Do you grow your own food? Is your garden thriving with crops and vegetables? Learn how to preserve your food for long term storage without using electricity!
Freezers are convenient.
Throw the food in, and six months later, you can pull it out and (usually) get what you put in.
But with the power shortages and disasters that have been happening recently, do you honestly want to rely on your freezer? More importantly, do you want to rely on the power company to keep your food safe?
What we need are the old-fashioned ways of keeping food in storage … without using electricity.
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Table of Contents
Why Preserve At Home?
Preserving food at home is a lot more work than running to the grocery store and buying tins. So why do it?
- food you grew or bought locally won’t go to waste
- you can enjoy your plant-ripened June strawberries in December
- it increases your self-reliance with a sustainable food source away from the grocery store
- you will create family traditions to pass on
- your pantry can have lesser known food varieties and choices
- Christmas gifts!
- cheaper than organic, sugar-free (or other customized) grocery food!
- ingredients are under your control
- spaghetti sauce, jerky, dried fruit and other home preserved ingredients mean fewer shopping trips
- dried fruit makes a great snack
- your carbon footprint will be lower
- it’s fun
So what are these three main methods?
Preserve Food by Curing
Curing food has been a preservation method for probably as long as there have been people, and it can be incredibly simple. The type of curing you use will depend on what food you have, your environment and what equipment you have to work with.
Curing processes food by adding a combination of sugar and salt to draw out excess water. Some people use special curing salt to remove some of the guesswork, but it is neither necessary or traditional. Vegetables, fish and meat are the most common foods to cure, but there are recipes for curing fruit and vegetables, too.
Drying is a Form of Curing
This is the one of the oldest, least labor-intensive, and easiest method to preserve food – so long as you have the climate in which to do it. Not surprisingly, simple drying hasn’t been a traditional preservation method where I live in damp, dark Nova Scotia!
Drying (also called dehydration) removes all water content. This prevents the growth of mildew, bacteria, and mold, which we know thrive in moist environments. With the water removed, food can then be stored for long periods of time.
Dehydration also removes some of the water-soluble vitamins but retains many of the vitamins, minerals, calories, and fiber, making it both nutrient-dense and high-calorie. Dried foods are lightweight and therefore easy to store.
In a survival situation, the concentrated natural sugars in dried food makes them an asset, and dried meat and fish are rich in proteins and minerals.
If you DO have electricity, the most foolproof way to dry food is with an electric food dehydrator or an oven with the temperature set very low. Traditionally, food was hung above and behind the wood cook stove to dry, a method which still works well.
If you live in a dry, hot region, sun or air drying is convenient for vegetables and fruit.
When it comes to meat, though, air drying is only recommended in very hot, dry climates. African biltong, for example, is a type of air-dried meat. Most of us need to dehydrate meat on racks over fire, in a current of warm, dry air, to prevent flies from laying eggs on it. Adding salt is another wise precaution.
Salt Curing and Brining are Ways to Cure
We have been using salt as a preservative for a very long time, and it is still used to improve the drying process and add antimicrobial agents. Salt makes food inhospitable to most microorganisms like bacteria.
Curing is a process that involves rubbing a sugar and salt mixture into fresh meat, tightly packing it into a crock or lidded container and storing it at a stable and cool temperature.
Brining looks a lot like curing but involves a liquidy salt brine.
Salt cured and heavily brined food generally needs to be soaked in water to remove excess salt and make it edible. Here in Nova Scotia, salt cod cakes are a traditional dish – the salted cod fish must be soaked overnight, and the water changed out for fresh water several times, in order to make it edible. My family often talks about the time when my grandmother decided to make salt cod for the family. She was in her early 80s and her tastebuds were going. When she tasted the fish, she couldn’t taste much salt at all and decided that it hadn’t been very well salted. Instead of soaking it overnight, she drained and cooked it after a few hours.
No one could eat it!
In some countries, salted and dried fish are fried and then added to dishes to add flavoring, such as mung bean soup with Moringa Oleifera leaves.
Smoking for Food Preservation
Bacon! Honestly, when most of us think of smoked meat, the first one to come to mind is probably bacon. Like many smoked meats, bacon is first cured in salt and then it’s finished by smoking. Essentially, it improves on the basic method of dehdyration.
The smoke releases the many therapeutic and fragrant properties of the wood, slows bacterial growth, unlocks acid in the food to lower the pH and … well, gives it that amazing and unique flavour.
The key to smoking for long term storage is to keep the fire burning low and far away from the food. Slow smoking isn’t as easy as hot smoking (which can be done in a barbecue, a storebought smoker like this one or even a homemade smoker. It requires the fire to be several feet away from the container holding the food so that only the hot smoke – and not the heat from the fire – reaches the food, and it takes many hours.
If you’re only looking for the smoked flavour, you can use a stovetop kettle smoker like this one (which is the one I have). Do NOT expect the food to be safe for long-term storage. Anything cooked in this will have to be frozen for longer-term storage.
Preserving Food by Canning
Canning is probably the most versatile method of preserving food without electricity. It involves a careful step-by-step process in which food is sealed in jars or canned and then heated in water (either boiling water or pressure-heated water) in order to sterilize it and kill remaining bacteria.
When I say ‘without electricity’, let me make it clear – you are going to need some type of sustained heat source to process the food initially. If you are not using electricity, a propane cooktop works fine, and some people buy one just for canning.Done right, canning is extremely safe and the sealed food can be kept for a very long time without spoiling, and no fuel is needed to keep it safe.
The cost of canning equipment and jars can feel extremely expensive when starting out, but they last a very long time. I reduce my cost by purchasing good quality Mason jars like Ball in the United States or Bernardin here in Canada (because my experience is that they last longer without cracking than cheaper jars) and Tattler reusable lids (because they will last the rest of your life and disposable lids get more expensive every year!)
Most canned food can be eaten immediately. Make up a batch of home-canned beef and decide to have beef stew the next day, your beef is all ready to go – and fork tender.
Pickling as a Form of Food Preservation
This is simply the process of preserving food by immersing in vinegar or fermentation in brine. It’s a fun process, and both vinegar and brine are ‘real’ pickles – the Ancient Romans were familiar with both types.
Most of the time when you ferment, you will be making brined pickles. This technique relies on microbes which kill the bacteria and molds which make food spoil.
The microbes also convert sugars and starches into alcohol or acid.
The combination creates pickled vegetables with a distinct and delicious taste.
Brine level depends on the vegetable being pickled and the speed at which you want the process to work. Brines can be anywhere from 2% salt, for horseradish, garlic, onions, green beans and carrots to a minimum of 3.5% (and preferably 5% or higher) for cucumbers, which are very prone to mold.
Vinegar is a very effective, natural antiseptic. The acid content of vinegar prevents bacterial growth.
When we create a pickle – a combination of vinegar, spices, salt and sometimes sugar – and immerse vegetables in this, we create the pickled vegetables that most of us are familiar with.
There are variations on all of these, and a million different recipes. But these are the three basic methods of preserving food long term without needing to rely on a long-term, stable source of electricity or fuel.