We all take refrigeration for granted, but remember that humans existed for thousands of years without it, which meant coming up with inventive ways to preserve our summer harvests for later consumption.
If you live off-the-grid, you may still have access to modern refrigeration, but often you will want to preserve foods for longer periods of time. You will likely also want to keep more food than you can fit in the refrigerator for the winter months!
Here are a few traditional ways of storing and preserving foods for later use. (Some of these will depend on your climate and living situation, so keep this in mind when choosing your food preservation techniques.)
Keeping Food Cool Without a Refrigerator
Cool temperatures, such as those inside a refrigerator, don’t permanently preserve food, but they do significantly delay decay. The following practices helped people keep food cool long before the invention of refrigerators….
Wet cloth wrap. Evaporation creates cooler-than-ambient temperatures, so simply wrapping a container of food in a wet cloth will help the food last longer than it would otherwise. The drier the surrounding air, the quicker the evaporation, and the more effective this method will be. Unfortunately, in a humid climate, the cooling effect will be negligible.
Zeer Pot. A zeer pot, or pot in pot refrigerator, is a small clay pot nestled within a larger, unglazed clay pot with damp sand or cloth stuffed between the two vessels. Like the wet cloth wrap, a zeer also works through evaporation….
Cellaring. In climates too humid for evaporation to be an effective method of refrigeration, a cellar can keep food cool. Cellars maintain colder temperatures than above ground locations in summer but stay above freezing during winter. They work well for most root crops, cabbage, cauliflower, and other sturdy vegetables, and they provide a place to store lacto-fermented foods after their initial room-temperature fermentation….
No-Heat Dairy Cultures
If you leave pasteurized milk out at room temperature for two to three days, you’ll end up with spoiled milk. Try the same thing with raw milk, though, and you’ll have delicious clabbered cottage cheese. Many people don’t have access to raw milk, but even if you’re working with store-bought stuff, you can extend milk’s shelf life with the following processes.
Yogurt. Most yogurt cultures need temperatures between 100 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit to transform milk into yogurt….
If you use a woodstove to cook and heat, why not take advantage of the energy generated by the stove? Whisk a little yogurt into a jar of milk (1 tablespoon of yogurt per quart of milk), and put the jar near a warm woodstove for eight to 24 hours until the milk thickens into yogurt.
Scandinavian dairy cultures. Unlike standard yogurt strains, several Scandinavian fermented milk products culture at about average room temperature. Viili is a type of yogurt with a ropy consistency. Filmjölk has a custard-like texture and a lightly sour taste. Piimä is thin when made from milk, but when made from cream, it yields a sour-cream-like topping….
When finished, keep all of these cultured dairy products cool in a refrigerator or using another method.
The lacto-fermentation process produces traditional dill pickles, kimchi, and sauerkraut and requires nothing more than salt, vegetables, and water.
You can lacto-ferment any vegetable. Fully submerge vegetables in a light salt brine, cover them loosely, and leave them at room temperature until fermentation begins. When the liquid becomes slightly bubbly on the surface and smells lightly sour, transfer your brew to a cooler location, which will slow fermentation and thus keep the texture and quality of the food at its best….
Full-Strength Vinegar Pickling
Although pickles made with diluted vinegar require canning or refrigeration for long-term storage, those made with undiluted vinegar can be stored at room temperature without canning. Be sure to use vinegar with 5 percent acetic acid or higher….
To preserve using vinegar, fill a clean glass jar with vegetables which you have either pierced with the tip of a paring knife or sliced. Cover the food completely with 5-percent-acidity vinegar and screw on the lid. Don’t dilute the vinegar with water.
Preserving Food in Oil or Fat
Covering food in oil to seal out air and prevent mold is an ancient technique. However, oil will seal in bacteria that’s present on food,…so first use another method to kill off harmful bacteria (see below), and then use oil or rendered fat to seal out air and store the food.
For animal products, such as duck confit, first salt-cure the meat, slow-cook it, and then cover it in fat.
For vegetables, boil them in full-strength vinegar for 10 minutes. Then, drain off the vinegar and cover the food with a high-quality oil, such as extra-virgin olive oil. Try this with zucchini, eggplant, and mushrooms, which will make something like an Italian antipasto.
Store your oil- and fat-preserved foods in a cool environment, such as a cellar or a zeer.
Solar Food Dehydration
Dried fruits, vegetables, and meats have a long shelf life. You can store them at room temperature, they’re lightweight, and they take up less space than fresh ingredients. Solar dehydrators capture the sun’s heat and provide enough air circulation to whisk away moisture from the sun-warmed food…. To learn how to make your own dehydrator from super simple components, read A Solar Food Drying from Cardboard Boxes.