Before huge multinational corporations did it for us, humans had to figure out how to turn raw, unrefined formerly-living things into food that could be cooked or eaten. And before standup freezers, refrigerators, ice boxes, canned soup, bagged bread, tinned fish, and grocery stores hit the scene, we had to figure out how to preserve foods. Yes, we humans were a wily, resourceful bunch – still are, if you give us half a chance – who came up with an impressive number of food preparation and preservation techniques over the ages. Some techniques were designed solely to preserve the food. Some improved the taste. Others increased the density of the nutrients, as well as our ability to access them. Still others were simply concerned with removing natural toxins and making the food safe to eat. And some techniques accomplish some or all of these things at once. Whatever the technique, however, from basic mechanical pounding to month-long fermentation, these methods all sought to accomplish one simple thing: increase the availability of safe, nutritious, digestible caloric energy.
Let’s take a look at some of them and explore what, why, and how they work:
What and When – Soaking, also known as steeping, is a basic elementary step in traditional food preparation, especially that of cereal grains, legumes, and anything bound for fermentation. As long as people have been relying on grains and legumes as a large source of calories, they have been soaking them. Because, well, you’ll see when you get to the “Why.”
How – Cover seeds with water, let sit in a warm place for at least twelve hours, drain, then rinse.
Why – Soaking does a few things. It prepares the seed for cooking by partially saturating it with water (particularly in the case of legumes). This makes cooking quicker and the finished product tastier. It also significantly reduces the phytic acid content while improving the digestibility of the food. By reducing phytic acid, you absorb more of the minerals that come with the food, instead of losing them. By improving the digestibility, you are able to extract more calories from the beans than you’d otherwise extract. Thus, the food is more nutritious and more calorific – extremely important for people who get the bulk of their nutrition from seeds.
What and When – After soaking a seed, grain, nut, or legume, a couple things can happen. It can be cooked immediately. It can be dried and then pounded (see below) into a flour or meal. It can also be prevented from fully drying, usually by constantly remoistening it, and allowed to sprout. These are seeds, after all, and their ultimate goal is to become a full-grown plant. Obviously, seeds have been sprouting for millions of years, but there’s not much data about exactly when people began sprouting seeds for their health benefits. I imagine soaking and fermenting produced a lot of sprouted seeds that were then incorporated into the food, if only by accident. I don’t imagine they were eating amaranth sprout salads or anything. Thus, sprouting seeds may be a traditional method of preparation mostly by accident.
How – Soak the raw seed, grain, nut, or legume for around 12 hours (depending on the variety, the time required changes). It must be raw, not roasted, or else the enzymes will be deactivated. After soaking, drain them completely in a colander. Every eight hours, rinse them with water and allow them to drain. Give them enough room and some air exposure. After a couple rinsings, they should begin to sprout.
Why – Sprouting deactivates enzyme inhibitors, thus making the sprouted seed more digestible. There’s also some evidence that it activates phytase, the phytic acid-degrading enzyme, but it doesn’t look like the increased phytase actually reduces phytic acid all the time.
What and When – Fermentation is the chemical transformation of complex organic substances into simpler compounds by enzymes produced by bacteria, molds, and yeasts. It’s a kind of “pre-digestion,” performed by microorganisms long before humans were around to witness it (let alone control it). The earliest confirmed instances of human-mediated fermentation involve alcohol, including the 7,000 year old winery from Armenia. Although no liquid wine was recovered, the residues confirm that humans have been consciously fermenting foods and altering our consciousness for a very long time. Evidence for production of fermented dairy in Babylon from over 5,000 years ago exists, and the first bread, a leavened long-fermented sourdough, was baked in Egypt roughly 3,500 years ago. I’m not sure if every culture has a tradition of fermented foods, but the list of cultures that do not would be exceedingly small.
How – It depends on what you’re trying to ferment – and you can ferment just about anything, so the methods are incredibly diverse. Some foods, like raw dairy, will ferment all on their own because they contain an abundance of living lactobacilli, while others, like pasteurized dairy, require the addition of a starter agent because all the lactobacilli have been killed. The pasteurized dairy will still pick up bacteria and “change” without human interference, but it won’t be a desirable change without lactobacilli present to hold off the unwanted bacteria. Still others, like cabbage, come with enough lactobacilli bacteria to start fermentation, but you have to squeeze the natural juices out to kickstart the process and then add enough salt to limit the growth of putrefactive bacteria. But in the end, fermentation always comes down to enzymatic actions taken by molds, yeasts, and/or bacteria upon foods.
Why – The fermentation products – acetic acid, lactic acid, and alcohol – act as natural preservatives for food and its nutrients while creating exciting, complex flavors. In a world without refrigeration, this was essential if you wanted to store enough food for leaner times without it spoiling or bleeding vitamins. Also, because the food is “pre-digested” by microorganisms, it’s easier to digest and you get more energy out of it. Fermentation can also create new nutrients, especially B-vitamins, and fermented food can populate our guts with helpful bacteria (or pass along helpful genetic data to existing bacteria). Obviously, traditional cultures didn’t know all these things, but they knew fermented food lasted longer, tasted better, and made them feel better.
What and When – In Mesoamerica around 1500 BC, the folks living there discovered that soaking maize (or corn) in water mixed with lime (the calcium hydroxide, not the fruit) or ashes from burnt trees (potassium hydroxide), the grain became more delicious, more digestible, and easier to work with.
How – One study describes the traditional Mayan method of nixtamalization: dissolve lime in water, add (contaminated with mycotoxin) corn kernels, bring to a boil for 1.75 hours, kill the heat, soak for 15 hours, rinse the kernels, then blend into masa. The resulting tortillas were extremely low in mycotoxins, so it appears to be an effective method.
Why – The most important effect is that nixtamalization makes the niacin, or vitamin B3, in corn bioavailable. In populations who relied on corn for sustenance without knowledge of nixtamalization, pellagra (niacin deficiency disease) flourished, while Mesoamerican civilizations, who pioneered nixtamalization, were largely free of the disease. There’s more, though. It also increases the availability of the protein and increases the calcium content while decreasing phytic acid and mycotoxin contamination.
What and When – You might recall that study (PDF) from a couple years back that had folks excited about early man “eating bread” and “making pancakes” out of “starch grains.” Well, I had fun with it back then, but it does show that evidence for pounding and grinding of plant foods exists as far back as 30,000 years ago.
How – Mortar and pestle (of varying sizes, depending on the size of the material being pounded) are typically used. Basically, you put the food in a sturdy basin or bowl and use a blunt object to grind, crush, and pound it into meal, or just enough to remove the bran.
Why – Mostly, pounding increases the surface area of the pounded food by turning it into powder or flour, thereby increasing its digestibility and allowing those who eat it to extract the maximum amount of calories from its digestion. But the increased surface area and increased exposure also make detoxifying it easier. A study found that the most traditional of all methods of cassava preparation – pounding in a mortar and pestle – reduced toxic cyanogen content by 90%, far superior to all other methods (including the use of a fancy mechanical crusher). Pounding also removes the bran or hull of a seed or grain, as in the conversion of brown rice to white rice, and the bran contains most of the antinutrients.
What and When – Removing moisture is probably the oldest food preservation technique around. And once man had control of fire, which hominids had 1 million years ago and Neanderthals enjoyed at least 400,000 years ago, he could start drying his food quicker and more completely.
How – Before food dehydrators were around, people used the wind, the sun, the open air, and of course fire to dehydrate foods. Key factors to consider: maximizing air exposure to ensure even air circulation, uniform thickness throughout, temperature fluctuations (constant temperatures are best), humidity (lower is generally better). If drying meat or fish, salt will aid in preservation and flavor while keeping away insects. If using fire, those factors become less crucial.
Why – If you remove enough moisture from a food, it will be protected from bacterial contamination. The rats and mice and neighbors might still get it, but at least the ones you can’t see with the naked eye will not. A water activity of 0.76 or lower should do the trick. Dried meat, when combined with rendered fat and maybe some berries, could keep a person alive and thriving for months upon months.
What and When – Long ago, people realized that applying copious amounts of salt to a slab of animal or fish preserves it and prevents degradation. Via osmosis, the salt actually draws water out of microbial cells, thereby killing microorganisms and preventing spoilage. The meat itself loses moisture, thereby preventing future bacterial colonization.
How – All that was really used was salt, time, and a place to store everything. Adding sugar allowed the proliferation of lactobacilli (which feed on sugar), which altered the meat further. Modern curing often uses nitrates, which preserve the pink color.
Why – It’s a low-tech way to store precious meat for long periods of time. Also, the salt penetrates the tissue and, over time, denatures the proteins. This produces glutamate, which tastes really good, and concentrates the meaty flavor. The slow fermentation on account of the lacto bacteria can also create some really interesting, complex flavors and improve the preservability of the meat. It might even make certain meats healthier, too. As shown in this (admittedly limited) study, patients had better reactions to traditionally cured pastured pork than to fresh pastured pork.
What and When – Where there’s fire, there’s smoke. And since we’ve been cooking meat, we’ve been exposing it to smoke. Ever go to an all you can eat Korean BBQ joint? You come out smelling like pure meat. Dogs will love you and vegetarians will scream at your approach. See, when you’re in a confined space, like a restaurant or a Paleolithic shelter, and a fire’s raging, you will be exposed to smoke. Same goes for meat. Again, there’s no absolute “proof” that our Paleolithic ancestors were smoking meat to preserve it, but it seems like a natural development to me.
How – Traditionally, Native Americans would expose strips of fish and meat to the air and to large amounts of smoke concurrently. This would both dehydrate and smoke the food, without technically cooking it (as the fire contributed only smoke, not heat). “Hot smoking” uses smoke and heat to cook and flavor the meat.
Why – Smoking does a couple things. It dries out the meat or fish, whether by direct cooking or indirect heat. Reducing the moisture content dissuades bacterial colonization, thereby preserving the food. But smoke also contains phenolic compounds that bind to the surface of the food and act as antioxidants. Phenolics with antioxidant capabilities, as you probably already know from previous discussions, can prevent oxidation and rancidity. A study even proposes that these phenolic compounds derived from smoking (with alder wood) act not only as preservatives, but also as potential health benefactors. If the smoking does not fully dehydrate the meat, however, only the surface will be protected.
As you can see, humans have been preserving and preparing food using a multitude of techniques, many of which remain in use today. Do you use any of these methods? Do you eat any foods that are prepared using these methods?
Be sure to leave a comment and let me know. Thanks for reading!