May 20, 2014

Farmers' Market Partnership and New Ball Products Review

This summer, UMaine Extension is partnering with the Portland Farmers' Market to offer canning and freezing demonstrations monthly at the Saturday market in Deering Oaks Park. We're participating in the "Discover You Can" partnership sponsored by Ball, in order to help increase people's use of local foods year round. At each demo, we'll have tons of preserving supplies and coupons to give away. The boxes (and boxes) of food preservation goodies are rolling into our office.

Lately, Ball has been creating all sorts of accessories for preserving and using local foods. New toys are fun and all, but I was a bit skeptical about some of these items. So I decided to test drive them all to better inform my recommendations to interested preservers.

First up, accessories for turning your mason jar into a drinking glass (er, rather a more effective one?). I think Ball must have realized they'd been scooped for a great product idea by Cuppow. Ball caught on and produced these sippy lids with accompanying plastic straws. They come in both regular and wide mouth sizes, 4 to a pack, for $6.95. I really enjoy the Cuppow lids and find the Ball version to be comparable. They're great for my iced coffee and don't leak. The straw is long enough to use with pint and half or quart jars.
Verdict: take

The mason jar infuser is a similar idea, only there's a separate screw-in insert that can be filled with ingredients with which to flavor your water. I was skeptical, but when I filled mine with raspberries, I ended up drinking my water much quicker. Combine this with my SodaStream water and I'd be in heaven. So maybe just add some raspberries to my water next time? For $7.95, I think I'll stick with the low-tech version.
Verdict: toss

I definitely had my eye on these little herb jars when they were released last year. They're priced reasonably at $6.95 for a set of four, including the jars. The top pops open to shake out herbs and easily screws off for measuring more amounts. As someone who buys herbs and spices in bulk, I appreciate these jars as a huge improvement over the plastic zip-top bags that clutter up my spice shelf. 

They're also great for storing your home grown and dried herbs (see my dried oregano pictured above). The lids are also sold separately for $2.95 for two, perfect for someone who already has plenty of 4 oz. jars. 
Verdict: take

This alien-like contraption is Ball's fresh herb keeper. The white cradle swings open to allow easy access to the fresh herbs. When it's closed, the stems of the herbs sit in an inch of water, helping to extend their lifespan. 

This product might be helpful to someone who is always losing herbs in their crisper drawer, only to rediscover them as a black pile of goo, since the clear container reminds you what herbs you have. But at $15.95, I'll stick with the wrap-in-a-paper-towel method. As a coworker said, you could buy so many herbs with $15.95!
Verdict: toss

The idea behind this potholder helped win me over instantly. The hot jar handler ($10.95) allows you to hold onto hot jars while you're filling them. This would be useful while you're ladling food into the jar or while you're screwing on the screw bands. It grips nicely around a pint jar, but a smaller jar would get lost in it. The price is a bit steep for a pot holder, so I'll recommend it with reservations.
Verdict: take(ish)

I can tell you right away that I was predisposed to dislike this Sure Tight band tool ($9.99). I think I've been disparaging it while teaching classes without have ever even tried it. This tool's purpose it to help you perfectly tension your screw bands (the metal ring that holds the lid onto the jar during the canning process). To use it, you open up the tool, place the inner rubber-lined plastic ring on your canning jar, close the tool and twist. The spring-loaded hinge in the handle provides the torque to properly tighten your screw band. There's also a jar opener in the end of the handle.

But I was taught, and have been subsequently teaching, that you tighten your screw bands until they're fingertip tight. They need to be on the jars firmly, but not so tight that the air can't escape from the jars during the canning process. Recommending someone use a tool to tighten their screw bands seems counter-intuitive to me. 
Verdict: toss

OK, reading reviews online shows that this tool is useful to people who have arthritis in their hands and wrists. If that's you, give it a whirl! 

The home canning discovery kit ($11.99) is a sort of all-in-one kit for people curious about canning. It contains three pint jars and a green plastic basket that takes the place of a canning rack and a jar lifter. The basket fits into a small stockpot that you likely already have. 

This kit would be perfect for someone who is interested in canning, but doesn't want to buy the whole kit and caboodle or someone who is looking to can small batches at a time. If you're an experienced canner, you have no need for this, but it would make a good gift for people you're looking to convert.
Verdict: you decide

In what seems like a "wait, people are buying things for canning that aren't Ball branded; we can't have that," move, Ball made pickle and salsa spice mixes. These 12oz. containers are $5.99 each and are enough spices to make 13 to 14 quarts of pickles and 8 pints of tomato salsa. 

The salsa ingredients are relatively straight forward: dried green peppers, onions, garlic; salt; spices; sugar; sunflower oil; and jalapeno pepper powder. You only need fresh tomatoes and white vinegar to prepare your recipe. But as someone who is looking to make salsa made from fresh, homegrown ingredients, I'm turned off by the dehydrated, non-local ingredients. 

The dill pickle spice mix goes off the rails a bit, containing salt, sugar, spices, dried garlic, calcium chloride (for crispness - also sold separately as Pickle Crisp), dextrose, maltodextrin, natural flavor and color, and silicone dioxide. Compare that to a dill pickles recipe that calls for salt, sugar, dill seed, pickling spice mix, and mustard seed. If you're coming to canning to know what's in your food, adding maltodextrin, a food additive frequently used in soda and candy, isn't in line with those goals. 
Verdict: toss

Let's end on a fun note! Ball released blue heritage jars last year, for the 100th anniversary of the Ball jar. This year, they released green jars, as well as blue and green lids and screw bands. All of the items are safe for canning, but might make your food look a little strange with its blue or greenish tint.

The jars are sold in 6 packs for the same price as a 12-pack ($12.99), so maybe they're better as an occasional accent than as the majority of your canning jars. I personally don't plan to use any for canning, but they'd make fun drinking glasses. I will definitely be using the blue and green lids and screw bands.
Verdict: lids, bands: take; jars: you decide

The best part is, we'll be giving away all of these items at our demonstrations this summer! So if you see something you like but wouldn't necessarily spend money on, come see the Master Food Preservers at the Portland Farmers' Market this summer. The dates of the demonstrations will be announced on UMaine Extension in Cumberland County's facebook page.