Preserving food for survival – a news letter
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(1st of a 2 part series)
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Survival Diva here with part one of a two-part series on preserving food in a grid-down, SHTF scenario. Next week, we’ll get into smokehouses and curing wild game and fish.
A preparedness plan should always include the ability to preserve foods through one of many methods, including root cellars, hot beds, cold rooms, zeer clay pots, food dehydration and home canning.
The list of methods is long because the fact is, preserving fruits and vegetables is never one-size-fits all. In certain circumstances, your climate zone will dictate your choice for preserving food. Specific problems are addressed in this post, but it never hurts to check with hunters and gardening experts in your area for their tips on what methods have worked best for them.
The earliest record of root cellars goes as far back as 40,000 years ago. Interestingly enough, they worked on the same principal then as they do today: a dependable way to store fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, meat and dairy products by taking advantage of the insulating properties of the earth, where temperature fluctuations are not as extreme. Our forefathers certainly took advantage of root cellars. Records show the pioneers depended upon them to store food in order to survive winter when gardens weren’t producing and egg production from chickens was greatly reduced.
Today, there is a resurgent interest in root cellars as people look for ways to reduce their food costs and their dependence on the power grid. This is good news for preppers because there are plenty of DIY root cellar building plans you can get for free on the Internet.
If you’re handy, a root cellar can be built for very little, especially if you look for used lumber. Check building sites, Habitat for Humanity, Craigslist, local newspapers and the Nickel’s Worth for scrap lumber.
If a root cellar isn’t possible, try what several members on the forum have suggested: bury an old refrigerator in the ground to store fruits, vegetables and other perishable goods. Large water-tight buckets buried in the earth and protected by straw is another solution to preserve food for those who don’t live in extreme climate zones.
Temperature, humidity, darkness and ventilation are all important components that must be considered for a successful root cellar. Venting allows for air circulation which releases built-up ethylene gas that’s given off from certain fruits and vegetables that if left unchecked leads to accelerated spoilage.
It’s important to study up on root cellar specifics for your area, such as optimal humidity, how to control local bugs and vermin, and the various storage needs of locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Here’s just one example; winter squash and sweet potatoes keep best 50 degrees, and cabbage and pears store best in temperatures of 40 degrees. At first blush, this might seem like an insurmountable storage issue when they are being stored in the same relatively small space, but there’s a surprisingly simple solution. The temperature in a root cellar varies 10 degrees between the floor area of a root cellar and the ceiling. By building floor-to-ceiling shelves and in our example, storing squash and sweet potatoes on the top shelf where the temperature is warmer and storing cabbage and pears on the lowest shelf, where temperatures remain cooler, they will store well for months.
Here are a few basic tips to keep in mind when building and maintaining a root cellar: try to have ten feet of soil coverage above a root cellar and to the sides to get the best insulation value; building your root cellar on the north side of a hill is optimal for maintaining lower temperatures; build a root cellar so the doorway and exposed frame stays shaded; keep a thermostat and a humidity gauge in the root cellar (it may be necessary to sprinkle the floor with water periodically to maintain the correct humidity); regularly check on the condition of fruits and vegetables because once one has spoiled it will ruin the whole bunch, and if the spoilage gets bad enough, it can continue to the entire root cellar space through airborne mold spores.
(David’s note: one additional step you may want to take, depending on your cellar situation, is to cover the entrance with a small storage shed as an additional thermal and visual barrier to your cellar.)
Some vegetables store best in sawdust or sand, others …not so much, but you should never wash them before storing them in a root cellar as the added moisture can lead to spoilage. Optimal storage temperatures for fruits and vegetables vary, so it’s important to study up on the storage needs of what you plan to grow in your garden.
Whether you purchase a book on root cellaring, or read up on it via the Internet, it’s important to learn the do’s and don’t’s now, rather than finding a critical flaw later, when food spoilage has the potential to leave you and your loved ones hungry.
Before you start building a root cellar it’s imperative to research whether they’ll work for your area. Although a location like Texas has an incredible growing season because of heat and humidity, those same conditions are not a root cellars friend. For a root cellar to keep food for an extended period of time, temperatures inside a root cellar need to be around 40 to 50 degrees. Continuing with Texas as an example, you should watch for issues with a high water table in your location because if it’s anything like Texas, where the water table is high enough that most homes don’t have basements, digging deep into the earth may not be an option.
If you live in states that get hit with extreme winter cold like Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin or Illinois, a root cellar will offer limited use because of freezing issues unless you think outside the box. Some folks living in cold climate zones with root cellars use covered manure pits inside their root cellars to take advantage of the slow decomposition of the manure which gives off enough heat to keep fruits and vegetables from freezing. Automatically, this means you must have animals on your property for a constant supply of manure, but If this may benefit your situation, read the instructions on how to make a manure pit below.
Note: Avoid storing canned goods in a root cellar. The humidity in a root cellar can rust the metal.
How to Make a Hot Bed
A hot bed is nothing more than a cold frame with bottom heat incorporated into it. The heat source comes from the manure of a cow, horse, sheep, rabbit or chickens.
Here’s how you make a hot bed using animal manure:
It starts by digging a pit. Next, mix one third organic matter like leaves or straw in with two thirds fresh manure and water. Let the mixture ferment for a few days. You’ll notice the pit filled with the manure mixture is putting off some heat. Turn it for additional air flow and follow this step by adding an inch of soil on top of the manure mixture. Lay the cold frame over the manure pit to complete a hot bed that allowed our forefathers to store fruits and vegetables in extremely cold climates without freezing.
Note: If you’ll be using a manure pit in a root cellar, all you need to do is omit the cold frame. The small amount of heat given off from the fermenting manure will heat a root cellar enough to keep the fruits and vegetables from freezing.
In extremely hot climate zones, a root cellar may not stay cool enough to store food for extended periods of time, unless the root cellar is dug deep into the ground. They are, however, cooler than the outside ambient temperature and will keep food longer than if it wasn’t protected at all. If you’re unsure whether your location would benefit from a root cellar, check with older local farmers in your area. As mentioned earlier, double-check your water table before digging.
If you don’t have the land to dig a root cellar, you can convert a corner of your basement for cold room storage. If you have a choice, build the cold room as far away from a heat source or furnace as possible. Choose a corner of the basement, so you can take advantage of the colder cement walls on two walls of the cold room. The walls and door installed for the cold room should be well insulated, so the area is able to maintain cooler temperatures.
Just as with a root cellar, air flow is important to avoid any buildup of ethylene gas fruits and vegetables give off, which will reduce the storage life of fruits and vegetables. Be sure to add venting to your cold room.
Another approach for a cold room is to add an unheated pantry area to a home with a cold room below the pantry. Food in the pantry will not freeze, as it will receive the heat from your home and at the same time, the cold room below the pantry is able to stay cool enough to store fruits and vegetables.
Zeer Clay Pot
Although not a long-term food storage solution, the zeer clay pot method had been used for centuries to keep food cool. Here’s how it’s done; insert a second pot –glazed is preferable to keep liquid from penetrating to your stored food—into a larger, porous clay pot. Fill the gap between the larger, porous pot and the smaller, glazed pot with wet sand. Store food in the smaller glazed pot in a shaded area, and cover with a wet towel to keep heat and sunlight out.
Here’s what the National Center for Home Food Preservation has to say about food dehydration:
“In ancient times the sun and wind would have naturally dried foods. Evidence shows that Middle East and oriental cultures actively dried foods as early as 12,000 B.C. in the hot sun. Later cultures left more evidence and each would have methods and materials to reflect their food supplies—fish, wild game, domestic animals, etc.
Vegetables and fruits were also dried from the earliest times. The Romans were particularly fond of any dried fruit they could make. In the Middle Ages purposely built “still houses” were created to dry fruits, vegetables and herbs in areas that did not have enough strong sunlight for drying. A fire was used to create the heat needed to dry foods and in some cases smoking them as well.”
Here is another case where it would take an entire book to explain all of the do’s and don’t’s of food dehydration, but we’ll touch on some of the basics.
Storage requirements for dehydrated food are no different than that of long-term food storage. For optimal shelf life, dehydrated food should be stored in the coolest temperatures possible (but above freezing) and kept away from moisture and light. Adhering to these every-day storage requirements, the shelf life of dehydrated food will be doubled, and in some cases, tripled.
Dehydrated fruits, vegetables and meats are 95% or more dehydrated. Otherwise sticky foods (a definite sign it’s not dry enough) retains too much moisture will mold and eventually, it will have to be tossed out.
If a crisis comes with power grid failure, preserving fruits and vegetables through dehydration will take thinking outside the box unless you have an alternate energy source where you’re able to plug in a food dehydrator. That will work for as long as your alternate fuel lasts, be it gas or diesel to run a generator, or propane to operate a stove. I admit to being the queen of advising against depending solely on one work-around, especially when that sole work around is contingent upon a non-renewable fuel source. For something as important as preserving food, think an heir and a spare, meaning a back-up should your original plan fly south. There wouldn’t be anything more disheartening than watching the overflow from a garden spoil!
Click here for a great Do-It-Yourself site that gives detailed instructions to build a large capacity solar food dehydrator that does not require expensive solar panels.
For those fortunate enough to have a dependable source of power through solar or wind generation, plugging an electric dehydrator in to preserve nutritious fruits and vegetables is a perfect solution. For the rest of us—myself included—start thinking about a plan B.
Before building a solar dehydrator, it’s worth thinking about your climate zone. Does your area get plenty of rain, even in summer? If so, it may not be possible to depend upon several days of heat and sunshine each time you need to preserve the garden’s overflow.
This situation narrows your choices a bit; praying mother nature will cooperate long enough to get fruits, vegetables, meat or fish dry enough for long term storage, using a wood cook stove, storing the food in a root cellar, or home canning.
Compared to root cellars and dehydration, Home canning is a more recent invention–1810 to be exact– but it wasn’t until 1858, when John L. Mason invented the threaded lip and two piece sealing lid for safer home canning that home canning really took off.
There are benefits to home canning, even in the relatively good times we are living in today. Home canning allows you to eat foods that are chemical-free, and home canned goods will last for years without needing refrigeration. Another huge benefit of home canning is the ability to preserve pretty much whatever you want dependably…as long as you have a reliable way to can that can be controlled for temperature and cook time. For those living in an area with a reliable source of wood, the likely candidate is a wood cook stove. It will take practice, BUT if our forefathers were able to home can meats, fruit and vegetables, so can we!
To home can safely it takes following a few basic rules; boiling or pressure cooking foods for the recommended length of time; sterilizing jars; and never re-using metal lids (their rubber seals are designed for one use) or using reusable lids, which means Tattler re-usable canning lids.
Getting set up for canning begins with investing in a canning book that includes canning times. The recommended times to home can food must be followed in order to kill bacteria that would otherwise lead to illness or worse. Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving is an excellent beginners book and costs between $14.00 to $19.00 new—depending on whether you purchase the paperback or hard bound copy. A used book will save money—just make sure whatever home canning book you choose supplies tables that define cook times for the fruits, vegetables, meat and fish you plan to home can.
Make SURE you get a manual egg timer in preparation for a grid-down situation, so you’ll still be able to keep a careful eye on cook time! Other basics to home canning are a pressure cooker, a water bath canner, a funnel, canning jars and plenty of canning lids. When you feel you have too many lids, double it and you should be okay. Although canning jars can be reused as long as there are no chips along the edge of jars that would interfere with the sealing process, it’s best to avoid antique jars with glass lids. There is no way to be sure the seal “took” with those glass lids, therefore it’s much like playing Russian Roulette with your health by using them for anything more than displaying spices or small collectables.
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Don’t forget! Next week’s post will be a continuation of Preserving Food For Survival specific for wild game and fish, so make sure to watch for next Friday’s installment.
David’s notes: You may be wondering what I do personally for food preservation. In short, we smoke, jerk, can, dehydrate, have a cellar, salt cure, and ferment food for preservation–but we didn’t get to where we are overnight. We did it one step at a time (sometimes with some pretty significant steps backwards in between the forward steps) and we got a LOT of stuff squared away before we had enough food to even start thinking about food preservation.
So, how do you get from where you are today to the point where you have a solid, scalable foundation that will allow you to survive extended disasters? In short, you follow a proven plan like what I lay out in the critically acclaimed Survive In Place Urban Survival Course. If you haven’t gone through it, I suggest that you do. It is not only the most highly acclaimed preparedness course on the market, most preparedness books and courses that have been made in the last few years can trace their roots directly back to this groundbreaking course. Find out why by going >HERE< now.
Are you to the point in your preparations where you are preserving foods? If so, what methods are you using? Any stories of failure for others to avoid or success to inspire? Please share by commenting below:
God bless and stay safe,
David Morris and Survival Diva
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