12 Ways to Preserve Food a Hundred Years Ago

jars of pickles

The 1921 edition of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book lists 12 ways to preserve food. Some still are commonly used – others less so.

Ways of Preserving

  1. By Freezing. Foods which spoil readily are frozen for transportation, and must be kept packed in ice until used. Examples: Fish and poultry. 
  2. By Refrigeration. Foods so preserved are kept in cold storage. The cooling is accomplished by means of ice, or by a machine where compressed gas is cooled and then permitted to expand. Example: meat, milk, butter, eggs. etc. 
  3. By Canning. Which is preserving in air-tight glass jars, or tin cans hermetically sealed. When fruit is canned, sugar usually added. 
  4. By Sugar. Examples: fruit-juices and condensed milk
  5. By Exclusion of Air. Foods are preserved by exclusion of air in other ways than canning. Examples: grapes in bran, eggs in lime water, etc. 
  6. By Drying. Drying consists in evaporation of nearly all moisture, and is generally combined with salting, except in vegetables and fruits. 
  7. By Evaporation. There are examples where considerable moisture remains, through much is driven off. Example: beef extract. 
  8.  By Salting. There are two kids of salting, –dry, and corning or salting in brine. Examples: salt, codfish, beef, pork, tripe, etc. 
  9. By Smoking. Some foods, after being salted, are hung in a closed room for several hours, where hickory wood is allowed to smother. Examples: ham, beef, and fish. 
  10. By Pickling. Vinegar, to which salt is added, and sometimes sugar and spices, is scalded, and cucumbers, onions, and various kinds of fruit are allowed to remain in it. 
  11. By Oil. Examples: sardines, anchovies, etc. 
  12. By Antiseptics. The least wholesome way is by the use of antiseptics. Borax and salicylic acid, when employed, should be used sparingly. 

30 thoughts on “12 Ways to Preserve Food a Hundred Years Ago

    1. Your comment let me to do a Google search. Here is what I found out. According to the Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety:

      Boric acid and borax have long been used as additive in various foods. Since boric acid and borax are effective against yeasts, and to a much lesser extent, against moulds and bacteria, they can be used to preserve food products. In addition, both of these additives can be used to increase the elasticity and crispiness of foods as well as prevent shrimps from darkening.

      According to literature, in the early 1900s, some scientists started questioning the safety of the use of large amounts of boric acid and borax in foods. By the mid-1920s, many countries began legislating against the use of these additives in foods due to their toxicity. However, during the Second World War, there was serious food shortage, and restrictions on the use of food preservatives including the application of boric acid and borax in foods were eased. After the War, restrictions on the use of these additives in foods were gradually re-imposed. Nowadays, their uses in food are not permitted in many countries such as Mainland China, Australia, New Zealand and Canada .

      In 1961, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) concluded that boric acid and borax were not suitable for use as food additive. However, they are still permitted to be used in caviar in the European Union.

  1. I grew up with grandparents who salted cod in a barrel. And of course there’s the glory or the bane of Lutefisk: cod preserved with lye. It’s a Scandinavian tradition, with a mixed reputation. I can’t stand the stuff myself. There’s a nice article about it here if you’re interested. On the other hand, you may have tried it, since you live in the midst of Lutefisk-land!

    1. Thanks for sharing the link. I’ve eaten Lutefisk a couple times, but like you, don’t care for it. On the other hand, I really like the other Scandinavian food mentioned in the article – Lemfse.

      1. Yes, it is. Some things turn out better than others. I know they dried foods 100 years ago, but when I’ve tried to dry fruit on strings over the stove, I just get fruit flies!

    1. I think that the U.S. government banned the use of borax as a food preservative many years ago. Borax was already controversial a hundred year ago. I can remember seeing an article in an old magazine from the 1910’s that said it was dangerous to use it as a food preservative.

  2. I think a few of us were surprised to see “Borax” not something I was aware of but I remember pickle time my mother and grandmother always pickled lots…Here they continue to make Pla ra similar to padaek in Laos, that is a traditional Thai seasoning produced by fermenting fish with rice bran or roasted rice flour and salt fermented in a closed container for at least six months…not something I am partial to and there are mixed reactions to it here…I question how healthy it is…just the smell and colour is enough to deter me…

    1. It’s intriguing how foods were traditionally fermented. I know that there can be health benefits from eating fermented foods, but I think for some of them that it’s an acquired taste.

    1. I think you’re right. Just in general, salt was a more popular way to preserve food in days gone by than it is now. I’ve read recipes in hundred-year-old cookbooks which even give directions for preserving green beans and other vegetables with salt.

  3. My mom used to make sun jelly. Where she will mash some berries up, put them on a pan with plastic wrap, and leave them outside in the sun.

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