A Brief History of Culinary Innovation

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the evolution of the “digital kitchen” – the idea that our ubiquitous modern technologies have had a significant impact on the ways we think about, prepare, and share our meals with both families and strangers alike. Think online cooking tutorials, bookmarking digital coupons, and Instagramming photos of last night’s meatloaf.

But these technologies are essentially more about convenience and social sharing than changing our relationship with food itself. You can snap a photo of that meatloaf with your smartphone, upload it to Facebook, and tag your dinner guests in the pic, but the meatloaf is still meatloaf. (No offense to meatloaf.)

A Brief History of Culinary Innovation
A Brief History of Culinary Innovation

Throughout the centuries, though, advancements in technology have had a profound impact on the cooking process, allowing humans to cultivate, prepare, store, and distribute food in ways that were unimaginable before. Think of how difficult it must have been to catch a fish without a fishing net, cultivate soil without a plow, or boil water without a pot.

To determine which inventions have had the most significant impact on humanity’s culinary history, The Royal Society, the U.K.’s national academy of science, asked its Fellows and industry experts to vote on which gastronomic innovations they believed to be the most important to the development of civilization, based on four criteria: accessibility, productivity, aesthetics, and health. The votes were then tallied and compiled into a list of the top 20 “most significant inventions in the history of food and drink.”

Which technological innovations came out on top? Drum roll, please…

At number three: canning. Canning, first patented by a British merchant in 1810, is “a method of preserving food in which the food contents are processed and sealed in an airtight container.” Canned food has a typical shelf life ranging from one to five years, although some freeze-dried canned products, such as lentils, can last up to 30 years. Those dusty, canned beans in the back of the pantry from 1982? Still delicious. Thanks, Nicolas Appert.

The second most important culinary invention in history was determined to be the process of pasteurization/sterilization. Pasteurization, invented by renowned French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, is “a process of heating a food, which is usually a liquid, to a specific temperature for a predefined length of time and then immediately cooling it after it is removed from the heat,” in order to slow spoilage and prevent bacterial contamination.

And coming in at number one, the Most Significant Invention in the History of Food and Drink is…?

Refrigeration.Although using ice to refrigerate and preserve food dates back to prehistoric times, the first known method of artificial refrigeration was demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1756. Since that time, the technology has been used in dozens of applications, from air conditioning to liquefaction of gases to cryogenic freezing. The most important use is in preserving food for long periods of time. And for keeping beer cold, of course.

The entire list, which includes inventions ranging from fermentation to microwaves, is available on The Royal Society’s homepage. Our whipping boy, meatloaf, couldn’t have even made it to last night’s dinner table without the help of many items on the list: refrigeration, pasteurization, the oven, baking, the knife, and eating utensils.

Technological innovation: it’s what’s for dinner.

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