From Salt To Cold Storage Rooms: How We’ve Been Preserving Food Over The Years

May 25, 2020

You might be surprised to learn that a mere 13% of British homes owned a fridge as little as 60 years ago (compared to a whopping 96% in the USA), but nowadays it’s one of the most common household appliances found in our homes. Many of us probably take it for granted that we have access to a refrigerator or fridge freezer to keep our food fresh, but for our grandparents (and even parents) this wasn’t always the case.

Humans have used various methods to preserve food for centuries; from salting meat to pickling, fermentation, canning and pasteurisation. The food preservation industry has a fascinating history and it’s interesting to see how methods have evolved from the cold storage rooms of centuries passed, to the sophisticated smart fridges we see today. If you’d like to find out more about the many ways societies have preserved food over the years, read on for our informative guide. 

Sun drying

This ancient method of food preservation dates all the way back to around 12,000 B.C and it was the dominant preservation method of the prehistoric period. As the name suggests, this method simply involved leaving food out in the sun to dry, but the huge reliance on the weather made sun drying an unreliable way to preserve food.

Leaving food in the heat of the sun causes evaporation of the item’s water content; this helps to prevent bacterial growth as up to 80% of the moisture is removed. This method is free, but it can be labour intensive and it’s difficult to achieve uniform or adequate drying without constant rotation.

Smoking

This method was a highly popular way of preserving meat or fish and it dates all the way back to the palaeolithic era. Meat would be cut into thin strips and then briefly soaked in a salt solution before being hung over an open fire to absorb the smoke flavours as it dried. The smoke adds a distinctive flavour to the meat or fish and it helps to preserve food far more effectively than simply drying it out.

We still use smoking methods nowadays (particularly for foods like salmon or beef brisket) although it’s become more of a way to add flavour, rather than preserve, food. Large-scale commercial smokers have made the process much easier and more sophisticated, but the basic method of smoking has remained the same for thousands of years. 

Salt curing 

Salt is a common addition to other types of food preservation like drying or smoking, but it can also be used on its own to cure and preserve food. Dry salting involves pressing salt into a piece of meat or fish before layering and storing them in a container containing more dry salt. The salt draws out moisture, inhibits the growth of bacteria and slows down the rate of decomposition, meaning that certain foodstuffs could last for years if preserved properly.

Soaking food in brine (a high concentration of salt in water) was also very popular, although it wasn’t quite as effective as dry salt methods. Salt brine is also a key ingredient in the pickling process, which we will discuss below. 

Pickling

Pickling fresh vegetables, fruits or meat in salt brine was a common preservation method in medieval Europe and pickled foods are still very common today; from pickled cucumber in your burger to the surge in popularity of pickled foods like kimchi. The word ‘pickle’ didn’t enter the English language until the late Middle Ages, but the method dates back as far as 2030 B.C.

The simplest pickling method involves soaking food in water, salt and herbs, but people began to experiment with spices, vinegar and lemon to infuse their food with different flavours. Pickling can be achieved by boiling the food in salt brine, but it’s just as effective to simply leave the food to soak in a container of brine and flavourings for several days. Once the food is infused, it’s transferred to an airtight container or jar with either a fresh brine mixture or the juices that it’s been marinated in.

Refrigeration

Freezing and cooling methods of food preservation have been around since ancient times when people would bury food items in ice or outdoor stores during the winter months. Walk-in cold rooms were also very popular and many larger houses stored food packed in ice in underground cellars.

Artificial refrigeration methods first emerged in the 1750s but refrigerators for domestic and home use wouldn’t be invented until 1913. The American refrigeration engineer Fred W. Wolf invented the first domestic refrigeration systems, which consisted of a unit mounted on top of an icebox. Separate freezer units became common in the 1940s but they didn’t go into mass production until the end of the Second World War.

Refrigeration helps to preserve food by storing it at low temperatures to slow down the spread of bacteria and decomposition, and freezing takes this one step further by freezing water present in food into ice crystals, making it unavailable for bacteria microorganisms that need moisture to spread.

Canning

Canning is a method of preserving food by processing and sealing it in an airtight container such as a jar or tin can. It’s one of the most effective ways to preserve food and gives certain items a very long shelf life, with some freeze-dried canned products remaining edible for decades.

The French confectioner Nicholas Appert was the first to invent methods of airtight food preservation and in 1809 he discovered that sealing food in airtight glass jars rapidly slowed down the rate of spoiling. It would be another 50 years until Louis Pasteur discovered the role that microbes play in food spoilage, but nonetheless, Appert’s sealed preservation methods were a success.

Tin cans were supposedly invented by the Frenchman Philippe de Girard in 1810 with the help of British merchant Peter Durand, who was brought in as an agent to patent the idea. Canned food is affordable and widely available nowadays, but it was considered a status symbol in European middle-class households during the mid-19th century. The demand for canned food exploded during World War I when enormous quantities of affordable, high-calorie food were needed to feed millions of soldiers. Pressure canning sterilises food at high temperatures to ensure it’s safe to eat and this method is suitable for a wide range of foods, including meat, fish, dairy and most vegetables.

Pasteurisation

This groundbreaking method was developed in 1864 by the French scientist Louis Pasteur, who identified the link between microorganisms and food going off. The process was originally used as a way to prevent wine and beer from souring, and it would be many decades until pasteurisation was used for common purposes such as preserving milk.

Food is pasteurised by gently heating it to a temperature below 100 degrees centigrade. This heating and cooling process destroys spoilage microbes in acidic foods (like fruit juice or beer). In less acidic foods, such as milk or eggs, the heat process destroys pathogens and spoilage organisms like yeast and mould, extending the product’s shelf life and ensuring foods are safe to eat.

We’ve come a long way since the days of leaving food to dry in the sun and now commercial cold rooms, walk-in fridges and domestic smart fridges are a standard part of many homes and businesses. It’s vital to ensure your refrigeration systems are functioning as they should, so if you’re in need of professional refrigeration services and cold room installation, get in touch with the team at Pinder Cooling.

We have everything you need to maintain your commercial refrigeration and cellar cooling systems, including bespoke cold storage solution, ice machine repair, walk-in freezer maintenance and much more. We also offer air conditioning installation for both commercial and domestic properties, keeping you and your employees comfortable and cool all year round. For more information about any of our services or to find out about our extensive range of bar and restaurant equipment, give us a call today or visit our website.