Preserving food has been a problem of man since the very beginning. 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, its allowed civilization as we know it to form.
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 used to store food through out the years.
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. Later civilizations left even more verification with the materials and tools left behind that were used to dry fish and other wild game.
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.
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 food preservation method. 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.
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 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 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.
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 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!