Today when we think of food preservation, we envision the act of enveloping a half-eaten burrito in plastic wrap and tossing it into the refrigerator. There are fewer people every day who can remember life without an electrically powered food cooling device, yet the refrigerator is still relatively new technology.
Prior to the use of mechanical coolers, the methods of food preservation included salting, smoking, curing, pickling, corning, preserving/sugaring (fruit), drying, bulk storage in a root cellar, sulfuring, and cold storage.
Salting: The earliest European settlers used salt to cure fish as a preserving agent. Corning is a technique of dry-curing meat with coarse “corns” of salt that were rubbed into the beef. Modern day corning is achieved by brining, or using salt water along with peppercorns and bay leaf as spices.
Smoking: in colonial days the smoking of meat was usually performed during cold months, with December being particularly popular for pig butchering and smoking. A small enclosed shelter where a fire could smolder for weeks was built as an out-building. The meat was hung high enough to be safe from rodents. Usually the meat was packed in a tub of coarse salt for six weeks before being smoked. This building was sometimes called a “meat house.” Smoking was a technique known and used by the Native Peoples.
Pickling: salt, water, spices and homemade vinegar were combined with vegetables (and other items such as flowers) and placed in crocks to preserve the summer crops. A colonial housewife knew that her mixture was strong enough when a fresh egg floated in it. Sometimes the vegetables were cooked prior to preservation. A seal was placed over the top of the jar or crock (a wet piece of leather, and sometimes a wet pig's bladder was used, when the item dried out, it shrunk making a tight seal).
Sugaring: this was the frequent method for preserving fresh fruit, if you had the sugar. Fruit boiled in a sugar syrup then dried were called confections. Sweetmeats were fruit preserved by cooking in a sugar syrup then stored covered in a transparent sugar syrup. The pulp was made into marmalades, while the juice of the fruit was made into jellies.
Drying: Both the Native peoples and the early European colonists used drying as a method to preserve food, however the colonists preferred salting. Peas, pumpkins, apples, beans and blueberries were often dried. The Native Peoples pounded meat to small pieces and mixed it with melted fat, bone marrow and wild berries to make “pemmican.”
root cellar: thick-walled rooms were built beneath the ground. Root vegetables, tubers and hardy vegetables could be kept cool here. The preservation here was temporary as it was subject to rot, rats and other animals.
sulfuring: slices of fruit, such as apples, apricots, peaches and pears are exposed to sulfur smoke to kill bacteria.
cold storage: besides using a root cellar, another early form of keeping food cold was to place it in a spring-house. This was a shed or outbuilding built over a flowing spring. Butter, cream and milk was placed in the running water to stay cool. Eventually the wealthy settlers built ice-houses that were stocked with winter ice and surrounded by hay and sawdust to slow the melting process.