The act of preserving food is as old as civilization, and like many of the things we take for granted today, the methods of preservation were most likely first discovered by accident and/or trial and error.
Some of the methods that we still use today trace their origins back to ancient times, where forms of fermentation, oil packing, pickling, salting, drying, and smoking were all practised regularly. One of the earliest recorded examples of food preservation is from ancient Egypt and shows the drying of grains and their storage in sealed silos.
The Greeks, Romans, Sumerians, and Asians, in addition to the Egyptians, all used different food storage methods and preserved their food in clay pots. Their preservation use persisted and developed into techniques we still use today.
But why, to begin with, has food preservation been developed? The need for preservation arose because, in some areas, the climate dictated when food could or could not be grown. In other areas, especially those subject to harsh weather, raising livestock could be difficult if done year-round; instead, livestock was raised for most of the year and would be slaughtered before winter set in. The fruits, vegetables, and meats stored and set aside after the harvest had to carry people through the tough months when fresh foods were not available in both scenarios. And, as food
Now let’s take a quick look, historically speaking, at the methods used by early civilizations worldwide. Further along, we will take a closer look at these methods, all of which are still in use today.
One of the first methods of preservation you would probably think of when talking about preserving the harvest is canning (especially if you grew up with a grandmother or mother who always had a pantry full of home-canned products!)
Canning, like freezing, is one of the “newer” preservation methods. It was established in France after Napoleon asked Nicholas Appert to find a way to store food in the mid-1790s so that the army could bring food supplies with them. By 1806, the French Navy was using the canning method for meat, milk, fruits, and vegetables.
In 1810, as a storage container, the tin can was first used in England. Raymond Chevalier Appert then patented the pressure canner in 1851. This enabled canning at temperatures higher than 212°F.
Today we still home can, and while we may have developed a few more techniques to make our food storage even safer, canning hasn’t changed all that much over the years.
Sugar is another form of preservation. Today we use sugar primarily as the method to create jelly or jam. In early cultures either sugar or honey, another form of sugar would be used. Fruit and honey were a popular mix of goods and preserves.
The ancient Greeks would take their first slightly dried quince and pack it tightly into jars of honey. By first cooking the quince and honey together before packing, making more jelly or jam, the ancient Romans strengthened this technique.
Jellies and jams were a form of fruit preservation that was used as an alternative when it was not possible to dry fruits. A good example would be in the northern states of colonial America, where drying fruits was not practical or efficient. In areas like these, jellies and jams allowed families to still have fruit in the snowy winters.
Freezing (and Refrigeration)
It probably goes without saying, but freezing (and refrigeration) was among the most climate/weather-specific method of storing and preserving foods. In areas of extreme cold and those that had winter conditions during at least part of the year, ice, snow and cold streams were used to keep items cold or, depending upon temperature, frozen. Caves were also used for this purpose, and in later times, people would build cellars designed for cold storage. These cold storage rooms, which we would come to know as root cellars, could store food at temperatures between 30° and 40°F.
The root cellar would then be replaced by the ice house (in the US) where ice and food would be stored. After this, the ice house was replaced by the icebox, which served to bring the ice house into the kitchen.
True refrigeration would arise later in the 1800s, and by the late 1800s, a man called Clarence Birdseye would find a way to freeze food easily, changing the way food was kept cold forever. His techniques would later build into the home freezer method that we heavily depend on today.
Drying is one of the oldest forms of preservation and is probably the simplest method of keeping food longer. The method’s widespread usage goes back as far as 6000 B.C., and evidence of its use goes much further back to 12,000 B.C. The Middle East and parts of western Asia. The Roman citizens enjoyed dried fruits in ancient Rome. Similar to what we would think of today as a smokehouse, the Middle Ages used the use of still houses as an alternative to sun drying.
This allowed foods to be dried in areas or regions that did not have enough sun for the natural drying process to take place. It is possible to dry fruits, vegetables and herbs this way.
In colonial America, drying was used mainly in the South, where heat and sunlight were plentiful for natural drying, although other areas may have been able to take advantage of some drying as well. For example, even in the north, herbs and flowers were hung out to dry, in either an outbuilding or inside the home.
Europeans used the drying process for fish more than for other meats, especially in those regions where fish such as cod and haddock were the main meat consumed.
A couple of interesting points on drying originate with the Indians in early America and have to do with pumpkins has been a staple in their diet. Not only was pumpkin dried and ground into flour to be stored for later use, but the pumpkin was also dried in strips, then woven into mats. These mats were not for feeding, but for sitting or sleeping. An odd usage when we think about eating dried foods!
The technique has its drawbacks, as simple as drying is. Drying will change the texture and taste of food. A perfect example is beef jerky. Compare a dried meat strip to a standard cooked meat strip. The differences in looks and taste are quite apparent.
By immersing it in vinegar, pickling typically includes preserving food. It was made famous by the Romans, who used the pickling fish technique to make something called garum, which was pickled fish sauce, one of the oldest types of food preservation.
Use of pickling rose during the sixteenth century due to the arrival of new foods in Europe and today is still one of the most well-known and popular forms of food preservation.
Although dehydration may be the earliest known form of curing, most people, when prompted, will probably first think of salt curing. One of the oldest recognised food additives is salt. In 1250 B.C., during the time of the Phoenicians, fish were gutted, dried, and then packed in salt. In ancient Rome, the word “salary” came from the Roman word salarium (meaning “salt”). Salt was so important during this time that soldiers received salt as payment. The ancient Egyptians even use salt as part of their embalming process. The Middle Ages also found a great many salts uses, particularly in the healing of their meat.
By the 1800s, the methods of using salt for curing were greatly improved when it was discovered that some salts work better with meats than others. It was found that some salts left the meats more red and friendly in appearance when combined with saltpetre. Foods that were preserved using these methods include pork, beef, and fish, foods that we continue to salt today.
Herring was (and still is) a popular salted fish. The fish needed to be preserved quickly, as the oil of the fish goes bad, usually within 24 hours of the catch.
As with drying, smoking dates back to at least 6000 BC as a preservation technique. Some believe that it was the still houses used for drying in the Middle Ages that had a part in making smoking popular as a method of preserving food.
People found that, in some cases, the effects of smoke on some of the foods they were drying allowed them to produce more flavorful and longer-lasting preserves. Smokehouses were used in early times and were usually any type of shed or covered structure.
The first meat to be smoked was fish, and there is evidence that the technique was so common in ninth-century Poland that large amounts of fish were smoked for later consumption. Smoked pork became a common way for farmers in early America to preserve and store meat from the fall/winter pig slaughter in the late nineteenth century, as it allowed them to be able to carry the meat during the winter.
Smoking has become popular again today and is a form of food preparation particularly used for preserving meats.
Another ancient method of preservation is fermentation, theoretically going back as far as 10,000 B.C. Kimchi, sauerkraut, wine, and beer are some products that are produced through fermentation. Although you can definitely buy food preserved through a fermentation process, it is a process that is not widely used today in the typical household.
However, this trend is changing as more and more households begin to prepare their sauerkraut, beer, and wine at home.
This debate is just a very brief look at the past of process preservation. However, even this short glimpse is enough to show how long and storied the techniques of preserving food are. Most had very humble roots but worked well enough that we still use the methods in one form or another today. In the “Preserving Today”, we will look at preserving for use in today’s modern home.