The Origin and Types of Food Preservation

Mankind had long been inventing ways to prolong their food’s shelf life. Even before there was a machine to produce stored processed food, people had adapted with nature to find traditional ways to preserve food. Those preservation methods are still used now. Let’s take a closer look at them.


Equipments needed for barbecue grilling is far more accessible now, thus making us easier to grill smoked meat at the backyard. Source: Gear Patrol/Henry Philips

Simply put, smoking is a cooking method of slow-cooking food over a fire. This process is known for adding flavor to the foods, and better yet, adds a little preservation effect. Smoking is mainly used to process seafood or red meat. In modern days, we may identify this process as barbecue grilling. The method is now popular to release flavorful smoke and give tender texture to the meat, rather than to preserve.

Smoking needs a high level of patience, since it will take 6-8 hours to reach our desired meat texture, except for brisket, which might take 22 hours. To figure out how long you need to smoke your meat, you have to take three factors into consideration: the types of meat, the technique, and the temperature.

Ideally, different types of woods introduce different flavors to the food being prepared. For instance, pecan has a strong and pungent scent for a smoking barbecue. It is, therefore, best for cooking ribs and red meat.

Smoking (salai) process of ikan salai tamban, culinary icon from Riau archipelago. Source: kumparan/Agus

Indonesia has many traditional dishes that use smoking as its cooking method. On a national level, smoked bandeng is the trademark of Semarang and Sidoarjo. Riau has the infamous ikan salai, a preserved fish using the smoking method. Poso is known for its smoked eel which uses the combination of brining and smoking. There’s also cakalang fufu from North Sulawesi, namely cured and smoked skipjack tuna clipped on a bamboo frame. Other than seafood dishes, there’s also se’i, sliced smoked beef from East Nusa Tenggara.


Have you ever heard of tapai, the fermented cassava from Indonesia? Tapai is known for its richness in sweet-sourly flavor. Tapai is made from fermented cassava or sticky rice which is steamed before mixed with yeast. The liquid remains from the fermentation process can also be consumed.

Tapai liquid contains alcohol, just like any other alcoholic beverage made from fermented barley or grape. But don’t worry, alcohol in tapai is still halal since it’s not intoxicating.

Tapai is made inside a tightly closed container. Source: Shutterstock/Faiz Dila

Fermentation is known to humans as one of the oldest preserving methods. There are three types of fermentation: alcoholic fermentation, a biochemical process during which yeasts convert sugars to ethanol and carbon dioxide to result in a byproduct.

The byproducts of this method have long been fancied since thousands of years ago and believed as the preserving method where the product can last the longest. There’s this phrase, “age like a fine wine”. The metaphor came from the assumption that the longer we preserve red wine, the more authentic the taste gets.

Acetic acid fermentation ideally starts at the end of the alcoholic fermentation process. Compared to alcohol fermentation, this preservation uses bacteria in its process. The products come in the form of vinegar, kombucha, or kefir grains.

Examples of traditional and novel fermented food products. Source: ScienceDirect

The third type would be lactic acid fermentation. K-Popers must be familiar with kimchi. Kimchi is one of the products derived from lactic acid fermentation. This method of preservation uses bacteria and different kinds of yeast. Other than kimchi, food products from lactic acid fermentation are yogurt, pickles, and our favorite Indonesian dish: tempeh.


The canned fish we know today were spread about by Bryan Donkin. Source: iStock/nobtis

Food scarcity during wars drove people to be more innovative. A French chef and a brewery owner Nicolas Appert began experimenting with ways to preserve foodstuffs in 1795, precisely during the French Revolutionary War. Appert then succeeded in preserving soups, juices, vegetables, fruits, and dairy products.

Napoleon Bonaparte hoped for a more effective way to feed his troops. Various methods of food preservation had been done, from brining, pickling, or smoking. However, none of these methods were certain to be safe and they didn’t preserve flavor, according to the City University of New York. Napoleon then offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could devise such a means.

Knowing about this, Appert didn’t want to miss the opportunity. His method of preserving food started with placing the food in jars or cans (jars, in Appert’s early work) and heating the whole set-up to a temperature that kills bacteria and other microorganisms.

The heating can be done by putting them in the oven, boiling, or by steam. As the jars/cans cool, a vacuum seal is corked, which prevents other microorganisms from getting in. During that time, Appert believed it was the presence of air that led food to spoilage.

In 1806, Nicolas Appert listed his findings to the French navy. Finally, the French military can enjoy meals other than dried food or fish. Continuing with his experiments, Appert discovered that it was heat (not air) that kept pesky spoilage at bay.

A canning machine and some boys work around these machine, c. 1909. Source: Library of Congress

It was until years ago an English merchant Peter Durand used the same method to preserve food using vessels made of tin. Vegetables and fruits were to be put in raw, whereas animal substances might either be raw or half-cooked.

Durand granted the patent of using tin for food preservation from King George III of the United Kingdom. It is believed to have a lower production cost than using glass jars. In 1812, Durand sold his patent to Bryan Donkin, creating the modern-day process of canning foods.

Three of these food preservation methods are only a small part of the history of food science breakthroughs. Sustaining the shelf life of our food has always been mankind’s desire. These food preservation methods help prevent food spoilage, which ultimately prevents food waste too.

While it’s important to eliminate food loss from the production and distribution process of food, also remember to always finish up the meals on your plate so as to prevent food waste!


1 2