Canning: In Pursuit of the Perfect Pickle

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J. Hall / photocuisine / Corbis

Canning isn't for grandmas anymore. Take Steve Doherty, a heavily tattooed and pierced New York City bartender. He's an unlikely enthusiast, but he's been pickling and preserving in his tiny kitchen in Brooklyn for the past two years.

Doherty's hobby was borne out of his frustration with commercially produced maraschino cherries — that syrupy sweet taste and candy-red hue. So the 27-year-old began buying cherries from the local farmer's market and preserving them himself in maraschino liqueur. "It's just a cleaner, more vibrant taste," Doherty says. When he realized how much the homemade cherries improved the flavor of his drinks, he began experimenting with a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables — anything that could be added to a cocktail.

"Pickled okra in a martini is pretty awesome," Doherty says. Now, years into his pickling adventure, he's just as likely to be putting up tomato sauce or blueberry jam as cocktail onions. "I like the idea of eating foods that are less processed," he says.

Doherty isn't alone in his newfound passion for preserving. The at-home practice has lately enjoyed a bit of a comeback, spurred by rising prices at the supermarket and the general urge to go green, and it's gained fans especially among young, urban foodies, who are keen to eat organic, locally grown or homemade foods. Jarden Home Brands, which makes the familiar Ball brand of jars for home preserving, says it has seen retail sales rise 28% over last year.

'Tis now the season for canning: As the bounty of summer fruits and veggies dwindles, food-bloggers are busy swapping recipes and tips for preserving or pickling the last of their tomatoes, berries and drupes. Modern-day pickling recipes often go beyond using the traditional dill and vinegar solution; they include aromatics like lime or ginger and spice things up by adding copious amounts of jalapeno pepper. Canners are also experimenting with mixing subject and medium — pickled grapes anyone? Food writer Eugenia Bone, author of the upcoming cookbook Urban Preservation, even cans her own tuna, which she describes as "sumptuous," a word that can rarely be used to describe the chunk-white albacore you find on supermarket shelves.

As with most food trends, the innovators of the canning renaissance are professional chefs whose goal is to feature local produce on their menus, even when they're out of season. At the acclaimed Arrows restaurant in Ogunquit, Maine, chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier grow a majority of the produce they use in the kitchen. From their own gardens, they're currently harvesting Serrano peppers, cucumbers and daikon to pickle and use off-season, as well as late-season bumper crops of rhubarb and eggplant, neither of which they've ever tried pickling before, but are excited to try. Diners will also see pickled and preserved late-season produce year-round at three of Denver's most popular and critically praised restaurants, Mizuna, Luca D'Italia and Osteria Marco — all under the command of chef Frank Bonanno, whose own kitchen at home is healthily stocked with fruits and vegetables that he preserves with the help of his wife and young sons.

In New Brunswick, N.J., restaurateurs Mark Pascal and Francis Schott, who run Catherine Lombardi Restaurant and host The Restaurant Guys radio show, are devoted to farm-to-table cuisine. They use their own preserved produce at the restaurant all winter long, storing the jewel-toned jars in their wine racks, and they're currently on track to put up about 10,000 lbs. of locally grown San Marzano plum tomatoes for use this winter. Ever economical, Pascal and Schott also dip into leftover canning liquid, especially from fruits, to jazz up cocktails at the bar. Months ago, they put up nectarines with star anise, cloves and Cointreau — they'll have the fruit to serve all winter, while the remaining infused Cointreau can be mixed with top-shelf tequila at the bar to make their Red-Headed Stepchild cocktail.

Aside from it being cheap and green, chefs are big on pickling because it just tastes good. The perfect pickle will have just enough acidity cut a dish's richness, and just the right amount of sweetness and spiciness to complement it. What's more, creating the perfect pickle is half the fun. Says Arrows restaurant's Frasier, "Even with the humble cucumber, the sky's the limit for creativity." Pickling is "so easy," he says, everyone should try it at least once.