A Brief History Of Preserving Foods

Introduction

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 all the way back to ancient times, where forms of fermentation, oil packing, pickling, salting, drying, and smoking were all practiced regularly. One of the earliest recorded examples of food preservation is from ancient Egypt and shows the drying of grains and its storage in sealed silos.

Besides the Egyptians, the Greeks, Romans, Sumerians, and Asians all used various techniques of food preservation, and stored their food in clay jars. Their use of preservation endured and evolved into methods that we still use today.

But why was food preservation developed to begin with? The need for preservation arose due to the fact that 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 were raised for most of the year and would be slaughtered before winter set in. In both scenarios, the fruits, vegetables, and meats preserved and put aside after the harvest had to take people through the hard months when fresh foods would not be available. And, as food begins to spoil right at harvest time, if the people were to survive the lean times of certain seasons (whether it be the cold snowy winters in some regions or extremely hot summers in others), they had to be able to keep their food from spoiling.

Preservation, when done properly, prevents the growth of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that would otherwise render the food unfit for consumption. It also prevents foods such as meats from going rancid by slowing fat oxidation, while at the same time (usually) maintaining the nutritional value of the food, along with its taste and texture. We say usually here, because there are times when some foods are altered, sometimes drastically, through preservation. One example of this is the use of pickling to preserve vegetables.

Historically, the way food was preserved would depend on location and even culture. As a result, diets would often differ from place to place, even if their climates or growing conditions were similar.

For example, in early colonial America some of the commonly used methods of preservation were smoking, drying, salting, pickling, and jellying. Drying would be used primarily in the southern states or territories where sun and heat was plentiful and foods could dry thoroughly. In northern climates, by contrast, jellying and pickling were the methods of choice, simply due to the fact that drying wasn’t a feasible alternative due to lack of necessary “sun time” needed to properly dry the foods.

Food Preservation Through the Years

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.

Canning

Labeled spice jars neatly organized on a shelf

When talking about preserving the harvest, one of the first methods of preservation you would probably think about is canning (especially if you grew up with the grandmother or mother who always had a pantry full of home-canned goods!)

Canning, like freezing, is actually one of the “newer” preservation methods. It was developed in France in the mid-1790s, after Nicholas Appert was asked by Napoleon to find a way of preserving food so that the army could carry food supplies with them. By 1806, the French Navy was using the canning method for meat, milk, fruits, and vegetables.

In 1810, the tin can was first used in England as a storage container. Then, in 1851, Raymond Chevalier Appert patented the pressure canner. 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. Get informed about canning basics.

Sugar

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. A common mixture of produce and preserve was fruit and honey.

The ancient Greeks would take quince that they had first slightly dried and tightly pack it into jars with honey. The ancient Romans improved upon this method by first cooking the quince and honey together before packing, creating more of a jelly or jam.

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 basically served to bring the ice house into the kitchen.

Later in the 1800s, true refrigeration would appear, and by the late 1800s a man named Clarence Birdseye would discover a way of quickly freezing foods, changing the manner of cold storage of foods forever. His techniques would later build into the home freezer method that we heavily depend on today.

Drying

Jars of mixed nuts and berries on dark shelf

Drying is one of the oldest forms of preservation, and is probably the simplest method of keeping food longer. Widespread use of the technique goes back as far as 6000 B.C., and evidence of its use goes back even further, to 12,000 B.C. in the Middle East and western parts of Asia.

In ancient Rome, the Roman people enjoyed dried fruits. The Middle Ages employed the use of still houses, similar to what we would think of as a smokehouse today, 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. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs could be dried in this manner.

In colonial America, drying was used mainly in the South, where heat and sunlight was 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 out building 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 interesting points on drying originate with the Indians in early America and have to do with pumpkins having been a staple in their diet. Not only was pumpkin dried and ground into flour to be stored for later use, the pumpkin was also dried in strips, then woven into mats. These mats were not to eat but rather to sit or sleep on. An unusual use, when we think of drying foods to eat!

As simple as drying is, the method does have its disadvantages. Drying will obviously change the texture and taste of food. A perfect example is beef jerky. Compare a strip of dried meat to a strip of regular cooked meat. The differences in looks and taste are quite apparent.

Finally, dried foods require proper storage. Dampness can ruin dried foods, causing mold and spoilage (which will be discussed further in Chapter 6). Find out more about drying.

Pickling

Pickling usually entails preserving food by immersing it in vinegar. One of the oldest forms of food preservation, it was made popular by the Romans, who used the technique of pickling fish to make something called garum, which was pickled fish sauce. 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.

Curing

Although dehydration may be the earliest known form of curing, most people, when prompted, will probably first think of salt curing. Salt is one of the oldest known food additives. 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 uses for salt, particularly in curing 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 noticed that some salts, when mixed with saltpeter, left the meats more red and pleasing in appearance. 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 common fish to be salted. The fish needed to be preserved quickly, as the oil of the fish goes bad, usually within 24 hours of the catch.

Smoking

As with drying, smoking as a preservation technique dates back to at least 6000 BC. 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 discovered that the effects of the smoke on some of the foods that they were drying allowed them to create more flavorful and longer-lasting preserves in certain cases. Smoke houses were used in early times and were usually any type of shed or covered structure.

A sketch depicting members of the Timucua tribe drying food by smoking.

Fish was the first meat smoked, and there is evidence that in ninth century Poland, the technique was so popular that large quantities of fish were smoked for later consumption. In the late nineteenth century, smoked pork became a popular way for farmers in early America to preserve and store meat from the fall/winter pig slaughter, as it allowed them to be able to keep the meat throughout the winter.

Smoking has become popular again today and is a form of food preparation particularly used for preserving meats.

Fish smoking in a homemade smoker.

Fermentation

Fermentation is another ancient form of preservation, possibly going back as far as 10,000 B.C. Some products that are made through fermenting are kimchi, sauerkraut, wine, and beer. Although you can certainly purchase foods preserved using a fermentation process; it is a process that is not commonly used in the average home today. However, this trend is changing as more and more households begin to prepare their own sauerkraut, beer, and wine at home.

This discussion is only a very brief look at the history of preserving methods. 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 next chapter, we will look at preserving for use in today’s modern home.”

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