Review: Meals in a Jar


9781612431635.01

***This is a sponsored post. I was provided a copy of Meals in a Jar by Julie Languille for the purpose of review. All opinions expressed below are my own and no further compensation has been received. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…***

I’ve spent quite a lot of time contemplating this new book by Julie Languille over the last couple of months. What I thought was going to be a book of creative, giftable soup mixes and the like instead sent me down the rabbit hole of meal kits and disaster preparedness that’s blossomed into a bit of an obsession.

I quickly realized that I’d misjudged Meals in a Jar: while there are various dry mixes that would look lovely stacked in a Mason jar with a decorative tag, just like you see on the cover of the book, there is much more to be found in this slim volume. Created with an eye towards making nightly dinner preparation quick and easy, this is also–I think–a must-have book for anyone wanting to put together food storage preparations that is also on a restricted diet.

(Yes, I’m talking about FODMAPs, allergies, gluten-free, etc. The whole lot of them.)

While I do not consider myself part of the prepper movement, I do live in Florida and we spend half of each year figuratively dodging storms. While Tallahassee hasn’t faced a major storm in a couple of decades, as the hurricanes and super storms keep getting more and more violent, it behooves me and everyone else to give some thought to disaster preparedness–something I know I and a lot of others have grown complacent about. And thanks to the “popularity” of prepping, it’s become quite easy to order up enough food and water supplies for any given length of time that you think you might need–from an extended power outage due to a storm to a multi-year supply in case of the collapse of life as we know it.

Unless, of course, you have a restricted diet due to allergy, intolerance, or other health reasons. You can get “raw” materials (either freeze dried or dehydrated in most cases) but they come in such large containers that they aren’t practical for smaller time frames. The prepared meals (like MREs and such) almost always have ingredients that aren’t necessarily safe for people on special diets, which is where Meals in a Jar comes in.

In addition to the dry mixes that can be packaged in either quart jars or vacuum-sealed pouches and feed anywhere from 6-8 on average, Languille has also included recipes for canning prepared meals that just need a little finishing on the stove. This is where the rabit-hole came into play as I’ve never been one for canning of any sort, and this wasn’t just water-bath canning but pressure canning!

Yes, this is why I recently bought a pressure cooker. And a Food Saver. And retort pouches (like the pouches some tuna comes in these days, but approved for pressure canning) and a Jaw Clamp sealer to close them. It’s been a bit of a process, and not just so that I could test out her recipes–I really want to be able to put away safe emergency supplies for Todd and I.

Of course, I didn’t feel the need to make 16 batches of anything at this point, when I was still approaching the concept with caution, so I scaled down her recipes to just a couple of batches each and portioned them better for us–after all, if we’ve lost power and have no way to safely save leftovers, 8 servings of anything are going to be a waste! I decided to try, to start with, two dry preps [Chocolate Chip Pancakes (p 31) and Potato, Chive, and Cheddar Soup (p 56)] and one “wet” or cooked prep: Beef Burgundy (p 88) as well as canning some bacon to go along with the soup recipe.

Looks a little messy, but having everything handy made putting together the pancake kits that much easier.
Looks a little messy, but having everything handy made putting together the pancake kits that much easier.

I started with the Pancake mix, using my own flour blend for the all purpose in the recipe, and making small pouches with my Food Saver for the chocolate chips, the coconut oil, and the brown sugar (this was such a cool trick, using brown sugar with a little water and a pinch of salt to make your own syrup). It’s true that the vacuum-sealed versions aren’t as pretty to look at as the jars, but they also have less chance of breaking if they get jostled around and fall in my very crowded pantry.

Jars versus Pouches
Jars versus Pouches

Thankfully I already had a dehydrator, which made putting together the soup kits a bit easier (since I needed to sub turnips for onions for this one, and dry out some lactose-free sour cream). I did have to order the freeze-dried cheddar cheese and decided to get a big container of the potato flakes while I was at it.

This might not have been the best way to end up with lactose-free sour cream, but it worked well enough for me.
This might not have been the best way to end up with lactose-free sour cream, but it worked well enough for me.

Finally, after scaling down the Beef Burgundy recipe I prepared the beef and vegetables and let it cool completely. Since I opted to can in retort pouches instead of glass jars, I had to make sure the beef was cool before filling and sealing the bags. Then they and several pouches of bacon (laid out on parchment paper and folded into bundles) got put into the steamer basket (to keep them snug–too much room and the pouches could burst a side seam) and into the pressure canner for 90 minutes. (Pressure cooking is fast, pressure canning takes time.)

The prepared beef inside the retort pouch.
The prepared beef inside the retort pouch.

The silver pouches don’t look like much when they come out of the canner, but mine looked a little odd–like maybe one of the bacon pouches had leaked (I knew it wasn’t the Burgundy Beef as it would have been red or brown, not clear). I didn’t see any openings, but just to be safe I put the bacon pouches in the fridge and planned to use them within a couple of days (the alternative would have been to put them into new pouches and reprocess them within 24 hours–I wanted to do some more research, first).

The bacon, straight out of the canning pouches.
The bacon, straight out of the canning pouches.

Since we love breakfast for dinner, one Saturday evening I opened the pancake kit and mixed up some very tasty pancakes. Now, I don’t know if it was because of my flour substitutions or not, but I needed almost double the water her instructions called for to make any sort of pourable batter–as written it was more of a quick-bread consistency. Still, once adjusted it cooked up great, and Todd couldn’t tell that the syrup was any different. The bacon that I’d canned might have been fully cooked after processing, but it wasn’t crispy, so I popped it into the over for a bit to brown it up.

Chocolate chip pancakes with the crisped-up bacon.
Chocolate chip pancakes with the crisped-up bacon.

Everything tasted fantastic.

The same could be said for the Beef Burgundy that I served another night. For being cooked and then fully processed, it wasn’t tough, mealy, mushy, or otherwise overdone–something that is a viable concern when canning ready-to-eat meals.

The reheated beef burgundy--all it needed to be finished was a bit of flour and water to thicken the sauce.
The reheated beef burgundy–all it needed to be finished was a bit of flour and water to thicken the sauce.

One of the reasons the author likes to prepare these meals ahead is to make dinner preparation that much easier. And we tested this idea, too, when one night Todd’s plans didn’t work out and we needed something in a bit of a pinch. Well, I pulled out the jar of Potato, Chive, and Cheddar Soup, added the required 12 cups of water and let it cook 45 minutes. No fuss, no muss, and it saved us from needing take-out or cereal for dinner.

So while I still have some skill checks to pass on the pressure canning front, I have a feeling I’ll be making more of Languille’s kits to have on hand for real emergencies as well as the day-to-day ones that crop up.

If you’re interested in putting tactics like this to work, I strongly suggest teaming up with a few friends to make the work lighter. Either everyone makes a separate recipe and you swap or you all convene in whoever’s got the largest kitchen’s home and make up your kits in assembly line fashion. Either way you’ll get a better assortment than doing it all yourself. But even if you just put together a kit of 16 meals whenever something goes on sale, you’ll still be doing better than most!


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