Premodern Food Preservation

A class by Jadwiga Zajaczkowa (Jennifer Heise,

Types of Pre-modern food preservation

Many of these types bleed into one another:

  1. Careful storage
  2. Air Exclusion (Anaerobic)
    1. Sealed containers under water (Le Menagier)
    2. Pies/Fat sealing: baking food in a pie shell and filling the headroom with a layer of warm fat preserved the contents. (See
    3. Aspics
    4. Honey and oil preservations are also somewhat anaerobic
  3. Drying
    1. Parching of grains
    2. Dried fruits: apples, pears, figs, raisins, dates, etc.
    3. Dried Fish: stockfish
  4. Boiling down
    1. Dembinska (Food and Drink of Medieval Poland) mentions Teutonic Knights storing boiled-down fruit juices in their cellars
  5. Preserving in:
    1. Salt
      1. Dry Cure
        1. Dried salt fish
        2. Salt Ham
      2. Wet Cure (brawn)
        1. Beef
        2. White herring
    2. Honey
      1. Fruits (dates to roman days)
      2. “Pickle”/Compost/Compote
    3. Sugar
      1. ‘Pickled’ violets (English husbandman)
      2. Boiled down fruit candy (Domostroi)
      3. Preserved syrups and candies, such as in the Anonymous Andalusian Manuscript
      4. Marmalades and candies
    4. Wine
    5. Oil
      1. Fish
      2. Olives, etc
    6. Other (i.e. saltpetre/gunpowder)
      1. Venison, other game meat
  6. Smoking (Often started with a salt cure)
    1. Red Herring
    2. Sausage
    3. Ham
    4. Bacon
  7. Cheese and Butter
  8. Fermentation
    1. Fermented juices
      1. Cider
      2. Perry
      3. Wine
    2. Fish sauce etc.
    3. Cabbage
    4. Cucumber and other pickles
  9. Shifting harvest times/planting



- Fruits

Dried Sugared Peaches:

The Second part of the good Hus-wiues Iewell
(England, 1597)

To co[n]nfite Peaches after the Spanish fashion.. TAke great and faire Peaches and pill them clean, cut them in péeces and so lay them vpon a table abroad in the Sun the space of two daies, turning them euerye morning and night, & put the[n] hot into a Inlep of Sugar wel sodden, and prepared as is aforesaid, and after you haue taken them out set them againe in the Sun turning them often vntill they bee well dried, this doon, put them againe into the Inlep, then set them in the sun vntill they haue gotten a faire bark or crust, and the[n] you may keepe them in boxes for winter.

- Sometimes fish (generally with salt)

- Some vegetables


Grains that were not to be used for next year’s seed were often parched, to dry them completely, keep them from sprouting, and kill any mold or mildew.
This was especially important in damper climates and with grains, such as rye, which were susceptible to fungus outbreaks

Parching is a low-heat roasting and usually done in big batches.

Boiling Down, with sugar or honey

See the syrups and pastes in the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook.


Though modern pickling is a vinegar preservation process, the term pickling refers to many different forms of preservation: fermented ‘pickles’ such as cucumber pickles and sauerkraut; items pickled in vinegar or salt solutions; and even items ‘pickled’ in sugar solutions.

Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, 1615, says:
"Your preserved sallats are of two kinds, either pickled, as are cucumbers, samphire, purslane, broom, and suck like, or preserved with vinegar, as violets, primrose, cowslips, gillyflowers of all kinds, broom flowers, and for the most part any wholesome flower whatsoever.
Now for the pickling of sallats, they are only boiled, and then drained from the water, spread upon a table, and a good store of salt thrown over them, then when they are thorough cold, make a pickle with water, salt, and a little vinegar, and with the same pot them up in close earthen pots, and serve them forth as occasion shall serve.
Now for preserving sallats, you shall take any of the flowers before said after they have been picked clean from their stalks, and the white ends (of them which have any) clean cut away, and washed and dried, and, taking a glass pot like a gallipot, or for want thereof a gallipot itself; and first strew a little sugar in the bottom, then lay a layer of the flowers, then cover that layer with sugar, then lay another layer of the flowers, and another of sugar; and thus do one above another till the pot be filled, ever and anon pressing them hard down with your hand: this done, you shall take of the best and sharpest vinegar you can get (and if the vinegar be distilled vinegar, the flowers will keep their colours the better) and with it fill up your pot till the vinegar swim aloft, and no more can be received; then stop up the pot close, and set them in a dry temperate place, and use them at pleasure, for they will last all the year."


Meat was extensively preserved in salt solutions, or brines. “Brawn” was salt-brined meat, usually beef, served with mustard in the 15th and 16th centuries...


In addition to the making of fermented beverages such as wine, beer, and mead (as well as birch liquor, etc.) fermentation was used on vegetables…

Sauerkraut, which we assume is what the author of the Domostroi means by the term translated “sour cabbage soup”, is documented in Eastern Europe by the end of our period.

Mikolaj Reg in "Zywot czlowieka pozciwego" (1568) describes a sauerkraut method: "Having removed the outside leaves of some nice heads of cabbage, cut them in half and fit them neatly into a vat, spreading beet chards & dill between the layers" (Dembinska) [and presumably covered in a salt and/or vinegar brine and left to ferment...] and a cucumber pickle: 'pickle cucumbers in salt, add some dill and sour cherry or oak leaves...'

Oxygen exclusion:

Excluding oxygen can retard ripening and oxidization. Burial pits for grain (which are archaelogically found but not documentarily attested) work on this principle.

Other examples:

Le Menagier de Paris suggests keeping both roses and grapes in sealed casks submerged in running water, as a combined cold-storage and oxygen exclusion technique.

From Roman times onward, including in the Russian Domostroi, fruit was preserved by submerging it in barrels of honey or oil.


Gervase Markham, The English Housewife

On Butter

"Touching the powdering up or potting up of butter, you shall by no means as in fresh butter wash the buttermilk out with water, but only work it clear out with your hands: for water will make the butter rusty, or reese; this done, you shall weigh your butter, and know how many pounds there is thereof, for should you weigh it after it were salted, y ou would be deceived in the weight: which done, you shall open the butter, and salt it very well and thoroughly, beating it in with your hand till it be generally dispersed through the whole butter; then take clean earthen pots, exceedingly well leaded lest the brine should leak through the same, and cast salt into the bottom of it: then lay in your butter, and press it down hard within the same, and when your pot is filled, then cover the top thereof with salt so as no butter be seen: then closing up the pot let it stand where it may be cold and safe... "(p. 173-174)

To make conserve of any fruit you please, you shall take the fruit you intent to make conserve of; and if it be stone fruit you shall take out the stones; if other fruit, take away the paring and core, and then boil them in fair running water to a reasonable height; then drain them from thence, and put them into a fresh vessel with claret wine, or white wine, according to the color of the fruit; and so boil them to a thick pap all to mashing, breaking, and stirring them together; then to every pound of pap put to a pound of sugar, and so stir them all well together, and, being very hot, strain them through fair strainers, and so pot it up. (p 116)


Platina, On Right Pleasure and Good Health

[Eggs] are best preserved in winter in straw, and in bran in summer [42]

You will be able to keep plums and all kinds of apples, as well as cherries, pears and other fruits, for a long time when they are picked with their stems and put in honey, so long as they do not touch each other. (p. 18)

To keep mulberries fresh for a long time, you do this: press the juice out the mulberries and mix it with new wine and place it in a glass jar with the mulberries. You will keep them fresh for a long time. (p. 19)

Pears are preserved in as many ways as grapes, apples, plums, peaches and quince. Similarly all apples are preserved very well if the fruit cellars are placed in rows and have windows facing from south to north. They ought to be strewn with straw and chaff so they will not rot from too much dampness, which arises from contact. (p. 26-27)

It is agreed by all authors that figs and well-matured grapes are less unhealthy than other fruits that are eaten raw, and eaten as a first course, they cause almost no harm. If grapes are ripe and have been picked for a long time or have been hung up for at least four days, they are milder and sweeter when eaten, for they fatten, refresh, and do not cause squeamishness; eaten fresh, however, they upset the stomach, the breathing, and the bowels with bloating, they harm the head and they cause drowsiness. While eating grapes, one should not grind the grapeseeds with one's teeth... Grapes stored in sweet wine, as is accustomed to be done, affect the head. They are also considered preserved by suspension if they are preserved in straw. Some preserve them in a heap of grapestones. . .

You can also preserve green grapes this way. Take unblemished grapes from the vine and cook down in river water to one-third. Put this together with fresh grapes into a well-sealed jar so that air cannot enter. Put the grapes in a cool place where the sun has no access, and you will find them green whenever you wish. . .

Condensed grape is made from grapes boiled down in the pot, while condensed must is made from pure must which has been condensed in special defrutum jars... (p. 27-28)

To keep pomegranates for a long time, plunge them in boiling water, remove them at once, and hang them up. (p. 29)

Platina. On right pleasure and good health.

Markham, Gervase.

The English Housewife.

Le Menagier de Paris:


Note that you must start by St. John's Day which is the twenty-fourth day of June.

First, take five hundred new walnuts, and be sure that neither the shell nor the kernel are yet formed and that the shell is also neither too hard nor too tender, and peel them all round, and then pierce them through or in a cross. And then put them to soak in water from the Seine or a spring, and change it every day: and they must soak ten to twelve days and they will become black and when you chew one you will not be able to taste any bitterness; and then put them on to boil in sweet water and let them boil just for the length of time it takes to say a Miserere, and until you see that there are none which are too hard or too soft. Then empty the water, and put them to drain on a screen, and then boil a sixth of honey or as much as they need to be all covered, and the honey should be strained and skimmed: and when it is cooled down to just warm, add your walnuts and leave them two or three days, and then put them to drain, and take as much of your honey as they can soak in, and put the honey on the fire and make it come to a good boil and skim it, and take it off the fire: and put in each hole in your walnuts a clove in one side and a little snip of ginger in the other, and then put them in the honey when it is lukewarm. And stir it two or three times a day, and at the end of three days take them out: and gather up the honey, and if there is not enough, add to it and boil and skim and boil, then put your walnuts in it; and thus each week for a month. And then leave them in an earthenware pot or a cask, and stir once a week.

Take, around All Saints Day (November 1), large turnips, and peel them and chop them in quarters, and then put on to cook in water: and when they are partially cooked, take them out and put them in cold water to make them tender, and then let them drain; and take honey and do the same as with the walnuts, and be careful not to over-cook your turnips.

Item, on All Saints, take carrots as many as you wish, and when they are well cleaned and chopped in pieces, cook them like the turnips. (Carrots are red roots which are sold at the Halles in baskets, and each basket costs one blanc.)

Item, take choke-pears and cut them in four quarters, and cook them like the turnips, and do not peel them; and do with them neither more nor less than with the turnips.

Item, when gourds are in season, take those which are neither too hard nor too tender, and peel them and remove the seeds and cut into quarters, and do the same to them as to the turnips.

Item, when peaches are in season, take the hardest and peel them and cut them up.

Item, around St. Andrew's Day, take roots of parsley and fennel, and scrape them, and chop them into small pieces, and split the fennel and remove the hard part, and do not do this to the parsley, and prepare them exactly the same way as told above, neither more nor less.

And when your preserves are ready, you can use them in the following recipe.

First, for five hundred walnuts, take a pound of mustard-seed and half a pound of anise, a quatrain and a half of fennel, a quatrain and a half of coriander, a quatrain and a half of caraway seed, which is a seed eaten in dragees, and grind all these things to powder: and then put all these things through the mustard mill and soak them thick in very good vinegar, and put in an earthenware pot. And then take half a pound of horse-radish, which is a root sold by herbalists, and scrape it thoroughly and chop it as small as you can and grind it in a mustard-mill, and moisten with vinegar. Item, take half a fourth of clove stem, half a fourth of meche ginger, half a fourth of nutmegs, half a fourth of grains of paradise, and grind them all to powder. Item, take half an ounce of saffron from Orte [a place-name] dried and beaten in an ounce of red cedar, a root bought at a herbalist's and called "cedar for making knife-handles". And then take twelve pounds of good honey which is hard and white and melt it on the fire, and when it is well-cooked and skimmed, let it sit, then strain it, and cook it again: and if it still produces scum, you will have to strain it again, if it is not convenient to let it cool; then moisten your mustard with good red wine and half as much vinegar and put in the honey. Soak your powdered spices in wine and vinegar and put in the honey, and boil your cedar pieces a little in hot wine, and then add the saffron with the other things, and another handful of coarse salt. Item, and after these things, take two pounds of grapes known as Digne grapes, which are small and have no seeds or pips inside, and which are fresh, and pound them thoroughly in a mortar and moisten in good vinegar, then strain through a strainer, and put with the other things. Item, if you add four or five pints of must or cooked wine, the sauce will be better.

From Sabrina Welserin:

27 If you would make good pickled tongue. They are best made in January, then they will keep the whole year
First take twenty five tongues or as many as you will and take them one after the other and pound them back and front on a chopping block, then they will be long. After that pound salt small and coat the tongues in salt. Take then a good small tub and put salt in the bottom, after that lay a layer of tongues as close together as possible, put more salt on them so that it is entirely white from salt. In this manner always place a layer of tongues, after that a layer of salt, until they are all laid out. Then weigh them down well so that they are covered by the brine and allow them to remain for fifty days, afterwards hang them for four days in smoke. When they have smoked enough, hang them next in the air, then you have good smoked tongue.

28 If you would put up good vinegar that will remain good and strong for a long time, recipe from the Stettnerin of the parlor
Take a jug into which can hold twenty quarts and spread it with pitch, next take two pounds of tartar and pound it small and put it into the jug, take four ginger roots, some thirty or thirty-two peppercorns, take fourteen quarts of good vinegar and pour it in the jug, take six quarts of good wine and bring it to a boil and skim it off. Afterwards let it cool somewhat and pour it into the jug and let it stand for four weeks. See that you do not stir it up, then it will be good and keep well.

58 To make smoked pork
Take a quarter of a pig and salt it especially well, so that it is entirely white with salt, and let the salt dissolve in a cellar. And when it is dissolved, then skim off the water and pour it over again, do that two or three times a day, and when it has laid in salt for four weeks, hang it up and smoke it fairly slowly, until it becomes thoroughly dry and fairly hard. Let it hang in the smoke for eight days, after which hang it in a chamber into which air comes. It keeps for the entire year.

59 If you would make good smoked beef

Then prepare the meat for smoking, as wide as three man's fingers, and salt it well so that it becomes white from the salt, and when the salt has dissolved, then skim it off and pour it over again or from the bottom to the top, so that the salt comes over it all. And when it has laid for four days in the salt, then hang it up and smoke it with juniper twigs. Let it hang for three days, then it is very red.  

29 If you would preserve game for a long time

When it is an entire red or roe deer, then skin it and take out the entrails and hang it in a cellar without any drafts. After that you must baste it every day, inside and out, with wine. And put inside it nettles or mint. When it is washed out inside with wine you must lay in it fresh herbs, then it will keep for a long time. When it is just a piece of game, however, then lay it in a trough with fresh nettles and mint over or under it and baste it every day with wine.

2 To preserve veal a long while

As soon as it comes from the butcher, salt it right away and afterwards rub it down with vinegar every day. And when you would use it, by all means let it soak in water for six hours beforehand.

33 To prepare dried cod, from the gracious Lord of Lindau, who was Bishop in Constance

First take river water and ashes and add caustic lime, which should be rather strong, and soak the dried cod therein. Allow it to soak for a day and a night, afterwards drain it off and pour on it again the previously described caustic lime solution. Let it soak again for a day and a night, put it afterwards in a pot and wash it off two or three times in water, so that the fish no longer tastes like lye. Put it then in a pot and put water therein and let it slowly simmer so that it does not boil over. Allow it to only simmer slowly, otherwise it becomes hard. Let it cook approximately one hour, after which, dress and salt it and pour salted butter over it and serve it. Also put good mustard on the outside in about three places. One must also beat dried cod well before it is soaked.

92 If you would preserve bitter oranges in honey

Then take the peels and cut the white from them and soak them for three days in wine, afterwards take them out and bring honey to a boil and skim it clean and pour it over them and put them in a box made of green wood and let them remain awhile, then they will be good.

Dried Sausage from Sabrina Welserin:

23 If you would make a good sausage for a salad

Then take ten pounds of pork and five pounds of beef, always two parts pork to one part of beef. That would be fifteen pounds. To that one should take eight ounces of salt and two and one half ounces of pepper, which should be coarsely ground, and when the meat is chopped, put into it at first two pounds of bacon, diced. According to how fat the pork is, one can use less or more, take the bacon from the back and not from the belly. And the sausages should be firmly stuffed. The sooner they are dried the better. Hang them in the parlor or in the kitchen, but not in the smoke and not near the oven, so that the bacon does not melt. This should be done during the crescent moon, and fill with the minced meat well and firmly, then the sausages will remain good for a long while. Each sausage should be tied above and below and also fasten a ribbon on both ends with which they should be hung up, and every two days they should be turned, upside down, and when they are fully dried out, wrap them in a cloth and lay them in a box.

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This is the handout for a class in the SCA by Jennifer Heise/Jadwiga Zajaczkowa. Contact the author for permission to reprint, or questions:

Last updated: August 1, 2018