Why Is Salt Used as a Preservative?

  • Salt has been used as a preservative since before written language, according to the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu, a Chinese work estimated to have been written around 2700 BC. How man discovered salt's preserving qualities was probably something he stumbled upon by accident, but we are still benefiting from it.

  • Used as money, shipped from coast to interior towns and cities and traded as a commodity, salt has even inspired the emergence of whole empires such as those in West Africa in the 1200s and 1300s. In some countries, such as Timbuktu, salt was even traded ounce for ounce with gold. In the U.S. during the Civil War, the Union planned campaigns to capture salt to bring to the Confederate Army.

  • Sometime in the early 1800s, man began to finally understand the way salt works as a preservative. This was important in places with long, hard winters with few sources of fresh food. Salt has antibacterial properties, so it inhibits the growth of bacteria which spoil food. When the food that is salted makes contact with the bacteria, the salt absorbs the moisture through the cell's walls, which results in the death of the bacteria.

Salt as a mold and yeast preventative

  • Salt also is an effective deterrent to molds and yeast. In fermentation processes, salt inhibits the yeast from continuing to grow and allows the fermentation time to be regulated. Mold also must have a moist environment to grow, so the salt's dehydrating properties nicely inhibit this as well.

Which salt to use in preserving

  • You must buy the right type of salt to use it for preserving foods. Pickling salt and kosher salt, which are both free of chemicals and additives, are the best choices. Salt must be pure in order to be a good preservative, which is why pickling salt and kosher salts are sold separately as distinct entities. Table salt contains additives such as iodine not found in other more natural salts.

Preserving with salt today

  • To preserve with salt, food must be pickled in brine, which is a solution of salt and water. Once people used huge barrels of 50 or 60 gallons for pickling and then storing the food they had preserved during the cold months. This is the process for vegetables. For meat, the whole piece must be rubbed with sea salt pellets and stored for 1 to 2 months for dry curing. It can also be pickled in brine by soaking or by injecting the meat with a syringe. Wet methods will not keep meats as long as the dry curing does.

Salt's diversity

  • Besides preservation and enhancing the taste of foods, salt is used in an amazing array of applications from industry to non-food products. Salt is used in the production of detergents, soaps and bath products as well as in the manufacturing of paper and pulp. In wintry climates, it's used to melt ice on roadways and to help produce such diverse products as PVC pipe and pesticides.

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