The Incas and Freeze-Dried Foods

The Incas and Freeze-Dried Foods

You might think that freeze-dried foods haven’t been around for that long, but the Incan people had a method for this kind of food preservation which has been used for 1,500 years!

Let’s find out what they did to freeze-dry their foods.

The Incas were a powerful nation. They contributed a lot to what we use today. One of the most important things that they contributed was a method of preserving food that would last years! This was an important method of survival for these early peoples.

When the Incan people had an abundance of food, they developed a method to freeze-dry it. That way when crops were low, they would be able to provide for their people. Smart, huh?

The high altitudes of the Andean Mountains of South America have a pretty harsh climate prone to freezing temperatures at night and hot daytime weather. The Incas used this to their advantage.

varieties of South American potatoes

They found a way to freeze dry potatoes as a method of preservation. Potatoes are typically plentiful, and South America is where the potato is from!

The Incas would take large amounts of smaller potatoes and leave them out overnight on beds of straw. The potatoes were covered with cloth.

The next day they would walk over the potatoes or squeeze them by hand to squish out all the moisture. Then they were left out in the sun to evaporate even more moisture.

The process was repeated over several days to completely get rid of all the water in the potatoes and leave them dried out.

Peruvian woman preparing Chuño

This left them with a food they call chuño. It’s made from the darker varieties of potatoes, and their method is still used today! Whole families are known to participate in the process and the food is stored for later distribution.

The freeze-dried potatoes will keep for up to 10 years! This method seems pretty amazing, considering it’s been used for centuries.

It’s quite useful, too! If there is a shortage of crops due to drought, which can wipe out an entire harvest, there will still be food thanks to the preservation methods of previous crops.

It’s a great way to make sure everyone has enough food to go around. Talk about preparing for a food shortage...they don’t have to worry about that with this method!

What is the chuño used for?

It’s used in all kinds of stuff. There are soups and stews which incorporate chuño. The potatoes can be ground and added to anything as a thickening ingredient, just like flour.

chairo and freeze-dried potatoes

There are a couple of dishes like chairo, a traditional soup, or papa helada, which is more of a snack made from boiled chuño and Andean cheese. It’s also added to a traditional chili dish called aji.

Is there only one kind of freeze-dried potatoes?

freeze-dried potatoes

There are actually two kinds of freeze-dried potatoes. The darker varieties make chuño, and the lighter potatoes are made into moraya. The method is a little different.

For moraya the potatoes are put into tightly woven mesh bags and placed in the super chilled streams. The bags protect the potatoes while cleaning them.

After a couple days of soaking in the chilly water they are pulled and the process is started. The potatoes are left to freeze at night and then all the moisture from them is squished out, and they are left to dry in the sun during the day.

The freeze-drying method has an advantage. For the darker potato varieties sometimes have a bitter taste. Preserving them like this gets rid of that bitterness. It makes them taste better. Bonus! Freeze-drying was used on not only potatoes but other vegetables and even meats!

Chuño and moraya are still produced to this day.

A good method of preservation, but what does it taste like?

Chuño has been described as tasting like Styrofoam, which is typical with a lot of freeze-dried foods. The smell has been compared to stinky socks. Yuck.

It’s said it has a bit of an acquired taste by itself. If you needed something to fill your belly though, you wouldn’t be too picky.

The dried potatoes also taste pretty good when used in soups and stews. Dehydrating them allows them to soak up the flavor of whatever you use them in.

This process has a fancy name. It’s called lyophilization or cryodesiccation. And that just means the process of dehydrating something using low temperatures.

Freeze-drying food has been used by NASA to make shelf-stable food for astronauts. This method was even used in World War II to preserve blood.

Today, we can find all kinds of freeze-dried foods in our grocery stores. It's a great way to reduce food waste and have plenty of food for everyone!

Freeze-dried foods have been around for a very long time. We have the Incas to thank for it!

You can sample some of the awesome dishes from Peru in our Peru box as you eat2explore!

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