Preservation techniques before chemicals and refrigerators
by Anne Pyburn Craig
Harvest season is upon us in all its bounty. If you’ve been gardening or enjoying the offerings of local farmers, you’re no doubt happily habituated to enjoying healthy and delicious fruits and veggies that are a whole ‘nother world from the produce in the supermarket bins.
Winter brings with it a multi-horned dilemma for fruit and vegetable lovers. Who wants to buy genetically engineered, improperly ripened stuff with a carbon footprint an acre wide that’s been trucked in from thousands of miles away?
Alternatively, who wants to resort to pre-packaged alternatives pumped full of fun things like sorbic acid, benzoic acid, and sulfur dioxide in order to retard the growth of microorganisms? These substances do occur in nature, but Big Food producers rely on synthetic varieties. The FDA says they’re perfectly all right, of course. And we all know the FDA knows everything. (Snort.)
Right now, while fresh local products are still available—and with hunting season coming on, if you’re so inclined—it’s a great time to get educated about simpler, older ways of keeping food free of dangerous bacteria. In the many centuries before refrigeration and before synthetics, people still managed to eat without getting poisoned—whether you’re a dedicated disaster prepper or an avid gardener who’d like to enjoy some of your harvest in February, it’s worth knowing how, and it may be simpler than you think.
There are a few basic methods of food preservation that have been in use for a long, long time. Some of them were taught to European settlers by indigenous residents. Others, obviously, were known around the globe; otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a whole lot of settlers in the first place. Learning how to preserve food in the old-fashioned ways will come in darn handy should our current supply chains fail—and can add choices to your flavor and nutrition palette right away.
The simplest, and probably the oldest, method of preserving food is to let it dry all the way out, since microorganisms need moisture to thrive. Of course, we moderns have access to dehydrators, but long before they came into existence sun-drying was used by Native Americans and other folks to ensure usable stashes of fruit, vegetables, legumes and meat.
To simplify even farther, some crops such as beans can be allowed to dry almost completely while still on the vine, although you’ll want to give them a bit more drying time after harvest—it’s crucial to eliminate all moisture. Herbs can be dried simply by hanging upside down (the herbs, that is, not you.)
To effectively and safely dry fruits, veggies and meat, you can build a solar dehydrator—basically a box with a set of porous racks and screening to keep the bugs off. Efficiency can be greatly improved by the addition of a heat collector box. Websites such as Mother Earth News and Off the Grid News have a variety of solar dehydrator plans available. Of course you could do the labor-intensive and traditional thing and construct something using sticks and flat stones, but it seems likely that even most modern indigenous folks would find that a bit silly.
Yet another drying option is your oven, set very low. You want to be careful not to actually cook the food, as cooking doesn’t preserve it.
Whatever method you choose, food to be dried should be cut into small pieces or strips before you place it on your drying racks. The fully dried product can be saved in either glass or plastic; glass is the popular eco-friendly container of choice, and looks pretty on the shelf besides.
Smoked meat and fish are not only well preserved but so tasty that foodies go wild for them. Here again, your arrangements can vary from fancy commercially made items costing hundreds of dollars to DIY projects. Most of the recipes out there for smoking meat are actually cooking methods that add a smoked flavor, which is yummy, but you’ll still need to refrigerate the results. To actually preserve meat by smoking, low temperature is required.
Hypothetically, one could smoke meat by sitting very patiently downwind from a campfire whilst holding the meat on a stick. But since we are talking about meat here (and since you, Dear Reader, may have other obligations) it’s a good idea to go a bit more elaborate.
One important step in smoking meat for preservation is to remove as much of the fat as you possibly can first and slice the meat thin, in order to remove as much of the moisture as humanly possible. There are a wide variety of recipes and preparations out there for flavor—and preservation-enhancing rubs. Many spices, as well as ordinary salt, have anti-microbial curing properties.
Smokers can be stand-alone or built to work in concert with your barbecue or even your woodstove.
Back in the day, one dug a hole and lined it with grasses, then plugged the top as airtight as possible. Presumably, one still could in a pinch.
Underground food storage, like smoking and drying, is a semi-forgotten and relatively simple way to keep your diet diverse and tasty in the winter months. Root cellars, once commonplace, can be created in a great many different ways. Cold, dark environments can keep root veggies and other hardy items like cabbage, as well as your dried items, good to eat for many months.
Root cellaring handbooks exist that will walk you through the entire process of not only designing and building a cool storage space, but of choosing the precise cultivars of carrots and potatoes that hold their flavor and nutrition the best. One in particular—Root Cellaring: The Simple No-Processing Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables, by Mike Bubel—gets high marks for being comprehensive, readable and full of creative cool storage ideas that will help even people living in apartments.
Nixtamalization is a long word for a simple, easy process that was in use by indigenous folks long before Christ. It not only preserves corn, it also renders it ready to use for everything from cereal to breads and frees up the nutrients. Ever wonder why, if corn has no useable nutrition, people grew and ate it for all those centuries? They made it into hominy, masa, and posole, that’s why, in which form the human body can get protein and niacin from it. Natives nixtamalized (although it seems unlikely they called it that) using wood ash, which can still be done, but pickling lime is a respectable substitute; the only other ingredient you need is water.
Mastery of any of these techniques requires a bit more doing than can be easily explained in an article of this scope. You’ll find lots more information at sites like thenewsurvivalist.com. Some methods, like fermentation, are probably best learned directly from experts at workshops, or at least from full-length books.
That said, low-tech microbe management is one more piece of the food system puzzle that the mass-producers would rather you didn’t figure out. They’d have us all believe they’ve got better ideas, like nitrates and low-dose radiation. Yum? No? Maybe it’s time we took this one back.