A Brief History of Food Drying

Food dehydration is the world’s oldest method of food preservation. Think for a moment: Before refrigerators and freezers how did people preserve food? For the most part, they dried it. Today we are living in a time of canned this, frozen that, irradiated something else. Canning, which is another way to preserve and store food, is only about two hundred years old. Both the canning and freezing of food rose to popularity during the early 1900s, when electricity became more and more available to people, no matter where they lived. However, ignored until recently was the age-old process of drying food as a method of storing it.

Find out all you need to know about dehydrating food at easy-food-dehydrating.com. The website is a must-read for anybody interested in learning about dehydrating food. It contains detailed instructions and recipes for dehydrating fruits, vegetables, meat and even pet food. The site is run by Susan Gast who is the author of several books on food dehydration and is very passionate about the topic.

A Brief History of Food Drying

Centuries past, people in the Near East preserved fruit by wrapping it in dried palm leaves and burying it in hot sand to dry. Only a century or so ago, people in the Arctic created caches of surplus “freeze dried” walrus meat by piling stones on top of their treasure to keep predators from devouring it. Native Americans in northern parts of the United States used smoke (dry circulating air) from a fire to dry meat, herbs, vegetables, or fish. Indians in Peru dried potatoes (and do to this day) by first freezing them overnight outdoors, then trampling them the next day while the potatoes thawed, thus squeezing out the water remaining in them. Then, they air-dried the potatoes until crisp enough to store. Almost everywhere in the world, people have utilized some food-drying method in order to save food from one season to the next, be it hay or corn or seal meat or apples.

Why did people dry food? Quite simply, because fresh food was not always available. Without dried foods, a nomadic lifestyle would have been impossible. The sun and wind, or the smoke from a fire, provided the means to remove water from grains, meat, fruits, and herbs; thus were they preserved from one season to the next. However, success in drying food depended upon choosing the right days on which to dry it, luck, and more than a little ingenuity. The elements were unpredictable. Food that was left to dry in open fields, for example, could be gone in a flash: It could rain, insects might infest it, wild animals and birds might help themselves.

Over time, people in different cultures perfected drying wild and cultivated foods. The Greeks and Romans dried peas and grapes successfully. The Persians learned how to preserve dates, and apricots, and melons. The Chinese and Japanese, clever at the art of food preservation, cured fish and sea vegetables. Mongolian explorers, en route to Europe, packed bundles of dried milk products to sustain them on their long journey. In our own country, early settlers, observing the practice of sun-drying food by Native Americans in the northern regions, learned to dry many varieties of corn, squash, and herbs, plus buffalo meat and venison as they pioneered west.

In the United States, during the nineteenth century, many housewives preserved fruits in sugar, vegetables and nuts in salt, fruits and vegetables in brine. Dried food was a traditional alternative to fresh food, but before the age of glass canning jars and self-sealing zinc jar lids, which were not patented until 1858, food was likely to be stored in stone or earthenware crocks, tin cans, and glass containers. Sealing wax, beeswax, corks, and even putty were sometimes used to seal the lids.

Throughout history, dried meats and fish have provided life-sustaining protein for people around the world. Our ancestors dried meats and kept them year after year, without benefit of refrigeration. Meats and fish, in fact, were the foods most commonly dried. The irony of this is that fish is one of the most difficult types of food to dry because of the potential for bacterial growth in the raw product. Historically, meat, like fish, was pre-treated in a dry salt cure or a brine solution, the salt serving to draw water out of the food. Lastly, meats and fish were also smoked.

Many foods today would not be part of the world’s cuisines were it not for people having figured out how to dry and thus preserve them. How different Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and other Asian cuisines would be without dried fish, shellfish, or sea vegetables, including seaweed. Over centuries of experimenting, Asian peoples found that many foods when dried had intriguing flavors and textures that they did not have when eaten fresh. For instance, the Chinese enjoy fresh sea scallops in cooking, but even their delicacy cannot be compared to the exquisite taste of a dried scallop. Flowers, too, like lily buds, are eaten fresh in the Orient but more commonly are dried, as are fungi, such as tree ears. Some items, such as shark’s fin and sea slug, are more prized (and more expensive) in dried form than fresh.

The Chinese lay claim to being the first to cure pork products— ham, bacon, and sausage— calling ham huo-fu, or fire-dried meat. Actually, the word refers to any meat that is cured by having first been soaked in a soy sauce marinade, then dried over a slow fire. The Chinese treated bacon in the same way. To this day, strips of cured pork belly, dark golden in color, hang in Chinese meat markets.