For centuries before the medieval period, and for centuries afterward, human beings in all parts of the world used a variety of methods to preserve foods for later consumption. Europeans in the Middle Ages were no exception. A society that was largely agrarian would be keenly aware of the need to store up provisions against the ominous threats of famine, drought, and warfare.
The possibility of disaster wasn't the only motive for preserving food. Dried, smoked, pickled, honeyed, and salted foods had their own particular flavors, and many recipes survive detailing how to prepare foods that have been stored with these methods. Preserved foods were also much easier for the sailor, soldier, merchant, or pilgrim to transport. For fruits and vegetables to be enjoyed out of season, they had to be preserved; and in some regions, a particular foodstuff could only be enjoyed in its preserved form, because it didn't grow (or wasn't raised) nearby.
Virtually any kind of food could be preserved. How it was done depended on what type of food it was and whether a particular effect was desired. Here are some of the methods of food preservation used in medieval Europe.
Drying Foods to Preserve Them
Today we understand that moisture allows for the rapid microbiological growth of bacteria, which is present in all fresh foods and which causes them to decay. But it isn't necessary to understand the chemical process involved in order to observe that food that is wet and left in the open will quickly start to smell and attract bugs. So it should come as no surprise that one of the oldest methods of preserving foods known to man is that of drying it.
Drying was used to preserve all sorts of foods. Grains like rye and wheat were dried in the sun or air before being stored in a dry place. Fruits were sun-dried in warmer climes and oven-dried in cooler regions. In Scandinavia, where temperatures were known to plunge below freezing in the winter, cod (known as "stockfish") were left out to dry in the cold air, usually after they were gutted and their heads were removed.
Meat could also be preserved through drying, usually after cutting it into thin strips and lightly salting it. In warmer regions, it was a simple matter to dry meat under the hot summer sun, but in cooler climates, air drying could be done at most times of the year, either outdoors or in shelters that kept away the elements and flies.
Preserving Foods With Salt
Salting was the most common way to preserve virtually any type of meat or fish, as it drew out the moisture and killed the bacteria. Vegetables might be preserved with dry salt, as well, though pickling was more common. Salt was also used in conjunction with other methods of preservation, such as drying and smoking.
One method of salting meat involved pressing dry salt into pieces of meat, then layering the pieces in a container (like a keg) with dry salt completely surrounding each piece. If meat was preserved this way in cold weather, which slowed down the decomposition while the salt had time to take effect, it could last for years. Vegetables were also preserved by layering them in salt and placing them in a sealable container such as an earthenware crock.
Another way to preserve food with salt was to soak it in a salt brine. While not as effective a long-term method of preservation as packing in dry salt, it served very well to keep food edible through a season or two. Salt brines were also part of the pickling process.
Whatever method of salt preservation was used, the first thing a cook did when he got ready to prepare the salted food for consumption was soaking it in fresh water to remove as much of the salt as possible. Some cooks were more conscientious than others when it came to this step, which could take several trips to the well for fresh water. And it was next to impossible to remove all the salt, no matter how much soaking was done. Many recipes took this saltiness into account, and some were designed specifically to counteract or complement the salt flavor. Still, most of us would find preserved medieval food much saltier than anything we're used to today.
Smoking Meat and Fish
Smoking was another fairly common way to preserve meat, especially fish and pork. Meat would be cut into relatively thin, lean strips, immersed briefly in a salt solution and hung over a fire to absorb the smoke flavoring as it dried - slowly. Occasionally meat might be smoked without a salt solution, especially if the type of wood burned had a distinctive flavoring of its own. However, salt was still very helpful because it discouraged flies, inhibited the growth of bacteria, and hastened the removal of moisture.
Immersing fresh vegetables and other foods in a liquid solution of salt brine was a fairly common practice in medieval Europe. In fact, although the term "pickle" didn't come into use in English until the late Middle Ages, the practice of pickling goes back to ancient times. Not only would this method preserve fresh food for months so that it could be eaten out of season, but it could infuse it with strong, piquant flavors.
The simplest pickling was done with water, salt and an herb or two, but a variety of spices and herbs as well as the use of vinegar, verjuice or (after the 12th century) lemon led to a range of pickling flavors. Pickling might require boiling the foods in the salt mixture, but it could also be done by simply leaving the food items in an open pot, tub or vat of salt brine with the desired flavorings for hours and sometimes days. Once the food had been thoroughly infused by the pickling solution, it was placed in a jar, crock, or another airtight container, sometimes with a fresh brine but often in the juice in which it had marinated.
Although the term confit has come to refer to virtually any food that has been immersed in a substance for preservation (and, today, can sometimes refer to a type of fruit preserve), in the Middle Ages confits were potted meat. Confits were most usually, but not solely, made from fowl or pork (fatty fowl like goose were particularly suitable).
To make a confit, the meat was salted and cooked for a very long time in its own fat, then allowed to cool in its own fat. It was then sealed up -- in its own fat, of course -- and stored in a cool place, where it could last for months.
Confits should not be confused with comfits, which were sugar-coated nuts and seeds eaten at the end of a banquet to freshen the breath and aid the digestion.
Fruits were often dried, but a far more tasty method of preserving them past their season was to seal them up in honey. Occasionally, they might be boiled in a sugar mixture, but sugar was an expensive import, so only the cooks of the wealthiest families were likely to use it. Honey had been used as a preservative for thousands of years, and it wasn't limited to preserving fruit; meats were also stored in honey on occasion.
Most methods of preserving food involved stopping or slowing down the process of decay. Fermentation accelerated it.
The most common product of fermentation was alcohol -- wine was fermented from grapes, mead from honey, beer from grain. Wine and mead could keep for months, but beer had to be drunk fairly quickly. Cider was fermented from apples, and the Anglo-Saxons made a drink called "perry" from fermented pears.
Cheese is also a product of fermentation. Cow's milk could be used, but the milk from sheep and goats was a more common source for cheese in the Middle Ages.
Freezing and Cooling
The weather of the greater part of Europe throughout much of the Middle Ages was rather temperate; in fact, there is often some discussion of the "medieval warm period" overlapping the end of the Early Middle Ages and the beginning of High Medieval Europe (the exact dates depend on who you consult). So freezing was not an obvious method of preserving foods.
However, most areas of Europe did see snowy winters, and freezing was at times a viable option, especially in northern regions. In castles and large homes with cellars, an underground room could be used to keep foods packed in winter ice through the cooler spring months and into the summer. In the long, frigid Scandinavian winters, an underground room wasn't necessary.
Supplying an ice-room with ice was a labor-intensive and sometimes travel-intensive business, so it was not particularly common; but it wasn't completely unknown, either. More common was the use of underground rooms to keep foods cool, the all-important last step of most of the above preservation methods.