The history of food preservation: salt preservation
Credit: jlastra through Flickr

The history of food preservation is closely related to human evolution. From prehistoric times food preservation has been essential for survival: food reserves were necessary during long and harsh winters or prolonged droughts. At first foods were taken from nature by gathering, hunting and fishing, or were available in the surroundings, obtained with rudimentary tools and consumed in situ. When human settlements were established and agriculture and livestock were developed, it became necessary to keep some of the harvest and supplies to prevent shortages, in case of loss of crops, wars, epidemics etc. Therefore humans went from being gatherers to food producers.

The power of the elements

New food preservation techniques emerged, sometimes by coincidence, which used natural elements like the air, the sun, the salt, the fire and the ice to keep fresh food in edible conditions for longer.
The rooms and containers used throughout history to preserve food are the result of the invention and adaptation to the environment of their inhabitants. The barns that protected grain from rodents were built during the Neolithic. The bottom of the caves was used to store food because they were the coolest places. They dug pits in the ground and covered the food to protect it from animals. Meat, fish and plants were dried in the air and the sun.
The containers used to keep the food were essentially leather skins for liquids and wood containers, baskets and bins for solids, until the discovery of pottery around 6,500 BC. The invention of pottery was a major step forward in the process of food conservation.

Sweet, salted, smoked and oily

The first techniques of salting and smoking were developed by the Egyptians. The Greeks discovered that coating fruits and some vegetables with beeswax preserved them better and in a fresher state, and that adding honey to fresh fruits, cooking them and keeping them in waterproof resin-coated skins kept them in good conditions for weeks.

The Romans preserved wine for decades in sealed jars. Communities settled along the Mediterranean sun dried fish and vegetables, and kept viscera of fish (the famous garum) sealed jars.
The preservative that dramatically changed the conservation techniques was sugar cane, which was originally from India. It was initially discovered by the Persians that grew it in the warm Mediterranean areas, but when the Arabs invaded Persia they acquired part of their culture and spreading it to all the regions they occupied. The Arabs introduced it in Spain, where until then only honey and its derivates was used to sweeten and preserve.

When America was discovered, Spain exported the sugarcane cultivation, and the crops adapted really well. Jam recipes made with cane sugar from this period have been found. At the same time in Northern European regions, snow deposits were kept in rooms carved into stone coolers, and blocks of ice accumulated during the winter were used as a reserve during the summer for food preservation.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, recipes found suggest that meat was preserved in lard, vegetables were pickled and fish was salted. These techniques are still used today even. A new extraction method from beetroot made sugar widely available in the mid-eighteenth century, and popularized a method of preservation that had been reserved to the wealthy: jams.

Sterilization and freezing

But the great revolution in food preservation occurs during the early nineteenth century in France by a chef named Nicolas Appert who discovers empirically that boiling food within a closed container, it is kept for long periods of time without going off, while retaining all its flavor and odor characteristics. This system is still used today, only more refined, and it is still called Appert method in honor of the discoverer. In 1880, Pasteur scientifically explains the rationale for this conservation method revealing the existence of microorganisms that cause the food to alter. This method is also known as pasteurization. In the twentieth century due to technological advances there is a significant progress in the conservation of all types of food. The industry developed increasingly sophisticated machines in the fight against microorganisms. The new freezing technique allows the development of new forms of consumption, and new packaging like galvanized tin is introduced, making it a cheaper and easier alternative to glass containers.


In the second half of the twentieth century, a new industry was born that produces new substances added to traditional foods so that they can be kept for decades: the preservatives. Today, the records of food preservatives list over 5,000 substances that preserve or alter the organoleptic characteristics of the food. In the late twentieth century new containers, adapted to specific conditions, are developed, such tetra-brik and plastic polymers packaging. The modern techniques of food irradiation or biotechnological manipulation used in the late twentieth and early twenty-first present a new set of alternatives for preservation of specific types of food. Home canning, drying and salting are becoming increasingly popular again in developed countries as an alternative to the chemical preservatives of food added industrially. This is also related to the consumers' awareness of agricultural practices with pesticides, fertilizers and GMO, which have made some of them turn towards more environmentally friendly and organic products, or even self-production.

Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving
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Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round
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