A Short History of food preservation

Historical records about how people saved food - the techniques involved, are hard to find. however, we find food still preserved in jars, and sometimes on the shelf or buried in crocks on archaeological digs. 

We can surmise many things by observing indigenous tribes and nations around the world. For instance, the Inuit use the ice to freeze their meat. Many Native American nations used drying to preserve foods. 

What we know about historical food preservation

cristina_santivo-vasetti-giardineria-and-pickled-jalapenosSource: Cristina Santivo

Drying, salting,  fermenting, curing, and sugaring were the first ways food was preserved. Drying was done by exposing food to air and sunlight to remove the moisture. Salting was done to preserve and draw out moisture, or to ferment foods. Curing was adding spices to the salt and using it dry, instead of in solution. Sugaring also drew out moisture and retarded spoilage, so sugar was used to preserve already sweet foods, like fruits. This later developed into a cooked mixture we know today as jams and jellies. 

Ancient techniques of food preservation

amanderson2-soaking-cheese-in-brine-zaanse-schans-netherlandsSource: amanderson2

The oldest techniques were drying and salting foods. Herbs and fish were dried. We still dry foods today, for dried spices and meat jerky, which provides a quick, protein-rich snack. 

Salt was gathered from the earth, whether by evaporation of sea water or from another source, and spread on foods to draw out moisture. If a crock, jar, or waterproof basket were handy, then the food was soaked in a brine solution. This promoted fermentation and the development of healthy probiotic cultures.

Cheeses are often salted or brined after the whey is drained and curds pressed together, to retard spoilage and add flavor. 

To ferment a food, we need to allow gasses to escape, so the food is weighed down with a plate or stone (today, glass weights) to keep it below the level of the brine solution, but we don't seal the jar. The process takes place in a cool, dark place, but not under refrigeration.

Fermentation takes a little while, and the food is not ready for consumption until the fermentation action stops. This can take as little as a week to as long as 4 months.  Once the fermentation is completed, the food can be placed in jars and processed to store for many months - to many years. 

In the historic old west, a large barrel was used to make pickles, and the cucumbers were weighted down with large stones. The barrel was covered with a cloth to keep out debris. This open barrel was often in the middle of the store and anyone was welcome to drink the solution (it's high in electrolytes) or grab a pickle. 

GarySoup-pickls-on-flickrSource: Gary Soup

Pickling in history

Pickling is a way of preserving foods by soaking them in a vinegar or wine solution. We add spices and the food we wish to preserve to a closed container. The resulting "Pickle" can be any food at all. Eggs are often preserved in this way. We have the typical "dill" cucumber pickles, sweet pickles, tomatoes, meats, and fruits. 

We often seal these preserved foods in jars by the water-bath canning method shortly after putting into the jars. The food can be eaten within 24 hours, though most people like the pickle to age a little longer on the shelf. 

The key to a good pickle is the acidity of the vinegar solution. A common complaint is that the food can lose it's "crunch" when it's fully pickled. Many people use an additive to preserve the crunch, but that can make the solution less acidic, and cause problems with long-term storage. We have a way to combat this limpness without compromising the acidity by using the leaves of certain plants placed in the jar with the food. 

Food Preservation Techniques

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