It was probably about seven or eight years ago the first time a mason jar made its way into my kitchen. It was Purim and someone had sent the aforementioned jar filled with ingredients to make brownies, layered neatly in the glass container, accompanied by a tag with the baking directions. I don’t remember if I actually made the brownies or not, but I stuck the jar in the cabinet, figuring I might use it one day.
Or maybe not.
In my mind, mason jars were used exclusively for canning, not an activity I usually indulge in, and so the mason jar sat neatly in a cabinet for quite some time. A few years later, it was joined by a few more jars and they all continued to sit there, doing whatever it is that unused mason jars do in their spare time.
And then, slowly but surely, like that kid who is the biggest dweeb in grade school but somehow becomes everyone’s BFF as a teenager, mason jars began having their moment in the sun. They started showing up in restaurants as drinking glasses and as adorable single serving size trifles, mousses and crumbles at just about every party or event. And then, miracle of miracles, my mason jar collection also got pressed into use as my teenage daughter discovered that they are basically leak-proof and thus great for school lunches. (A word to the wise: glass jars are probably not a good choice for younger kids’ lunches and are banned in some schools because of the potential for breakage.)
First, a little history. Mason jars were invented in 1858 by Philadelphia tinsmith John Landis Mason. What made them unique was their two-part metal lid, the rubber-rimmed screw top ensures the safety of canned foods through a reliable vacuum seal. Mason’s jars were also the first to use bleached glass, according to The Huffington Post, giving canners the opportunity to see the fruits of their labor (no pun intended) and get visual confirmation that the contents were palatable and not turning green and fuzzy. There are plenty of generic canning jars – you may be familiar with Ball jars, a similar item that the Colorado-based Ball Corporation began producing in the late 1800s after Mason made the unfortunate mistake of letting the patent expire on his jars, depriving him of the opportunity to reap the full financial rewards of his groundbreaking invention.
Now, let’s fast forward to Purim 2015, the first time I got an inkling of the inherent potential of the humble mason jar. My oldest daughter showed up at my house with a very creative salad-themed mishloach manos which had hardy ingredients and dressing placed at the bottom of a mason jar and the more delicate leafy greens safely nestled several inches higher next to the jar’s lid. I was pretty skeptical when my daughter assured me that the contents would stay fresh for several days, but they did, and when it came time to eat the salad, a quick shake distributed the dressing throughout the jar, making for one yummy lunch.
Over time I found those mason jars taking up residence in my refrigerator as my youngest started taking charge of making her own breakfast and lunch. On some late nights as I was straightening up the kitchen I would find a mason jar filled with the makings for overnight oatmeal or a chia pudding, both of which need to stand for several hours. Other times, I wouldn’t see the jars till they came home from school to be washed, having been used for a midday meal because they were just the right size for my daughter’s culinary experiments. And then there were the salads. What works so well about making a salad in a jar that is taller than it is wide is that the ingredients that need to stay crisp and dry can do exactly that, while components that won’t be adversely affected by sitting in the dressing, or that might even benefit from a good soaking in a vinegar or citrus-based marinade, will still be in top form when it comes time to eat.
I found myself wondering what else mason jars could do and was surprised to realize that in addition to being used for storage, they are also microwave- and oven-safe, which means that if you can imagine it, you can pretty much make it in a mason jar. Mix up pancake batter in a small jar, leave it in the refrigerator overnight and in the morning pop it into the microwave for single-serving, fluffy hot pancakes. Scrambled eggs, shepherd’s pie, dinner rolls and chili all cook up relatively quickly in a mason jar, giving you a fresh meal in virtually no time, and, while I hate to mention it, you can also bake a dessert in a matter of seconds – a surefire way to torpedo your diet.
Here are some other ideas: Stick a magnetic strip on your kitchen backsplash and then use it to keep spice-filled mini mason jars within arm’s reach, their little metal lids sticking handily to the magnetized surface. Leave one on your counter and use it to store those mixing spoons and spatulas that you find yourself reaching for every ten minutes while you are cooking. Remove the blades from your blender jar and screw them onto an appropriately sized mason jar and, poof, you have an extra blender canister. Fill them with legumes, beans and pasta and not only are you pretty much making sure that these items stay bug-free, your pantry will look neat and organized with everything readily visible and easily identifiable. And while this is a food column, the same concept will work equally well for storing writing implements, art supplies, hardware, sewing notions and other small items that tend to get jumbled together, saving you precious time when you need to find a particular item.
While they may be incredibly practical, mason jars’ humble good looks also make them a great decorative choice for your next party. Corral a bunch together and use them to hold cutlery, or assemble individual place settings in smaller sized jars. Looking for a great vase? Use mason jars, either alone or in groups, popping your flowers straight into the jar or spray-painting them to coordinate with your table linens. Place small votive candles or teas in your mason jars as a decorative lighting accent, or let your jars steal the show by filling them halfway with water and floating small flat candles in them.
Last but not least, while mason jars themselves have zillions of uses, don’t overlook their unassuming tops – metal lids with removable centers are equally versatile. Whether you line them with cork and put them to work as coasters, transform them into magnetic picture frames or use them as cookie cutters, mini tart pans or egg cooking rings, you may find yourself amazed at just how useful these guys can be, even 159 years after they were first invented.