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What’s Cooking – Food Preservation

pickled food in jarAugust 19, 2019

Even in the heat of summer, Iowa farmers were historically preparing for the winter to come. Harvested foods had to be preserved for winter and without reliable refrigeration until the 20th century, freezing wasn’t an option. The Ioway dried much of their food, both vegetables and meat, to preserve it for winter. 19th century farmers pickled, smoked, cured, salted, and dried foods. By the 1880s, home canning added even more ways to put up the harvest. Visit the stores in Walnut Hill for a look at the state of tin can technology in 1875. Join the historic kitchens around the museum for demonstrations of salting meat at the 1850 Pioneer Farm on Monday, jelly making at Tangen House on Wednesday, jam making at Tangen on Thursday, grinding corn and drying squash at the 1700 Ioway Farm on Thursday, and pickling and brining at the 1850 Pioneer Farm on Friday.

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squash drying on rackThe Ioway dried or smoked meat and dried garden produce for the winter. Food was stored in cache pits, dug into the ground, until needed. Dried ingredients were most often made into stews. Corn flour could be used for breads and stew thickeners. Dried meat and berries could also be made into pemmican.

food stored on shelves at 1850 homePioneer farmers were reliant on their gardens throughout the summer. Preserving the harvest for winter was a challenge. Root crops could be stored in an underground root cellar. Potatoes, turnips, and beets could all be stored in barrels or crates lined with straw in these cool underground shelters. Other garden produce was often pickled for preservation. Spices and vinegars were mixed and poured over the food to keep it from spoiling. Cucumbers, cabbage, tomatoes, and green beans were just the start of what could be pickled for the pioneer winter table.


To Pickle Cucumbers

from The United States Practical Receipt Book, Philadelphia 1844.

Trim and wash them in salt and water, drain, and put them into the bottles, add a little mace, cloves, capsicum, and mustard-seed, then cover them with white vinegar nearly boiling hot; cork immediately.


Refrigerator Adaptation:

Place sliced or whole cucumbers, preferably gherkins, in a clean glass jar. In a separate bowl combine the following:
1 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 cup fresh dill
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp mace
2 cloves garlic

Pour over cucumbers in the jar. Seal tightly and keep in your fridge. Good after a week or two, and taste will improve with age.


jars in 1900 farm house pantryFruit butters, jams and jellies provided fruit for the winter season. Fruit butters were made by chopping fruit and cooking it into a thick sauce. Sugar was added to fruit and then it was stored in a crock with a cover of wax or waxed paper. Jams and jellies were made by adding pectins, sugar, and other flavorings to fruits and fruit juices. Glass home canning jars were first introduced by John Mason in 1858. The Ball Canning Jar entered the market in the 1880s. These storage jars allowed farm wives to can much of their garden produce, allowing farmers to be less reliant on commercial grocers.


Pumpkin Butter
8 c. mashed pumpkin
4 c. sugar
1 T. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. cloves

Combine all ingredients; simmer over low heat until very thick. Process in jars or freeze.

Adapted from Three Meals a Day, 1889.


Town folks could definitely buy canned food by the 1870s, however. The technology for storing foods in metal cans, first developed in the 1810s. Factories sealed tinned, iron cans using lead solder. The food inside was cooked in the cans. This was an expensive process and canned foods were initially considered a luxury. By the end of the 19th century, canned or “tinned” food had become more affordable and for some items, such as tomatoes, it was often easier to buy the store cans than to put up the tomatoes in glass jars at home.


Read more posts on the LHF Blog


1700 Ioway Farm   1850s    1900 Farm   From Field to Table   In the Kitchen   Recipes   What’s Cooking


  • Maureen says:

    I enjoy stepping back into time and reading the information about how life used to be. We take so much for granted today. I enjoy reading the recipes. Thank you for sharing tasty tidbits from the past.

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