Archive for the 'Food Storage' Category

Food Storage Quickie - A New Feature

Sharon September 12th, 2008

I got a great idea from one of my food storage students, by way of her LDS church.  She told me that each month or week at her church, they hand out cards that encourages people to focus on one area of food storage, and one or two other issues - including suggestions for where to get things at reasonable prices.  One month might focus on protein sources and flashlights, another on sweeteners and blankets.

Now being a person who steals all her good ideas from somewhere or other, I’ve decided to borrow this wonderful idea, and start running a weekly “Food Storage Quickie” that gets people focusing on one segment of their food storage, and one non-food item.  I’d encourage everyone who can to do little more in your preps this week in that area, even if it only means buying an extra bag or couple of cans of something.  All that stuff does add up pretty quickly - so even if you can only do a little, just doing it makes a difference.  And for those getting started, this is a good way to get things moving, without being too overwhelmed.  I’m going to try to have one of these up every Friday (we’ll see whether I can pull it off) as an adjunct to the Independence Days Challenge Reports.

Ok - this week, we’re going to focus on three things - pasta, popcorn and matches.  Why pasta?  Because it is a starch that almost everyone can eat in some form - even those with wheat intolerances can usually eat rice or soy pastas.  Whole wheat pasta stores for more than a year, while white noodles (not as nutritious) stores even longer.  Those of you hot to make things yourself can make egg-free noodles and dry them, or egg noodles and freeze them.  With the price of wheat still extremely high and the harvests coming in unevenly, my guess is that the price of pasta will go up in the coming year.  And since this is one of those things that you can pretty much feed to everyone - even your weird uncle or picky grandkid, it makes sense to have some on hand. 

The cheapest way to get pasta would probably be to buy it in bulk from a coop or buying club in 10 or 20lb boxes.  But if you can’t afford this, remember pasta is a frequent supermarket loss leader, and even unusual pastas, made of other grains show up at odd lots stores, drug stores and dollar stores.  So add a few more packages of pasta to your supermarket cart if you can. 

If your budget stretches that far, now would be a good time to pick up a bushel of tomatoes and make and can some tomato sauce. Or keep an eye out for canned tomatoes or bottled sauce cheaply.  Or if you’ve got basil, consider making some pesto, and freezing it in ice-cube trays for springtime.  Butter or olive oil and garlic makes a great sauce as well, and cheap, particularly if you can throw in some chopped up herbs you keep on your windowsill, or some greens.

Now, to popcorn, which has many of the same virtues as pasta and some extra ones - nearly everyone will eat it, and unlike many pastas, it is a whole grain that can be digested by most people and extremely nutritious, and it is associated with fun, comfort and snacks - something you want in tough times.  Popped popcorn with a light sweetener on it isn’t a bad substitue for sugar cereals, if your family still hasn’t been weaned off of them, and it is great and filling.  If your family doesn’t buy into the idea of storing food generally, or won’t eat most storage staples, popcorn is one way to get around this - tell them you aren’t “storing food for a crisis” but planning for winter evenings by the fire.

By “popcorn” I don’t mean “microwave” - the power is likely to be off.  I mean the real McCoy, without artificial butter-flavored grease (you can add actual butter or other oils and it tastes much, much better).  You can pop popcorn in any pan with a lid, but it will be easier if you have a popcorn popper - or if you will be cooking over an open fire, a long handled implement especially designed for popcorn.  It is one of those things that is so easy that I’ve never quite understood the proliferation of microwave popcorn.

Where to get it?  The best options are probably a local farm that grows their own, or the abovementioned coop or buying club.  But if you can’t do that, try a couple of extra bags at the grocery store, or keep an eye out for sales and other cheap sources.  Kept reasonably cool and dry, popcorn keeps just about forever. 

Also, does your reserve include an ample supply of matches or other ways of lighting a fire?  You’d be surprised how often you need them in an uncertain energy situation - for lighting stoves and candles, kerosene lamps or relighting a pilot.  If you heat with wood, the long handled matches are really nice to have, but even cheapie little ones are valuable.  You could also consider lighters (and extra butane - but store very carefully!) or  magnesium firestarters.  Make sure your bug out bags have good, waterproof, strike-anywhere matches if at all possible.  But add more to your “in place storage” as you go - these are also a good dollar store find, where I’ve often seen five large boxes for a buck.

Ok, I hope this helps a few people get organized just a little!  I’m off to check if the popcorn is dry enough to harvest yet ;-) .


Diving In and Getting Going

Sharon July 31st, 2008

Wow - is the class over already?  I’ve now done two months of intense writing on food storage - which is great, it feels like 75% of my next book is already written.  And of course, I can think of a whole bunch of things I left out - I didn’t tell people how to make cheese!  What about sourdough and yeasts?  What about community scale food storage?  Ack!  Still, there comes a point at which I have to admit that there are only 24 hours in my day and that I’m getting a little control freaky if I personally feel I’m the only person on the planet who can help people get fed.  Maybe time for a short break and a few drinks before the next class ;-) .

I can’t think of any better way to end this class than with my last post from last time “Bunt to Whee: The Battle Cry of the Food Storers” - and a reminder that in the five months since the last time I ran this class, the reasons for getting started on these things have only increased.  Food prices haven’t come down.  The oil in agriculture is still there.  The climate is still getting warmer.  And we’re getting poorer by the minute.  The truth is that we need a reserve, some practice, and people in our communities with these skills.

 So all I can say is - I wish I’d written on everything and answered every question, including all of my own,  but it is far more important that there are so many of you out there doing this stuff!  All of you trying, blogging, talking to people, teaching others, helping out your neighbors, testing in your kitchen - that means my little stuff gets bigger all by itself, through the magic of community - yours here and then yours with the peopel you spread it out to.  I’m really lucky, and so is the world to have y’all.

So thank you all for all the comments, and the experiments, and all the blogs, the Independence Days Updates, the failures and successes, the accounts and recommendations.  Thanks for all the people you show something or explain to, all the kids who get to see their Dads and Moms taking food storage seriously, all the times you have and will offer to give a neighbor a hand or a reminder that this is cheaper in bulk. 

This isn’t just about my personal senes of gratitude of course, but it is vast, and I feel very fortunate that I have people to correct me, to point out my errors, to offer new ideas and to take the stuff I did (and the stuff other people did that I stole), and spread them around and play with them.  The hell with control freaks - there’s no way I could do that much myself.

Heck, there aren’t that many of us, but there are more and more, and I’m starting to hope just a little that this kind of networking might actually spread out to where it is needed, when it is.  It is already bigger and more powerful than I’d ever dreamed.

 Thank you all, and Bunt to the Whee!


Season Extension - Getting More Green From Your Garden

Sharon July 31st, 2008

My favorite way to eat most foods is fresh, just picked.  That means my absolute favorite way to store food is to extend my garden’s season so I don’t have to do any major preservation work.  And this is so easy - fall gardening is fun, no pests, and the food tastes better after a frost or two generally - the difference is huge.  Kale eaten after a hard freeze is tender, with a deep sweetness.  Kale before a freeze ain’t bad.  Carrots that have undergone some cold weather are sugary, cabbage sweet and crisp.  This is a good thing.

 Even in chilly upstate NY, without a greenhouse or a hoophouse (I’m hoping to have the latter soonish), I can keep stuff going through December and into January.  The last few years, I’ve managed to overwinter spinach, kale and leeks occasionally completely unprotected - throw a foot or two of leaves on things, and no problem. 

The book to get on this subject is Eliot Coleman’s _Four Season Harvest_ and I’m going to really recommend you use it.  Obviously, the degree to which you can do this or need to do this will depend on where you live - in the coldest places, you can’t leave anything out at all. In warm ones, season-extension might be throwing a blanket over the watermelon during the occasional frost.  But for my area, I’ll give you a sense of how it works.

 There are two kinds of season extension, to my mind.  The first is the protection of crops so that you can harvest over the winter, the second is the planting of crops that will grow or regrow very early in the spring, to tide you over when nothing else is growing.  Both are good. 

For the former, generally most of the growth has to be done here by mid-September - which means that I’m planting a lot of the fall greens and vegetables right now.  Peas are started in peat pots inside, roots are planted or transplanted to be harvested in October or later.  Quick growing greens like mizuna, arugula and spinach can be planted as late as early September. 

Then the question is how much protection do they need, and do I want to give them?  I’m lazy - but you can do all sorts of things - cold frames are great - you can build them or make them out of straw bales and old windows.  Floating row covers will offer some protection, as will mulch.  Even blankets thrown on at night and taken off in the morning will extend your season a week or two in many cases.  Don’t forget to bring in containers and keep them growing on a windowsill - that’s season extension too!

 The amount of effort you put in, and your investment will depend on what you are trying to accomplish - to keep a full crop of vegetables in place all winter will probably involve at a minimum a hoophouse and floating row covers, and maybe supplemental heat in a cold spot.  To extend your season an extra month or so might be easily done with some plastic and some leaves.  Again, there’s a lot of information out there, more than  I can offer here.

 The second kind of storage is related - the kind you eat early in the spring - for example, parsnips are often used this way, kept in the ground until the thaw begins and dug and enjoyed then at their sweetest.   Salsify and scorzonera work this way too.   Kale, leeks, collards, roots, winter lettuces, mache and other very cold hardy things can also be overwintered with mulch - they will die back during the winter, but regrow vigorously long before you can get down into the soil.

 The thing is, while you can learn a lot from Coleman and others, if you want fresh foods year round (other than sprouts) it will take practice - this is one of those things where advice can, I think only go so far - you will need to do a lot of experimentation - but think about how glorious it is to be able to eat things fresh, when nothing else fresh is about.


Preserving Food When You Have No Money

Sharon July 29th, 2008

Several people have expressed frustration recently that there are so many things to buy when you are preserving food.  They are experiencing what many of us probably will experience sooner or later - no money.  So while some people are using what they have while they have it to get good equipment, others are already priced out of these options, and it is hard for them.

So let’s go over the lowest cost ways to store food, and the best strategies for getting ahold of equipment cheaply.

- Ok, the cheapest technique is definitely root cellaring. That will be the subject of Thursday’s posts, so I won’t be emphasizing it here, but the cooler you keep your house (a characteristic of low income folks) the more you can keep things. 

First, squash and pumpkins like cool house temperatures, and garlic and onions do pretty well at those temps too.  Most other storable crops, including roots and apples require colder temps - but if you have natural cold and can close off a room, throw a cooler outside, or bury an old fridge in your yard (or a barrel) you are golden, and get all the potatoes, onions, beets, carrots, etc… preserved in their natural state.  You can also use the “dig a hole” (or use an existing hole like a basement) method for refrigeration, saving you money, and extending the life if your kimchi and sauerkraut. 

 How do you get root cellarable vegetables if you are struggling?  Well, pumpkins are pretty easy - I’d be willing to bet you can get as many as you want the day or two after halloween if you go to a farmstand or any venue that sells them - better yet, make the arrangement first.  I’ve gotten 100 for $5 - and they make good people food, not to mention chicken, goat, sheep, etc…

Many places have gleaning programs - I’ve mentioned them before, but if your area doesn’t have one, you might talk to a farmer about whether you and a friend could glean their fields after they harvest. 

Talk to farmers - they may be selling the potatoes for $2 a lb, but they probably aren’t using that price if you can buy 50lbs at a time - last year our local farm sold potatoes at $12 for 50lbs and “horse” carrots for $6 for 25lbs.  You don’t have to tell anyone you don’t have a horse.  If you are willing to take whatever they have leftover at the end of the day, or to buy their weird surplus of beets, it might be even cheaper.

It isn’t too late in many places to plant some root crops - winter radishes, daikon, turnips, some rutabagas, beets and some carrots will still mature. 

Lots of people don’t harvest their fruit - ask if you can collect apple drops.  Or visit a farm and ask if you can have them - the damaged ones can be sauced or dried.

 - Ok, next cheapest method - lactofermentation.  All you need is salt and water and vegetables.  This is a great way to use wild greens that you harvest from your yard or a public park (just make sure they don’t spray) - dandelion, plantain, lambs quarters - all can be fermented and flavored with a few pennies worth of hot pepper or caraway or other spices.  If you want to keep it a  long time, don’t have a cold cellar or a fridge, bury it in the ground.  Cabbage is generally inexpensive, and again, it isn’t at all too late to plant some greens for fall that can be fermented when it gets cooler.

- Season extension probably comes in next in terms of cheapness.  Depending on where you live it might need a fair bit of stuff, or you might be able to just scrape up some leaves from the ground (or grab a bag someone leaves out on their lawn, and mulch stuff deeply.

I’m going to do a whole post on this tomorrow, but generally speaking, south of the mason dixon line or in the pacific northwest, you can probably overwinter with just mulch and the right crops, north of there you might need to scavenge some old windows to put on top of a few bales of hay or straw (for this you can get the ones that were rained on in the field, or ones that have started to rot, or last year’s dusty ones - you might be able to get them free - or try after harvest festivals and halloween asking about the decorative ones) over your crops.  Plastic sheeting will work too. 

Root crops can often be heavily mulched and survive - parsnips especially, but other crops might manage if you are in a moderately mild climate.

And again, in my lattitude, a lot of season extended crops are being planted right now - it isn’t too late!

- Next is dehydration.  If you live in a dry climate, you can lay things out on a hot day in the sun, or hang apple rings and green beans under the eaves of your attic.  If you live in a humid one, and have a car or can get your hands on a junker, try doing it in the car.  If you heat with wood, hanging things behind or near the woodstove will work. With a pilot light oven you should be able to dry in that.  And dehydrators are commonly for sale cheap - but it might take a while to find one at your price.  Consider posting a request on Craigslist.

- Preservation in salt requires just an awful lot of salt.  This is not yet expensive, but can’t usually be scavenged and does require an initial purchase.

- Preservation in alcohol is kind of pricey, unless you can make your own wine and preserve fruit or cheese in it.  Most of the equipment for winemaking can be scavenged, however.

- Canning can be cheap or expensive.  If you can find free or very cheap canning jars (and they are common where I am), already have a big pot and something to put on the bottom of it (cake rack, canning jar rings laid flat, anything that makes a rack that will elevate the jars), the only cost is the heating energy and the jar lid.  Still, it isn’t totally cheap.

 Pressure canning can be cheap, again if you have a source for jars, and can find a cheap used pressure canner, but again, it is probably the hardest method.

- Freezing is the most expensive method, and one we haven’t talked about much here, because I think for most of us, the rising price of electricity will make it inefficient.  On the other hand, this gets me into one thing that I do want to talk about - sharing.  While I think that for many people, a large home freezer may not be financially doable, there are a lot of such freezers out there, and people could reasonable rent/barter space in them, and share them.

Which brings me to the other point - what’s the best strategy if you can’t afford a piece of equipment?  Find someone to share - maybe get to know a local home canner, and ask if you can borrow their pressure canner in exchange for cutting some wood or watching their daughter.  Talk to the guy with the dehydrator about whether you could trade something for a few hours of dehydration a year.  Now this is tough stuff in our culture - we don’t do this. But it is time, and past time to start - if we don’t share if we don’t learn to share, we’re not going to get very far in a lower energy future.

 I’ve written before that I don’t think there should be any conflict between the people who are prepping like mad and can buy stuff and those who can’t. Those of us who can are getting ready for the same world those who can’t are - and the odds are good that we’re going to need each other - even if it is just someone willing to help cut five zillion strawberry hulls out in exchange for a chance to use the dehydrator next.  The person who owns enough food preservation equipment to feed India is going to have a labor shortage in many cases - the person who has no money often has some time they can share. 

Some one on a list I was on once referred to it as “building the village before the villagers are ready” - the truth is that if you’ve got money, spending it on useful tools is a good thing.  If you haven’t, get knowledge, a little practice, and share what you can - because you are bringing something to village too - something absolutely essential - time, energy and ability.


Minimizing Waste With Preserved and Stored Food

Sharon July 24th, 2008

Ok, you’ve gone through all the work of growing the stuff, canning or drying it, or buying it and hauling it home - how do you keep from losing it to pests, age, lack of planning, etc…?

Chile has a terrific post on managing food waste in general here - we waste at least 1/4 of all our food. Now we probably can’t get that down to 0 - although if you have animals, a worm bin or a compost pile, you can at least ensure that your waste has an upside.  But it is still cheaper to feed your worms on banana peels than on chocolate layer cake you let go bad, and it is better for everyone if people food gets used as people food.

 So how do you handle and manage your stored and preserved food to minimize waste?

1. To the extent you can, try to minimize gaps between harvest time and preservation - the longer you wait, the fewer nutrients, the more spoilage, the lower quality the food, the more you risk one rotten berry giving an off taste to the whole batch, not to mention the swarms of fruit flies.  If you can harvest on the same day, do - it makes a difference.

2. Have a back up plan for edible parts of the food you don’t want to preserve.  The peels to those lemons can be dried to make lemon zest, or used to flavor lemon vinegar.  The apple peels can be used to make apple vinegar.  Watermelon rind pickles, corncob jelly, many things with zucchini - these are the products of excess and thrift.

3. When you are freezing or canning, pack the food in quantities that you can eat quickly. Yes, I know it is faster to can all that blackberry jam in quart jars, not half-pints, but if there are only two of you, you will be throwing out some jam if you can it in containers that are two large. Same with freezing - if you freeze all the chicken stock in one container, you then have to use it - if you can get only what you want, you have less chance of seeing things rot.

4. Expect to have to use some things up quickly - that jar of jam that didn’t seal, or the pressure canned soup that you weren’t quite sure about.  The bits of meat that didn’t fit in that last jar and you didn’t bother canning. 

5. Don’t get more than you can store.  It would be a mistake to buy more food than you can store correctly - if you don’t have jars or buckets, don’t get a ton of oatmeal until you do.

6. Less air, less heat, less humidity are always better.  Life isn’t perfect, but it is worth making some effort on these fronts if  you can.

7. Check everything regularly - open lids, examine sealed jars, take a sniff of the sauekraut.  Do it regularly - and schedule it.

8. In an emergency, get out the canner and dehydrator, and get to work.  Sudden early frost meant you had to pull in all the berries?  Power was out three days and now you have half a cow half-defrosted?  Bad storm took down the cherry tree, and the cherries with it?  Cold snap came too early to ripen the tomatoes?  Well, it is time to get out there with alternate methods - throw the frozen corn in the dehydrator, get the pressure canner running and can that beef as stew.  Food preservation techniques can save you from food losses.

9. Even in a non-emergency, food preservation should be used to extend the life of food that can’t be saved another way.  We can the slightly wrinkled apples in the root cellar as applesauce, we make sauerkraut and kimchi when the cabbage is fading, dehydrate the onions and garlic if they show signs of trouble.  A combination of strategies can work better than any single one.

10.  Once you’ve preserved it, don’t forget to eat it.  This sounds obvious, but it isn’t to a lot of people - things get crammed in the back of the fridge. You worked hard for this - so use it up, plan your menus around the leftovers, make sure you scrape out the jam jar (if you add a little water to a jar of jam and shake it up, you can make a popsicle out of it), and use that pickle brine to flavor your tuna sandwich or as part of salad dressing. 


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