As we strive to reduce the environmental footprint of our food system, more of us are learning how to garden and to produce at least some of our own food. However, with producing our own food comes the challenge of what to do when we have an overabundance that we aren’t able to use right away.
Knowing how to preserve your extra harvest will not only allow you to savor your garden’s deliciousness throughout the rest of the year, but food preservation can allow us to stock up on some extra food for times when we might need it. Even if you don’t have a garden of your own, knowing how to preserve food is a very useful skill to have in case we buy too much produce from a farmers market or picked loads of fruit at an orchard.
Generations before us were very skilled at preserving this abundance and living off of that extra food when other food supplies became scarce. Today, many of us are spoiled in the sense that we have abundant food resources available to us for purchase at grocery stores.
In ages past, there were no grocery stores that people could visit to buy the food that they needed, and there was no refrigeration. Fortunately, in today’s world, we have what those from ages past did not have: modern technologies that can help facilitate the task of long-term food preservation.
The best ways to preserve food for long-term storage
Dehydrating food can be done by using an oven, an electric dehydrator, or by the sun using a solar dehydrator. Many different types of foods can be dehydrated, including fruits, vegetables, and even cooked meats and jerky.
Storing your dehydrated food in a dry, moisture-proof container in a cool location with an oxygen absorber will ensure the best long-term storage.
#2 Sun drying
Due to the high amounts of sugar and acid in fruits, they can easily be dried outdoors in the sun on a sunny day. A hot, dry, and breezy day is the best condition, with a minimum outdoor temperature of 85℉ (29.5°C). Humidity should be below 60% during the entire drying period.
It is not recommended to dry vegetables and meats in the sun because they do not contain the necessary sugars and acids that fruit do, and raw meats can easily become contaminated with bacteria.
Foods that have been drying outdoors should be brought inside overnight covered to avoid moisture condensation in the air during the night.
Screens or racks are helpful to allow air circulation over the drying food, and to avoid insect and bird issues, two screens are best (with one to serve as a shelf, and the other one to serve as a cover over the food).
Examples of sun-dried foods are sun-dried raisins and sun-dried tomatoes.
Some foods like fresh herbs can simply be dried in a warm, dry place. Hanging them upside down tied with twine in your kitchen is a great way to do this. An alternative is to place your fresh herbs inside paper lunch sacks where they will dry on their own.
Once your goodies are fully dry, you should store them in a storage container such as glass jars with lids to help keep them dry and away from dust and insects. This is an excellent use for that recycled glass jelly jar that you have been saving in your kitchen cupboard.
#4 Dry storage
Many different dried foods can be stored for many years, including wheat, white rice, corn, sugar, dried beans, rolled oats, pasta, potato flakes, and non-fat powdered milk. Store such foods in a dark, dry, and cool (below 75 ℉ or 24℃) condition, and be sure to protect them from insects and rodents through the use of PETE bottles, foil pouches, and #10 cans.
For safe and effective long-term storage, dried goods must be thoroughly dry to avoid botulism bacterial growth. Also avoid the long-term storage of dried foods with a high fat or oil content, such as dried eggs, nuts, and brown rice, as such foods can become rancid over time. Adding an oxygen absorber can aid in the long-term viability of dried goods.
Home canning is a great way to preserve food for long-term storage. Canned foods can be safely eaten for as long as the seal holds. However, with each passing year, the nutritional value and overall quality of such canned foods will deteriorate, so it is best to rotate these foods and replenish them with each new gardening season.
Always be sure to follow the most up-to-date canning recommendations to ensure the safest and healthiest home canned goods, such as through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Center for Home Food Preservation.
#6 Vacuum sealing
Vacuum sealing using special vacuum sealing appliances is a way to dramatically reduce the oxygen in a food storage container that allows for the prolonging of the viability of stored food.
However, there can be risks that arise from improperly stored vacuum sealed foods, so be sure to do your research from reputable sources, such as this one from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Fermentation is not only a way to preserve food itself, it is also a great way to preserve and enhance the nutrition of these items. Fruits and vegetables are commonly fermented, such as during the preparation of sauerkraut and kimchi.
Fermentation is sometimes used to preserve meat, such as during the preparation of salami and pepperoni.
Salt is a very useful preservative of meat, and has been used as such for much of human history. Salt is also a key ingredient in the process of fermenting different kinds of vegetables.
Because vinegar is a natural preservative, it works very well for preserving different vegetables like cucumbers, carrots, and onions. Vinegar also works great for preserving fresh herbs, and can be used to create herbal vinegars that add an extra something special to a homemade vinaigrette salad dressing.
Regular white vinegar can be used for food preservation, but for added nutrition, apple cider vinegar is a great choice.
#10 Smoking meat
Smoke cooking is used for the preservation and to instill flavor in meat. Commonly smoked meats include hams, bacon, salmon, herring, and oysters.
It is well-known that honey can last for many years. Because of its high sugar content, honey contains very little water, thus prohibiting most bacteria and other microorganisms from surviving there. Honey is naturally acidic, which readily kills off microbes, and it naturally contains a small amount of hydrogen peroxide, which also helps to kill germs.
Keeping your honey sealed will ensure that it not be exposed to moisture that would cause it to eventually spoil over time.
Honey is so good at preserving things that it was used during Medieval times to preserve fruits and other foods.
Consumable varieties of alcohol such as rum and brandy can be used to preserve summer fruit like berries and can then be used to make gourmet treats. This is certainly more of an adult food preservation project, but it could nonetheless be an enjoyable one.
80- to 100-proof alcohol varieties such as vodka can also be used to preserve the healthful properties of medicinal herbs by making your own herbal tinctures from herbs that you have grown yourself.
#13 Root cellaring
Having a root cellar in your home is a great way to extend the useful life of produce like carrots, cabbage, beets, potatoes, and turnips, but you could also store other foods like sweet potatoes, nuts, apples and pears.
#14 Saving seeds
While the saving of seeds is not likely the first thing that you think of during a discussion about food preservation, it actually plays a very important role in preserving food plant species, giving it a wider application than just preserving food for the winter.
Seed saving truly is an excellent way of storing food for the long-term, because you are saving the potential for producing food for years to come.
By saving some seeds from the best and most resilient plants from your garden each year, you will have the opportunity to grow your favorite varieties year after year. You can even pass on favorite varieties of seeds to your children and grandchildren as many generations of heirloom gardeners and farmers have done before you!
Tips for long-term optimal seed storage
- Keep your seeds in cool, dark, and dry conditions.
- Keep your seeds in moisture-proof containers, such as a mylar bag or a mason jar, or repurposed medicine bottles. Ziploc bags can also work in a pinch. Store with a desiccant or an oxygen absorber to help prolong seed storage.
- Be sure to rotate seeds every few years to ensure the highest level of seed vitality.
- Your own saved seeds should be thoroughly dried and then placed in their storage containers. Be sure to label your container with the seed’s variety and the date that you harvested the seeds.
- To be sure that your saved seeds are still viable prior to planting them, you should perform a seed germination test.
Continued seed saving preserves important varieties of fruits and vegetables and their important biodiversity for generations to come that simply would not otherwise exist.
So, by saving seeds, we truly are saving and preserving food in an even more critical way than when we ferment, dry, or root cellar our harvest.
Examples of foods that never expire
To those of us fortunate enough to be able to eat every day, a food crisis may seem like a faraway reality that does not concern us – but more of a problem for war torn countries, apocalypse survivors, and the Third World. However, if you really think about, there is a food crisis right under our doorsteps; the hungry wandering the roads in search of sustenance.
The truth is that a food crisis that affects you and me and everyone is a very real possibility, and most of us would not be prepared for it at all.
Climate change and global warming are causing more and more natural disasters, such as flash floods and drought, and these disasters lead to famine more easily than one would care to imagine. Even if food does not become scarce as a result, you can guarantee that there will be an immediate and noticeable spike in the price of all natural resources, including food.
Then there is the ever present threat of conflict, which lingers unnervingly close by. Whether it is smaller scale riots, civil unrest or full-blown war, political antics that incite violence almost never bode well for the cost and availability of food.
Although perhaps not a solution for global hunger and malnutrition, there do exist some foods that have a very long shelf life, and that you can stock up on in the event of any food shortages. The great news is that most of these foods are nutritious, and above all they are cheap.
Honey is truly the “forever food.” The oldest jar of honey found is said to be at least 5000 years old, and you guessed it – it is still as consumable now as it was then.
Honey is also an amazing health food, praised for its antibiotic properties. And it’s sweetly delicious too.
Beans are a fantastic source of protein, making them an excellent source of survival food. They are also cheap and readily available almost anywhere.
Dried beans can be stored for over 30 years, and retain most of their nutritional properties.
Brown rice cannot be kept for longer than 6 months on average, because of the natural oils it contains.
White rice on the other hand can be kept for over 30 years if it is stored correctly, and makes a filling, low fat snack.
Milk is frustratingly perishable, but there exists a solution! Powdered milk can be stored for a surprisingly long time – up to 20 years. The best part is that it is full of calcium, vitamins and protein.
Sweet and savory – sugar and salt
Both of these consumables can be kept for ages depending on the storage and the composition. Iodized salt will not keep as long as non-iodized, for example.
It makes sense that salt would not perish, as it has been used as preservative for centuries.
You cannot keep creamy alcoholic beverages for very long, but spirits cannot really grow microbes – and that is what makes them great disinfectants – meaning they can keep for many years.
This buttery South Asian creation can be kept for hundreds of years if jarred and sealed correctly, and is even an ingredient in some Eastern medicines!
We certainly can’t ever say what may be in store for us, and there are only so many measures we can put in place to prepare ourselves for famine or war, but with these items, your kitchen (or bunker) will definitely be stocked in your favor.