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.
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 heat begins to escape, taking with it any air left in the jar. The oxygen pulls the lid down as it escapes, creating 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.