A Brief History of Food Preservation

During the first agricultural revolution, preserving foods ensured long-term supply of food, reduced the burden to hunt, and prevented spoilage of excess agricultural produce. Today, food preservation is a reemerging skill in Maryland. If you fondly recall making strawberry jam with your grandmother, then join me and my colleagues at our food preservation classes, where we teach you how to safely preserve foods through the following techniques. To whet your appetite, today’s post will introduce you to how these methods came into existence.

Humans learned the first principle of preservation—drying—around 12,000 years ago, when temperatures from a previous ice age began to warm and naturally dry excess agricultural produce. These natural conditions, together with fire, enabled humans to practice drying on variety of food items such as fish, wild game, grains, vegetables, and fruits. During the middle ages, drying evolved by using “stillhouses”, which were made specifically to dry foods.

Most methods of preservation kills or prevents the growth of microorganisms, except for fermentation. Dating back to 6,000 B.C., fermentation utilizes good bacteria to preserve food and provide health benefits. Nearly every civilization has fermented foods: kimchi from Korea, chutney from India, and cheese from Europe. Fermentation not only helped to preserve foods but also created some of the most profitable and globalized commodities, such as wine and beer.

Humans residing in cooler parts of the world naturally gravitated towards freezing foods. By the end of the early middle ages, most areas of Europe used underground rooms and cellars to store foods with or without ice. Given the labor required to transport ice in those days, it wasn’t the most popular method of preserving food. However, in the 1800s, Clarence Birdseye revealed that quick-freezing at very low temperatures developed better tasting meats and vegetables. This discovery was the first of many to mechanize the freezing process.

Pickling produce started in India around 4,000 years ago. The Greeks pickled fruits in honey and syrup, and considered it a food for the wealthy. Pickling practices in the United States started during the 16th century.

Canning is the newest method of preservation, established in the 1790’s by French confectioner Nicholas Appert. He discovered that sealing food in a glass jar, then heating it, will preserve the food. In 1851, Raymond Chevalier Appert patented the pressure retort to can at temperatures higher than 212°F. Since then, canning has been identified as a factor of causing botulism. The USDA and other research entities continue to research this potential source of food poisoning, however, there are safe ways to can.

In my next few blog posts, I will go into more detail about food preservation and the importance of proper techniques to prevent foodborne illness. If you’re interested in getting started right away, you can register for one of our food preservation classes or contact the educator in your area. We provide you with the latest, research-based techniques to ensure that you preserve your foods safely and deliciously.

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