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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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Gift Guide: Gear for the Small Batch Canner

small batch canning gift guide

In the last week or so, I’ve gotten half a dozen individual requests from people, asking me to tell them what they should buy for someone who wants to start canning in small batches.

Working under the assumption that a list of essentials might be useful to lots of people, I spent a little time this morning rummaging through my kitchen, pulling out my favorite pieces of equipment. These are the things I use regularly, and replace immediately when they break or are lost (things get left behind when you do as many traveling demos as I do).

Starting from the left and then moving clockwise…

  • A basic microplane zester. I prefer this model to the one with a handle, because it has a slightly larger grating area and can be set across the top of a bowl or pan. I use this at least once during every canning project for citrus zest, fresh ginger, nutmeg, or garlic.
  • A stainless steel wide mouth funnel. It’s sturdy, dishwasher safe, and will never melt if left too close to a hot burner.
  • An instant read digital thermometer. I like this ThermoPop, because it’s works quickly and is reliable, but is a more affordable option when compared to other ThermoWorks products.
  • A canning rack, like this Blossom Trivet. My love of this trivet is well documented.
  • Paring knife! On the high end, I like this one from Wusthof. A more affordable but excellent option is this OXO one.
  • A good jar lifter is vital. I find that for this tool, basic is best.
  • Vegetable peeler. These generally make good stocking stuffers, because most people don’t think to replace them, but are always happy to have a new, sharp peeler.
  • I use my potato masher all the time when making jams, fruit butters, and pizza sauce. I’ve used a number over the years, and think that this one from OXO is among the very best.
  • Silicone spatula. Flexible and fully encased in silicone is the way to go. This one from Mastrad is the best and most affordable I’ve found and I like it so much that I own half a dozen (so that I never have to fish a dirty one out of the dishwasher).

small batch canning pots

My canning pot list is a bit simpler. For really small batches, I use a 12 cup 4th Burner Pot. You can stack two wide mouth half pints or three wide mouth half pint Collection Elite jars in it. It’s also great for heating pickle brine, warming stock for risotto, hard boiling eggs (stack ‘em right in the basket), or making a few servings of mulled wine.

To process larger batches, I use a 12 quart stock pot. Most of the time, I reach for this one from Cuisinart. It’s light weight, durable, and can hold up to seven pint jars. However, it’s not the best for processing quart jars. If you think your gift recipient will be doing a lot of quarts, this Le Creuset 12 quart stock pot is a good choice. It’s a bit pricier than the Cuisinart, but is a little taller and skinnier, which means it holds four quart jars with ease.

preserving pots and pans

When it comes to giving a pan for jam making, I suggest you do a little gentle investigation before plunking down money on a spendy piece of cookware (this goes for the canning pots I mentioned above, as well. Many people already have a stock pot that can serve as a canning pot in their kitchen). However, if you know the state of your intended recipient’s kitchen, you want to get them a piece of cookware made from either stainless steel or enameled cast iron.

Any time you’re working with foods that contain high amounts of acid (and all preserves destined for preservation in a boiling water bath will be high in acid), you want to a pan made from non-reactive materials. That’s because the acid present in the food can leach a metallic flavor from reactive metals and spoil your preserves. Non-reactive cookware won’t do that.

Additionally, I don’t suggest non-stick cookware for preserving. If you read the instructions that come with non-stick pans, you’ll find that they recommend that you never use that style of cookware with high heat. When you make jams, jellies, and chutneys, you will be cooking at high heat in order to reach the desired consistency.

Here are the small batch pans I reach for most…

  • A Le Creuset 11 3/4 inch skillet. This is a heavy, expensive pan. I got mine at the Le Creuset outlet in Lancaster County, which made it far more affordable than the ones online. You can also often find these at Marshall’s, HomeGoods, and other discount home stores.
  • A stainless steel, 12 inch skillet. The one I have and use all the time is this tri-ply Tramontina model. However, according to Cook’s Illustrated, they have changed the styling of that skillet and it’s not as functional as it once was. All-Clad makes a nearly identical pan that works beautifully, but it is expensive. A more affordable option (recommended by Cook’s Illustrated) is this Emeril by All-Clad pan.
  • A large, straight-sided saute pan. I have this All-Clad one, but again, it’s not a cheap pan. I got it at Cookware & More, which made it a little less expensive. Of course, because they’re an outlet store, their stock will vary.

Here are my favorites for bigger batches…

  • A 5 1/2 quart Dutch oven. I have an orange Le Creuset one that I adore, but once again, it’s not cheap. If it’s out of your budget, get yourself to a West Elm. They have a 5 1/2 quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven and the black one is on sale for $49.99. I bought one recently and have used it a lot. It’s a solid piece of cookware (and I mean solid, that sucker is heavy!).
  • A low, wide 8 quart pan. Of all the pieces of cookware in my kitchen, this may be the one I reach for the most. I have an All-Clad model that I got at the outlet and it’s a workhorse (though I got the Masterchef model, which I would not recommend. It’s got a brushed aluminum exterior that discolors in the dishwasher). A more affordable option is this one from Sur La Table. I have that one in my class kit and it’s been a really durable piece of cookware.

Food in Jars and Preserving by the Pint

Finally, what small batch canning kit is completely without a cookbook or two to guide the way? If you’re interested in getting a personalized copy of either book, drop me a note and we can make arrangements!

Oh, and please do know that this post is studded with affiliate links. I make a few cents when you make a purchase using one of those links. Just wanted to make sure you knew!

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A Handy Way to Store Your Canning Rings and Lids

bag of canning gear

Here in Portland, it is raspberry season. I couldn’t resist picking up a half flat of gorgeous berries on Saturday at the Beaverton Farmers Market. When I got home, I asked my mom to pull out her canning stuff so that I could make a quick batch of jam. She ducked into the garage and came back in with her shiny stainless steel stock pot and a plastic comforter bag filled with canning jar rings (as well as couple boxes of new lids).

canning rings close up

Using a stock pot and blossom trivet as a canning pot is a trick I taught her, but using an old blanket or comforter bag to corral canning gear was entirely new to me and I was stunned by the simple brilliance of it. At home, I use a pair of two gallon zip top bags to keep my rings in check. However, they’ve always been an imperfect solution because the zippers eventually fail and they’re just not quite big enough. The comforter bag has a real zipper, the plastic is sturdier, it holds a ton, and it does a good job of keeping the dust and dirt out.

If you have one of these bags floating around your house, consider doing like my mom and using it to store your gear.

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MightyNest, 4th Burner Pots, & a Preserving by the Pint Giveaway

4th burner pot

Back in April, I teamed up with my friends at MightyNest for a canning party at a fabulous cooking school in Evanston called Now We’re Cookin’. I made a batch of my honey-sweetened strawberry jam for the gathered audience and signed a bunch of books. MightyNest held on to a small cache of those signed books and is currently giving one away (along with six pretty tulip-shaped Weck jars and a sturdy bamboo cutting board). The giveaway ends today (all this travel has me off my blogging game) and so if you want to enter, please head over to this blog post right now!

Another thing came out of that night in Evanston. The MightyNest team was so taken with my 4th burner pot (I tucked it into my checked luggage and brought it with me on that trip) that they’ve added them to their product line. This is my favorite piece of cookware for small batch canning. I use it as a canning pot. I heat up my pickling liquid in it. I use it as a tea kettle when canning tomatoes and other water packed vegetables. It’s versatile, it’s sturdy, and it only costs $40.

Updated to add: The MightyNest folks just sent me the code for the widget, so you can now enter the giveaway right here!

*Just so you know, MightyNest is a Food in Jars sponsor. However, I loved their products and their team long before they started sending a few bucks my way to help support this site. They are good people.

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