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The Complete History of Food Preservation

What started as a necessity to survival eventually became something the vast majority of people rely on chemicals to do for them. While it may be a lost art, food preservation can, and should, still be accomplished at home.

Many times, the best way to learn how to be better in the future is to look into our past and learn from history. That’s exactly what we’re going to do here.

The History of Food Preservation

In this post, we’ll be exploring the history of food preservation. We’ll start at the beginning and work our way towards more modern practices. Along the way, we’ll explore how food was preserved in the past, why it works, and how it can still be done today.

Read on to learn more about the history of food preservation.

History of Food Preservation

We’re going to look at the history of food preservation from ancient times, all the way through our modern era. A lot of what our ancestors discovered and used to keep food fresh for much longer can help us store our food long-term today, too.


This is one of the oldest forms of preservation throughout the history of food preservation.

According to historians, people in the ancient Middle East were setting food out in the sun to dry out as far back as 12,000 BC.

The sun continued to be the main dryer in dehydrating food until the Medieval Ages, when meat and produce would be thinly sliced and clipped up to a string to be dried by the heat of a fire.

How Does This Work?

Dehydrating works very similarly to curing, but without the salt. Microorganisms like bacteria, enzymes, and yeast, need moisture to grow.

If you remove the moisture, you remove the environment in which they can thrive, therefore lowering the risk of them ruining your food.

How to Do This Today

Today, thanks to learning from the ancient methods in the history of food preservation, there are now machines that will help us efficiently dehydrate a wide variety of foods.

There are even some dehydrators small enough to fit on your kitchen counter that are very affordable.

Dehydrating Food

For more details about dehydration, including how long dehydrated food lasts, check out our post All about Dehydrated Food Storage.


In the history of food preservation, there’s signs that ancient people as far back as 3,000 BC may have been using oil and salt to make food last longer.

We know for sure that Romans learned about using salt to make meat last longer from the Greeks around 200 BC.

They might not have understood exactly how or why it worked, but it was continued on and in the late 1800s people began understand a little more about exactly how curing meats preserves them.

How Does This Work?

In order to thrive, bacteria need water. When salt is added to the equation, the amount of liquid the bacteria could grow in within the meat reduces dramatically, therefore staving off the growth of harmful bacteria.

How to Do This Today

Curing your own meat at home is surprisingly easy! We can learn from the history of food preservation that simple is better more often than not.

Curing meat

Add a layer of salt to a container. Place your thinly sliced meat on top and then cover with another layer of salt. Place the container in your fridge for 24 hours and the meat will be cured!

According to the history of food preservation, homemade cured meat should last for up to 18 months.


Did you know the very first cookbook ever written included a recipe for jam?

It’s true! A roman cookbook, dating back to the fourth century AD, has a recipe for fresh fruit heated, smashed, and mixed with honey. It was then cooled, stored, and used as jam.

This was a way for ancient Romans to stretch their fresh fruit harvests. If it was important this far back in the history of food preservation to make fruit last longer, and it’s just as important now.

How Does This Work?

Pectin is a fiber naturally found in the walls of all fruit cells. In the fruit cells, it works to hold everything together.

When fruit is heated up and mashed to pieces, the pectin forms something sort of like a net. Once cool, it firms up and aids in the preservation of the fruit for a longer time.

When sealed properly in a water bath, jars of freshly preserved jam can last anywhere from 1-2 years.

How to Do This Today

According to the history of food preservation, fruit needs to be thoroughly cleaned, peeled/pitted (if necessary), and cut into pieces. Add two cups of fresh fruit, two tablespoons of a citrus juice, one tablespoon of citrus zest, and a quarter cup of sugar to a pot.

Homemade Jam

Cook over medium heat and smash up the fruit as it softens. Let it simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until you see it thicken.

Pour into glass jars, seal, and store for up to two years.


Canning was discovered by a French man named Nicolas Appert in the early 1800s. He discovered that if you tightly sealed a jar or bottle of food, heated it for an extended period of time, and left it sealed, the food would remain fresh.

This massive discovery in our history of food preservation only happened because Appert’s government asked him to figure out a way to make food last longer for France’s Army and Navy.

How Does This Work?

Any microorganisms alive in the food will be killed by the prolong exposure to heat. Once the vessel is sealed completely, it protects the food preserved inside from any new microorganisms, since it’s impossible for any new ones to enter.

How to Do This Today

While many store-bought canned-goods are inside metal cans and are absolutely worth getting for long term food storage, you can can your own fresh food in glass jars.

Canning Food

While it was simpler at the beginning of the history of this food preservation technique, the way you go about canning your fresh food now will vary greatly depending on what you’re canning and the items you have access to. It can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like it to be.

There are many guides online for more specific instructions.

Most homemade canned goods are good for up to two years, but you should start thinking about using them after one year.


Pasteurization was actually named after the man who discovered the technique when he was challenged with discovering why some milk was going bad much quicker than other milk—Louis Pasteur.

In the history of food preservation, this discovery in 1862 was a turning point in the scientific understanding of microorganisms and the effect they have on our food.

How Does This Work?

Pasteurization is to liquids what canning is to solids. The idea is the same. Liquids are heated to such a temperature, somewhere between 161°-302°F, for a specific length of time in order to kill all microorganisms that are inside.

Once everything has been killed, the seal on the container prevents other microorganisms from entering, thus it is kept sterile.

How to Do This Today

If you have raw milk, whether from a cow you own or bought from a local farmer, the history of food preservation has taught us how to pasteurize our own liquids at home.

Pasteurized Milk

The easiest and quickest way to pasteurize something at home is to use the double boiler method. Put a small pot with some water on the stovetop and get it simmering. Add the liquid to be pasteurized to a glass or metal bowl that’s a bit bigger than the pot of water and put it on top, over the simmering water.

Make sure to use a pot holder or towel to hold onto the bowl because it will get hot. Whisk while it warms up and use a thermometer to keep track of the temperature.

Once the temperature has reached 161°F, keep it steadily at that temperature for 15 seconds. You can then remove it from heat and let cool. You’ve pasteurized your liquid!

It should last in your fridge for two weeks.

Vacuum Packaging

Vacuum packaging entered the history of food preservation scene during the Second World War. It was created to protect the food of the men going off to war.

This is still an excellent way to preserve food in today’s world because it not only preserves the food’s integrity and cleanliness, but also its quality and flavor.

How Does This Work?

Vacuum Packaging works to preserve food because it removes oxygen from the equation. A lack of oxygen means that all the living things that spoil food (bacteria, enzymes, etc.), can’t grow because living things need oxygen to survive.

Vacuum packaging places food inside plastic packages, which are then placed into a machine that will suck all the air from the packaging and then use heat to seal the open edge, preventing any new oxygen from getting to the food.

How to Do This Today

There are many machines available to purchase that will make it easy for you to vacuum pack your own food to make it last 2-3 years when frozen!

Vacuum sealed food

You’ll need a machine and the proper bags. Then simply follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Wrapping up the History of Food Preservation

The history of food preservation stretches all the way back to ancient times and every discovery made along the way has made it easier for us today to preserve food for our emergency food storages.

It’s important to look at our past, learn from it, and apply what we learn to make our future that much better.

If you’d like to learn more about emergency preparedness, make sure to check out some of these posts:

How to Become Self-Sufficient in 8 Simple Steps

How to Organize Your Survival Food Storage

The 9 Best Survival Food Companies