Some ways of preserving food have been around since ancient times while others are modern. Older methods can leave meals dry, salty, fermented and imperfect. But they improved through the ages.
In the land of Cockaigne, the sky rains with cheese. Roasted pigs wander the streets with knives in their backs and inhabitants carve off slices whenever they please. Fish jump from the water, already cooked, and wine flows like rivers.
A medieval myth, Cockaigne likely developed as a fantastical escape from the travails of peasant life. As did Emain Ablach in Celtic times, Elysium in Greek mythology, and Shangri-la in the Himalayas. Why did these cultures all create stories about lands of milk and honey? Most likely because life is hard. Food can be tough to acquire and it’s a fleeting thing; consumed today, unavailable tomorrow.
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It’s unsurprising that mankind’s history chronicles side-by-side with discovering ways of preserving food. Few civilizations existed in lands where hunting was easy and fruit grew year-round. Most people encountered freezing winters, desert famines, or they desired to live elsewhere but had to carry food with them until they reached that better place.
Even the myth of Hy-Brasil, another utopia, endured until the 1800s, popular with sailors who suffered scurvy but dreamed of a misty island where apples grew.
Then the Industrial Revolution brought new ways of preserving food and those myths slowly vanished. Within a couple centuries, the land of plenty became the supermarket, where fresh fruits and vegetables are available year-round. They may travel from other lands of plenty, such as Ecuador, but are ready to be purchased and eaten like fruit plucked from a paradisiacal tree. As the supermarket became widespread, our knowledge of food preservation methods waned.
That knowledge encounters a rebirth as we acknowledge that food preservation is important. We don’t risk starvation, as our ancestors did, but it gives us the freedom to eat quality food year-round when supermarket offerings aren’t so paradisiacal.
Compared to other ways of preserving food, freeze-drying would appear to be the newest, right? After all, Arséne d’Arsonval developed the process of lyophilization in 1906. This involves freezing the food then dropping the surrounding pressure so ice turns directly to vapor.
But freeze-drying has existed since the Incan Empire.
In Bolivia and Peru, a dish called chuño is made within Quechuan and Aymaran communities. Frost-resistant potato varieties are exposed to freezing nights in the Andes then brought into the sunlight. Both sunlight and trampling by foot eliminate water and remove skins, which allows them to freeze again. The process takes five days and creates a dried, wrinkled, pelletized potato product that can last years. Chuño is then eaten as flour, in soups, and in desserts.
Though dehydration is the oldest of meat preservation methods, it’s certainly not the most palatable. Freeze-drying allows meat to regain many desirable properties upon hydration. The process is advantageous for other foods, as well. Fruits, vegetables, and even ice cream can remain at room temperature for years, as long as they are sealed away from moisture. Freeze-dried food isn’t as tough as dehydrated counterparts, though some people dislike the Styrofoam-like texture. It also hydrates quicker and retains more flavor and nutritional content.
Until recently, freeze drying at home was impossible without liquid nitrogen or a trip to the Andes. But a new countertop unit made by Harvest Right makes the process quick and easy. Preserved within small batches, the foods first freeze to -40°F. Then a powerful vacuum develops, the food is warmed slightly, and ice turns to vapor. After the vapor evaporates, food can then be sealed in airtight packaging. It hydrates quickly with water.
What do bacteria, yeast, and mold all need to survive and grow? Water. Simply removing moisture allows food to last months or years, retaining many nutrients.
The earliest known food dehydration was practiced in 12,000 B.C. Inhabitants of modern-day Middle East and Asia laid food out in the hot sun, where desert air desiccated it prior to storage. Other cultures proved that dehydration was the preferred method: Romans and inhabitants of Mesopotamia enjoyed dried fruit while medieval Europeans built houses particularly to dry herbs and vegetables in areas lacking hot sunlight. Vikings made use of windy conditions. Pemmican, a traditional Native American and First Nations food, consists of large game such as elk or moose, dehydrated and mixed with dried berries.
During the American Civil War, food was dehydrated for commercial use. But its quality was poor so popularity plummeted after the war. During each war afterward, the cycle repeated: commercial dehydration thrived until it wasn’t needed as much.
Now, dehydration is again a thriving industry but it isn’t a result of war; it’s in preparation for one. Or floods, droughts, economic downturn, or personal hardship.
Those outside the homesteading world recognize dehydrated food as healthy snacks: jerky, trail mix, raisins and dried fruits that are easily stashed in backpacks and won’t spoil for months.
The world is richer in stories caused by alcohol than in stories about alcohol. But though earliest evidence of an alcoholic drink dates to 7,000 B.C., fermentation has also been used as a way of preserving food. And it isn’t always about libations.
Scientifically, fermentation is the process of converting carbohydrates into either alcohol or organic acids, using microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria. Fermented foods include vinegar, bread, cheese, yogurt, and pickles. And it preserves food because it creates an environment in which bad bacteria cannot live.
Cheese followed on alcohol’s heels. Evidence of cheese making dates back to 6,000 B.C. Curdling milk and removing whey also removes most of the lactose, making milk more portable, longer lasting, and digestible. Migration into Europe brought cheesemaking into dark, cool caves which also introduced bacteria to make the product delectable.
Another thousand years later, yogurt took hold, probably in Mesopotamia around 5,000 B.C. Records lauding yogurt’s health qualities come from ancient India, Persia, and Greece. It was eaten with honey and often referred to as “food of the gods.” Yogurt was a dietary staple for medieval Turks and Mughals. Microbiologists studied yogurt and brought it from Russia to mainstream Europe in the early 1900s.
Though the history of vinegar is unknown, traces of it have been found in Egyptian urns dating to 3,000 B.C. The product formed when alcohol meets acetic acid bacteria, it creates an environment so acidic that other microorganisms cannot thrive. This allows for health-boosting drinks, flavor-enhancing recipe ingredients and, of course, pickles.
Bread is older than recorded history if you define bread as a mixture of grains and water that is then cooked. Leavened bread came much later. It’s uncertain when civilization intentionally harnessed wild yeast spores to make dough bubble and rise. Observance of Passover includes consumption of unleavened bread in remembrance of a time when the Jews had to leave so fast they couldn’t allow their bread to rise. But the first historical record is from Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D. He stated that Gauls and Iberians skimmed foam from beer and used it to make bread that was lighter than what he’d experienced from any other culture.
The purposes of fermentation are fivefold: to preserve food, enrich it with more nutrients, remove compounds which inhibit absorption of nutrients, reduce cooking time and fuel usage, and to enhance the diet by adding more flavors, textures, and aromas
Modern day fermentation is a form of art. It includes craft beers and fine wines, kombucha made within home kitchens, sauerkraut, and kimchi from garden cabbage, cottage-made pickles, and sourdough artisan bread.
Who figured out how to preserve fruits in jars? Nicolas Appert, actually.
The Napoleonic Wars were a dismal time for soldiers and sailors. They subsisted off salt-preserved meats and whatever fresh fruits and vegetables they came across. Which, depending on the seasons and location, were scarce.
Napoleon needed to feed his troops better. He offered 12,000 francs to whoever could develop a new and safe way of preserving food. It had to be nutritious, portable, and dependable. It was French confectioner Nicolas Appert who observed that food which had been sealed in containers, then heated, stayed good until the container opened. A half-century later, Louis Pasteur discovered why microorganisms spoiled food, which improved canning’s dependability.
Canning wasn’t without flaws, though. Philippe de Girard developed the tin can, which had to be handmade at the time. It was so labor intensive that canned food became a status symbol in Europe, considered a frivolous novelty. And though it made food more portable, the poisonous lead solder at the cans’ seals worsened the health of many explorers.
During each economic recession, home canning and commercially canned foods gain popularity because they allow financially stressed households to store food or spend less on each meal. The National Center for Home Food Preservation and the USDA are leading experts in this field. They guide us in canning food safely to avoid hazards such as botulism.
A collection of Chinese songs and poetry has existed since before the 7th century B.C. It’s said to have been compiled by Confucius. The songs speak of love and longing, soldiers at war, and housework. They also tell of farming and the religious ceremonies for filling and emptying ice cellars. It’s speculated that these cellars stored food.
The use of snow and ice as ways of preserving food extends back to the Romans who dug snow pits and insulated them with grass, and to Persians who stored ice in pits called Yakhchals. Other cultures used evaporation to preserve food: Egyptians put clay jars of water on roofs at night and Australians in the outback employed wet hessian curtains to preserve perishables before refrigeration became available.
Ice houses sat on estates, small and separate buildings for storing food. The ice industry burgeoned in the early 1800s when inventions such as the horse-drawn ice cutter and insulated ships allowed for safer and more profitable harvesting.
Iceboxes allowed individual houses to keep food cold. For a century, families received ice delivered to them from larger ice houses. Steep and narrow tracks can still be seen at older houses, leading from the street to a basement door. But the iceboxes didn’t just preserve food. A reduction of infant mortality rates in summer months in the United States has been credited to the availability of ice.
The first gas-powered refrigerator appeared in 1911 but households using electricity had to wait until 1927. Continuing inventions and developments made refrigerators safer, more efficient, and more affordable.
The years saw even more developments: refrigerated railroad cars, refrigerated trailers for semi trucks, tiny fridges in college dorms and room-sized units for restaurants and grocery stores. A new invention called a CoolBot works with air conditioning units to turn sheds or trailers into walk-in coolers. This technology allows farmers and ranchers to keep their products safe and cold until they reach the market.
The discovery of freezing as a way of preserving food probably wasn’t pretty. Perhaps a starving Viking family stumbled across a deer carcass, half-eaten by wolves before it froze in the forbidding winter. Desperate, they built a fire and tossed in a limb. To their relief, the meat was still good when thawed and cooked, though it might have had an acrid flavor.
We know the technique has been used for centuries; how many is undetermined.
Freezing food for commercial transport started around 1885 when sailors packed frozen chicken and geese into insulated containers prior to shipping from Russia to London. This all occurred during winter months. The introduction of cold air freezing plants in Russia enabled the industry.
Clarence Birdseye worked as an engineer in Labrador, Canada, where he watched Inuit people pull fish from holes then immediately let it freeze on the ice above. Clarence began freezing his own catch to keep it fresh. Because the fish froze so quickly, it wasn’t mushy when thawed. In 1927, Clarence applied to patent his first freezing machine. Flash freezing entered the industry and food quality improved.
The simple truth to freezing is this: Food stored at 0 Fahrenheit stays safe indefinitely, though quality declines after a certain time. Bacteria cannot grow in frozen food. Blanching stops enzymatic action which can make vegetables bitter after they thaw. Modern packaging such as bags or containers protects against freezer burn. And though the method has its disadvantages, such as undependability during power outages, freezing is still the easiest way of preserving food for those just learning how.
Learning the Ways of Preserving Food
Why should we preserve food if supermarkets offer it ripe and ready? Because we may want to extend our garden harvests into the winter. We want to control the quality and content of our foods. Often we also want a supply in case the supermarket is no longer a source we can employ.
Learning the ways of preserving food can be done by reading books and magazines, joining homesteading communities, or watching online videos. Start small and work up to the more complex methods.
What are your favorite ways of preserving food?