As fall approaches and the prime produce season in many areas of the country comes to a close, a spate of cookbooks is aiming to help readers keep summer flavors alive year-round. Food preservation and its many subcategories (fermenting, pickling, drying, salting, and smoking, among others) have seen a remarkable resurgence in recent years, with novices taking up classic practices, such as canning, while veteran preservationists stake out new territories within the field. What’s behind the preservation movement, and where is it headed? PW spoke with authors, booksellers, and publishers to find out.
Along with other recent food-world trends—organic, locavore, farm-to-table—preservation speaks to a growing desire on the part of consumers to simplify, if not play a part in, food production. It’s “coming from a dramatically increased interest in knowing where your food has come from,” said Robert Dees, president of Canadian publisher Robert Rose, Inc., which publishes a range of preserving titles. The company’s The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, which has sold some 800,000 copies since 2006, recently landed on PW’s cookbook bestseller list. “The market” said Dees, “has expanded dramatically.”
“The idea of knowing exactly what you’re getting off your pantry shelf because you preserved it yourself is very appealing and reassuring to people right now,” said Margaret Sutherland, an editor at Storey Publishing who focuses on cooking titles. This sentiment among consumers has benefited publishers like Massachusetts-based Storey, which has been putting out preserving titles for decades. According to Sutherland, Sherri Brooks Vinton’s Put ’em Up! Fruit and Put ’em Up! Preserving Answer Book and Janet Chadwick’s The Beginners Guide to Preserving Food at Home all currently have around 150,000 copies in print.
In addition to giving people control of their food, preserving offers a means of diminishing one’s carbon footprint. Leda Meredith, author of Preserving Everything (Countryman Press, Aug.), says preservation allows people to stick to local ingredients year-round. “If someone wants to do a local diet, and one of the reasons they want to do that is to reduce their impact on the environment, what do they do in the middle of winter?” she said. “If it’s January, and I want some canned potatoes for pasta sauce, do I go to the store and buy the commercial canned ones that were shipped from 3,000 miles away, or do I use the ones that I canned myself from the stuff I grew in my garden?”
Like the locavore movement to which it’s closely connected, preservation is sometimes viewed as expensive and time-consuming. But practitioners argue that preserving can actually help reduce the hours and dollars spent on food—which may explain, in part, why the movement has taken off. As Jennifer McGruther, the author of The Nourished Kitchen (Ten Speed, Apr.) and creator of the popular fermentation-focused blog, NourishedKitchen.com, put it, “One of the biggest stones that is often thrown at the local food movement is that it’s fundamentally elitist, because the foods at farmers markets are typically more expensive than what you might find at a grocery store.” But cooks can get around this, McGruther believes, by buying ingredients in bulk and looking for produce that, while not ideal for eating fresh, works just as well for preservation purposes. “We have sauerkraut parties,” she said. “We buy fresh food in bulk at the lowest cost we can, and then we all come together to preserve it at one time. It keeps you from then buying the packaged foods at the grocery store that have a considerable markup.”
Preservationists can also seek out what’s called “number two” produce—fruits and vegetables that taste fine but are cheaper because they have physical flaws. “When you’re buying for preservation,” McGruther said, “whether or not the peach has the right blush or the cabbage is too big or too small or misshapen—all of that doesn’t really matter.”
Eugenia Bone, author of The Kitchen Ecosystem and Well-Preserved (Clarkson Potter), added that preserving food in advance can save you time when you’re too busy to cook. “For me, preserving isn’t an end unto itself,” she said. “It’s a stage in making dinner later.” When cooking chicken, for instance, Bone preserves leftover stock. “I’ll can it, and then I’ll have it on hand to use when I need to make dinner and I don’t have it together.” Bone said that “the only impediment to the time-efficiency [of preserving] is building up your skill base. People who can a lot are very efficient and fast. People who are just starting—it’s a slower process.”
Health and nutrition have also played a role in the rise of preserving, and preservation cookbooks, in the last few years. Leda Scheintaub, author of Cultured Foods for Your Kitchen (Rizzoli, Sept.), originally became interested in kefir—a fermentation staple made with milk—for health reasons. “I loved the taste of it. I would drink it and I would feel good.” Author Meredith is excited about the growing popularity of fermentation for the same reason. “Those are extremely healthy foods—loaded with probiotics,” she said. “That’s one area that I would really hope to see take off.”
While many readers and home cooks are just now discovering preservation, the field is already maturing and growing more diverse. Amy Cleary, a manager at Omnivore Books in San Francisco, sees buyers moving beyond the introductory primers and seeking out more contemporary takes. Customers who might have originally sought out the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving “are trying to do more modern flavors and modern twists on canning,” Cleary said. She also notes that preserving books have developed a “split audience”—pros and amateurs. “The professionals want something like [Sandor Ellix Katz’s] The Art of Fermentation, which is a wonderful book, but often scares away people. People who are doing things at home—they want something more visual, more manageable, like Marisa McClellan’s Preserving by the Pint.”
Omnivore owner Celia Sack added that “interest in more varieties of preserving has gone up, since many of my customers have mastered the basics. We’ve done very well with Karen Solomon’s new book, Asian Pickles, this summer.”
Of all the subcategories of home preserving, fermentation seems the most likely to enter the spotlight. Along with kefir, kimchi and kombucha have virtually become household names, with books like Lauryn Chun and Olga Massov’s The Kimchi Cookbook and Stephen Lee and Ken Koopman’s Kombucha Revolution (both Ten Speed) helping to introduce readers to Asian fermentation methods. “People want more information about how to make fermented foods of all types,” said Storey editor Sutherland. “I would look for those books to stay really strong in the coming years.”