A number of preparedness books and web sites talk about preserved food as part of an emergency food storage plan. There can be immense satisfaction in seeing the rows and rows of gleaming canning jars, full of autumn’s bounty. I’ve done it for years, and thoroughly enjoyed the fruits of my kitchen labor. But what happens when Mason jar lids (which are supposed to be used only once in canning) are no longer readily available? Unless you have the more expensive European canning jars, with the reusable rubber gasket, you may be out of luck. Or when you can’t spare the water, electricity, or fuel to keep that water bath simmering for hours and hours (and you don’t have a pressure canner or steam canner)? And while those #10 cans might be handy for the first year of an emergency, freeze-drying requires a background of high technology.
Then it’s time to turn to older methods of preserving food. Or you can use these methods right along with canning to make things even easier (and use the same jars). Old preserving methods fall into the following general categories: salt, vinegar, fat/oil, sugar, alcohol, dehydration, fermentation, and culturing.
Cover goat cheese rounds in a jar with oil, or feta with brine and you’ve got cheese that will not need refrigeration. Some methods blend well with each other, like making brine for cucumbers which then ferment right in the jar. Six weeks later, dill pickles! Or combine sugar and alcohol to preserve chopped fruit, for a great sauce on cakes or ice cream.
Salt – use dry on vegetables in layers, or a brine on chopped or shredded vegetables to make pickles
Vinegar – an alternate method for pickles; also good for herbs and some fruits (sweet & sour)
Fats/oil – cover thick sauces like pesto or tomato with a thin layer to prevent mold; also, marinate fresh and dried vegetables, cheeses, and herbs
Sugar/honey – the most popular preservative; fruit butters and pastes don’t need canning to stay fresh
Alcohol – make wines to capture herb and fruit flavors; cover fruit with sugar and brandy
Dehydration – dry herbs, fruits, vegetables (including leafy greens like chard and kale which can add some super nutrition to eggs, soups, stews, breads, etc.), meats, and some cheeses at temperatures at or less than 120 Degrees F. for greatest nutritional benefit
Fermentation – ferment whole, chopped, or shredded vegetables; juices and fruits
Culturing – add some easily-found bacteria to make your own kombucha, miso, soy sauce, tempeh, natto, kefir, yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, and most cheeses
Add to this list the concepts of root cellaring, when you store fruits and vegetables in a cool place in your own home or garden instead of in a commercial cold room with carbon dioxide; foraging for wild greens, fruits, and various herbs; and four season gardening, when you keep growing those healthy greens and root vegetables over the winter. Then you’ve got ways to keep your family fed through the winter and spring (or some tough times), without having to trust that the stores will stay fully stocked.
Of course, some of these ideas require a little time and patience before you can reap the rewards. It’s helpful to believe that not everything has to be boiled within an inch of its life or refrigerated every moment to be safe to eat (of course, you should use your best judgment on when food is safe and ‘throw it out when in doubt’). Maybe you’ll even stretch your culinary horizons, as you discover what fabulous dishes and combinations can be made from your preserved foods. It’s probable that you and your household will be eating better than you ever have before.
Here are half a dozen items in my pantry right now, sitting on the shelf without any refrigeration whatsoever:
Rewaxed cheese – you can buy a regular block of cheese from the store, dip it in a really strong brine (salt and water), and let it sit out for a day or two until it develops a rind. Then dip it in melted wax several times (letting the wax harden between coats), and your cheese can be stored in a cool area for several years. It will get harder and sharper as time goes on, but that’s okay with me as long as I don’t have to do without cheese.
Canned butter – melt butter and simmer gently for five minutes. Then pour into glass Mason jars (one pound will fill slightly more than a pint) and cover with a regular lid and ring. As the butter cools, it will create a seal on the lid. Shake the butter every few minutes as it cools, to create a smoother blend. Ghee is another butter product that will keep on a shelf (you remove the milk solids after simmering longer).
Jerky – cut relatively lean meat into 1” cubes, then marinate overnight in regular soy sauce and a sprinkling of black pepper (or any other sufficiently salty marinade). Dehydrate at 120oF until the desired texture is reached (less dry for snacks, more dry for long-term storage). Jerky can be rehydrated in soups, stews, and creamed chipped beef on toast (among other things).
Pemmican – dry thin slices of lean beef until brittle; shred in a food processor, blender, or mortar; then mix in equal proportions with liquid rendered suet. Add some dried berries for extra vitamin C. Let cool and cut into bars. Can be eaten as is for an excellent travel ration (a favorite of early Arctic travelers), or used in soups and stews.
Sauerkraut – shred one cabbage and mix with 1 tbsp salt (caraway seeds optional). Pack it tightly in a quart jar until the cabbage juice covers the cabbage. Cover loosely for 3-4 days until the fermentation slows down. Then tighten the lid and store for a month before eating. This works with all kinds of shredded vegetables.
Pickles – put a couple of garlic cloves and some fresh/dried dill in a quart jar, add some small cucumbers, and cover with a brine (about 2 tbsp per quart of water). Cover loosely for 3-4 days until the fermentation slows down. Then tighten the lid and store for six weeks before eating. This works with carrot sticks, asparagus, and all kinds of other vegetables.
Vegetable Stock – chop or grind together 1 lb. each of leeks, tomatoes, onions, turnips, parsley, and salt. You can also add carrots, celery, chard, chervil, and other herbs and vegetables as desired (just keep the proportion of salt the same).Let it stand overnight in a bowl, then remix and store in jars. Store in a cool place and it will last for up to three years. Use for a base in soups, sauces, stock, stir-fries, etc.
This is just the start; there are so many options for preserving food without canning or freezing that one book would be hard-pressed to cover them all. Personally, I haven’t really even explored all the ways to preserve meat, like curing, smoking, and potting (covering with fat). Anyway, here are a few books to get you started:
Keeping Food Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipes (The Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante, Chelsea Green)
Dry It! You’ll Like It (Gen MacManiman, Living Foods Dehydrators)
Wild Fermentation (Sandor Katz, Chelsea Green)
Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats (Sally Fallon, New Trends Publishing)
Jerky (A.D. Livingston, The Lyons Press)