Janet Nezon realized it last year when her Introduction to Home Canning seminars in Toronto attracted 570 registrants. When Toronto's Cookbook Store held a class last fall on fermentation, people came all the way from Rochester, N.Y., says store manager Alison Fryer.
This resurgence of interest in a cooking practice earlier generations did out of necessity is blossoming among mainly women in their 20s and 30s.
"The vast majority (of seminar attendees) were new to canning and pickling," says Nezon of Thornhill, Ont., owner of Rainbow Plate, a company she started to educate children and adults about healthy eating.
"They know they're not reinventing the wheel," Fryer says. "These are ancient arts. But it seems to be the younger generation who are interested."
She says the number of new titles on pickling and canning "has doubled each year in the last four or five years," plus there are all the "handed-down" family recipes and others offered by companies selling pickling products.
Tradition is likely one factor in the rejuvenation, says Nezon, a daughter and granddaughter of picklers.
Others could include cost — it's much cheaper to make pickles than to buy them — and the "eat local and seasonal" movements, Nezon suggests. Health-wise, there is huge interest in the probiotic benefits of fermented foods, including pickles. Homemade products also give the cook some control over sugar and salt content.
Restaurant chefs are pushing the trend too, with many making their own pickled condiments to accompany entrees.
"There's so much pride in it" for the home cook, Nezon says. Homemade pickles also put the cook's signature on even the plainest dish.
There are two main types of pickles — those fermented in salt brine, either in a crock or right in the jars, and those in which the vegetables are preserved in a hot vinegar solution.
Fermenting, done at room temperature over several days, encourages the growth of "good" bacteria that make food less vulnerable to spoilage. Classic examples are German sauerkraut, Korean and Japanese kimchi (pickled cabbage) and traditional kosher dills.
Vinegar-based pickling can take just a few minutes if the pickles aren't intended for long-term storage. Once the food is combined with the brine, it can simply be refrigerated for short-term enjoyment.
Paramount to both is food safety, Nezon says. The most important thing, especially for pickles to be stored for a long time, is to follow exactly a detailed, reliable recipe — no "tweaking" or short-cuts. The science of what happens in the pickling process is vital to ensuring the long-term safety of the finished product.
"You start with everything clean, clean jars and properly prepared food," she says. "You prepare your food, fill the jar, make sure there's no trapped air in the jar and there's always a prescribed headspace (between the top of the food and the jar rim). For pickling we always like to have the food covered by liquid."
The sealed jars then go in a water bath — a large pot (with a rack in the bottom to keep jars off direct heat) filled with water to 2.5 to five centimetres (one to two inches) above the level of the lids. Bring the water to a boil, cover and boil for the prescribed time.
"The process of water bath canning is about two things," Nezon says. "One is ensuring that the food is safe, to kill the dangerous bacteria, to inactivate enzymes that might cause the food to break down and deteriorate in quality, and the second is to create a vacuum seal on the jar so nothing new can get in to cause it to go bad.
"In its essence, the process really hasn't changed that much" from grandma's day. But some things have.
Grandma didn't have gizmos to aid with all the slicing and dicing. Technology has introduced pressure canners and even air-lock fermenting crocks that allow gases to escape but prevent air from entering.
She also didn't have access to many of the exotic spices and non-native vegetables popular with today's picklers. And she probably didn't have exposure to the ethnic influences that have made kimchi, Mexican salsa and Indian chutney standards with North American picklers.
But along with these "new" inspirations, "there's a huge return to the traditional" recipes grandma might have made, Nezon says, partly because of access to heirloom vegetables. But the updated recipes for these traditional foods are probably much more specific about measurements and timing.
Another significant change — perhaps one of the main factors fuelling the new interest in pickling — is the move to "small-batch" preserving. Grandma used to have to make enough to last an entire year, but most of the new pickling books are about making just a few jars at a time, a far less intimidating process and one free of the worry of long-term storage.
Small-batch or large, kimchi or old-fashioned bread-and-butter pickles, grandma would be proud.