Most people can probably list some general ingredients for preserving food: salt, vinegar, sugar, maybe one or two others. But most people have never really thought about the total “lay of the land” when it comes to ingredients that are used to preserve food worldwide. Knowing these basics, however, can open up your understanding of, and ultimate success with, preserving your own food. Let’s take the ingredients one-by-one (we’ll cover food preservation methods in a future Spin):
When people think of acid, they automatically think vinegar. Vinegar is, indeed, an important acid that is a key ingredient in food preservation. But there’s more to the world of acids than just vinegar. Lemons, citric acid, and vitamin C help to prevent discoloration when preserving food and, in the case of lemons, can help jams and jellies to set. These ingredients can also be good antioxidants, which help prevent food degradation. Acids make the physical environment in preserved food too acidic for harmful bacteria to grow effectively — vinegar is especially good at this.
In fact, vinegar is the king of acids when it comes to food preservation. Vinegar comes from the French word meaning “sour wine,” which indicates the long history of vinegar paralleling wine-making. For food preservation, there is a wide range of flavored and plain vinegar available to the homeowner. Ranging from a clear liquid (distilled white vinegar) to a rich maroon (malt vinegar), there is a vinegar to suit your food preservation needs be it a chutney, pickle, or spiced fruit.
Ah, alcohol…so many uses, so little time. Alcohol is used as an ingredient in different food preservation techniques such as pickling or with sugar to preserve fruits as jams, jellies, and spirits. The fruit and alcohol marriage, in fact, was discovered in Medieval monasteries where the preserved fruit was eaten first, then the fruit liquor enjoyed later.
Alcohol is a toxic inhibitor, meaning it prevents the spoilage of preserved foods. In fact, nothing can grow in pure alcohol and depending upon which kind of alcohol you use, it can blend wonderfully with just about any ingredient. From rum to brandy to vodka, alcohol has earned a place as one of the most useful and versatile of all food preservation ingredients.
FAT AND OIL
Before refrigeration fats and oils were important ingredients in food preservation. The main role was to seal in moisture and keep out oxygen, which spoils food, as a thick layer on top of the meat they were meant to keep. Butter, lard, fats from fowl, and vegetable oils all had a regular place as a food preservation ingredient.
But it can be a tricky to use fat as an ingredient to preserve foods; the layer of fat needs to be fairly thick (an inch at least) to prevent the food beneath from spoiling. It is best to get a fair amount of experience with this ingredient before counting on it as a staple in food preservation.
The function of lye is the opposite of acids; instead of making the physical environment too acid for bacterial growth, lye makes it too basic for bacterial growth. Traditionally lye was leached from hardwood ashes and was used by cultures all over the world as an ingredient to cure food. The Norwegian fish dish lutefisk uses lye and lye is used to cure olives, among others.
Modern food-grade lye can be difficult to obtain, can be expensive, and it is dangerous to use. The traditional method of leaching lye from hardwood ashes was effective in the past and lye is a wonderful ingredient for food preservation. Lye also has other uses such as in making soap and as an ingredient in other food processing such as in breads or to make hominy.
Salt is the oldest ingredient in food preservation, going back to Egyptian times when it was used to preserve both food and mummies. After the Egyptians, early Christians who could eat nothing but fish during Lent used salt to dry the fish for consumption since fresh fish was frequently difficult to get and transport.
Salt is used as an ingredient to both brine and dry meats and fish. Brine-curing meats involves soaking meat in a very strong salt water for what can be weeks at a time. Meats can also be dried by packing them well with salt, which slowly draws out the moisture. When using salt as an ingredient in preservation avoid table salt, which can have anti-caking agents that affect the quality and taste of your food. The best salts to use for preservation are preserving salt, coarse kosher salt, and kosher salt. Saltpeter is another salt essential for curing meats. Saltpeter is potassium nitrate, which was historically mined from saltpeter rock.
Sugar is most frequently associated with preserving jams and jellies, but can also be included in pickles and chutneys to balance the flavors. Sugars as ingredients for food preservation come in many forms including granulated and preserving sugar, which are both white and produce the clearest and hardest-set jams and jellies. Other sugars include molasses and honey, maple syrup, and brown sugars of varying shades. These types of sugars add more distinct flavors to whatever is being preserved and also create softer products.
Read our next installment: Food Preservation: Let’s Talk Methods.