The History of Food Preservation & Ancient Food Storage

April 16, 2019 5 min read

food storage

Preserving food has been a problem of man since the very beginning. They couldn't just plop their mastodon in an emergency food bucket.

Ever since the first people began roaming the planet the problem of food and water has always been our first and foremost concern.

Right from the very moment of harvest, food begins to break down which causes us as people a major problem.

Heat, cold, time and moisture are all enemies of food and its lifetime.

Food preservation enabled ancient man to make roots and live in one place and form a community.

They no longer had to consume the kill or harvest immediately, but could preserve some for later use.

Each culture preserved their local food sources using the same basic methods of food preservation. In other words, it allowed civilization as we know it to form by being able to preserve their best survival foods.

Since the time of the ancient Egyptians, Mayans and Greeks there has been advancements in the technology and techniques that have helped us come up with the processes that we use today.

Here is a small history of the methods that people have when storing garden vegetables or any food  throughout the years.

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Historical Food Preservation Through Drying

The earliest evidence suggests that as early as 12,000 B.C. Middle Eastern and Oriental cultures began to dry foods with the sun to preserve them. Being able to set aside a 72 hour kit made of dehydrated foods was a literal life saver.

Later civilizations left even more verification with the materials and tools left behind that were used to dry fish and other wild game.

Ancient Food Freezing

freezing food

This is a pretty obvious method for those cultures that have the climate that can support it.

It was quickly picked up by those cultures living in the more Northern regions of the world to take advantage of low temperatures.

Other methods started to take for by using cool streams, cellars and caves.

It wasn’t until the 1800’s that America started to use icehouses to keep food fresh, and then mechanical refrigeration was quickly put to use as iceboxes or coolers.

Fermenting for Food Preservation

Fermenting food

It has been said that fermentation was probably more discovered then invented; I think I have to agree.

No doubt that the first beer was discovered when a few grains of barley were left in the rain.

Opportunistic microorganisms fermented the starch-derived sugars into alcohols.

So too can be said about fruits fermented into wine, cabbage into Kim chi or sauerkraut, and so on.

The process of using water, time and various plants to create a new food source and one that can last a very long time is an impressive find by the ancient civilizations.

Fermentation was a valuable method for creating an ancient survival food kit.

It not only could preserve foods, but it also created more nutritious foods and was used to create more palatable foods from less than desirable ingredients.

Microorganisms responsible for fermentations can produce vitamins as they ferment. This produces a more nutritious end product from the ingredients.

The History of Ancient Food Pickling

Pickling food

Pickling may have started when people used to put things in beer and wine to preserve it, but containers had to be made of stoneware or glass, since the vinegar would dissolve the metal from pots.

This spawned a spectacular increase in food preservation in the sixteenth century owing to the arrival in Europe of new foods.

Ketchup was an oriental fish brine that traveled the spice route to Europe and eventually to America where someone finally added sugar to it.

Spices were added to these pickling sauces to make clever recipes.

Soon chutneys, relishes, piccalillis, mustards, and ketchups were commonplace. Worcester sauce was an accident from a forgotten barrel of special relish.

It aged for many years in the basement of the Lea and Perrins Chemist shop.

Curing Curing actually has it roots in dehydration. The earliest forms used various types of raw salts to help dry foods.

It was found in the 1800’s that some salts gave the meat a red color instead of the unappetizing grey, which made it more acceptable and sought out to the masses.

Canning History

canning food

Canning is one of the newest forms of food preservation starting up in the 1790’s by a Frenchman Nicholas Appert.

Canning is the process in which foods are placed in jars or cans and heated to a temperature that destroys microorganisms and inactivates enzymes.

This heating and later cooling forms a vacuum seal. The vacuum seal prevents other microorganisms from recontamination the food within the jar or can.

The interesting thing is that although they had the process, they did not fully understand why it worked. It was thought that the exclusion of air was responsible for the preservations.

It was not until 1864 when Louis Pasteur discovered the relationship between microorganisms and food spoilage did it become clearer. 

Modern Dehydration

We know that drying food was one of the earliest forms of food dehydration, but what about modern hydration machines?

Those started out very basically again in France in the late 1700’s over the next 100 years improvements were made but it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that major strides were developed.

World War 1 and 2 helped advance the technology significantly because of the increased demand of food for the troops on all sides.

Dehydrated food has about 1/15th the bulk of the original product; you can easily see the benefits.

Freeze Drying

valley food storage freeze dried vegetables

Freeze drying has become very popular now, especially for things like freeze dried fruits and freeze dried vegetables, however it also has roots in World War II, but it wasn’t for food.

It was actually created to send blood from the US to the European theater for medical treatment of wounded soldiers.

Because the blood would go bad crossing the Atlantic and Europe without refrigeration the freeze-drying process was developed.

Shortly thereafter, the freeze-dry process was applied to penicillin and bone.

Since that time, freeze-drying has been used as a preservation or processing technique for a wide variety of products including food!

Now freeze dried food is considered the best way to preserve food and be ready for any emergency situation and allows us to create things like an emergency food supply with a 25 year shelf life.

These advances unlocked ability to start prepping for emergencies and put together our own life saving advances like our bug out bag necessities and knowing about the benefits and dangers of bugging out or bugging in. Now a good food storage plan can protect you from those same emergencies our ancestors faced, and even new, modern emergencies like preparing for hyperinflation or grocery store shortages.