Off-Grid Living Topic: Storing Food Without Refrigeration

I worked on a trail crew for Vermont Youth Conservation Corps in fall of 2015. We lived in the woods on a remote campsite, meaning the campsite had no access to electrical hookups, plumbing, or running water. We had a composting toilet, filtered our own water from the nearby resevoir, and stored our food without refrigeration. We also didn’t get to wear clean clothes or shower every day; there just wasn’t the facilities. Nor did we wash our hands a huge amount. Yet no one ever got sick. There are even studies that show that as long as you follow certain basic common sense rules for cleanliness and safety, a little exposure to germs and dirt will actually build up a healthy immune system. Which brings me to a discussion about storing foods without refrigeration.

FRESH FOODS

Perishable Items:

This includes fruit, vegetables, dairy products, meat, fish, and eggs. Fruit and vegetables will store quite a while at room temperature. Be sure to keep them free from condensation and excess moisture, as this will make them rot faster. Use cut fruit and veggies immediately-cut surfaces will decompose faster. Do not use any produce that is slimy or has an off smell. Soft fruit like raspberries and tender greens like lettuce will last only a few days, while harder produce like apples or winter squash will last weeks, especially at cooler temperatures. Do NOT try to store raw meat or fish without refrigeration. If you buy some and don’t have refrigeration, cook it IMMEDIATELY. With dairy products, cultured ones will last longer; cheese will last up to a week, yogurt and sour cream a couple days. Don’t try to store uncultured pasteurized milk at room temp; if you take milk in your cereal or coffee, switch to almond or soy, which can be stored at room temp opened for 4-5 days (look for the shelf-stable, sealed variety.) Eggs can be stored at room temp up to a week as long as the shell isn’t cracked. To test for freshness, put egg in shell in a bowl of water; if it floats, don’t use it!

Non-Perishable Items:

These dry foods will last months without refrigeration; just keep free of moisture. Non-perishable foods include dry herbs and spices, sugar, flour, baking powder & soda, cocoa, dried milk, dry beans, nuts, grains and seeds, pasta, and canned items. Any dry prepared food is also nonperishable, like cookies or crackers. You can also find shelf-stable juice and milk that can be stored unrefrigerated until opening, but I try to avoid pre-packaged juice and snacks because they tend to be high in sugar and generate lots of trash with their packaging. Potatoes, onions and garlic kind of fall under this definition as long as you keep them dry. Garlic and onions can be hung up by the stem end, and onions and potatoes can be stored in a mesh bag in an area with good air circulation.

Prepared Foods:

Baked goods will last for days. Otherwise, try to eat leftovers within 24 hours.

Preserving Foods:

There are many many excellent resources on preserving food out there, so I’m going to cover the ups and downs of a few basic methods and trust you too look into whichever interests you most. Different people will use different methods for different needs-and don’t limit yourself to just one method of preserving.

Drying: Super easy. Can be used for almost anything except leafy greens. Tomatoes and apples dry especially well. Items for drying are sliced and dried on metal sheet pans in a very slow oven or hot sun. Pros include being one of the safest methods, easy to do with little equipment, and keeping most of the flavor. Dry food is also light and takes little storage space. Cons include needing sunny weather or lots of oven space, and foods not reconstituting to their original texture.

A comprehensive guide to solar food drying: http://solarcooking.wikia.com/wiki/Solar_food_drying

honda-civic_si_hatchback-1990-hd

Behold! My beloved mobile solar herb dryer (above).

comprehensive guide to drying safety procedures and general guidelines: http://www.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/html_pubs/DRYING/dryfood.html

Fermenting or pickling: This process involves the partial digestion of food by microorganisms to change its chemical composition. Pickled items are also packed in a salty brine that helps preserve them. Pros include increased health benefits due to food becoming more digestible through fermentation and having live/active cultures, and change in flavor. (pickles are delicious!) Cons include requiring more specialized knowledge and tools, and the possibility of making yourself sick if your pickling project goes seriously wrong. Also, fermented foods prefer to be stored at cooler temperatures and don’t last as long as canned, frozen or dried foods. For two books that offer comprehensive guides to fermenting and pickling, try Nourishing Traditions  by Sally Fallon (http://www.thebookloft.com/search/site/nourishing%20traditions) and Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz (http://www.thebookloft.com/search/site/wild%20fermentation).

jarsofpickledfermentedfoods-m-0623-653x0_q80_crop-smart

Don’t these pickles just make you all hot and bothered?

Canning: This is probably the first thing you think of when you think “food preservation”, but surprisingly, canning hasn’t been around for that long. It was invented in 1803 by a French chef, Nicolas Appert, who wanted to win a cash prize offered by Napoleon to the first person to develop a new food preservation method to feed the French army. Appert’s original canned goods were heated and sealed into Champagne bottles stopped with a mixture of cheese and lime to exclude air. The basic principle of canning is to heat food up to kill bacterial growth, then seal it off in an airtight container. Many many foods can be preserved this way-meat, fish, beans, fruit, veggies…the biggest drawback to canning is that it requires a lot of equipment, attentiveness, and specialized knowledge to produce a safe and tasty product. For example, low-acid and low-sugar preparations must be processed differently than, say, jam or tomato sauce. But you can easily overcome these obstacles by working with a friend or relative who is an experienced home canner, and only buying your own equipment once you learn the ropes.

A comprehensive guide to home canning, explaining various methods and IMPORTANT safety guidelines: http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html

My mom is a legendary home canner. Here’s one of her favorite canning books, which covers freezing, drying, and pickling, too. There’s recipes for just about every fruit and vegetable: http://www.thebookloft.com/search/site/put%20%27em%20up

 

Freezing:  if you don’t have access to refrigeration, you probably also don’t have a freezer, so I’m just going to skip this one.

Smoking: I’ve never really tried this, but I enjoy smoked meats and fish. If you want to try, here’s a comprehensive guide from the University of Georgia that compiles a bunch of resources on procedures, types of smoked food, and safety, all in one handy location: http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/nchfp/lit_rev/cure_smoke_postproc.html

Anyway, that’s all for now-preserve away, and enjoy!

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s