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Food Preservation- What is traditional?

Note:  In a concerted effort to become less neurotic about food, while continuing to learn more about it and how it affects us, I am not presenting the following information in a "do this, don't do that" format.  You are a big girl/boy.  Learn from the information I share and apply it to your life as you see fit.
How should you preserve the bounty of your garden or farmer's market?

Preserving food at home has recently enjoyed a renaissance.  The combination of a crappy economy, environmental consciousness (we want our food to travel as little as possible), and heightened awareness of the health implications of processed and industrial foods has inspired people to resurrect the practices of their grandmothers or great grandmothers... or farther back still.

I grew up around canning.  It was a strong part of my family tradition, our history.  As such, I have always been comfortable with canning, from my first batches of jam and canned pears back in California to last summer's prolific haul of preserves, salsa, tomato sauces, and even shelling beans (my first foray into pressure canning).

When you think of canning, what comes to mind?  Perhaps you have no historical context for canning, or it simply makes you think of scenes you have only seen on TV.  Or perhaps you are like me and grew up with a mother and grandmother who spend the summer preserving the bounty of their gardens, canning everything they knew how to.  To this day my grandma still cans beef every year- warming a jar of canned beef to eat over mashed potatoes or toast is one of her favorite easy meals.  And my dad's cousin, who is fortunate enough to live near the ocean, cans tuna every year (and oh how jealous I am... of everything except the smell, but I hear she does it on her porch).  You, like me, may consider canning a part of your family history.
Tomato sauce in the water bath.

The History of Canning.
Then it may surprise you to hear that canning is the newest form of food preservation.  It's darn near modern.  A French confectioner during the late 18th century discovered that packing food in a sealed jar and heating it prevented spoilage.  Soon after Napoleon offered a reward to anyone who could preserve food for his troops (now I wonder why he didn't carry vats of lacto-fermented pickles and sauerkraut like pretty much every army before him...), and this French confectioner won the reward.  Canning was born and soon the practice became widespread, eventually leading to the commercially available canned and jarred foods we know now, as well as our home canning practices.
Lacto-fermented pickles, bubbling away.

Other forms of preservation are considerably older- fermentation being possibly the most prominent and widespread, and with good reason.  The process of lacto-fermentation is not only an extremely effective method of preserving food without refrigeration, it is the only method that actually increases the nutritional value of the food instead of depleting it.  When you eat a sour pickle you get not only most of the cucumber's original nutrients (although some do break down) you get increased vitamin B from the lactic acid producing bacteria (including significant levels of folic acid, an important nutrient for children and women of child bearing age) as well as a significant shot of probiotics, which helps to promote gut health, encouraging the gut to absorb and even create more nutrients.  It is believed that the practice of lacto-fermenting pickles dates back as far as 2400 with the Mesopotamians.  Many historical figures, from Julius Caesar to Aristotle, lorded the health benefits of pickles, and Cleopatra credited her beauty to a diet full of them.

Preserved in Vinegar.
Similar to lacto-fermenting, pickling and preserving in vinegar has a long history.  While fermented pickles are packed in a salt brine and are rendered acidic by lactic acid, vinegar preserving uses acetic acid, and when raw wine or cider vinegar is used many of the health benefits remain, as the vinegar itself is a probiotic and vitamin B rich substance.  I found many different claims, but some say preserving in vinegar dates back to the Babylonian empire, or about 1700 BC.

Salt, Sugar, and Smoke Cured.
The practice of curing was (and is) of particular value when preserving meats.  When packed in salt meats that would have otherwise rotted or become rancid were able to be kept and used for many months.  The Native Americans of the plains found that meat hung in the tops of their teepees, where it caught the smoke from their fires, kept longer and developed a more palatable flavor.  Salted meats and fish was of particular value to ships and Navies, who were often at sea for months.  While salt, smoke, or some combination of the two is the most common way to cure meat, sugar is often added to reduce the harsh flavor of the salt.
Herbs drying in my old dehydrator.

Drying food is probably the easiest and most ancient way to preserve food, especially meat and fruit.  After all, you only have to lay it out to dry in the sun.  Cultures in the Middle East were actively drying foods as far back as 12,000BC, and the ancient Romans were particularly fond of dried fruits- they built special buildings to dry fruits in places where the sun was insufficient, utilizing fire, which often smoked as well as dried.

When we think if jam today, we think of it in the context of canning, but jamming, or preserving fruits in sugar, predates canning.  Ancient Greeks preserved fruit by soaking it in honey, and later cultures furthered the process by boiling the fruit and honey mixture and producing a solid mixture- jam.  Making jam was popular in climates where drying proved impractical.

We think of freezing food as a modern convenience, but certain climates have been able to freeze food, at least over winter, for thousands of years.  More recently, but before the advent of modern refrigeration, wealthy families built ice houses- blocks of ice were harvested in the winter and packed tightly, together with straw or wood shavings as insulation.  This ice would keep through the summer and was used to cool and freeze foods and beverages.  This model lead to the more common ice box- an insulated box kept cool by an ice block, which was delivered daily.

This history lesson leads us to the question- what exactly is traditional?  And why does it matter?  I think that the more important question isn't what is traditional, but what are the most healthful ways to preserve food?  Traditional is difficult to define, while health giving foods can be reasonably quantified and qualified.  Traditional is a lens, or a tool, that we can use to view the foods available for us to eat.  Is it traditional?  Is there a society that has been eating this food for hundreds of years while maintaining good health and vitality?  But this can not be our ONLY tool for evaluating food, because certain methods of preserving food have become traditional (in some sense of the word) and have been used for many generations (although one could argue that it isn't so in a culture of vibrant health). For a lot of reasons I think the best answer is one and the same- the same methods that can be thought of as truly traditional are the most healthful.  Fermentation, for the reasons I listed in that section, is the best option.  And I can attest that it is a good an effective method of long term preservation.

Beware of certain canning recipes, and of the attitude that "as long as it's homemade, it's healthy."  A batch of jelly that contains 6 cups of fruit and 11 cups of sugar is not a healthy way to preserve said fruit, even if you made it with your own hands and organic fruit (in fact, what a waste of organic fruit!).  And for the vegetables and fruits you would rather not ferment, freezing is an excellent option, and when done quickly after harvest it preserves much of the original nutritional content.

Do I can?  Obviously, I do.  Despite what I just said, I consider it a part of my family history.  But for the reasons listed above as well as the fact that canning is more work than freezing, I am selective about what I can.  What do I preserve by canning?  Mostly tomato products- salsa, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, pizza sauce, pasta sauce, and enchilada sauce.  This is because tomatoes suffer the least from nutritional deterioration through the canning process (vitamin C is lost, but lycopene actually becomes more available), and because the homemade versions I make are actually superior to commercial varieties, as tomato products often contain added sugar and preservatives.  I also can fruits and jams, but using low sugar methods (not in fruit juice, though, because I actually think preserving in a little bit of sugar, or better yet honey, is healthier than using fruit juice, which increases the amount of fructose in the fruit...) instead of the traditional high sugar recipes found in most boxes of pectin.  How do I accomplish this?  Find some Pomona's Universal Pectin.  It is far more versatile than other commercial pectin brands, and the recipes call for far less sugar (and less exact amounts, meaning you can adjust it to your tastes and needs).

This post has been shared on Homestead Revival's Barn Hop, Kelly the Kitchen Kop's Real Food Wednesday, Real Food Forager's Fat Tuesday, Cooking TF's Traditional Tuesday, The Nourishing Gourmet's Pennywise Platter, Beyond the Peel's Keep it Real Thursday, and The Healthy Home Economist's Monday Mania.

1 comment:

Katie @ This Chick Cooks said...

Great information! You've inspired me to try lacto-fermenting a batch of jalapeños I have sitting around waiting to be used.
I also host a recipe swap for whole foods each Wednesday and would LOVE for you to come and share great posts like this one. Have a good day!

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