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This is part 3 of our 3 part REAL FOOD STORAGE series. You may also enjoy:
Please do your own research before attempting any of these food preservation methods. Some of them look pretty simple and basic, like mineral oil for eggs, however simple mistakes like replacing mineral oil with a food oil, or not heating up the oil to proper temperatures first could result in severe illness. Contact your local health or agricultural department for guidelines recommended for your jurisdiction. It is important to follow their recommended procedures, because serious health issues can arise otherwise. The purpose of this article is crack open the door and shed light on some of the many of the possibilities of food preservation, but detailed instructions are for many future posts 😉 And honestly, I don’t even recommend all of these methods, but knowledge is good.
Refrigerator/freezers became household appliances around 1930, when both of my grandmothers were in their teens. As this “modern-day kid” watched my Grandma Violet pull out a pizza from her freezer, I couldn’t help but notice that her sense of awe never seemed to wane. She shared stories about how her family had ice delivered to their home every few days by the ice man. She expounded on how GLORIOUS it was when they were finally able to buy a refrigerator with a freezer that just plugged into the wall!
My father grew up in the Arizona desert in St. David with no electricity (or plumbing). It’s no surprise that my paternal grandmother’s favorite food was always ice-cream! My cousins and I all share great memories of Grandma Alice offering up chocolate chip mint (her favorite) along with some other flavor that she had found on sale. She too called the freezer the “ice box”. This term held its ground with both of my grandmothers to the end of their days.
Here’s to THEM
I dream longingly for the times when knowledge was passed down from elders and they were needed and respected because their knowledge was so vital. I believe it still is, and while I missed that opportunity to learn those skills from my grandmothers, I’m grateful that I have been able to learn many of them from my father. Seeing recent trends of people turning back to learning basic life-preserving skills of their ancestors gives me hope for our future generations.
Have you ever wondered how people used to preserve food with no refrigeration, let alone ice or canning?
- Eggs, dairy, meat, fruits, veggies…?
- How many people were sickened or worse from mis-judging food safety in a moment of desperation?
If there ever came a day where food was scarce and we had to preserve whatever we could, a little nugget of the right knowledge would be worth more than a pile of inedible cash. Knowing how to do it without sickening our families is a crucial skill that must not be minimized.
Racing The Winters
One week our family got into enjoying the show “Alaska: The Last Frontier”. These people had to fish, hunt, garden, and forage for their lives. Much of the time they were preserving as much as possible to get through a long winter spent in their cabins waiting for the snow to melt. I couldn’t wrap my head around how they would possibly preserve enough food to get their family and livestock through harsh long winters. Even with all of their modern equipment their struggles were intense. The thought of doing all of this without modern conveniences puts me over the edge, but my curiosity wins!
Lesser Known Methods
- BOG BUTTER: People in Great Britain and Ireland buried large 20+lb balls of butter in bogs! It was so valuable that at times it was used as currency. The acidic, cold, low-oxygen conditions preserved this butter for extended periods of time. One recent find is estimated to be about 2,000 years old, and one brave soul actually tasted it and lived to tell about it!
- KIVIAK: A delicacy of the native people of Greenland even today, which is made by preserving whole birds, feathers, beaks and all, in seal skin slathered in oils by burying it under rocks and letting it ferment for months.
- PERSIAN YAKHCHALS: Kept food cold using the evaporative cooling effect of water around 400B.C.!
- OILING EGGS: Coating eggs with mineral oil before refrigeration. Must be fresh within 24 hours of laying, unwashed but not poopy. (These eggs will lose their ability to froth)
- WATER GLASSING EGGS: using sodium silicate solution.
- KePeg: Developed during the great depression when refrigeration was scarce, preserving them for up to 12 months. Made from: Purified water, Paraffin, Beeswax, Citric acid, Magnesium silicate, Boric acid
- CONFIT: Originating in southwestern France, traditionally speaking, this is preserving fruit (cooked in concentrated sugar syrup),meat or vegetable (cooked in fat at much lower temperatures than frying(250-275ºF with the fat staying around 185-200ºF). Shockingly, when stored in the refrigerator and properly coated in fat, meat can be preserved for a very extended period, even months. I have a very dear friend who told me about this method after she tried it with duck and she lived to tell me about it. Confit fruit can last years!
- PICKLING: Can be applied to meats, veggies, fish, eggs, and nuts. Using at least 5% acidity vinegar in a 50% water/50% vinegar solution, or 2%-5% by weight salt brine.
- SALTING: Meat, fish, veggies
- DRYING: Huge list of possibilities! TIP: Don’t vacuum seal dried foods unless they are so dry they are brittle and snap when you break them. I once had to throw out a gallon of organic prunes because I only read about the danger after I had vacuum sealed them and months had passed.
- JELLYING: Cooking fruit and sometimes nuts in sugar is the most common, however this method can also refer to cooking something in other materials, like bone stock gelatin, agar or arrowroot flour, that solidify to form a gel. Potted meats in aspic (a gel made from gelatin and clarified meat broth) were a common way of serving meat off-cuts in the UK until the 1950s. Many jugged meats are also jellied. I’ll have to do a lot more research before I give those a try. 😉
With access to modern machines, devices, special packaging and more, our options seem limitless. I can only imagine what my ancestors might think if they saw me dare to complain about preserving food now. With as grateful heart as I can muster, I’ve been preserving food on my own for just about 10 years now. Some of my current favorite preservation techniques are:
- PRESSURE CANNING: Appropriate for many low acid foods.
- WATER BATH CANNING: Acid foods only.
- FERMENTING: Stored in a refrigerator, fermented foods last months if not longer. I have fermented garlic floating around in a jar in my fridge that’s still good after a year! Just be aware that if it’s probiotics you’re after they do all die off after a period but you’re left with loads of beneficial enzymes.
- FREEZE DRYING: Requires a very expensive machine unless you’re lucky enough to have the skills and equipment to build your own.
- VACUUM SEALING: In mason jars or mylar bags but not in Food Saver type bags, which always end up leaking air after a few months in my experience.
- OXYGEN ABSORBERS: For non-sprouting food.
TIP: Don’t use oxygen absorbers to store grains, seeds or beans that you may want to sprout some day. Oxygen absorbers kill seeds. Vacuum sealing however, doesn’t remove all of the oxygen so in my experience, these items stay alive, viable and well-preserved for years. Germination rates may still drop over time though so sprout a handful from time to time and evaluate your supply.
Side Note: I was blessed to grow up watching a father that loved to grow a garden and freeze, pressure can, water bath and dehydrate his way to a very well stocked 4 car garage pantry. Most of this reached the 30+ year mark and got dumped in the compost pile when they moved. That taught me something about rotating and utilizing our food storage!
A great source of information about food preservation in colonial times before refrigeration or canning is this website about colonial Williamsburg. They have great tools for teaching children (an adults).
What did I miss? Know of any food preservation methods that I haven’t listed here? Any fond memories of learning skills from your grandparents? I’d love hearing from you in the comments!
In loving memory of my beautiful Grandmothers, Alice and Violet.