasks you’ve planned year round.
BPA, PLASTICS, AND PUBLIC DEBATE
The issues surrounding BPA and EA (estrogenic activity) of plastics are complex, high stakes, and highly controversial. A major court case even took place, with little public awareness, about this issue. While beyond the scope of this article, I would be remiss not to provide readers with these further resources to read and consider themselves:
BIG BALL VERSUS WECK THE HOUSE
In our house we use Ball jars for drinking vessels and for freezing soups and other foods, using the plastic BPA-free freezer lids and not allowing the food to come into contact with the lid. For refrigerator storage we use the Ball jars with a ReCAP lid for maple syrup and similar pourable items. The jars are also perfect for dry goods storage (nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and so much else). We do use the jars for some limited canning applications.
For canning via water bath and pressure methods we prefer Weck jars, and use them preferentially for culturing products as well. More information about Mason jar accessories and how to purchase are them provided below:
RECAP – www.masonjars.com CUPPOW – www.cuppow.com ECOJARZ – www.ecojarz.com
My thanks to ReCAP, Cuppow, and Ecojarz, who each sent me samples of their products to review for this article. All three companies have great customer service and staff.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2014.