Student Question

What was used for food preservation before refrigerators?

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Most houses used to be built with cellars. A cellar was dark and cool, and food could be kept there so it wouldn't spoil. People also canned fruits and vegetables, and preserved meats in barrels with salt. The wealthy had ice houses, where they stored ice and they were also cellars. They would have an icebox in the house, and put the blocks of ice in there.
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In England in Victorian times and before (and probably in other countries too) not everyone could afford the luxury of delivered ice - and anyway poorer people could only afford to shop for the bare necessities every day and these got quickly gobbled up by the much larger households of the time! What people needed was a safe place to store food overnight or until mealtime. This was usually called a 'cool pantry.' The pantry was often located on the coldest (North) facing wall of the house/cottage, and often had a tiny window high up. This window was often protected by a sort of metal sieved screen to keep the flies out. On the inside, the walls where shelved, and on the shelves were kept perhaps a jug of milk or cream, cheese in a specially shaped china wedge, perhaps a ham or other cold meat,rashers of bacon,a pot of butter or a few slices of cold pie or brawn. The cooler temperatures in there would have been enough to keep the food cool for 2/3 days (we probably wouldn't risk it nowadays!)

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People did preserve their foods via pickling or salting, yet the most practical (if it could be afforded) was the ice box in areas that could sustain it. I am from New York and there are actually a lot of old houses that still have ice boxes outside and even what you could call ice silos, very tall structures meant to hold more than one block of ice as a back up.

This link has a very basic picture of an icebox and explains, pretty well, how it worked.

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There were a few different ways of keeping food before refrigerators.

Most recently (just before modern refrigerators became very common) people used iceboxes.  These were like refrigerators but instead of being cooled electrically, they were cooled by having actual ice in them.

Before that was available, people had cool cellars and some had ice houses where ice could be stored (under sawdust, often) and kept cool for much of the year.  These places could keep some food cool.

But mostly, in those days, food was preserved some other way -- by smoking it, salting it, or drying it.

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What did people use to preserve their food when they didn't have refrigerators?

Multiple methods of preserving foods have been used throughout history. Among the earliest were drying, smoking, and salting. Each of these methods forced liquid out of a food, making a poor environment for bacterial growth. Smoking and salting further added antibacterial substances to kill off bacteria.

Areas with extreme cold made use of natural "refrigeration" and freezing to preserve foods. Even in areas without year-round freezing, there were methods of cold-management, including preservation of winter ice in ice-houses, and the use of cold artesian springs or deep-drilled cold cases to keep foods cold enough to slow bacterial growth.

After these, intentional forms of fermentation were used. These methods of preservation, which included the making of cheeses, wines, and beers, as well as complex products like soy sauce, allowed favored safe and useful bacteria to settle in food, forcing out hostile, harmful bacteria. These friendly bacteria in many cases also made foods more easily accessible to human digestion. One example of this would be the conversion of milk to products such as yogurt, sour cream, and cheese, breaking down natural milk sugars that many people can't digest as adults and replacing them with less difficult byproducts.

Later developments included preserving methods such as simmering in sugar syrups, complete cooking and encasing in hard fats, and eventually early forms of jarring and canning. Only in the 1800s and 1900s did preservation become a scientific and industrial process, with foods canned, jarred, and eventually frozen and dried on a mass basis.

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