There’s a basic fact about the food we eat: it’s perishable. Any time you’ve pulled some forgotten takeout from the back of your fridge, or observed the terrarium of mold that was once a fresh loaf of bread knows this. Our food is derived from organic life, plant or animal and that matter is subject to the same biological forces that await every living thing: it rots. With the famous exception of fermented foods and certain molded ones (think Bleu cheese), we generally want to limit bacterial life in our foods.
Once food starts to decay, it loses its freshness and desired flavor, aroma and color, producing off-flavors and odors. It also means we will have to spend more time and energy growing and gathering our subsistence. Since ancient times, people all over the earth have come up with the means to preserve food, allowing cultures to remain more stable and sedentary.
The way we cultivate and source our food is a too often overlooked but highly influential aspect of our lives. The practice of agriculture, coupled with preservation, storage and commodity-based economics, led to the rise of civilization. This is a fact. What is also evident that this same practice, evident in massive industrial farms also creates massive amounts of problems when not managed appropriately in accordance with the Earth’s natural patterns. Conventional agriculture is a short term business, only now are we beginning to realize and react to the long term impacts of salting the Earth, losing soil quality and the negative effects of overusing spray (think DDT) , synthetic fertilizers and preservatives. In actuality, the Earth is capable of growing food naturally- thank you very much- the difference is that it takes a lighter hand, diverse plant species and more participation from humans, in a form as simple as having your own garden or pet chickens.
So where does preserving food fit into all of this? Preservation is important, especially in climates where there is a winter season (anything too far above or below the equator) or where there are harsh growing conditions. Relying on conventional methods of preservation are not the best of quality for humans or the planet. Have we taken the concept too far in modern life where over-processed food can last years, even decades? Mainstream contemporary methods of preservation use synthetic or lab chemicals to extend the life of food and enable companies to ship food thousands of miles.
Preservatives are an essential key, or the tool in making industrial agriculture and GMO crops proliferate the globe. This reality is sustained simply because we continue to eat them. Think your last meal from Taco Bell, or even the beloved McDonald’s was fresh? Of course not. (And yes, it was filled with GMOs). If you have tasted a tomato from your own garden or made your own fries from scratch, you know the difference…
A modest city farmette’s food surplus can be preserved well into the next season.
While industrial agriculture continues to overwhelming feed the greater part of so-called “developed” societies, more people are becoming aware of the determent and simultaneously the benefits that a person receives when they eat local food, either fresh or preserved in a natural and sustainable manner. An contrary to popular belief, good food doesn’t need to be expensive. Food grows. Not from a laboratory, or a giant farm- food grows naturally in nature, especially with a little help from human hands.
Many individuals, families and even companies are looking for alternative means to meals, either through sourcing local food, joining a CSA or growing a dense, highly productive garden. The surplus (and any intensive gardener) knows there will be a surplus can be shared and saved into the winter season. This is where natural methods of preservation comes in, achievable by an individual or small business. Let’s take a look at different methods and give a brief overview. These preservation methods are simply what giant companies cannot do without additives. But you can, easily.
One of the oldest food preservation methods is drying. When you remove moisture from food, bacteria and yeast are inhibited from growing, as both need water in order to grow. Some Native American cultures dried their game by hanging it on horizontal poles and exposing it to direct sun and wind.
Another ancient burial method, burial accomplishes preservation by many different means, although they have to come together in concert before food can be adequately preserved. This method would optimally possess a pH that maintains the correct temperature and alkalinity. Burial primarily works as a preservation method by depriving food of light and oxygen. Vessels, such as clay pots were employed to bury food. Hundred-year eggs and kim chee were foods that were often buried.
By exposing cheeses and meats to smoke and heat, they are preserved by killing bacteria and then prohibiting the introduction of moisture, through proper storage. Wood smoke is an anti-bacterial and anti-microbial agent. There are many methods for smoking food, from primitive methods to modern ones, but they all employ some enclosure, to trap smoke and heat, which is consistently maintained. Smoking is a form of curing and it also imparts flavoring to food.
Salt extracts moisture from food through osmosis. It’s also an older form of food preservation. In times of early commodities trade, meat was often packed in salt, to be shipped in barrels.
Sugaring foods, such as fruit, creates a hostile environment for microbial life. Sugared fruit is often desiccated (dried), and then packed in raw sugar. Candied fruits are preserved using this method. Packaging fruits in a sugary syrup is another method. Think of canned cling peaches, or canned fruit cocktail. As a grim aside, sugaring was used in ancient Egypt to preserve the corpses of royals, as a mummification method. They immersed the bodies in honey, in this instance.
When foods are pickled, they are stored in a protective, anti-microbial and edible medium, such as vinegar, or a salty brine. These foods are usually boiled or prepared in such a way so that the food won’t take on too much of the pickling liquid. Peppers, cucumbers, corned beef and eggs are preserved foods that are pickled.
Canning fruit is a good way to preserve the summer’s harvest into winter.
Canning involves cooking food, which kills pathogens. The food is then stored in sealed, airtight containers. The sealing process exposes the food to boiling temperatures, which again inhibits remaining harmful microbiota. Canning requires care, so that water isn’t introduced to the food, which would then allow the growth of pathogens.
When jellying, food is boiled, breaking it down. Agar, gelatin or arrowroot powder are then introduced, which creates a gel, which inhibits the growth of pathogens. Since the jelly needs to be in a container, it makes it a popular choice for canning, which preserves it further. Jellied eels are a delicacy in London’s East End.
Vacuum packing is a newer innovation and if used appropriately can help preserve the surplus from your garden into the next year. A vacuum is an environment without air, so vacuum-sealing works as a means of preservation by prohibiting oxygen from allowing bacterial growth and oxidation. This method has been adopted at a large industrial scale or for small sustainable enterprises. Nuts, for example, are products that are commonly vacuum-sealed to preserve freshness. -MIKE KLEPFER