This has been my summer of canning, and I love it. I have been blessed with an abundant garden; enough for whatever we want to eat fresh, enough to share with friends, and enough to can and freeze for the coming winter. It’s a good feeling to know that we don’t have to depend on groceries for our survival, not that we wouldn’t miss out on some of the conveniences.
However, both of these food preservation methods (canning and freezing) rely on electrical energy. Electricity to heat boiling water for canning and processing and continuous electricity to service freezers. What if something happens to the power supply? What alternatives would we have?
The unstable global environment and the threat of natural disasters could have a very real impact on our food supply. It’s reminiscent of the Donner Party of decades ago. They were pioneers traveling west into California who found themselves trapped in the Sierra Nevadas during blizzards and cold temperatures. They slowly starved to death and some even resorted to cannibalism.
Granted, we don’t live in the days of the pioneers, but those people who traveled west in wagon trains for months knew some secrets of preserving food without modern conveniences. Chances are they didn’t have heavy cans to keep food on the open fire or modern freezers in their covered wagons! However, they carried enough food to get them through until they established a farm and could start growing their own.
Their methods of preserving food without electricity or a gas supply are still good to know today, not only when the power grid fails, but also for people who want to live off the grid in remote areas. Here are seven ways to store food safely without using electricity.
1. Salt: In today’s world, we tend to think of salt more as a seasoning than a method of preservation, but that way of thinking was reversed in ancient times. People living near a saline or saline body of water had the ability to dehydrate the water and collect salt, a precious commodity. Roman soldiers even received their wages in salt for a time. Salt reduces moisture, inhibits bacterial growth and also adds flavor to foods. Salt pork was often the standard fare for people traveling long distances by land or sea. Small barrels of pork drowned in salt or brine were common, as were salt brines used to improve the preservation of fish, poultry, and game before drying or smoking. It is a standard addition to most marinade recipes.
2. Fat: Surprise, surprise, but fat has exceptional preservative virtues, especially beef trotters or tallow and tallow. Pioneer women often took pieces of meat and placed them in barrels or pots and covered them with tallow or tallow. The important thing was to keep the container airtight, so the frozen fat prevented oxygen and airborne microbes from reaching the meat. These fats are standard additions to pemmican recipes, which are concentrated blends of fats and proteins used as nutritious foods. Part of Canadian cuisine, pemmican looks like jerky meatballs made mostly of beef jerky or bison with an equal amount of fat and a few raisins or black cherries added. They are dense and high in energy.
3. Honey: This food has remarkable preservative properties. A 3,000-year-old jar of honey has been discovered in an Egyptian tomb and tests have revealed it’s still safe to eat. Pioneers preserved their most prized cuts of meat in honey, which not only preserved the meat but gave it a pleasant, sweet taste. Imagine if they would have combined salt and honey; they would have invented the modern sweet and sour craze! The only downside to using honey as a preservative is that it is difficult to harvest a lot of it and can be very expensive.
4. The vinegar: Good old vinegar. Today, vinegar is used not only in cooking, but also in canning and other food preservation, and as a household cleaner and for fruits and vegetables. The pioneers had known about these qualities for a long time. It is perhaps the strongest natural antiseptic you can safely consume. In fact, it is acetic acid and it is usually a 4-5% solution in water. Unlike honey, it is readily available and easy to make from various fruits like apples. It is used to preserve everything from vegetables and fruits to meats, fish and poultry. The typical process is simple, just dipping the food in vinegar in a container. Sometimes salt and vinegar are used together for additional preservative properties and flavor.
5. Drying or dehydration: Although it is a simple process, the success of dehydrating is to remove as much moisture as possible. It is used to preserve everything from vegetables and fruit to meat, poultry and fish, although different drying methods are used for each type of food. Beans and legumes were strung on sticks and hung from the rafters of cabins and tepees to dry; the fish were filleted and often salted before being hung in the sun on racks or over smoldering fires; strips of meat were thinly sliced, salted and also hung like fish to dry; the fruit was thinly sliced and left to dry in the sun during the day and brought indoors at night and hung in the rafters to finish drying. They were often turned and sometimes smoked. Drying is probably the oldest method of preserving food.
6. Root cellar: This method is primarily intended for root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, radishes, etc. This approach offers multiple advantages such as fairly constant temperatures in winter and summer; constant humidity, which is essential for root vegetables; some degree of protection against insects and animals; protection against sunlight; and easy access to a variety of vegetables.
seven. Smoking: This method is primarily used to successfully dry and preserve large pieces of meat and whole fish, as smoking is a form of drying. The traditional drying method is suitable for small pieces of meat, but does not sufficiently preserve large pieces. Smoking fish, poultry and game over low, slow smoke draft in an enclosed space not only dries out the food, but the smoke and moderate heat kills and inhibits bacterial and fungal growth. Meat and fish are often cured with a dry mixture of salt and spices to add extra flavor. I remember helping my uncle hang hams in the smokehouse to dry and how good it smelled. Even after being removed from the smoker, large pieces of smoked meat will last a long time if stored in a well-ventilated, cool, dark place.
I love canning this time of year, but maybe it’s time to consider these alternative methods. They are not only convenient, they can also add extra flavor to food. We all need to eat, and most of us enjoy it too! It’s a good feeling to know that we have a “stash” of good food available to us without depending on the public food supply. It’s just a natural progression of a successful garden.