INDIANAPOLIS — Attendees of the Indiana Historical Society’s “Tasting History” seminar sampled food while learning about the science of food preservation.
Culinary historian Tanya Brock told the story of preserving methods new and old at the Nov. 3 event.
“For me, food preservation was just something I grew up doing,” she said. “I lived in Plainfield, not on a farm. But we canned and preserved everything. Whether it was rabbit or deer that my dad hunted, it was my job to help salt and cure it.
“Food has a great story. Not just for the humans involved, but of the micro cultures involved. The science. There are so many microscopic creatures involved.”
When walking down the aisle at the grocery store, nearly every item has gone through a food preservation process, Brock said.
Not so long ago, that wasn’t the case.
“If you wanted your food to last beyond the growing season, you had to figure out a way to preserve it,” Brock said. “That could come about through a variety of methods. Most of those were very old methods.
“For most of us, our parents and grandparents were getting used to a new version of food preservation: canning.”
History Of Canning
The history of canning can be traced back to the days of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Like most inventions, it came about through necessity, Brock said.
Napoleon realized he had a large army that needed to eat. They didn’t always have a good way to carry food, and there were no fast-food restaurants to stop at along the way.
So he searched for ways to preserve food for his army.
“Years later, a French man named Louis Pasteur figured out that if you put food in a jar and heat it up, it lasts a really long time,” Brock said. “Over time, that evolved to a more refined science.
“At the base of it, it’s just putting food in a jar, heating it up and making sure the bacteria cultures are killed off.”
Many methods of food preservation are much older, however.
“One of the oldest and easiest ways is drying,” Brock said. “For something to rot, you need moisture and microbes. As the bacteria eat sugars, it produces a smell. When food is dehydrated, it will last a lot longer. So it’s one of the oldest methods of food preservation.”
Along with produce, meat also can be dehydrated. By packing salt around meat, or “curing” it, you change the meat’s chemistry and alter its texture, allowing it to last longer.
Other ways to preserve food involve aging and fermentation. For example, making cheese — a food that came about in a strange manner.
“With cheese, what happened is that raw milk was put into the belly of a sheep,” Brock said. “It was carried in a sack, got hot and shaken up and, more importantly, a micro-culture existing in the sheep belly starting eating the sugar and producing cheese.
“More specifically, it produced early, young cheese — called curds and whey. You can eat the curds or you can squish them together and allow them to ferment even further.”
Later on, cheese was made inside “cheese caves” — dark, moist places that were conducive to microbial growth.
Those bacteria give cheese a lot of unique flavors and textures, Brock said.
Today the cheese making process has been perfected to four basic steps: curdling, draining, pressing and ripening.
Bake My Day
Although it may not seem like an obvious food preservation method, baking is another way to make grains last longer.
True, historical bread included water, flour, primarily from wheat, and a pinch of salt, Brock said. Microbes were the fourth ingredient.
“As with cheese, the microbes eat the sugar,” Brock said. “When making the dough for bread, you’re incorporating wheat and water. As they’re doing that, proteins called glutens are developing. It is a stretchy substance, like chewing gum.
“Over time, as the yeast reduces the sugars, they’re releasing gas. The gas is trapped and we kill the yeast in the oven.
“The crust is one of the main parts that makes bread a preserved food item. That crust is a nasty environment when you’re a tiny microbe.”
Modern bread has several preservatives added to it. Even so, it will not last as long as other preserved foods that have been dried, canned or even brewed.
“Beers last a lot longer than bread,” Brock said.
“When you thinking about caloric intake and how you’re going to sustain yourself for long periods of time, this (alcohol) has been historically the way most cultures have survived.
“Alcohol has been a preservative that packs a lot of calories into a small space. It’s full of proteins left behind from grains and sugars — both simple and complex carbohydrates. Bacteria is killed out in the boiling process, making it safer to drink than contaminated water.”
Other preserving methods include pickling, jellying, freeze-drying and more.
Learn more at www.freshpreserving.com.