Knowing how to keep food safe from spoilage and healthful to eat is essential for anyone who prepares or stores it. For millennia, people have kept food safely without refrigeration. A practical home refrigerator was not invented until 1927. To figure out the best strategies for keeping our food wholesome without electricity, find out how it was done in the past.
The National Center for Home Preservation at the University of Georgia provides a wealth of information about how to safely handle and preserve foods. Their web site is http://www.uga.edu/ncfp/index.html.
Keeping it cold
Ice boxes were used before refrigeration became widely available. This was a wooden box, usually made of wood with hollow walls that were lined with zinc or tin a lined filled with insulating material such as cork or straw. A large block of ice was placed in a compartment or tray at the top. A cheap ice box had a drip pan underneath that had to be emptied manually. More expensive models had a spigot for draining off water. Since cold air descends, the food kept below the ice chamber stayed reasonably cold.
Foods were stored in a certain order in the ice box, depending on how cold they needed to be kept. Uncooked meat was kept in its own little cubicle at the bottom. Next to this would be a place for dairy products. Cooked meats and berries occupied the next level. Then came cooked vegetables, eggs, fats, and leftovers. At the top would go fresh vegetables and fruits.
Creating your own ice box is not infeasible, but you would still need a source for ice. In an emergency like a power outage, foods likely to spoil could be kept in a cooler or the refrigerator with ice. Block ice will last longer than cubes. Refrain from opening the door any more than absolutely necessary.
A full or nearly full chest-type freezer will usually keep food frozen for 24 hours in a power outage if the door is not opened. Uprights are less efficient for this purpose. If an outage occurs, check the food in the freezer once power is restored. If still frozen solid, it will be fine. If food has started to thaw, the Ohio State University Extension service has a fact sheet at http://ohioline.osu.edu/home/freeze.html that will provide guidance.
The old fashioned root cellar provided a cool place to store root vegetables, apples and other fruits. A root cellar can be built above ground, covered with dirt, and will serve much the same purpose. Plans are available at several internet sites for this purpose. If you have a basement, a root cellar can be created there in a dark, reasonably damp corner. Shelves should be used to keep food boxes off the ground.
If storing foods in a cellar, pack them in straw, sand, or another protective material. Check for any bruises or other signs of spoilage, and do not store items that have these. Instead, cook and use right away.
Foods can also be kept cool by placing them in a sturdy waterproof and animal proof container and partially burying it. This is at best a temporary solution.
A cooling jar can be made with 2 porous pots, one very large and the other small enough to fit inside. Cover the bottom of the large pot with clean sand. Set the smaller pot inside, making sure the rim is at the same height as the large pot. Fill in the area between the pots with more sand. Pour water into the sand. Place your food in the smaller pot, and cover with a clean wet cloth. The evaporation of the water is what keeps the food cool.
To people who grew up with the refrigerator in the house, these methods may seem unworkable. Food can be kept fresh in a jar refrigerator for several days, and root vegetables will keep for months in a root cellar.
Fruits, vegetables and even meats can be safely canned by following directions available from Ball and Kerr, the companies that make jars and other canning equipment. Information is also available at the local county extension service and will be specific for the area in which you live.
Jars and lids specifically made for canning must be used. They are tempered, and are made to fit precisely in order to achieve a good seal.
High acid foods like tomatoes and most fruits can be preserved using the boiling water bath. Filled jars are placed in a large pot with a rack to keep them from touching the bottom or from clanking together during processing. Hot water is added to 1-2” over the tops and brought to a full rolling boil. Directions are available from the sources above for timing the processing and cooling the jars of food.
Low acid foods, most vegetables and meats, must be pressure canned to kill anaerobic bacteria that cause botulism. It is important to follow the directions of the manufacturer to ensure safe operation and food preservation.
Jams and jellies can be made from fruit and sealed in sterile jars under paraffin for safe storage.
Pickled foods are preserved in vinegar, which is acidic. White distilled and cider vinegar of 5% acidity should be used to ensure safety. Recipes should not be altered because the proportions of the ingredients are important.
After pickling, foods should be processed using a water bath method.
Fermentation can also be used for food preservation. Regular dill pickles and sauerkraut are fermented foods. A stone crock or food grade plastic or glass container should be used, and the food must be weighed down to keep it in the fermenting liquid.
After fermentation, foods need to be canned in a water bath. Some recipes allow for a low-temperature pasteurization process that helps to prevent too much softening of the product. Carefully follow all directions in a recipe to preserve properly.
Another useful method of preparing food for storage is to remove the moisture. Bacteria cannot multiply on a clean, dry surface. Dried foods that may already be familiar are peas, beans, and rice. Vegetables and fruits can be preserved by drying, and kept in air tight containers for months.
A modern dehydrator could be purchased, or a solar dehydrator built from plans available at internet sites such as Solar Fire, http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/Cooking/cooking.hetm#Drying.
Salted foods will keep because the bacteria cannot live in an environment that is so high in saline, and because salt draws out the moisture in foods. Meats have been salted and kept in kegs since ancient times. Meat was cut into small portions and packed in salt so that no two pieces of meat touched.
Dry-curing of meat is done by rubbing the meat with salt pellets called corns. The salt draws the moisture from the meat. The entire process takes 4-8 weeks, after which the dried meat can be stored for months. Wet-cured meat is preserved and stored in brine but cannot be held for a long time.
Fairly good instructions for salt curing meat and for smoking to preserve it are available at http://www.electricscotland.com/food/preservation/chapter17.htm
Smoked meats will keep longer under refrigeration than fresh meats. Instructions for preparation are available at the National Center for Home Preservation.
Keeping foods fresh is important to the health and well-being of every family. If you choose to store foods without refrigeration, check the literature and be certain that you are doing it correctly.
References and further information: