Article By Steve Rustad
When John Gray, owner of Bubbies, asked me to create a video series on pickling I was delighted. Personally, I find the subject of food preservation fascinating. With so many interesting aspects ranging from history to economics to nutrition, the show has limitless possibilities and avenues for discovery.
To start, without the ability to preserve food, we’d all still be hunter-gatherers spending our waking hours foraging and tracking to get enough food to survive. Not much time left over to invent the wheel.
Fortunately, some pre-historic Einstein noted that food scraps dried by the sun stayed edible and nutritious for quite some time.
While some academics like to credit the discovery of food preservation with the birth of civilization, I tend to think that it was learning how to cultivate crops, as well as preserve the harvest, that allowed for stable, permanent communities and caused our nomadic predecessors to (literally) put down roots.
An astonishing fact about food preservation is that it permeated every culture at nearly every moment in time. The “how” depended on geography: In frozen climates people froze meat on the ice, or smoked it over a fire. In the tropics, they dried foods in the sun.
So, let’s take a short tour of food preservation beginning with…
In fact, drying is just one of the primitive forms of food preservation that is still in use today, and include smoking, salting, freezing, and fermenting.
Evidence for the use of dehydration (sun-drying) to preserve food is found as early as 12,000 B.C. In less arid climes, where there wasn’t adequate sunlight, “still houses” were built with a fire inside the building to provide the heat needed to reduce the moisture in the air.
After drying, came the use salt, which was especially important for preserving meats. Salt was originally made by evaporating seawater. Salting (or salt-curing) works by drawing moisture from the meat through osmosis. Meat was often cured with sugar as well as salt, or a combination of the two. Curing with salt or sugar was the main method of preserving meats and fish until the advent of refrigeration.
Creating salt in sufficient quantities was labor-intensive, which made it expensive. As a result, generally only meats high in fat (e.g, taste) would be preserved. A less tempting meat such as mutton wasn’t preserved as often. Tough, stringy and poor in taste, mutton was literally ‘not worth its salt’.
The origins of salt-preserving food go back to Ancient Egypt, where the priests used salt as part of the embalming process. After Christianity spread throughout Europe, salt-preserving fish became a profitable business since fish for consuming during 40 days of Lent was in high demand. Among the sea-faring Nordic peoples, herring was most common salted fish. Very high in oil content, herring would turn rancid if it wasn’t salted within a day of being caught.
By medieval times, specific salts such as nitrates and nitrites were used to cure meat. They also created a pink color, which people preferred to the usual grey, and they killed the Clostridium botulinum, or Botulism bacteria.
Foods commonly eaten today, like corned beef, ham, salt-pork, and kippers harken back to those early days.
As I mentioned about, salt has been pivotal to civilization. The word “salary” stems from the Latin word “salarium,” meaning “salt money.” The Romans paid soldiers, officers, and civil administrators an allowance of salt. Salarium continued to be the term for military pay after salt was no longer used to pay soldiers.
Salt was so highly valued that its production was legally restricted in ancient times. As it was literally “worth its weight in gold” it was used as a method of trade and currency.
Maintaining or creating nutritional value, texture and flavor is an important aspect of food preservation, although, historically, some methods drastically altered the character of the food being preserved. In many cases these changes have come to be seen as desirable qualities – cheese, yogurt and pickled onions being common examples.
Smoke curing, or smoking, was possibly a result of still houses (cited above) when the smoke from the drying fire gave the meat or fish a distinctive taste. Plus, antimicrobial compounds in wood smoke prevent spoilage. Fruits and vegetables, cheeses, spices, and ingredients for making drinks such as malt and tea leaves are also smoked, but mainly for cooking or flavoring them.
Pickling is a method of preserving food in an edible anti-microbial liquid. Its earliest form, salt-water pickling, possibly originated when early man discovered that sea water prevented spoilage.
Pickling can be broadly categorized into two categories: vinegar pickling and fermentation pickling. In vinegar pickling, the food is placed in vinegar (essentially over-fermented cider). In fermentation pickling, the food itself produces the preservation agent, typically by a process that produces lactic acid.
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 Chemist shop.
Fermentation is the microbial conversion of starch and sugars that not only produces alcohol, but is a valuable preservation technique. It can also make foods more nutritious and palatable.
Beer is one of the world’s oldest fermented beverages, possibly dating back to the early Neolithic or 9500 BC, when cereal was first farmed. Beer is recorded in the written history of ancient Iraq and ancient Egypt.
And it had a major effect on public health. Drinking water in the Middle Ages was dangerous because it often contained disease-spreading pathogens. Convert water into beer and the resulting alcohol kills any bacteria in the water that could make people sick. Additionally, beer has the nutrients from the barley and other ingredients, and microorganisms that produced vitamins as they fermented.
Fermentation was not invented, but rather discovered. In all likelihood, beer was discovered when a few grains of barley were left in the rain. Microorganisms fermented the sugars into alcohols. Similarly, fruits fermented into wine, cabbage into Kim chi or sauerkraut, and so on. Scholars believe that mankind settled down from nomadic wanderers into farmers to grow barley to make beer in roughly 10,000 BC.
ALCOHOL AS MONEY
One of the first popular currencies in the United States was classic whiskey. Most forms of money were extremely scarce in our country after the Revolutionary War. The economy east of the Appalachian Mountains flourished during this period, but migration to the west was slow. This meant Western farmers had fewer customers and less income if they didn’t travel eastward. As a result, they began to distill their excess grain into whiskey. The supplemental income kept them in business, and the whiskey was easier to transport through the mountains. Everyone from bartenders to surgeons needed alcohol, and its use as money became custom.
OTHER PRESERVATION TECHNIQUES
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 trade with India and the Orient that brought pickled foods to Europe also 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 re-contaminating the food within the jar or can.
Besides insuring a sufficient food supply the various preservation techniques add another value to food…taste. Saltwater fermentation changes a bland commodity such as the humble cucumber into a pickle. Sun-drying a tomato and smoking bacon both enhance and intensify flavor.
Many folks ascribe health benefits to pickled and fermented foods. There are a vast number of articles and blogs raving about the benefits of foods like sauerkraut which suggest that there may something worth investigating.
RECAPTURING OLD WISDOM
Almost all of the techniques currently used to pickle, ferment, cure or otherwise preserve food have been in use for centuries if not millennia. Today’s practitioners are relearning the wisdom of our ancestors.
I see a strong connection with so-called “Maker” movement in the passions of men and women to be self-sufficient while expressing their individual creativity.
Among picklers and fermenters, there also seems be an almost visceral reaction the corporate food industry, which regularly turns to additives to boost the taste of packaged foods often at the expense of nutrition. So many processed foods rely on adding fat, sugar or salt to raise the “flavor profile.” The consequences are reflected in today’s phenomenal rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
People who are passionate about the preservation techniques I’ve mentioned seem to want to create food that as “natural” as possible.
Food preservation was important not only for sustenance and survival, but for flavor and ritual. Throughout history and across the planet there are numerous special occasions in which preserved foods that have religious or celebratory meanings.
Today, as most people buy and consume commercially produced and packaged foods, they have been removed from a rural self-sufficient way of life. Thanks to the growing world of picklers, fermenters and other food alchemists, attention has shifted from preserving food for storage, to creating more natural, more nutritious and tasteful things to eat.