Most of us go straight to the refrigerator when we want a cold drink or something to cook. It can be easy to take this luxury for granted since it has been around for so long. Most living situations come equipped with this availability. There was a time, however, when modern refrigerators weren’t an option. Electricity has not always been available, either. Food, however, has been preserved over the years by cultures across the globe. Take a look at the innovative ways people have come up with to preserve food over the years.
It may be beneficial to review why we even have to refrigerate food in the first place. Food is organic matter, especially fresh food. Meat, fruits, and vegetables all start to decompose as soon as they cease to be living. Bacteria is necessary for decomposition and can also make us sick if it is the wrong kind. To slow this growth, a refrigerator needs to be set below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Bacteria is everywhere in the environment and is definitely available on food items. The cold temperatures, however, keep the bad ones from growing as fast. Once foods start to deteriorate, they can make you sick. Cold temperatures also change the metabolic process, delaying decomposition. All this is great, however, what did people do without the convenience of a refrigerator?
People have stored food for off-seasons in all cultures and time periods. Ancient people could not depend on the grocery store to deliver fresh fruits in the middle of winter. Somehow, people figured out that food lasts longer when stored in cooler areas. Nature has some pretty good refrigeration alternatives, and some savvy humans figured this out. Snow is plentiful in the winter in many places. While it may seem simple, snow preservation worked. All people had to do was dig out a hole and place food down in the snow for later use. People brought food into their homes that may have been a naturally occurring habitat, like a cave. Even if they did not live in the cave, food could be stored there. Caves are naturally cool and protected from the sun. Caves are large enough to store a decent amount of items, as well.
Chemicals and Salt
At some point, methods progressed and got a bit more scientific. During the 16th century, wine was cooled by combining different chemicals. Sodium nitrate could be added to water to reduce the temperature. Potassium nitrate accomplished the same thing. An actual mechanical refrigerator would not appear until hundreds of years later during the late 1800s. Salt was also a staple product for food preservation in between ancient and modern times. Meat was the main food to be preserved in this way, however, salt could be used for other foods. This works because salt pulls the moisture out of the meat. This is the same reason drying foods in the sun helps them resist decay. The salt also kills bacteria. The meat was often placed in a closed container after rubbing it with salt. Salt was also placed into the container surrounding the food. This was used for meat and vegetables. This method could allow meat to still be good for consumption years later. Today we usually call it quits after three days in the fridge.
Even today, cellars are built with the intention of housing wine in a cool environment. In Romania, however, the cellar was taken to a whole new level. This “cellar” was more of a natural refrigerator. The head of the house was expected to dig deep into the ground and hollow out a room. These were much deeper than most modern cellars. Amazingly, the temperature of this room remained the same during all seasons. The depth of the room determined the final temperature, hence the necessity of an extremely deep excavation. This also meant that the food in the room would avoid harsh freezes, a reality of the geographical area. The goal temperature had a range of anywhere between two and six degrees Celsius.
Smoking was purely used for the purpose of preserving meat. Pork and fish were the main items that were given this treatment. The meat was cut into thin strips before the process began. Salt plays a part in smoking, as well. The strips were soaked in salt to speed up the removal of moisture. This method was preferred, in part, because it added a distinctive flavor to the meat. The smoking process took time, as the meat needed to be exposed over time to avoid completely cooking it. Salt was not always used, but among its other attributes, it also helped to deter flies that would be attracted to fresh kill. Think about how bacon is sent to the market today. It is incredibly salty and cut into strips.
Altering the Food
In situations where it was inconvenient to cool everything, some food was altered to a more preserved state. The sun came in handy for drying out a variety of foods. Even in modern times, people enjoy sun dried fruits. Vegetables, meat, and fruits all dried nicely in the sun, making a food source that lasted much longer than the original version. Pickling the food could enable it to be eaten well out of season, as well. Today we primarily use vinegar for this purpose, but other things accompanied it early on. Food was soaked in salt, herbs, and water. Vinegar and verjuice were commonly used. Verjuice is made from the juice of crab-apples or unripe grapes in most cases. Other fruits with an acidic and sour nature may also have been used. Later in the game, lemon was also added to the mixture. It was understood that storing the items in these solutions after the initial soaking helped to keep it preserved.
Food preservation is an important part of daily meal planning. In modern times there are few obstacles to finding food during all seasons of the year. Mechanical refrigeration and modern transportation have made it easy to store and receive food from many places. People of all time periods, however, knew that food needed to be saved for hard times. These innovative practices sustained various cultures for many years.