It’s tougher than you think to imagine life without all the modern conveniences and labor saving devices we now have. I would say, “that we now enjoy,” but they have become so much of our lives that we no longer necessarily enjoy them; we have most likely come to depend on them so heavily that we demand having them. The array of food that is available at the typical market is massive. There are so many types of food to choose from, in varying degrees of completeness of preparation, that the tie to the production of the item gets thinner and thinner. In some cases, that tie is completely broken. I’ve asked children where milk comes from to get the reply, “from the store.” You’ve probably had similar experiences.
The move from a largely agricultural society to an industrialized one, in the very late 1800s and early 1900s, had many positive effects but one of the downsides in many cases was that the direct tie between producing food and consuming it was severed. When federal electrification programs were put into place, many much needed and appreciated time and/or labor saving devices became common, even in remote areas. These included refrigerators and freezers. It’s safe to say that being able to have cold or frozen food year round changed forever our view of how food is stored.
The same can be said for all forms of canning. Using heat and sealed containers to store food wasn’t around until the late 18th century. History credits Napoleon’s challenge, to find a way to provision his troops safely, as the genesis of modern canning approaches. About a century later, Louis Pasteur discovered that it was microorganisms that were responsible for food spoilage. Up to that time, people knew that canning worked, but didn’t know why. Both the Kerr and Ball companies were formed in the mid to late 1800’s. Canning, using metal cans, developed somewhat at the same time with some of the earliest metal canning operations set up in the early 1800’s. Like all things new, there were kinks to work out. One problem in early metal canning was that the lids were attached with solder, a combination of tin and lead. Lead poisoning was a real threat. Of course, since that time this issue has been resolved.
So, what did people do to preserve food before being able to freeze, refrigerate or can their foods? The big three were drying, salting/pickling and fermenting.
Dehydrating food is still a very popular form of food preservation nowadays, although the majority of it is done with the assistance of electricity or natural gas. Drying fish, meat, fruit, grapes, vegetables and herbs has been done for millennium — all using only the heat of the sun and air movement. The benefits of drying food is manifold; intensification of flavors, convenience of use, availability out of season, ease of transport due to weight reduction, and of course, when done properly, safety.
Salting is another time-honored method of food preservation. It was used routinely in colonial America, and is still used today, although with less frequency. Some of the most common salted foods today are prosciutto and corned beef. The former is salted raw ham, the latter is salted beef. Salting is done with dry salt crystals, creating an environment in which it’s very difficult for microorganisms to survive. This is because these microbes are dehydrated via osmosis, either killing them or suspending their activity. Without the process of salting, long distance sailing voyages would not have been possible. Common meals for military and expedition crews included salt pork, salt meat, and salted cod. Somewhere along the way it was discovered that adding a small amount of salt-peter (nitrite) to the salt turned the meat reddish. This was a much more appetizing choice from the gray that occurs when meat is only salted. While we know now that there are dangers associated with nitrates, we as consumers seem willing to accept a bit of nitrate to avoid buying gray-colored preserved meat. Meat is also smoked to enhance flavor, create desirable coloration and to reduce the amount of salt needed to preserve the meat.
Pickling is a related process to salting, with the difference being that the salt is suspended in water, making a brine solution. Vinegar solutions are also used. Pickling is actually a fermentation process that occurs without oxygen (anaerobic) that produces a salty or sour taste. While it’s likely that you are most familiar with pickled cucumbers (pickles), there are literally hundreds of pickled foods spread across the cultures of the world. Eggs, mushrooms, olives, onions, cabbage (sauerkraut and kimchi), turnips, radishes, and many other vegetables and fruits are all fair game. Like salting, pickling greatly extended the time food was edible, all at ambient temperatures, without having to depend on the food being kept cold or frozen.
Fermentation not only preserves food, but typically enhances flavors. Many of the foods we enjoy would not be possible, or would not have the very desirable taste we enjoy, if the process of fermentation did not exist. While for many the first thought that occurs when they hear the word, “fermented” is alcoholic beverages, fermented foods have a much broader range than wines and spirits. For hundreds of years, many food substances were naturally fermented to varying degrees. In our not-too-distant past, during Colonial America, milk was mostly consumed as a clabbered beverage – buttermilk. Sweet milk, as we typically enjoy it, became more the norm when refrigeration devices were introduced later. Milk that is left at room temperature for 24 to 48 hours will naturally clabber. Cheese is yet another fermented food, using certain enzymes and yeasts to produce varying colors, shapes and flavors. Our Colonial brethren also drank hard cider routinely – which allowed them to preserve apple juice beyond only when apples were in season. Of course, fermentation is the process used in the making of beers, wines, and “hard” liquor. Whether it’s your conviction to partake of these or not, the fact is that fermentation allows us to take food items that will not remain edible for long, and carefully cure them using airborne bacteria or introduced microbes, in order to stabilize, transform and enhance taste.
Fermentation is also behind successful bread-baking, as well as creating your own sodas. Yeasts are used to introduce gasses that can either raise dough or carbonate juices. It’s almost magical. Somehow I find all this very reassuring to know that if we lost many of our modern conveniences, we’d still be able to manage – deliciously.
Check out the Bulletin Board for two great canning classes coming up this month — one for canning tomatoes using either a water bath or pressure canner, and another class on preserving low-acid foods using pressure canners. If you’ve not done this before, now’s a great time to learn how. I hope to see you there.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.