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2015 Gift Guide: DIY Kits and Sets

Third in a series of concise gift guides for the 2015 holiday season. Up today is a collect of kits and sets that will help kickstart your DIY mojo.

DIY Kits - Food in Jars

A couple years ago, I decided to start knitting. I’d learned when I was a kid, but it had been years since I’d picked up yarn and needles and needed some help finding my footing. I bought myself Kat Goldin’s Knit Camp kit, and dove in.

It was that kit (plus a wide array of helpful video tutorials on YouTube) that helped me build confidence enough to pick out yarn and projects and start making. Here’s hoping that these culinary kits (and one discovery set for kids!) can help do the same for you or someone on your holiday list!

  1. Mori-Nu Make-Your-Own Tofu Kit – This kit allows you to make both silken and molded tofu (and includes everything you’ll need to do so). It’s a fun project to do with kids, particularly if you’re trying to convince them of the deliciousness of tofu. Read about my experience using the kit.
  2. Hobby Hill Farm Fresh Cheese Making Kit – This kit includes enough rennet, citric acid, and cheese salt to make 40 batches of cheese (talk about the gift that keeps on giving!). I took this kit out for a spin back in September, here’s my step-by-step tutorial.
  3. Maureen Abood’s Heavenly Hummus Kit – I’ve made a lot of hummus in my days, but never have I had a more delicious batch exit my food processor than the one I made with this kit.The secret is the pre-peeled chickpeas! Pair this kit with a copy of Maureen‘s book, Rose Water and Orange Blossoms, and you’d have a killer gift.
  4. Ferment’n Kit – I picked this sweet little kit up at Portland Homestead Supply when I was out there last month, and love its form factor and utility. It comes with a ceramic pickle weight and a nifty two-piece plastic airlock that has a very low profile. If there’s someone on your list with a tiny kitchen, this might be the perfect fermentation kit for them.
  5. Cultures for Health Kombucha Starter Kit – Looking to get started making your own kombucha in the new year? Cultures for Health’s Kombucha Starter Kit will set you on the road to scoby greatness!
  6. reCAP Explore Bug Catching Kit – This isn’t a culinary kit, but it is a fun one for kids (and involves a jar!) so I’m squeezing it in. The folks at Mason Jar reCAP have taken their new Flip Cap and added a magnifying lid to it, so that kids can collect and examine things from their natural world.
  7. FARMcurious Starter Kits – There’s so much to choose from over at FARMcurious. There’s the classic Fermenting Set I wrote about recently, the All-Inclusive Set (which includes a jar), or their Ultimate Fermenting Kit. A gift for every level of fermenter!
  8. Masontops – Last up is a trio of fabulous products from the folks at Masontops. Pair their glass fermentation weights with a Pickle Packer and a set of Pickle Pipes, and all your recipient needs to do is add veg, salt, and a jar!
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2015 Gift Guide: Travel Mugs and Drinking Jars

Second in a series of concise gift guides for the 2015 holiday season. On the docket for today? Things that transform jars into travel mugs and water bottles, as well as one actual travel mug.

Drinking Jar Gift Guide - Food in Jars

For a brief time in the mid-2000s, I worked a horrible admin job at a local university (this was the situation that convinced me that it was time to go to grad school). In order to save money, I packed both my breakfast and lunch up in a trio of mason jars nearly every single day. Coffee was stashed in a regular mouth pint. A breakfast smoothie was contained in a pint & half jar (which was a rare bird indeed back then, well before Ball reintroduced that size). And most days, I brought soup for lunch in a wide mouth pint jar.

I tell you all this to say, I have done my time in the mason jar traveling circus and these are some of the best toppers, drink lids, and other accessories out there.

  1. iLid Drink Topper – A one-piece lid with a slider that can cover or reveal the drink opening. It’s not leakproof, but if you hate fussing with two pieces, it’s the way to go.
  2. Joco Cup – I know. There’s no jar here. However, if you are looking to give someone a travel mug this holiday season and they think that mason jars are entirely too uncivilized, this is the one I recommend. It’s made of glass and silicone, is quite sturdy, and feels nice in the hand.
  3. Cuppow Glass Travel Mug – This is the complete mason jar mug system. You get a wide mouth mason jar, a Cuppow topper, and a coozie made from recycled soda bottles. I use mine all the time and love the little loop on the coozie.
  4. EcoJarz Pop-Top and Denim Holster – I’ve paired two of EcoJarz products together for the perfect smoothie toting combo. The Pop-Top lid seals tight and the cute denim sleeve keeps your jar from clanking around your backpack or lunch bag.
  5. Mason Bar Company Bamboo Tumbler Lid – A bamboo lid that screws directly onto a jar and has a hole just the right size for a glass straw. It’s the most stylish jar sipping set-up I know.
  6. reCAP Mason Jar POUR – Most people use these pour lids for salad dressings and maple syrup. However, they just happen to also make a good drink lid, particularly if your goal is quick access to water.
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2015 Gift Guide: Kitchen Utensils

The first in a series of concise gift guides for the 2015 holiday season. Today, let’s talk about cooking utensils!

Gift Guide Utensils - Food in Jars

I first started collecting cooking utensils when I was in college. Any time I spotted a vintage spatula or a sturdy wooden spoon at a thrift store for a quarter, I’d add it to my basket. In those days, I wasn’t really buying for utility. I mostly selected based on age, price, and quirkiness.

Once two friends and I moved into an off-campus house, my motley collection of spoons, tongs, and spatulas were pressed into service in the kitchen. Rapidly, I developed opinions about what I liked and what needed to be returned to the flow of used goods. Now, nearly 15 years and three cookbooks later, I’ve become something of a utensil connoisseur. Here are the ones that I think are most worthy of your time, money, and gift list.

  1. Microplane Zester – Sturdy, sharp, and speedy, I reach for mine any time I need to grate citrus zest, nutmeg, or hard cheeses.
  2. GIR Perforated Spoon* – Though I have a number of slotted and punctured spoons available, this one feels best in the hand and has become the one I reach for first.
  3. Earlywood Classic Ladle – This ladle has heft and makes even a basic pot of soup feel special. It’s also one of those tools that gets better with time and use. Handmade in Montana.
  4. Perfect Masher – This masher has pointy cutting blades that make a world of difference when you’re pressing cooked apples into sauce or smoothing hunks of stonefruit into jam. I also like their pastry blender.
  5. KitchenPro Silicone Tongs* – I use tongs a lot and since this pair landed in my utensil jar, it has occupied the number one spot. They have just the right amount of resistance and the silicone-coated heads are gentle on cookware, serving bowls, and your food. Use the code “PFVBE9VI” for 10% off your order.
  6. GIR Mini Spoon* – I thought this little spoon was sort of ridiculous until I realized I was using it every day. I reach for it any time I make a single serving of oatmeal or heat up leftovers for lunch. Cute and useful is a potent combination.
  7. Koe Premium Silicone Utensils* – The flat-headed spoon you see here is part of a set (this one is my favorite of five) of high quality silicone tools. It’s a vast step up from the nylon cookware sets so often for sale at department stores and would make a very nice gift for a beginning cook.
  8. Mastrad Silicone Spoon Spatula – If I was forced to pick just one utensil to use for the rest of my days, this would be it. It is flexible yet sturdy. Easy to clean (and dishwasher safe). And the unibody means that you never develop mold under the head. I have at least four in my utensil jar at all times.
  9. Utility/Petty Knife – Nine times out of ten, when I have a quick prep job to do, I reach for a utility knife rather than a smaller paring knife. It’s the perfect marriage of maneuverability and durability. If you’re ready to splurge, the one from New West KnifeWorks* is gorgeous and keeps its edge for ages. On the low (but still excellent) end is the OXO 6 Inch Utility Knife.

And now, for the fine print. Most of the links above are affiliate ones, meaning that I earn a few pennies if you happen to use the above link to make a purchase. Anything marked with an asterisk initially came into my life as a review sample. Everything here is worthy of your time and money.

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The Best, Cheapest Cloth Napkins

mug on napkin

When I was a kid, we used paper napkins for everyday meals. I don’t think anyone really thought about it too much beyond the fact that they made for easy clean-up, but I grew up thinking that cloth napkins were reserved solely for holiday meals and restaurant dining.

As I got older, I started being a little bit more concerned about the number of disposable products I was using and switching to cloth napkins seemed like any easy place to start. The only issue was that true, readymade cloth napkins were kind of expensive, particularly if you were building a supply from scratch on the very low salary from your first job like I was (and at that point, I did not have the sewing awareness necessary to make my own).

basket of napkins

For a long time, I made due with a short stack of cloth napkins culled from clearance bins and thrift stores. But then, I discovered something that totally rocked my cloth napkin world. I found myself at a dollar store in need of inexpensive cleaning cloths. They didn’t have exactly what I wanted, but I picked up a package of their red shop rags, thinking I might be able to make due with them.

They didn’t work for my original project, but once I’d washed folded them, I realized that they looked for all the world like a pile of cloth napkins. I tucked them into a basket, put them on our dining room table and we haven’t looked back (we’re on our second set. It took more than four years of daily use to wear out the first batch).

I am now convinced that for everyday use, there is nothing better than a pile of shop rag napkins. They are cheap (typically no more than $10 for a package of 25), made of cotton, and are nearly indestructible. Both my sister and Alana use them in their households and have told me how great they are for family dinners (in Raina’s house, they’re also used for wiping tiny noses and mopping up spills).

plate with napkin

There are just a couple tricks you should know before you turn to shop rags for your own napkin needs. First is that they need a good wash before you start using them. Skip the fabric softener, as it makes them less absorbent and add a little white vinegar to the cycle. I also find that it’s best that you wash them with similar colors the first time out, because they do tend to run a little the first time.

After you’ve used them for a while, they may eventually start to smell of rancid grease (this happens with most cloth napkins). If this occurs, heap them in your biggest stock pot (or canning pot!), fill it up with water and add a small amount of dish soap (not laundry soap). Boil them for 15-20 minutes, drain them, and wash and dry as normal. They’ll be good as new.

I realize this post might seem out of the ordinary for a blog that deals mostly with canning and preserving, but the way I see it, inexpensive cloth napkins are a natural extension of the ethos that would lead someone to start canning in the first place. And it’s such a good tip, I had to share.

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Sur La Table Stainless Steel Tri-Ply on Sale

sur la table stock pot

Whenever I teach canning classes, someone asks me to recommend a good jam pan. Here’s what I tell them. Every jam maker has their own favorite piece of cookware, so there’s never going to be a single, one-size-fits-all pan for me to name. Some people prefer copper confiture pans. Others like enameled cast iron. And yet, other folks like stainless steel.

I use all three materials, and choose depending on the size of the batch and which pan is clean and readily accessible. However, my default is stainless steel. The reasons for that are practical ones. Because stainless steel isn’t a reactive metal, I can combine my fruit and sugar in the pan directly (with copper, you have to dissolve the sugar into the fruit prior to putting it in the pan, otherwise you can wind up with some metallic flavor leaching).

The second reason is that if I get distracted and accidentally burn my preserve (it happens to the best of us), I can almost always scrub and soak the burnt spot off the bottom of the pan. I’ve learned the hard (painful, in fact) way that it’s much more challenging to recover from a burn on an enameled cast iron pan.

Once I get through those basics, I then name two pots that make really good jam pans. The reasons I like these two are that they are both stainless steel, hold eight quarts and are relatively low and wide (the more surface area, the better your jam will cook).

sur la table mark

The high end pot I recommend is the All-Clad Tri-Ply 8 Quart Stainless Steel Stockpot. It’s a great pot but constitutes a serious investment of funds. Depending on where you buy it and what grade you get, you’ll pay between $230 and $600.

On the more affordable end is the Sur La Table-brand Tri-Ply Stainless Steel 8 Quart Stock Pot (it also comes with a strainer insert that I use mostly for steaming). It’s not quite as low and wide as the All-Clad pot, but it is far more affordable and still does a really good job.

And here we get to the reason I’m writing this post. Currently, Sur La Table is having their Once a Year Sale and their tri-ply cookware is heavily discounted. Normally, this pot goes for $169.95. Currently, it is on sale for $101.96. That is a great price for a heavy, durable, workhorse pot. It can even double as a Dutch oven, so you can use it for no-knead bread and any other thing you might want to braise low and slow.

So, if you’re in the market for an affordable, really awesome stainless steel pot, consider yourself duly informed that this is a screaming deal on that very item.

Disclosure: Sur La Table did not ask me to write this post and I am receiving nothing for having done so. I wrote it as a service, because I always appreciate it when people clue me in to useful things at a good price.  

One more thing: The reason that there is such a price differential is that All-Clad is made in the U.S. and the Sur La Table pots are made in China. Global dynamics at work! 

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Stocking Stuffers for Canners and Jar Lovers

piles of lids

I realize that it’s getting down to the wire for these gift guides, but I’ve been meaning to pull together a list of jar toppers, accessories, cozies, and other pieces of jar related gear and this seems like an opportune time to do it. Of course you can order these online (and links are provided), but if you need these by December 25, check out your local co-op markets and kitchen stores.

iLids and BNTOS

Lids, Adaptors, and Drink Toppers

  1. Cuppow & BNTO – One of the first makers of mason jar add-ons, they make the classic Cuppow drink lid and the BNTO jar adaptor. Simple and useful.
  2. EcoJarz – They make stainless steel and silicone drink toppers, as well as a lid with a larger hold that can be sealed with a silicone pop-top.
  3. iLids – They make drink lids and storage lids. Their drink lids are a single piece that screw on to the jars, which is a departure from the Cuppow and EcoJarz designs.
  4. Tulid – These leakproof lids have an internal silicone seal that can be removed for cleaning. If you have someone in your life who often takes leftovers to work in pint jars, these lids would significantly improve their quality of life.
  5. Blossom uCaps – These one-piece silicone lids snap onto regular and wide mouth jars. They come three flavors: a flower frog, a sipping cap, and a storage lid.
  6. reCAP – They make leakproof pour lids (so good for stuff like maple syrup and teriyaki sauce), as well as a spray bottle lid and a pump dispenser that fit mason jars. They’ll also be bringing their Flip Cap to market sometime next year.
  7. Nuby Silicone Sippy Cup – Transform regular mouth jars into sippy cups. I gave one of these to my sister and she uses it all the time for my nephew.
  8. Mason Tap – This lid attaches to a regular mouth jar with a conventional lid and allows you to dispense syrups, sesame seeds, and other messy or drippy things.
  9. The Mason Bar Company – They make flat plastic lids for straws and jar cuffs made from either leather or vinyl.
  10. Classic Flower Frog – I picked one of these up at a junk store many years ago, but you can get reproductions easily enough.
  11. Sprouting Lid – Make your own sprouts in a wide mouth mason!

camano coffee grinder

Appliances and Tools

  1. Progressive International – They have a Mason Jar series of tools that are packaged on shatterproof jars, but will also fit wide mouth canning jars. There’s a dressing emulsifier, a nut chopper, and a citrus juicer.
  2. EcoJarz – In addition to their line of drink toppers, EcoJarz also makes a bunch of tools that fit in or onto a jar. They’ve got a grater/slicer pair, a shaker whisk ball, and the DOSE pour over coffee system.
  3. Mason Shaker – Turn your regular mouth mason into a cocktail shaker.
  4. Mason Jar Coffee Grinder – If you’re seriously coffee dependent, it’s not the quickest road to caffeine, but the form factor is highly appealing.
  5. Kraut Source – They’re still working to fulfill their Kickstarter incentives, but you can enter your email address on their website to get an email when this mason jar fermentation press will be available for general purchase.
  6. Pour Mason – A pour over funnel that fits onto wide mouth mason jars.
  7. Fermentools – Fermenting air locks and glass weights designed to fit wide mouth masons.
  8. Ball Canning Spice Shakers – Ball has started making a bunch of jar add-ons in recent years, but for my money, these spice shakers are some of the most useful.

mason-ry koozie

Cozies

  1. Koverz – Neoprene sleeves for 12 and 24 ounce jars. Keep your iced coffee cool!
  2. Holdster – Slick leather sleeves for wide mouth pints. Perfect for the hipster coffee lover in your life.
  3. Eco Sleeve Silicone Sleeve – These were originally designed to work with disposable drink cups, but fit mason jars nicely. They’ve been discontinued, but The Pint & a Half shop has all the remaining inventory, if you like the form factor.
  4. Mason-re Silicone Koozie – A molded silicone sleeve for the modern wide mouth pint jar (they don’t fit the older, squatter wide mouths). Right now, only the black sleeve is in stock, but I hear they’ll have more soon (with and without the embossed logo).
  5. Jar-Z – Similar to beer/soda can koozies, but designed to fit mason jars.

basket of lids
Other Stuff

  1. Taper hooks – Turn your regular mouth quarts into lanterns.
  2. Chicken Waterer – An oldie, but a goodie.
  3. Solar Powered Lights – The fit on top of your jars and help you light up the night.

Which one would you like to see in your stocking this year?

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