Somewhere along the line, mason jars hit the mainstream. They are all over Pinterest, in major store chains as bona fide home décor pieces, and on hipster dinner tables everywhere subbing for stemware. Mason jars are trendy. They are also in lunchboxes, from kid-friendly “bento” boxes to working mom meals. And that’s where the cookbooks come in.
How does one assemble a lunch entirely in a glass jar? Gone are the days of Tupperware and plastic baggies – there is actually a bit of an art to how to layer your lunch in that jar, friends. We don’t want soggy salads, now do we?
I recently received two very different, but equally interesting, mason jar cookbooks to review from their respective publishers, and while I thought at first that they might be hokey (can one really publish an entire book of just salads?) they’re both actually quite good. And they’re a lot more than salads.
The first, Mason Jar Salads & More by Julia Mirabella is bylined as “50 Layered Lunches to Grab & Go”. Grab and go pretty accurately describes mornings at my house, so that certainly got my attention. The book gets off on the right foot in the Introduction but giving pictorial instructions for how to layer your salad, which I thought was neat. You wouldn’t think it would make a big deal how you cram stuff in a jar, but reading the instructions, it actually makes a lot of sense. Dressing first, the solid ingredients that won’t soak up all the dressing, greens on top, and cheese/nuts on top of that. When you take it out of the jar your plate it’s “right side up” and ready to eat, and it’s still fresh and not soggy. Smart way to do things!
The rest of the book is divided into chapters for different types of meals – breakfasts, salads, snacks, etc. The Mixed Greens with White Bean Salad and Orzo Pasta Salad are both quite good and do stand up to being in the jar quite well. Bruchetta and Spicy Hummus with Vegetables are also great snack ideas for taking to work. Another thing I really like about the book is that you don’t have to rely on bottled salad dressings – there’s even a chapter on making homemade ones, which is great. It’s a simple book, but hits the nail on the head perfectly and has really given me some great ideas for how to easily make over my lunch routine for work.
The other jar book on my shelf is Meals in a Jar: Quick & Easy, Just-Add-Water, Homemade Recipes by Julie Languille. This book is quite a bit more expansive and focuses more on the preservation side of meals in jars, with dry mixes and home processed canned meals. The canning methods in the book are basically sound and follow the USDA endorsed canning guidelines – though I do disagree with one of them. This book advocates canning cheese, which I do not agree with. There’s a lot of debate in the canning community about this. Some says cheese is acidic enough to water bath can, some don’t. Some say it’s too dense to water bath can, some don’t. What tips the balance in favor of not canning cheese for me is the fact that the USDA, National Center for Food Preservation, and Ball Canning all advise against it. Botulism is no joke, so I just don’t want to risk it. Two out of three people in my household are lactose intolerant anyway, so it’s not something that’s near and dear to my heart. But you should decide what’s safe for you and your family, so if you’re comfortable canning cheese, have at it. If you’re not, be like me and skip over those recipes. There are lots more to choose from.
Another feature of this book that I do like is the bulk prep. If you’re preserving something, you generally want to do it in quantity, and this book scales the recipes appropriately. This is especially handy for the dry mixes. The format of structuring all of the components for a meal (when there are multiples) into a “meal kit” was something that was really appealing to me as well. By organizing each meal in this way, you ensure you’ve got everything you need to hand, and you can easily see at a glance what you’ve got in the pantry. A little organization goes a long way to making mealtimes easy, especially on weeknights.
I must admit I was a little confused about the recommendation to use Mylar bags for some of the components of each meal kit. I have no experience in using Mylar bags for any kind of food preservation, and frankly – I can’t really find any information about it online. It seems like an easy way to store some of the smaller components of each meal kit, but until I can do my own independent research on this method, I won’t validate it here. I’ll likely use half pint canning jars in place of the Mylar bags, or vacuum-sealed food-grade plastic (like the Tilia Foodsaver).
Caveats aside, I think Meals in a Jar is a useful book, and I look forward to researching some of the methods it espouses further. Between that and Mason Jar Salads I shouldn’t have any trouble keeping my canning jars filled to the brim, even when canning season comes to a close each year.