Many of you will remember that there was a shortage of canning jars a few years ago. Canning jars are extremely useful in food preservation, but how does someone preserve foods when glass is hard to come by?
In 1795, after observing the toll that poor nutrition from mere salted meat and hardtack was having on his army, Napoleon launched the Preservation Prize – to find a way to preserve food longer. In 1810, French chef Nicolas François Appert came up with a way to seal glass jars with a cork, wire, wax and boiling water. As a scientist and confectioner and the inventor of bouillon cubes, among other things, Appert was awarded 12,000 francs for the Preservation Prize.
Because glass at the time had a tendency to explode, in 1811 Philippe de Girard invented the method of storing food in cans made of tin. Peter Durand patented the method and sold the patent to Bryan Donkin who served King George III; this allowed the cans to be loaded onto British ships. The ship’s doctor gave a very favorable report back about the new food storage method and the positive effects it had on the crew.
The first canned foods – oysters, fruits, meats and vegetables – arrived in New York in 1825 from Thomas Kensett and Ezra Daggert. The tin cans had to be opened with a hammer and a knife or chisel. This form of food preservation was not common in America until 1856 when Gail Bordon invented condensed milk.
In November 1858, John Landis Mason invented the Mason Jar. A few years later, in 1884, Ball began manufacturing home canning glass jars. Even with this new invention, home canning didn’t take off right away. The USDA’s first publication referring to the canning process came out in 1909.
During WWII, when food rations were cut, households were offered extra rations of sugar if they home canned foods. This greatly increased the popularity of canning, but only for a time.
Colonial America didn’t have the luxury of tins or glass jars, but they did have several other ways to preserve their food.
The easiest method was drying. Fruits, vegetables and herbs could be easily dried and stored for later use. Some items, such as onions and garlic, could be braided together in long ropes while peppers and herbs were tied up on strings and hung in the rafters of the cabin.
Beans and corn were left to dry on the plant. Beans were shelled and stored in barrels or cloth bags, while corn, still in the husk, would be stored in corn cribs.
To dry sliced apples, pumpkin, etc., the fruit was laid out on a clean surface in the sun and covered with a light cloth to keep insects away.
Lean meat, usually venison, could be laid on, or pierced through with sticks and hung near a fire to make jerky. A covering placed strategically over the fire directed the smoke toward the meat while allowing the heat to vent out the other way. This slow-dried the meat and imparted a smoky flavor to it. The smoke also repelled insects as the meat dried.
Another method to preserve meat was smoking. Fresh cuts of meat were packed into coarse salt for about six weeks. During this time, the salt pulled moisture out of the meat. The moisture could drain out of the barrel through small holes in the bottom. Then the meat would be hung in a smokehouse. The smokehouse was designed in a way that a slow burning hardwood fire could release a steady stream of smoke while keeping the temperature on the cooler side. The smoke permeated the meat over the course of several weeks. The meat was hung high up in the rafters to help keep it away from vermin.
Coating the meat with hickory ashes or pepper helped deter insects.
Knowing your molds, when smoking meat, was very important. Bright mold, such as bright greens and purples, spelled disaster, but creosote and duller molds could be scraped off.
Pickling vegetables and eggs was an easy process of placing the food into vinegar (an acidic brine) inside glazed pots and using a pig bladder, piece of leather or layer of ghee to cover it.
Submerging clean unwashed eggs into a mixture of limewater sealed and preserved eggs for up to a year.
Fermentation happens as a result of a chemical reaction between naturally present sugars and bacteria. Chopping cabbage, adding a small amount of salt to get the juices flowing, then placing a weight on it to keep the cabbage submerged in its own juices allows a process called lacto-fermentation. This is an anaerobic fermentation since it does not require oxygen to process. Not only does this extend the life of the food but it also increases the nutritional value, such as vitamin C that is important to prevent scurvy, and increases good bacteria for gut health and digestion.
Fruit covered with heavy syrup stored in a barrel made a pleasant winter treat when fresh fruits could not be found. This form of preservation happened mainly among the wealthy since sugar was too expensive for most people.
Fresh meat would be tightly packed into coarse salt. Unlike the salting before smoking the meat, the barrel for this would not have holes in the bottom. A small amount of water could be added to fill in any gaps and to be sure the meat is completely covered. A cover was then placed over the container to seal it. More salt or brine would be added as needed throughout the first six days. The brine kept the meat more moist and palatable than drying while preventing the growth of bacteria.
Placing some crops in root cellars, springhouses, or an attic during the winter extended the life of many foods. Root crops such as potatoes, cabbage, pumpkins, carrots, beets, rutabagas and turnips all do well in root cellars. Placing pickled and fermented foods into cold storage slows the fermentation process, which keeps the taste from becoming too sour.
Springhouses were good for items such as milk, eggs and butter that had been placed into barrels or crocks. Fruits sealed in crocks could also be stored there.
When properly done, food preservation can extend the edibility of food for a long time, even without fancy equipment.