A Brief Introduction to Food Preservation Techniques

Find out how ancient humans were able to preserve meat and ensure adequate salt intake by curing meats.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Kuvona

Clearly, one significant challenge to early humans was how to manage quantities of meat, poultry, fish, and other perishables beyond what people could eat immediately during one or two meals. The development of methods to preserve meat and foods such as grains, milk, and other perishables helped steer humans on our evolutionary path. Sometimes our contemporary fascination and desire for the latest unique food or flavor overlooks how a long history of necessity and struggle for survival are the foundations of extraordinary tastes and unique cultural expressions. The practice of salting and dry curing was an essential preservation technique to manage fresh meat resources and to survive harsh winter months. These preserved foods served as a pantry when food was scarce. Our forebears preserved a remarkably diverse array of great-tasting foods using different combinations of techniques.

Because food preservation was critical to human survival, air- and sun-drying most likely preceded salt and dry curing, all dependent upon favorable geography and climate. In Asian, Egyptian, and Middle Eastern deserts, air- and sun-drying methods sufficed; strips of meat would dry quickly in these arid, hot environments. Archaeological evidence from early cave dwellings in Africa and the Middle East reveals soot deposits on ceilings and walls from fires used to keep people warm, cook food, and provide protection. Prehistoric humans hung meats from the ceiling to dry and smoke.

The Quechua, Aymara, and Inca peoples, living in South America’s Andes Mountains and taking advantage of the high-altitude cold and dry atmosphere, utilized freeze-drying methods to preserve potatoes centuries before high-tech machinery created foods for long-distance hikers. Variations of jerky, derived from the Quechua word ch’arki, meaning dried, salted meat, were found throughout the Americas. In similar fashion Inuit and other arctic dwellers preserved wild salmon by hanging butterflied fish in cold, dry winds. Some two thousand to three thousand years ago in North America, Native peoples cut strips of bison, venison, elk, llama, and moose meat to air- and sun-dry. Many tribes pulverized the jerky and added fat, dried berries, and flavorings to produce pemmican, a lightweight, energy- and protein-dense food. They later taught these techniques to Europeans. Robert Peary took pemmican on his expeditions to the North Pole, while Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton carried it to the South Pole.

Although definitive evidence does not exist for dates of its initial discovery, humans, whether nomadic or sedentary, later developed salt curing as a technique to preserve what they gathered and hunted or their first harvests. A fundamental necessity for early salt-curing practices was access to the mineral resource, and therefore, the technique appeared in different places around the world. These sources included evaporated ocean water, prehistoric deposits, saline pools, and myriad other sites. Since humans and other mammals require salt to live, our ancestors knew where to find adequate supplies. At certain times and places, eating meat was as much about salt requirements as the other physical needs for proteins, fats, and other nutrients.

The word “cure” stems from the Latin word curare, “to take care of.” Beyond a method to preserve food, cure relates to healing or restoring health, a medical remedy, or the means to correct something troublesome or detrimental. The linguistic intersection of food and medicine expresses clearly that ancient peoples both understood and nurtured a close physical relationship between what they ate and human health.

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