History Of Food Preservation (Ancient Times to Today)

Preserving food is an ancient practice that has been used to prevent spoilage and extend the shelf life of food. While there are many modern techniques for preserving food, some of the oldest methods are still in use today.

really thin beef slices before dehydration

This blog post will explore the history of food preservation techniques and discuss how they have evolved over time.

Food Preservation in Ancient Times

Ancient times used more salting methods because well, electricity hadn’t been invented yet and salt preserves foods by creating a hostile environment for certain microorganisms.

Preserving Food in Ancient Times

Within foods, salt brine dehydrates bacterial cells, alters osmotic pressure and inhibits bacterial growth and subsequent spoilage.

Salting fish made long-range explorations possible in the age of sailing ships.

In the very distant past, the most common techniques for food preservation were brining, freezing, drying, and smoking.

Each fall, villagers or neighbors would slaughter livestock (usually pigs and cows), then salt, dry, or freeze the meat (in snow) for the winter months. Many meats were smoked in old-fashioned smokehouses like this one:

a home-made smoker for smoking meat
a home-made smoker for smoking meat

Root vegetables were grown and then stored in root cellars, while other vegetables, like beans and corn, were dried and then rehydrated later, as needed.

Some plants, like green beans, cabbages, and herbs, could be salted. Even eggs were kept in cold storage!

It was only many years later, during the Napoleonic Wars, that other techniques, like canning, came on the scene.

During this period, the French government offered a generous prize to inventors who could come up with new methods of preserving food.

In 1809, Nicolas Appert discovered that foods cooked inside a jar didn’t spoil – and while the technology wasn’t fine-tuned until years later, when Louis Pasteur discovered the role of microbes in food spoilage, glass canning shortly after became a viable method of preserving food.

That’s the cliff notes version of food preservation – are you interested in learning more? Let’s take a deeper dive into each food preservation technique and how it came to be.

Drying

Drying, or dehydrating, is one of the oldest food preservation techniques out there, that is perfectly safe.

In ancient times, people used the wind and sun to dry their foods, with evidence showing that Middle East and Asian cultures dried foods as far back as 12,000 B.C. by using the hot sun alone.

The Romans were particularly fond of dried fruit!

Later, in the Middle Ages, people learned how to build “stilt houses” to dry vegetables, herbs, and fruits.

This was valuable for areas that didn’t have enough sunlight to dry foods quickly and efficiently. A fire could be used to dry foods or even smoke them as well.

Smoking and Salting

Smoking techniques were essentially an expansion upon drying processes. These added antimicrobial agents via the smoke to aid in presentation.

17th century smokehouse diagram
17th century smokehouse diagram

There are particles in the smoke, known as phenols, that are deposited in the meat to add protection as well as flavor.

Smoking was probably discovered by accident, when early cave dwellers found that smoked meat, having been hung in caves where they had already built fires, was both delicious and nutritious.

The history of smoking meat.

Salting came about in much of the same way. Early civilizations with large salt deposits – like ancient Mesopotamia – found that this tasty mineral was a natural preservative.

The Romans were famous for their salted foods and used salt as a form of currency long before they actually understood the science behind salting.

Freezing

Although you might assume that freezing is a more modern preservation technique, requiring the use of commercially-sold freezers, it’s actually one of the oldest food preservation techniques out there.

Before freezing came on the scene, though, we had cooling.

Our earliest ancestors figured out very early on that keeping certain food cold could prevent it from spoiling – they likely learned this by simple observation alone.

Chilling stops and slows the reproduction of microorganisms that cause food to rot, so hunters and fishermen would store their seafood and meat in cold, moving water, like creeks.

Freezing was developed later on, probably by climates that experienced regular deep freezes.

As long as you had the right climate, you could cool food anywhere – even if you only had those freezing temperatures for part of the year.

Caves, cool streams, and cellars are three places that have been traditionally used to keep foods cold.

Later, American estates built ice boxes and ice houses to store their food on ice.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that mechanical refrigeration was invented, and in the late 1800s, it was discovered that rapid freezing at extremely low temperatures made for longer-lasting and better-tasting food. The quick freeze process was developed shortly after.

Fermentation

Fermentation wasn’t really invented like some of these other techniques were – but discovered.

Most anthropologists believe that beer, wine, and other fermented beverages were invented early, probably as soon as mankind stopped being nomadic wanderers and settled down to grow farms. This was sometime around 10,000 B.C.

drawing of Egyptians fermenting grapes
drawing of Egyptians fermenting grapes

Once beer was discovered, the idea of preserving foods via fermentation came shortly after. What could go wrong, after all? Beer was delicious and nutritious – viewed as a gift from the gods.

Fermentation was – and still is – a valuable food preservation technique because it is used not only to extend the shelf life of various foods but to increase their nutrition as well.

When foods are fermented, microorganisms from the process can produce additional vitamins and minerals.

Pickling

Another food preservation technique that can increase the nutritional value of foods is pickling. Pickling involves preserving foods in an acid, usually vinegar.

Anthropologists aren’t totally sure when pickling came on the scene as a food preservation technique, but believe that it probably originated when food was placed in a form of alcohol, like beer or wine, to preserve it.

The wine probably had gone sour yet improved the taste of the food.

Early on, containers had to be made out of glass or stoneware, since the vinegar would dissolve metal from pots.

Food History: Pickles

The first “picklers” were creative in their techniques! Many used the leftover brine to make other items.

For example, the Romans made a sauce called garum – this was a concentrated fish pickle sauce that helped them preserve the day’s catch.

Ancient Egyptians pickled everything from goose to catfish, while the Chinese used vinegar brines for eggs, rabbit, and other kinds of protein.

Pickling became even more popular later on in the 1700s, when foods like ketchup, chutneys, mustards, relishes, and piccalillis became commonplace.

Even Worcester sauce was developed via pickling – it was actually an accidental discovery when a barrel of relish was left forgotten.

Curing

The first form of curing was technically dehydration, when our ancestors used salt to dry out foods. Salting was one of the most common methods of food preservation, with raw salts from all kinds of sources used.

Later, in the 1800s, it was discovered that some type of salt gave meat a more attractive red color, rather than the gray – this mixture included nitrites, or saltpeter.

As scientists discovered Clostridium botulinum later on, they discovered that it was these nitrites that prevented the disease.

Jams and Jellies

Using sugar and honey to preserve fruit is also not a new technique. In fact, the ancient Greeks mixed honey with quince and packed it into jars very early on, and the Romans later discovered that cooking these items first could help them last even longer.

Making jams and jellies (or preserves) became an extremely popular technique in northern climates that lacked the sunlight to dry their foods.

Water Bath Canning

Canning is simply the process in which foods are placed in cans or jars, then heated to high temperatures to destroy microorganisms. This can halt the process of spoilage and help foods last for many years.

Before canning became a popular technique, most people understood that boiling food – using intense heat to preserve food and kill microorganisms – was a viable food preservation technique.

That’s why so many communities maintained a stew pot, where any food could be added to the mix and bacteria would be killed by the bubbling broth.

Though one of the newest food preservation techniques, canning is by no means “modern.”

The technique of water bath canning was first discovered in the 1790s by Nicolas Appert and refined by Pasteur, as mentioned earlier, nearly a century later.

Although Appert knew he had a new and successful way to preserve foods on his hands, he didn’t fully understand it.

It was thought that the exclusion of air was what was keeping food preserved – it was Pasteur’s work with microorganisms later on that this became clear.

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Pressure Canning

And, then you have pressure canning…

Pressure canning is a method of canning for low acidity foods. Remember, water bath canning is only appropriate for high-acid foods, so don’t use a pressure canner for all your canning.

This technique uses a special pot that can be sealed to trap steam. Times are usually shorter in a pressure canner, but this can vary.

This technique was invented by Thomas Kensett in 1912, who had the first commercial canning establishment. He developed on the technology created by Nicholas Appert and later, Peter Durand, who in 1810 had come up with a way to seal food in tin cans.

Pressure canning enthusiasts of the time were also able to benefit from the invention of glass jars in 1858 by John Mason – these jars, with screw-on threads molded to the top and lids with rubber seals, are famous today as – you guessed it – mason jars!

Basically, high acid foods like tomatoes, applesauce, peaches and other fruits can be safely canned in a water bath canner.

For most, that is a good place to start as there isn’t any concern about high heat and pressure.

Low acid foods, like veggies; corn, peas, potatoes, green beans, and meats all require pressure canning to make certain all nasty things are killed. Using a pressure canner isn’t hard, it just takes practice.

All you really need to do is read the instructions that come with your canner and follow those.

Allowing your canner to vent steam at the beginning of each process allows it to get up to pressure faster, and allowing it to cool on its own accord saves you from any possibility of burns or explosions from trying to overcome the internal pressure.

Many pressure canners will have a pressure valve and an overfill valve on it.

The pressure valve is what “pops” up as the canner is getting to the correct amount of pressure, and the overfill valve is the black stopper on the opposite side. If this pops out, the canner was overpressurized.

You will need to turn off the heat, let it cool, and start over. I have honestly never had this happen, and I am told this is quite rare.

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Freeze Drying

That leads us to the final – and most modern – food preservation technique on our list: freeze drying.

Freeze drying was created during World War II, but not as a food preservation technique.

Though it sounds grotesque, this technique was actually developed a technology to send blood from the United States to Europe to help treat wounded soldiers.

Because the blood needed to travel overseas without refrigeration, the freeze drying process was developed.

The technique was later used on bone and penicillin, helping to keep these things cold over long journeys. Now, of course, freeze drying is used for food.

Food Preservation Options for Any Homestead

Whether you’re canning, pickling, fermenting or drying, there are plenty of food preservation techniques to choose from.

And now that you know a little bit about the history and science behind them, it’s time for you to give them a try! Each method has its own set of benefits and drawbacks, so be sure to do your research before getting started.

But there’s no doubt that with a little experimentation, you’ll be able to find the perfect preservation technique for your needs. What will be your first project?

updated 04/15/2022 by Rebekah Pierce

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