“See this rust?” asked a county-fair judge of a young 4-Her, pointing at a little spot inside the band the judge had just removed from the child’s jam jar. “This can keep your lid from sealing.”
I’d never known even the rustiest band to keep a mason jar lid from sealing, and I was startled to learn that a fair judge might withhold a blue ribbon because of a tiny spot of rust on the inside of a band. But I do think that rusty bands are ugly. If you want to make a good impression when you display or sell or give away your preserves, you’ve got to use brand-new bands.
But why must the bands go rusty by the second or third use? After one of my readers and I recently shared our annoyance at this, he started googling. To our mutual delight, he discovered a source for stainless-steel mason jar bands.
Maggie and Ryan Helseth, owners of Mason Jar Lifestyle, say that their rings are stain-resistant, not stain-proof; they may start to rust if they’re left soaking in water for days. But they won’t rust with normal use, including passes through at dishwasher. I’ve tested some of the stainless bands by using them in a boiling-water bath and by immersing them in water for a full day. So far they show no sign of rust.
As you might expect, the stainless-steel bands cost more than regular ones: You get five narrow-mouth stainless bands for $11.99 or five wide-mouth bands for $13.99. Because of their higher cost, and because the stainless-steel bands are identical in appearance and weight to regular bands, you’ll want to take care to keep the two types separate, so you don’t give away the good bands accidentally. If you do mix up your bands, though, you can tell the stainless from the soon-to-be-stained with the help of a magnet. The stainless bands, unlike the others, are not magnetic.
Maggie and Ryan sent me some of their other products to try. I am much taken with their silicone lid liners and sealing rings. Made of material that is stable and nonreactive—that won’t leach chemicals and won’t be damaged in a dishwasher—the liners can be used under plastic mason-jar caps or two-piece lids to keep food from touching metal or plastic and to keep plastic caps from leaking, a problem especially during transport to potlucks and picnics. Though flexible, the liners are sturdy enough, at 2.2 millimeters thick, that you can use them with rings alone. The sealing rings, like the lid liners, can be used with plastic Ball caps to prevent leakage and to provide an airtight seal—not for canning, of course, but for storage of unpasteurized foods in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry. Ten silicone lid liners cost $13.99 in narrow-mouth size and $14.99 in wide-mouth. Ten silicone sealing rings cost $6.99 in narrow-mouth size and $8.99 in wide-mouth.
Maggie and Ryan also sell stainless-steel mason-jar caps, which come with their own removable silicone sealing rings (since the rings are removable they are also replaceable, although I don’t imagine they wear out fast). Without logos or other decoration, these lids are plainly attractive, especially if you dislike plastic. Like plastic mason-jar caps, the metal ones are not intended for canning. Five stainless caps with silicone sealing rings cost $16.99 for in narrow-mouth size, $18.99 in wide-mouth.
Self-described “mason jar geeks,” Maggie and Ryan have other products, too, such as a stainless lid with a hole for inserting a drinking straw. See all their stuff at masonjarlifestyle.com.
Update: August 24, 2016 A few of Maggie and Ryan’s customers have complained that the stainless-steel bands have come off in during processing, usually in a pressure canner, Ryan tells me. Because stainless steel is harder than tin, the threads on the Mason Jar Lifestyle bands are less well defined than those on ordinary mason-jar bands. Ryan is working with the factory to fix this problem. If you plan to use the stainless-steel bands for canning, I suggest waiting at least a few weeks before ordering them.
I’m sorry I’ve been silent so long; the past couple of months have been especially busy for me I’ll try catch up here by taking on several small topics at once.
SORBET MIX FOR THE PANTRY
After dance class last Friday night Greg had a hankering for ice cream, so he and his wife, Wendy, and I sat on plastic chairs outside Baskin-Robbins licking our cones, gazing at Albany’s ugliest intersection—treeless parking lots on all corners, backed by buildings that look like giant shoe boxes—and pondering why we don’t make our own ice cream more often. Ice cream is for birthdays, I said, and it’s always after I’ve made the cake and cooked the dinner that I realize I’ve failed to search out cream, and I must have the real thing, which is darn hard to find in our area if you don’t keep your own cow. But sorbet is better than ice cream, anyway, Wendy reminded me, and where was that raspberry sorbet recipe I’d promised her three years ago? It’s simple, I said—raspberry purée and sugar, that’s all you need. Like me, Wendy and Greg always have raspberries in the freezers. Yes, that’s plural, freezers. I have so much fruit in my freezers that there is little room for anything else. Then I had an idea: What if we made up a sorbet mix in advance, and stored it on a pantry shelf? Probably we would all eat sorbet more often, and stay away from this ugly intersection.
So Wendy vowed to make some raspberry sorbet, and I made plans for my next picking of Triple Crown blackberries, for which I use the same basic recipe. Here it is in the pantry version, which I developed just yesterday:
Press the fresh berries through the fine screen of a food mill.
7 cups blackberry or raspberry purée, from about 4½ pounds fresh berries 2 tablespoons lemon juice (optional, and only for lower-acid fruit such as my Triple Crowns) 3 cups sugar
Combine the berry purée, the lemon juice (if you’re using it), and the sugar in a large pot, and stir. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Boil the mixture gently for 1 minute—no longer, or you may turn it into jam.
Pour the purée into two quart jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. If you come up a bit short, top off the jars with boiling water. Then add lids and rings. Process the jars fin a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.
A day before freezing your sorbet, put one of the jars into the fridge to chill. Freeze the sorbet according to the directions that came with your device.
Makes 2 quarts
NEW RULE FOR HANDLING JAR LIDS
Jarden, the company that owns Ball and Kerr, has informed Oregon State University Extension that it’s no longer necessary to soak Ball and Kerr mason-jar lids in hot water before using them. Instead, just wash each lid before placing it on a jar and screwing on the ring.
ESSENTIAL FOR FOOD-LOVING OREGONIANS
September 1 is the coming-out party for the second edition of Liz Crain’s foodie handbook, Food Lover’s Guide to Portland. A helpful guide for Portland residents, Liz’s book is an essential resource for those of us who visit the city only occasionally and so struggle to keep up with all the changes in the local food biz. Liz lists the many farmers’ markets and CSAs (“community-supported agriculture”—i.e., subscription food boxes), tells where the food carts congregate, and covers ethnic groceries (from Caribbean to Korean to Russian), cured-meat and halal meat markets, bakeries, cooking schools, breweries, wine shops, fish shops, and chocolate shops (13 of them!). She also describes stores that sell supplies for cooking and preserving, such as Mirador, where I send people for pickling crocks and the like. Food Lover’s Guide to Portland, 2nd edition, is available for pre-order from Powell’s Books and from Amazon.
While minding the local public library one Saturday afternoon, I read a book on dealing with deer. I’d already tried some of the author’s ideas; for example, I regular spray rotten egg around the garden. (Beat four eggs, add a quart of water, cover tightly with cloth, and let ferment for several days in a warm place far from the house.) But I’m reluctant to spray this stuff on vegetables and fruits that people will be eating soon. I was looking for new ideas.
I puzzled over the suggestion to pin “dryer sheets” around the garden. Dryer sheets? Then I remembered: Dryer sheets are the little squares of nonwoven petroleum-based fabric (interfacing, we called it, in the days when girls and women sewed all their own clothes) that are treated with fabric softener and chemical perfume and sold in the cleaning aisles of supermarkets. Labeled according to scent–“ocean breeze,” “forest glen,” etc.—they burn my eyes and nose and smell uniformly sickening to me. God only knows what they do to the produce in the adjacent aisle. But my thoughts were only about Bambi, who was already making nightly raids on my tomato patch, picking fruits that weren’t even full grown yet, much less ripe, and taking one smile-shaped bite out of each. I went to a supermarket and sniffed up and down and shelves of dryer sheets—coughing, eyes watering—until I found the stinkiest packet.
No wonder I couldn’t walk down the cleaning aisle of a supermarket without holding my nose, I thought when I got home. The dryer sheets were enclosed in a thin cardboard box and nothing more, no plastic bag or plastic lining. This is legal, in a food store? And now I would use these toxin-laden squares to pollute the air in my own vegetable garden? Yes, I was that desperate. I put one clothespin on my nose and used all the rest from the clothesline to pin the dryer sheets to bamboo tomato teepees and bamboo poles set along the bean rows.
And the dryer sheets did the job, in part. The tomato raids stopped, for several days. But meanwhile Bambi devoured all the bean plants not directly under dryer sheets. I recalled the mystifying rows of little white flags, about a foot tall and a foot apart, that I’d seen in a neighbor’s garden. My neighbor was ahead of me: Those little white flags were protecting rows of bush beans. I bought more dryer sheets—a different brand, with a supposedly different but apparently identical scent, and again packed loose in a thin cardboard box—and planted rows of little white flags, hoping that they wouldn’t give Bambi the wrong idea. I was not giving up!
Placed low and close, the dryer sheets kept the deer off the beans, but in the meantime Bambi was biting smiles into the tomatoes again. I sniffed a dryer sheet from the first packet. The smell was gone. As strong as they had stunk at first, the chemicals had lost their sting.
Now, should I replace the old dryer sheets with new ones? Would I have to do this once a week? What a sad waste that would be. Besides, I have a big batch of rotten egg in the barn, smelling up the entire building. What if I dip the dry sheets in the egg and then pin them on the bamboo? So that’s my next garden chore. Again, I’ll reserve one clothespin for my nose.
After discovering green garbanzo beans at a supermarket in Salem, I had to try growing my own. A friend had given me some seeds of Hannan Popbean, a brown- to black-seeded chickpea selected by Carol Deppe, a Corvallis plant breeder. Carol calls this bean a popbean not because the pods make a popping noise as you press them open—all chickpeas do this, apparently—but because she pops the dried seeds like corn, by parching them in a hot, dry pan until they swell and break open.
Although Carol grows her popbeans in spring, without irrigation, I planted mine in late May, along with soybeans, runner beans, long beans, and regular bush beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). A couple of weeks after the initial planting I had to fill big gaps in the other bean rows, but to my surprise every one of the garbanzos germinated. I was surprised again by the foliage, which looks much like vetch and nothing like other bean leaves. The third surprise from my chickpea row was the best one: Deer don’t eat these plants. I learned why they don’t when I ate my first green garbanzo, just two months after planting, and tasted something sharply sour on my fingers. I touched my tongue to a bean pod and understood: The plant defends itself from grazing by seasoning its pods and foliage with malic and oxalic acids. Brilliant!
So, forget my fears about all the special requirements for growing chickpeas. I don’t have a long growing season. I don’t have sandy soil. I didn’t add nitrogen-fixing bacteria to the soil. But I didn’t need any of these things. Garbanzos seem to be an excellent crop for my garden. They are certainly easier to grow than edamame.
TERRA MADRE AND SALONE DEL GUSTO
I’m happy to announce that Slow Food USA has chosen me as a delegate at Terra Madre, the biennial international food fair and Slow Food conference in Torino, Italy. If any readers of this blog will be at Terra Madre or in or near Torino for any other reason in late October, I would love to meet you.
As many readers of this blog already know, I almost never use packaged pectin. After writing a whole book about old-fashioned fruit preserves, made as they were before packaged pectin was invented, I’ve felt no need for Sure-Jell or MCP or any such stuff. But recently Nadia Hassani, who wrote about her own experiment with pectins in her blog “Spoonfuls of Germany,” told me how much she liked Dr. Oetker’s Gelfix, a pectin mix from her native Germany, and offered to send me some. Gelfix seems to be sold all over Europe, but in the United States it can only be ordered through the Internet. I said I’d try it.
I decided to compare the Gelfix with a new product from Ball, a pectin mix that comes in a small plastic jar instead of a box, with flexible instructions that allow you to vary both the batch size and the sugar content. And then I saw a box of Pomona pectin at Nichols Garden Nursery and decided to include it in the test, too. Available mainly from special sources like Nichols and food co-ops (though some supermarkets are beginning to carry it), Pomona also offers flexible recipes, which allow the use of little sugar or even none at all.
I pulled bags and bags of frozen raspberries out of the freezer. I was accustomed to making raspberry jam with nothing but sugar and a little lemon juice added. My raspberry jam took a few minutes of boiling to set, but it always set to a pleasant, soft gel, and never turned out stiff or sticky or syrupy. How would I like raspberry jam made with these specialty pectins?
I started by examining the packages.
Gelfix. Nadia had sent me Gelfix Extra, which requires only one part sugar for two parts fruit, by weight. Dr. Oetker also makes Gelfix Classic, which requires one part sugar for one part fruit, and Gelfix Super, which call for only one part sugar for three parts fruit. Nadia finds jam made with Gelfix Classic too sweet. Gelfix Super contains fructose—to boost the sweetness of the jam, apparently, while keeping the calories low. (In case your jam doesn’t set, Dr. Oetker sells packets of citric acid, too. Lemon juice works as well.)
Gelfix pectins are made from both apple pomace and citrus peels. The Classic and Extra versions contain dextrose, a form of sugar that’s included in Sure-Jell and Ball pectins as well and that’s replaced by the fructose in Gelfix Super. Gelfix Extra and Gelfix Super contain sorbic acid, a preservative, apparently to retard the fermentation and mold growth to which low-sugar jams are prone. All three Gelfix versions contain citric acid, which takes the place of the lemon juice traditionally added to jam to aid in gelling. All three also contain hydrogenated vegetable oil, which I imagine is meant to replace the traditional pat of butter that helps keep the jam pot from boiling over. The fat must be in a very small amount and somehow granulated, because the Gelfix pectin mixture is a powder, not a paste.
The Gelfix box contains two packets, each of which makes at least two and a half pints of jam. On the Internet I found prices for Gelfix ranging from $4.65 to $5.95 per box. At $5.00 per box, probably about the best you could do with shipping included, Gelfix would add about a dollar per pint to the cost of your jam.
Keep in mind that the Gelfix instructions are in German. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
Ball. I turned to the Ball product, called RealFruit [sic] Classic Pectin. Again that word classic. I began to understand that this is a code word for old-fashioned high-methoxyl pectin, the kind that requires a high sugar content for good gelling.1 Only two other ingredients are listed on the label, pectin (from citrus, apple, or both, the label doesn’t say) and citric acid. Ball’s Classic Pectin, in other words, has the same ingredients as Gelfix Classic except for the vegetable fat.
Had I chosen the wrong product for a fair comparison? I’d found a Ball pectin for low-sugar jams on the shelf at Bi-Mart, but on peeling back the label I’d learned that this Instant Pectin was intended only for freezer jam. Now I wondered if Ball made a pectin mix more like Gelfix Extra–a product Bi-Mart hadn’t stocked. A quick Internet search told me this was so. I should have bought Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin instead of the Classic Pectin.2
I couldn’t have known this without checking the Web. Here in Oregon, Ball’s new products, unlike the company’s mason jars and lids, are only slowly gaining acceptance in supermarkets and other stores. Ball’s Pickle Crisp is another product that none of the stores in my area have stocked. I’d never seen Ball pectin of any kind until I found it at Bi-Mart, a low-cost dry-goods store that caters to rural folk here in the Northwest. Now my raspberries were thawed and waiting. I decided to carry on my experiment with Ball’s Classic Pectin.
The instructions inside the Ball pectin label surprised me. There were two recipes, one for “Traditional Jam” and one for “Reduced Sugar Jam,” identical except for the amounts of sugar called for. Packages of old-fashioned high-methoxyl pectin are full of warnings: You must never alter the quantity of sugar, or your jam will fail! The Ball pectin, I figured, must be all or partially amidated, or subjected to a treatment with ammonia that makes high-methoxyl pectin behave more like low-methoxyl pectin, the kind that requires little or no sugar but gels in reaction with calcium. Normally, low-methoxyl pectins require added calcium for making jam. Amidated pectins do not; they are much less fussy about calcium levels. Jams and jellies made with amidated pectins are unusual, too, in that they will regel after you melt them. The Ball pectin isn’t so old-fashioned after all.
Ball’s “Traditional” recipe calls for 1 2/3 cups sugar to 1 1/3 cups chopped or mashed fruit. A weight measurement would be more precise, and also more useful for comparison with the Gelfix proportions. But the old saw “A pint is a pound the whole world round” proves more or less accurate for both mashed raspberries and granulated sugar. So the recipe calls for at least as much sugar as fruit, by weight. Truly traditional jam making, without packaged pectin, typically calls for three parts sugar to every four parts fruit, by weight, though you’d use less sugar with low-pectin fruits and more with high-pectin, high-acid fruits. Ball’s recipe is typical not for no-pectin-added jams but for jams made from high-methoxyl pectins, the only kind sold before the 1980s.
Ball’s “Reduced Sugar” recipe calls for much less sugar, only 1 cup for 1 1/3 cups chopped or mashed fruit. This is more in line with traditional jams. Still, I balked at the either-or choice. The label seemed to be telling me that the pectin could make good jam with a standard amount of sugar or a very high amount of sugar, but not with some amount in between. Why couldn’t there be a single recipe with the sugar amount specified as a range? Most likely, I figured, the marketing people at Ball think consumers can’t handle choices that aren’t black and white.
But the Ball instructions offer cooks another, more flexible choice: that of batch size. Here’s another command you may remember from boxes of high-methoxyl pectin: Never alter the batch size! If you don’t have quite enough berries, go pick some more! If you have too many, leave them out!
Actually, traditional jam makers have to be careful about batch size, too. If your batch is too big for your pot, for one thing, your jam will boil over. For another thing, evaporation is part of the process of reaching the gel point. A bigger batch has proportionately less surface area and so will gel more slowly. Also, natural pectin reacts best when both heating and cooling are rapid.
The Ball label invites multiplying the recipes but warns against exceeding ten jars per batch. You have to do a little figuring to understand out what this means: If the basic recipe makes two half-pints, the ten jars referred to must be half-pint jars. So you can multiply the recipe by five, but no more.
The Ball jar contains enough pectin, according to the label, to make up to 22 half-pints. You’d fill fewer jars with less added sugar, but even with the reduced-sugar recipe you should be able to fill 18 half-pint jars. The 4.7-ounce pectin container costs about five dollars, so using the low-sugar recipe with Ball Classic Pectin would add about 27 cents per pint to the cost of your jam making. At least in the United States, the Ball product is considerably cheaper than the Gelfix product.
Pomona. The last brand in my study contains no added sugar at all.3 The list of ingredients on a box of Pomona’s Universal Pectin is brief and precise: “1 packet low methoxyl citrus pectin and 1 packet monocalcium phosphate.” Low-methoxyl pectins need calcium to form a gel, but they can gel with less sugar and less acid than can high-methoxyl pectins. So no citric acid is included in the Pomona package, and with higher-acid fruits adding lemon juice is optional.
The monocalcium phosphate, the Pomona instructions say, is to be combined with water. You mix ½ teaspoon of the powder with ½ cup water, and you store this “calcium water” in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months. Although the Pomona instructions call for adding calcium water to every kind of fruit, too much calcium can interfere with gelling. So the amount of calcium water called for varies from 2 to 4 teaspoons per four cups fruit or juice. You shake the jar just before you measure some out.
Inside the Pomona package are recipes for low-sugar jams and jellies, no-sugar-added jams, and uncooked freezer jams. My favorites are the all-purpose recipes for cooked jam and jelly sweetened with a little sugar (1/4 to ½ cup per 1 cup fruit) or honey (1/8 to 1/3 cup per 1 cup fruit). For jam, you use ½ to ¾ teaspoons pectin for 1 cup fruit; for jelly, you use a little more pectin, ¾ to 1 teaspoon per 1 cup fruit. Otherwise the two recipes are the same. You refine these basic recipes according to the amount of fruit you want to use and how sweet your jam or jelly to be. These recipes are much more flexible than Ball’s.
The price of a box of Pomona pectin varies from about four to six dollars per box. A box contains 8 to 9 teaspoons pectin. This makes four batches of berry jam, if you use 4 cups of prepared berries per batch. Depending on how much sugar you add, your output will be 18 to 20 half-pint jars of jam. At $5.00 per box, the pectin would add 25 to 28 cents to your costs per jar, about the same as for the Ball pectin.
Making the Jam
I had thawed enough berries to make four batches of jam with about 2 pounds of fruit per batch. I used Ball’s “Reduced Sugar” recipe (1 cup sugar per 1 1/3 cups prepared fruit) for the best comparison with the Gelfix recipe (1 pound sugar per 2 pounds fruit). With the Pomona pectin, I made two batches of jam, one with 1 cup sugar per 2 cups fruit, and another with ½ cup sugar per 2 cups fruit.
The process differed slightly among the brands. With Gelfix, you boil the fruit, sugar, and pectin together for 3 minutes before testing a drop of jam on a chilled dish. With Ball, you bring the fruit and pectin to a full boil, stir in the sugar, and boil hard for 1 minute. With Pomona, you stir the pectin into the sugar, bring the fruit and calcium water to a boil, add the pectin-sugar mix, and boil hard for 1 to 2 minutes. Since I like a softer set, I chose a 1-minute boiling time with the Pomona pectin.
In all cases, the boiling was brief enough to produce a pinkish rather than dark red jam. In all cases, too, the jam set up quickly. As soon as I would take the pot off the heat, the surface of the jam would wrinkle with any disturbance; this is a sure sign of gelling. With the Ball pectin, the jam was clumping as I filled the last jar.
Although the Gelfix instructions say nothing about boiling-water processing, which isn’t normally done in Europe, I processed all the jars the same way. I sterilized them first in the canner, and after filling and closing them I gave them a 5-minute boiling-water bath.
The Taste Test
While my son Ben and his wife were visiting, we held a blind jam tasting with warm biscuits. We had to work at identifying differences among the jams—except in the case of the very-low-sugar Pomona, which lacked the sheen of the others and tasted more tart. To me, this stuff looked and tasted like cooked puréed fruit, not jam, but my husband, Robert, actually preferred its fruitier, less sugary flavor. The other, sweeter Pomona jam was a bit softer than the rest, probably because I’d given it the minimal boiling time. The Gelfix jam, which turned out slightly softer than the Ball, was Robert’s favorite. Deanna preferred the Ball, and Ben was torn between the not-so-low-sugar Pomona and the Ball jam. Most interesting to me was this: No one could tell that the Ball jam had more sugar.
Gelfix works well if you can get it, if you can read or translate the German instructions, and if the price and the addition of vegetable fat don’t put you off.
Ball’s RealFruit Classic Pectin is cheaper than Gelfix but requires more sugar. If you want to make your jam with less sugar, look for Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin. Be sure you don’t buy Ball’s Instant Pectin by mistake; it’s intended only for freezer jam.
Pomona pectin costs no more than the Ball mix and is the clear choice among the three if you want to add pectin but not dextrose to your jam. Pomona also allows more flexibility in the amount of sugar you add to your jam than does either of the other products I tested. The necessity of adding calcium water is little bother. The only problem I see with Pomona is its limited availability. To encourage your local store to carry it, send your name and your store’s name and address to email@example.com.
One final suggestion: For truly traditional jam, try making it without added pectin. Use three parts sugar to four parts mashed raspberries, and add a squirt of juice from a fresh lemon. The process is simple and quick, and the result is delicious. For more information, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.
1. The main component of pectin is something called galacturonic acid. Molecules of this acid have groups of atoms called carboxyl groups. In nature, about 80 percent of these carboxyl groups are esterified with methane—in other words, turned to esters, groups of atoms that give fruits their fruity aromas. Methoxyl refers to a methane group, CH3, that is attached to a larger organic molecule through an oxygen atom. This arrangement is commonly described as R-O-CH3, with R representing the larger molecule. The linkage by way of an oxygen atom is also called an ester linkage.
When pectin is extracted, the proportion of esters decreases, to a varying degree. The ratio of esterified to non-esterified galacturonic acid determines the behavior of pectin in making jam and jelly. So pectins are classified as high-methoxyl (or HM, or high-ester) or low-methoxyl (or LM, or low-ester), depending on whether more or less than half of the galacturonic acid is esterified. As far as I know, Pomona is the only pectin packaged for home preservers that is identified on the package as low- or high-methoxyl.
2. Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin contains dextrose, pectin, citric acid, and calcium ascorbate. The last ingredient helps preserve color while presumably providing the calcium needed for low-methoxyl jams to gel.
3. When figuring how much sugar you’re adding to your jam, you must account for how much sugar is in your pectin package. Nadia had informed me that, for a given weight of fruit to be prepared, Sure-Jell is heavier than Gelfix. The weight is mainly in sugar, in the form of dextrose. I compared the Ball mix with the other two in this way: If 1 kilo fruit makes 6 cups “Reduced Sugar” jam with the Ball pectin, and the 133-gram jar contains enough pectin to make 18 cups of this jam, then we can figure that the Ball mix would add 44 grams per kilo of fruit, compared with 32 grams per kilo for Sure-Jell and 25 grams per kilo for Gelfix. These differences, to me, are minor. But I appreciate that Pomona leaves the addition of sugar entirely up to the jam maker.
I can see from the WordPress statistics on this blog that a lot of people are searching for information about bisphenol-A (BPA) in mason jar lids. Apparently word is getting around that Ball and Kerr lids are now BPA-free. The rumor is true: According to Jarden Home Brands, the manufacturer of both Ball and Kerr products, lids produced since last fall have no BPA. Starting this summer, boxes of the lids will be labeled “BPA-free.” Until then, you can find out whether lids in your cupboard or on the store shelf have BPA or not by checking this article in the blog “Diary of a Tomato.”
As you might expect, Jarden isn’t saying what chemical or chemicals have taken the place of BPA in the new lids. There are some fifteen other bisphenols, each of them labeled with a different letter or two. At least one, bisphenol-S (BPS), has been thought a safe substitute for BPA. A report published in Environmental Health Perspectives in March of this year found otherwise. BPS, the authors concluded, “disrupts membrane-initiated E2-induced cell signaling, leading to altered cell proliferation, cell death, and PRL release.” E2 is the estrogen estradiol. PRL is prolactin. In other words, BPS messes with your hormones.
Other bisphenols may be at least as dangerous. A report published in the same journal in 2011 concluded, “Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled—independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source—leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA [estrogenic activity], including those advertised as BPA free. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than did BPA-containing products.”
Until we have further evidence to the contrary, we can assume that plastic-coated jar lids contain dangerous chemicals, and we should limit contact between the lids and the food we put in jars. Though we can’t keep delivery people from turning packages of gift jars upside down, at home we can take care to keep our jars upright, in the pantry and in the refrigerator.
About a year and a half ago, home canners began to learn that the flat metal lids they use to seal their jars, like the metal cans that so much store-bought food comes in, were lined with a plastic coating containing bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical of questionable safety. Since then we’ve learned to limit our exposure to this endocrine disrupter by switching from polycarbonate to stainless-steel water bottles for grownups and from hard to soft plastic milk bottles for babies, and eleven U.S. states and even China have joined Europe and Canada in banning BPA from baby bottles. Those of us beyond babyhood, however, tend to take in BPA mainly through canned food. The linings of most cans haven’t changed.1 Nor have the linings of jar lids, for commercial use or for home canning.
Scientists and governments disagree about the magnitude of this problem, and even whether it’s a problem at all. Canada identifies BPA as a toxin; the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) believes BPA safe to use in can and lid linings; and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hopes that industry will find alternatives to BPA without governmental intervention.2 Because studies of the dangers of BPA have produced conflicting results, in November 2010 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) held a joint meeting of international experts to review the data on the health risks of BPA. In 2011 the background papers presented at that meeting were edited and posted to the WHO website along with a summary report. The conclusions were that BPA probably doesn’t cause cancer, induce genetic mutations, or, generally, accumulate in the body, but that it may possibly have harmful effects on metabolism, children’s (especially girls’) behavior, and sexual development and reproduction. More studies are needed, the scientists said.
And more studies are under way. In the meantime, many home canners wonder why Ball, Kerr, and their Canadian counterpart, Bernardin, don’t play it safe by changing the coatings of their jar lids immediately. One reason is that these three formerly independent companies are all brands now belonging to Jarden Corporation, which also happens to own FoodSaver, Crock-Pot, Mr. Coffee, Oster, Rival, Seal-a-Meal, and Sunbeam, to name a few of the businesses this conglomerate has devoured. Jarden clearly has its corporate hands full, and no true competitors to worry about. Besides, the BPA-containing epoxy resin coatings, made by corporations such as PPG and Valspar, have for decades done an excellent job of keeping metal from leaching into canned food. Like their fellows in food processing, the folks at Jarden may feel that BPA-containing coatings are still their best choice (see Update, below).
I honestly haven’t fretted about BPA in my jar lids. Food stored in an upright mason jar, after all, needs never touch the lid. Even during processing, jellies and thick jams tend to maintain most of their headspace.
But other home-canned products, such as whole or halved tomatoes, do boil up and touch the lid while the jar is processed in a boiling-water bath or pressure canner. Is it possible to minimize the migration of BPA into home-canned food during processing? No one has performed experiments to find out, but studies on tinned foods offer some hints. According to one of the FAO/WHO reports, more BPA migrates from can linings into food when the food is processed at pressure-canner temperatures than when it’s processed at a lower temperature for a suitably longer period. Processing jars of tomatoes in a boiling-water bath, therefore, may result in less BPA contamination than pressure-canning them. Low-temperature pasteurization, recommended by the USDA for keeping cucumber pickles firm, results in even less BPA contamination in tinned foods than does processing the foods in boiling water. In the case of home canning, using the low-temperature method might result in no contamination, since the liquid in the jar would never boil. Salt tends to increase the migration of BPA into tinned food, according to the report, so unacifidified vegetables such as beets and beans, which you must pressure-can to prevent botulism, might take up less BPA if you left out salt. Oil has the same effect as salt, the report says, so you might prefer to can cooked tuna with water rather than oil.
Acids also increase migration of BPA. Most of this migration happens during processing, but some can occur during storage if the food is in contact with the BPA-containing coating. The coating can’t touch the food as long as the jar stays upright, but some home canners who send their products to friends and relatives worry that even jellies and well-gelled jams may end up tainted by BPA if the parcel is flipped during shipment.
This fear is legitimate. In 2010, Popular Mechanics sent boxes loaded with movement and impact sensors around the country via the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the United Parcel Service, and Federal Express. The packages got turned upside-down repeatedly during every trip with each company. (Although the USPS dropped the packages the least, it flipped them the most—on average, twelve and a half times per trip!) The package labeled “FRAGILE” and “THIS SIDE UP,” in fact, got flipped the most.
Alternatives to Ball and Kerr
Some home canners have tried to avoid these concerns by hunting down BPA-free mason-jar lids, and several have asked for my help in searching out and testing them. One reader of this blog recommended Leifheit lids, from Germany. These lids are both BPA-free and “bulletproof,” she told me. Before I ordered some, though, I wanted to confirm that they were BPA-free. This should have been easy; Leifheit has a U.S. division with an excellent website. But my emails and phone calls to the company were never returned, and others inquiring about BPA have reported the same experience. One blogger got through to a representative who admitted that the Leifheit lid linings have “negligible traces of BPA.” Perhaps as many traces as Jarden’s lids have, albeit at a much higher price? Nobody seems to know.
One European mason-jar manufacturer makes truly BPA-free metal lids, according to Cathleen O’Keefe of the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Bormiolo Rocco, an Italian producer of fine glass, sells these mason jars and one-piece caps under the name Quattro Stagioni. Cathleen, who places bulk orders on behalf of NOFA members and anyone else who wants the caps, sold me some in both regular and wide-mouth sizes ($.80 and $1.05, respectively, for a packet of two, plus a little for shipping; Ball lids, when sold with screw bands, cost almost as much). The Quattro Stagioni caps are easy to use: You just rinse them in hot water, fill the jars as usual, and screw on the caps. If I’m translating the Italian instructions correctly, you’re supposed to leave the jars in the kettle of hot water until they have cooled, but I take them out as soon as the boiling period is up, in accordance with USDA recommendations. You can tell the jar is sealed in the same way you can with a Ball or Kerr lid: The vacuum pulls the center of the lid down firm. Nicest of all, you can open the lid by unscrewing it rather than prying it off. Quattro Stagioni caps are not intended for pressure canning.
An American-made, BPA-free alternative to Ball and Kerr lids is a product called Tattler. The Tattler lid is made of solid plastic, a substance called acetal copolymer. This plastic contains no BPA, and it’s approved by the USDA and FDA for contact with food, including meat, provided the food doesn’t contain 15 percent or more alcohol. The plastic lids are guaranteed to last a lifetime, and the company says that in their thirty-five years or so in production no one has ever asked for a replacement. The lids are especially recommended for use with acid food, since acid doesn’t degrade them as it does metal. The lids can be used in pressure canners as well as boiling-water canners.
To make a Tattler lid stick you need a rubber ring, which you place on the jar rim under the plastic lid, and a standard metal band to screw over the plastic lid. The rubber ring is reusable several times, until it becomes stretched, cracked, or cut. The company recommends reversing each ring with each use to prolong its usefulness. You can buy the rubber rings with the lids or separately; the metal screw bands you must get elsewhere.
The recommended procedure for using Tattler lids and rubbers is a little different from that recommended for Ball and Kerr two-piece caps. After scalding the Tattler lid and ring and placing them on the jar top, you screw on the metal band all the way and then turn it back ¼ inch; this allows the jar to vent during processing. After processing, you tighten the metal band as soon as you take the jar out of the canner (use two heavy towels or potholders to avoid burning yourself). When the jar has cooled, remove the metal band. You know the jar is sealed if the lid stays on. To remove the lid, gently insert a table knife between the rubber and the jar.
An Extension food safety specialist at the University of Georgia, Elizabeth Andress recommends allowing 1 inch headspace when canning with Tattler lids, but I can’t imagine why. I suspect this would lead to oxidation—that is, darkening of the food at the top of the jar. When I’ve used Tattler lids, I’ve stuck with the standard headspace measures of ¼ inch for jams and jellies and ½ inch for pickles.
Tattler lids and rings are probably too expensive ($20.95 for three dozen narrow-mouth lids and rings and $23.95 for a wide-mouth set, from the company website) if you are selling or giving away your preserved foods and aren’t sure the recipients will return everything—jar, lid, ring, and band–undamaged. But the lids and rings are very nice for home use, especially with ungelled acid foods such as pickles, relishes, and tomatoes. And Tattler products may be affordable if you can buy them from a local store instead of having to pay for shipping.
Maybe you’re nervous about putting any plastic in contact with your food. Another option is glass—glass jars with glass tops. I’ve long kept some of the German-made Weck jars, which are now widely available at U.S. cookware stores as well as via the Web. These jars come with rubber rings much like the Tattler rings, and stainless-steel metal clamps that hold down the glass lids during processing. The rings shouldn’t be reused, according to the manufacturer, but you may find that like Tattler rings they last well through multiple uses. You know a ring is good when you take the clamps off the cooled jar and the glass lid stays on. For storing opened jars in the refrigerator, Weck sells plastic caps to fit.
When the rubber rings for your Weck jars have worn out, of course, you must find new ones, and until recently this was difficult to do in theUnited States; my Weck jars sat unused for years for this reason. Now, however, the rings are available inexpensively at Weck’s U.S. website.
Some Weck jars come in whimsical shapes; I have “deco” liter jars that are nearly round. USDA processing times are based on jars shaped more or less like Ball and Kerr jars. If this concerns you, either stick with the more standard shapes or increase your processing times a bit.
The only disadvantage I find with Weck jars, besides the prices (for example, six half-liter cylindrical jars cost $18.25, plus shipping, on the Weck website), is the minor difficulty of getting the metal clamps on. I often chip the lids when doing this, though the slight chipping doesn’t damage their integrity.
Should the health risks of BPA induce you to try one or more of these alternative canning products? Perhaps so, if you’re worried, especially if you’re feeding your home-canned goods to young children or shipping them around the country. But first you might try more effective ways of reducing your BPA exposure. Besides shunning polycarbonate bottles, avoid eating foods from metal cans, particularly meats, soups, and vegetables, unless the cans are labeled as BPA-free. Don’t heat food in plastic containers, and wash your hands after handling thermal paper (slick cash-register receipts, for example).
As long as you’re using conventional jar lids, you may be able to reduce your exposure to BPA by leaving the salt out of pressure-canned foods, processing tomatoes in a boiling-water bath, and using low-temperature pasteurization for pickles. Most important, store your jars upright.
Update, May 24, 2013: According to Jarden Home Brands, Ball and Kerr lids produced since last fall have no BPA. Starting this summer, boxes of the lids will be labeled “BPA-free.” Until then, you can find out whether lids in your cupboard or on the store shelf have BPA or not by checking this article at Diary of a Tomato.
2. The EFSA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agree that 50 micrograms per kilo of body weight is a tolerable daily intake of BPA. Urine tests have indicated that the average American takes in one-thousandth of this amount. As reported in this 2009 article from Consumer Reports, however, some scientists believe that the 50-microgram limit is much too high.
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I’d never heard of Pickle Crisp until a couple of weeks ago, when I was giving a radio interview and a caller mentioned the product. Pickle Crisp, I learned, is a trade name for calcium chloride, a common additive in commercial canning. Calcium chloride is used for several purposes, but in pickles it is mainly a firming agent.
On searching the Web for more information, I learned that Pickle Crisp had been marketed by Jarden, the company that makes Ball jars, but was no longer available.
To find out more, I contacted Lauren Devine at Jarden. The company sold Pickle Crisp for about two years. It was intended to replace pickling lime, which home picklers, particularly in the South, have long used to firm such pickles as bread-and-butters and pickled figs. But lime is troublesome to use: You must first soak the fruit or vegetable pieces in a mixture of lime and water, and then rinse and soak them repeatedly until the water is clear and the lime won’t affect the pickle’s pH much. Calcium chloride is easier to use: You add 1/8 teaspoon along with the fruit or vegetable pieces and the pickling liquid to a pint jar, or 1/4 teaspoon to a quart jar. (Jarden has tested Pickle Crisp only with fresh pickles, not with fermented ones.)
Unfortunately for Jarden, sales of Pickle Crisp were slow, and only upon removing the product from the market did Jarden realize that there was much demand for it. Jarden decided to bring the product back, but in improved form. The old Pickle Crisp was a powder that tended to dissolve into steam. The new version will have bigger grains.
The new Pickle Crisp should be in the home-canning sections of supermarkets and farm-supply stores next March or April.