Historical Origins of Food Preservation
Brian A. Nummer, Ph.D.
National Center for Home Food Preservation
The astonishing fact about food preservation is that it permeated
every culture at nearly every moment in time. To survive ancient
man had to harness nature. In frozen climates he froze seal meat
on the ice. In tropical climates he dried foods in the sun.
Food by its nature begins to spoil the moment it is harvested.
Food preservation enabled ancient man to make roots and live in
one place and form a community. He 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 ancient times the sun and wind would have naturally dried foods.
Evidence shows that Middle East and oriental cultures actively dried
foods as early as 12,000 B.C. in the hot sun. Later cultures left
more evidence and each would have methods and materials to reflect
their food supplies—fish, wild game, domestic animals, etc.
Vegetables and fruits were also dried from the earliest times.
The Romans were particularly fond of any dried fruit they could
make. In the Middle Ages purposely built “still houses”
were created to dry fruits, vegetables and herbs in areas that did
not have enough strong sunlight for drying. A fire was used to create
the heat needed to dry foods and in some cases smoking them as well.
Freezing was an obvious preservation method to the appropriate
climates. Any geographic area that had freezing temperatures for
even part of a year made use of the temperature to preserve foods.
Less than freezing temperatures were used to prolong storage times.
Cellars, caves and cool streams were put to good use for that purpose.
In America estates had icehouses built to store ice and food on
ice. Soon the “icehouse” became an “icebox”.
In the 1800’s mechanical refrigeration was invented and was
quickly put to use. Also in the late 1800’s Clarence Birdseye
discovered that quick freezing at very low temperatures made for
better tasting meats and vegetables. After some time he perfected
his “quick freeze” process and revolutionized this method
of food preservation.
Fermentation was not invented, but rather discovered. 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 skill
of ancient peoples to observe, harness, and encourage these fermentations
are admirable. Some anthropologists believe that mankind settled
down from nomadic wanderers into farmers to grow barley to make
beer in roughly 10,000 BC. Beer was nutritious and the alcohol was
divine. It was treated as a gift from the gods.
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 is preserving foods in vinegar (or other acid). Vinegar
is produced from starches or sugars fermented first to alcohol and
then the alcohol is oxidized by certain bacteria to acetic acid.
Wines, beers and ciders are all routinely transformed into vinegars.
Pickling may have originated when food was placed in wine or beer
to preserve it, since both have a low pH. Perhaps the wine or beer
went sour and the taste of the food in it was appealing. Containers
had to be made of stoneware or glass, since the vinegar would dissolve
the metal from pots. Never ones to waste anything our ancestors
found uses for everything. The left over pickling brine found many
uses. The Romans made a concentrated fish pickle sauce called “garum”.
It was powerful stuff packing a lot of fish taste in a few drops.
There was 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
The earliest curing was actually dehydration. Early cultures used
salt to help desiccate foods. Salting was common and even culinary
by choosing raw salts from different sources (rock salt, sea salt,
spiced salt, etc.). In the 1800’s it was discovered that certain
sources of salt gave meat a red color instead of the usual unappetizing
grey. Consumers overwhelmingly preferred the red colored meat. In
this mixture of salts were nitrites (saltpeter). As the microbiology
of Clostridium botulinum was elucidated in the 1920’s it was
realized that nitrites inhibited this organism.
Jam and Jelly
Preservation with the use of honey or sugar was well known to
the earliest cultures. Fruits kept in honey were commonplace. In
ancient Greece quince was mixed with honey, dried somewhat and packed
tightly into jars. The Romans improved on the method by cooking
the quince and honey producing a solid texture.
The same fervor of trading with India and the Orient that brought
pickled foods to Europe brought sugar cane. In northern climates
that do not have enough sunlight to successfully dry fruits housewives
learned to make preserves—heating the fruit with sugar.
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 recontaminating the
food within the jar or can.
Canning is the newest of the food preservations methods being pioneered
in the 1790s when a French confectioner, Nicolas Appert, discovered
that the application of heat to food in sealed glass bottles preserved
the food from deterioration. He theorized “if it works for
wine, why not foods?” In about 1806 Appert's principles were
successfully trialed by the French Navy on a wide range of foods
including meat, vegetables, fruit and even milk. Based on Appert's
methods Englishman, Peter Durand, used tin cans in 1810.
Appert had found a new and successful method to preserve foods,
but he did not fully understand it. 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/illness did it become clearer. Just prior to Pasteur’s
discovery Raymond Chevalier-Appert patented the pressure retort
(canner) in 1851 to can at temperatures higher than 212ºF.
However, not until the 1920’s was the significance of this
method known in relation to Clostridium botulinum.
Some historians believe that food preservation was not only for
sustenance, but also cultural. They point to numerous special occasion
preserved foods that have religious or celebratory meanings. In
America more and more people live in cities and procure foods commercially.
They have been removed from a rural self-sufficient way of life.
Yet, for many, a garden is still a welcome site. And, annually there
exists a bounty crop of vegetables and fruits. It is this cultural
nature of preserved foods that survives today. Interests have shifted
from preserve “because we have to”, to “preserve
because we like to.”
References and Sources
Mc Govern, P. The Origins
and Ancient History of Wine at the University of Pennsylvania
Museum of Archaeology. Available at http://www.upenn.edu/museum/Wine/wineintro.html.
Accessed 2002 Feb 12.
Shephard, S. 2001. Pickled,
Potted, and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed
the World. Simon & Schuster. 366pp.
Eden T. 1999. The Art of
Preserving: How Cooks in Colonial Virginia Imitated Nature to Control
It. Eighteenth Century Life 23(2):13 23. Also available from:
eighteenth century_life/v023/23.2eden.html Accessed 2001 Sep
Mack L. 2001. Food Preservation
in the Roman Empire. Chapel Hill, NC. University of North
Carolina. Available from: http://www.unc.edu/courses/rometech/public
2001 Sep 30.
C. Anne Wilson. 1991. Preserving
Food to Preserve Life: The Response to Glut and Famine from Early
Times to the End of the Middle Ages in "Waste Not, Want
Not": Food Preservation from Early Times to the Present, C.
Anne Wilson. ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ.
This material is based upon work supported by the Cooperative State
Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture,
under Agreement No. 00-51110-9762.
Permission is granted to reproduce these materials in whole or
in part for educational purposes only (not for profit beyond the
cost of reproduction) provided the authors and the University of
Georgia receive acknowledgment and this notice is included:
Reprinted with permission of the University of Georgia. B.A. Nummer.
2002. Historical Origins of Food Preservation. Athens, GA: The
University of Georgia, National Center for Home Food Processing and
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