Long before the modern conveniences of refrigeration, people were storing their food using time-tested methods. Many modern homesteaders are learning and honing these skills as a way to preserve their harvest and continue to serve their families home-grown, home-raised food throughout the year.
Here are six ways people stored food before refrigerators that can help you extend the life of your food supply.
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1. Cold Pantry
Just a century ago, cold pantries (also known as larders) were commonplace in homes. These cupboards, cabinets, or closets were used to store everyday items such as bread, butter, cheese, eggs, and pastries, as well as fruits and vegetables brought up from the root cellar in small amounts.
Cold pantries use metal or wood grates to draw up cold air from below the house. As the air in the pantry warms, it rises and escapes through an upper vent. This ventilation process helps keep stored food cool and dry.
During the summer, temperatures in a cold pantry are at least several degrees lower than a home’s indoor temperature. In the winter, the temperature in the cold pantry is consistently lower than inside the house.
2. Root Cellar
You may be wondering about the difference between a root cellar and a cold pantry. The main distinction is humidity. Whereas a cold pantry keeps food dry, a root cellar allows some moisture to help preserve the produce stored there.
By definition, a root cellar is a storage area that uses the natural cooling properties of the earth.
You can attach a root cellar to your home or build one in a separate area. Aim to maintain high humidity (about 80 percent) and temperatures just above freezing (around 34 degrees F) for the storage of potatoes, onions, carrots, leeks, radishes, beets, turnips, winter squash, cabbage, jarred preserves, and other foods that store well in root cellars.
Use wire or wooden storage bins that allow air to circulate around the clean, dry veggies. You can also gather bunches of onions or carrots together by their tops and hang them in the cellar. Another option is to spread fruits and vegetables out on shelves or benches in the root cellar.
You may stack certain fruits and vegetables together, but be sure to select firm, hard produce for best results.
Here is how to build a root cellar.
A wonderful way to preserve the bounty of your garden is with canning. By preserving food in sealed, airtight containers, canning offers a shelf life of one to five years or even longer.
Although there are many canning methods, the basics of each one are essentially the same. You fill a clean and dry jar with your prepared food. Then, you place a flat lid and a threaded ring on the jar before placing the filled jar into boiling water. The amount of time varies, depending on what you are canning.
When you remove the hot jar from the water, the steam inside the jar condenses as the jar cools, creating a vacuum that sucks the lid down into a tight seal. A sealing compound that is embedded into the lid helps the seal stay secure.
Here is a helpful video for the novice canner. It offers a comprehensive view of the canning supplies you’ll need.
Another way to preserve fruits and vegetables is by drying them. Dried foods retain more of their nutrients than foods preserved by other natural methods.
For this method, you must first prepare the food by either mashing it into a pulp and cutting it into small pieces or stringing it on a string.
You can spread the pieces across a flat, clean surface, allowing them to dry. Any warm, dry place will work, but drying in sun works the best. Occasional turning helps speed up the process.
Another idea is to string whole or chopped produce and then hang the strings up to dry. You can also dry food in a dehydrator, oven, or microwave.
Be sure to store dried foods in air-tight containers as they will deteriorate rapidly if exposed to air after the drying process is complete.
Fermentation is a food preservation method that uses microorganisms — including bacteria or yeast — to convert carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids.
Fermented foods are filled with beneficial bacteria that help the good bacteria thrive in the digestive system, helping you have the proper balance of gut flora.
Just about any can be fermented, and you can create a mix of different kinds if you like.
Another way to preserve the food you raise on your homestead is through smoking. Smoking is the process of preserving food — usually meat or fish — by exposing it to smoke from a wood-burning fire.
Typically combined with salt-curing or drying, smoking involves hanging meat or placing it on racks in a chamber that contains smoke.
Hot smoking is done in the smokehouse (or with electric kilns) over a short period of time. However, cold smoking over a smoldering fire takes 12-24 hours.
Here’s a video that demonstrates the cold smoking process:
You probably will find that you prefer certain food preservation methods over others. For example, some people enjoy the social aspects of canning and get extended family and neighbors involved in the process. Just like other aspects of homesteading, you will learn best by trial and error and by learning from other, more experienced homesteaders.
Before long, you will find that food preservation becomes a natural part of your lifestyle. Not only will you save money by extending the freshness of your food, but you will appreciate being able to serve your family summer and autumn goodness all year round.
7. Mineral Oil
This is a technique you can use to preserve eggs. Eggs bought from the store have to be stored in the refrigerator to be preserved, but this method can be used for eggs that you raise on your homestead.
Don’t wash your eggs after collecting them, as this takes away the protective bloom present over the eggs that can prevent bacteria from getting inside the shell. Instead, gently wipe the eggs down with a towel, then coat them with mineral oil. Make sure you coat the entire surface of the shell.
Gently set the egg in an egg carton, repeat with your other eggs, and store the carton at normal room temperature outside of direct sunlight. Once a week for a month, flip each egg over on the carton. This does not need to be repeated after the first month.
This strategy can keep your eggs preserved for nine months to a year. Just to confirm the eggs are safe to eat, place each egg into a bowl with cold water. The eggs that float to the top are no longer safe to eat, but the ones that sink are safe.
Biltong is the process of marinating pieces of meat in vinegar for twenty-four hours. Proceed to flavor your meat with whichever seasonings you prefer, such as salt and pepper, sugar, cloves, barbeque spices, or whatever else you desire.
Afterwards, you can remove the meat from the marinade and hang it up to dry for at least a week. This is a very similar process to making jerky, and like jerky, the meat can last for many months without requiring freezing or refrigeration.
Lard is a white fat produced from pigs. The term ‘lard’ is commonly mixed up with the term ‘tallow,’ which refers to a similar product made from sheep and cattle. You can render lard by boiling or steaming; when complete, it will be tasteless, odorless, and contain no trans-fats. You can then allow the lard to cool into a block shape, then wrap it up in food-grade paper.
Lard is commonly used by restaurants for the purposes of shortening or cooking fat. However, another use for it is to help extend the life of your meat without freezing or refrigeration. Take note that you will need a lot of lard on hand for this method to work, but it’s very reliable.
Start by placing your meat in a crockpot. Melt down a block of lard, and cover the entire surface of the meat with the resulting liquid. Allow everything to cool, and the lard will harden again and create a protecting barrier between the meat and air. This effectively stops bacteria from growing on the meat.
Proceed to store your meat in a cool, dry location, and you’ll be set for up to six months.
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