One of the most frustrating things about modern home canning has not been the recipes, techniques, or even equipment, but the country-kitsch jars and lids that have traditionally been the only things widely available.
While it might seem like a trivial detail, it was always so bothersome to make something as elegant as Christine Ferber’s Pierre Hermé–inspired raspberry and litchi with rose water preserves, then store them in jars that looked like they came out of Paula Deen’s pantry. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with quilted jars or fruit basket–printed lids, nor frosted hair and blue eye shadow, it’s just a matter of personal taste. And they’re not to mine.
Home-canning jars are commonly referred to as Ball or Mason jars. Historically, pickles and preserves were stored in containers sealed using a variety of methods, including animal skins, cork stoppers, and wax. Then in 1858, an American tinsmith and inventor, John L. Mason, developed a machine that could cut threads into metal lids, which when paired with jars with threaded mouths created an easy, reusable home-canning system. A number of companies manufactured Mason jars, including the best-known, Ball. The Ball Corporation is still around, but hasn’t made any home-canning products since 1993, when it spun off that part of the business to Jarden Home Brands. But even the newest home-canning jars are made with the names “Ball” and “Mason” molded into the glass.
So-called antique fruit jars (they did hold vegetables, too) are highly collectible, and range from huge utilitarian farmhouse models to jewel-toned glassware that once graced the tables of city folk. But for the most part, the common home-canning jar’s appearance has remained the same, recalling its most basic function rather than concern for form.
With chefs’ focus today on handcrafted products has come the desire to preserve that delicious fragile food and transform it with aging much like one does with fine wines. Paul Virant, recently named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, features his own pickled cherries and leeks with house-cured and cold-smoked duck breast (among other preserves) at his Chicago-area restaurant, Vie.
And now some new jar designs carrying the Ball name are worthy of such culinary bounty and beauty. These modern products might also entice novices to try their hand at an old-fashioned pastime.
The new Collection Elite Ball jars would look right at home on the granite countertops of the most minimalist Euro kitchen. Their lids are platinum-colored rather than brass, and they are plain—no fruit basket clip art. The wide-mouthed jars come in two sizes: The smaller 8-ounce is very low and squat, only 2 inches high. It looks like it could just as well hold a luxurious body cream. The larger 16-ounce jar is twice as high. Both are square-shaped with gently rounded corners.
The jars and lids seal smoothly, and are more easy to grip with their flat sides than the classic round models were, even when they’re filled with food or you’re taking them in and out of a hot water bath during the sterilization process for home canning.
The lids and bands—or lids alone—are sold separately. The jars can also be topped with red gingham lids and bands if you’re feeling a little bit country. We wish they’d commission a limited-edition Todd Oldham print.
The main purpose of home canning back in the day was to preserve food before refrigeration. Ironically, these new 8-ounce Ball plastic jars are designed to allow newbies to make jam that’s “preserved” by way of their fridge and freezer. The jars are actually just plastic containers, like Tupperware, but jar-shaped, with a plastic screw-on cap. You don’t use them to make jam the real way: by first sterilizing lids, utensils, and jars, then putting your fruit, pectin (a natural thickener), and sugar mixture in. They’re not hot water (or even microwave) safe. Instead, they’re designed for you to add your fruit, pectin, and sugar to make jam, then stick in the freezer.
It might seem like kind of a dumb idea, but the immediacy of making jam this way is fun. And the fact that it’s a Ball jar (albeit in a plastic version) gives it a bit more legitimacy. The jars are marked with a fill line, so novices remember to leave the all-important headspace, which allows room for the contents to expand in the freezer. They’re stain resistant, washing clean and clear of even tomato sauce (but you can preserve tomato sauce too), plus they’re top-rack dishwasher safe.
The jars stack and lock together for storage. However, the lids are difficult to twist on and off. The grooves don’t align well with those on the jar, requiring multiple attempts to twist on. Once on, they’re still slightly askew but in fact are tightly sealed.