Food preservation has long been a necessary pursuit of humans through the ages. While short term food preservation methods are largely dominated by today’s refrigerators, and long term preservation is dominated by canning or freezing, our ancient cultures thrived without such technology by collecting, drying and storing grain in large ceramic pots. Hunter-gatherers preserved meat and fish by air drying or smoking. Salt and sugar, when readily available, were also used as a preservative.
Preserving food without canning or freezing or refrigerators?
Countless methods and technologies of food preservation have been attempted through the millennia and a few tried and true methods that are natural and sustainable have been passed through generations. These techniques are part of food preservation history are of course, organic, and still applicable and useful in modern sustainable living.
This most ancient form of food preservation is simply the removal of water from any given food by air drying, sun drying, or smoking. Commercially available food dehydrators or a home oven can also be used to preserve food. Nearly all foods can be preserved through drying including meat (jerky), grains, fruits, vegetables, fungi, and even milk. Smoking, is part of the food drying method.
Curing is a method of preserving food, most often meat and fish, by the addition of salt, nitrates, or sugar. Salt-cured meat works by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms by drawing water out of cells through osmosis. Concentrations of salt up to 20% are required to kill most species of bacteria and smoking the meat adds additional chemicals that reduce the amount of salt required. Common examples of salt-cured meat include bacon, kippered herring, corned beef, and pastrami. Olives, pictured above, are easily preserved through the salt curing method as well.
Sugaring is a method that places dehydrated food into pure sugar. The purpose of sugaring is to create an environment hostile to microorganisms. Sugaring is commonly used to preserve fruits and their peels as well as spices such as ginger root.
Also known as brining, pickling is the process of preserving food by anaerobic fermentation in brine (a solution of salt in water) to produce lactic acid, or marinating and storing it in an acid solution such as vinegar. The resulting food is called a pickle and can be any variety of food item including eggs, peppers, cucumbers, or even citrus fruits.
The use of nontoxic and beneficial microorganisms can also preserve food. An ancient form of biopreservation is fermentation which was, and still is, used to produce beer, wine, vinegar, bread, yogurt, cheese, and butter. All of these items can still be produced in the home kitchen using biopreservation techniques.
For short term food preservation methods, simple technologies such as the zeer pot, submersion in water (such as a lake or river) and the use of cool caves or underground pits extend the expiration of many perishable foods. These techniques of course can be employed today as well, some more fitting in certain climates than others.