The best ways to preserve food without refrigeration

preserve food

The best ways to preserve food without refrigeration

In the past, the arrival of fall meant a scramble to harvest and preserve as much food as possible before the cold weather set in. Most families would spend many long hours working on this enormous task because their year-round access to food depended on it. Only in recent decades have we become reliant on the convenience of refrigerators, which are wonderful for keeping food fresh — until the power goes out. Then a mad scramble of another sort ensues – trying to eat as much of the food before it goes bad within a day or two.

Since outages happen all the time and increasingly violent storms keep the power out for longer, we could do well to relearn the food preservation techniques of our ancestors that do not rely on electricity. There are several great and effective alternatives to refrigeration that are easy to learn.

There are multiple stages of work required for canning, i.e. preparing the food and any additives such as brine or sugar syrup, sterilizing glass jars and lids, filling and processing, wiping down and storing the filled jars. It can take a long time, but it’s a skill that becomes quicker the more you do.

While the upfront cost of jars can be expensive, they have an extremely long life span. All you have to replace is the snap lids that seal in the food, and those don’t cost much.


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.


Fermentation was not invented, but rather discovered. No doubt that the first beer was discovered when a few grains of barley were left in the rain. Opportunistic microorganisms fermented the starch-derived sugars into alcohols. So too can be said about fruits fermented into wine, cabbage into Kim chi or sauerkraut, and so on. The skill of ancient peoples to observe, harness, and encourage these fermentations are admirable. Some anthropologists believe that mankind settled down from nomadic wanderers into farmers to grow barley to make beer in roughly 10,000 BC. Beer was nutritious and the alcohol was divine. It was treated as a gift from the gods.

Fermentation was a valuable food preservation method. It not only could preserve foods, but it also created more nutritious foods and was used to create more palatable foods from less than desirable ingredients. Microorganisms responsible for fermentations can produce vitamins as they ferment. This produces a more nutritious end product from the ingredients.

Discover how our grandfathers used to preserve food for long periods of time.


Pickling is preserving foods in vinegar (or other acid). Vinegar is produced from starches or sugars fermented first to alcohol and then the alcohol is oxidized by certain bacteria to acetic acid. Wines, beers and ciders are all routinely transformed into vinegars.

Pickling may have originated when food was placed in wine or beer to preserve it, since both have a low pH. Perhaps the wine or beer went sour and the taste of the food in it was appealing. Containers had to be made of stoneware or glass, since the vinegar would dissolve the metal from pots. Never ones to waste anything our ancestors found uses for everything. The left over pickling brine found many uses. The Romans made a concentrated fish pickle sauce called “garum”. It was powerful stuff packing a lot of fish taste in a few drops.

There was a spectacular increase in food preservation in the sixteenth century owing to the arrival in Europe of new foods. Ketchup was an oriental fish brine that traveled the spice route to Europe and eventually to America where someone finally added sugar to it. Spices were added to these pickling sauces to make clever recipes. Soon chutneys, relishes, piccalillis, mustards, and ketchups were commonplace. Worcester sauce was an accident from a forgotten barrel of special relish. It aged for many years in the basement of the Lea and Perrins Chemist shop.


The earliest curing was actually dehydration. Early cultures used salt to help desiccate foods. Salting was common and even culinary by choosing raw salts from different sources (rock salt, sea salt, spiced salt, etc.). In the 1800’s it was discovered that certain sources of salt gave meat a red color instead of the usual unappetizing grey. Consumers overwhelmingly preferred the red colored meat. In this mixture of salts were nitrites (saltpeter). As the microbiology of Clostridium botulinum was elucidated in the 1920’s it was realized that nitrites inhibited this organism.

Jam and Jelly

Preservation with the use of honey or sugar was well known to the earliest cultures. Fruits kept in honey were commonplace. In ancient Greece quince was mixed with honey, dried somewhat and packed tightly into jars. The Romans improved on the method by cooking the quince and honey producing a solid texture.

The same fervor of trading with India and the Orient that brought pickled foods to Europe brought sugar cane. In northern climates that do not have enough sunlight to successfully dry fruits housewives learned to make preserves—heating the fruit with sugar.

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Canning is the process in which foods are placed in jars or cans and heated to a temperature that destroys microorganisms and inactivates enzymes. This heating and later cooling forms a vacuum seal. The vacuum seal prevents other microorganisms from recontaminating the food within the jar or can.

Canning is the newest of the food preservations methods being pioneered in the 1790s when a French confectioner, Nicolas Appert, discovered that the application of heat to food in sealed glass bottles preserved the food from deterioration. He theorized “if it works for wine, why not foods?” In about 1806 Appert's principles were successfully trialed by the French Navy on a wide range of foods including meat, vegetables, fruit and even milk. Based on Appert's methods Englishman, Peter Durand, used tin cans in 1810.

Appert had found a new and successful method to preserve foods, but he did not fully understand it. It was thought that the exclusion of air was responsible for the preservations. It was not until 1864 when Louis Pasteur discovered the relationship between microorganisms and food spoilage/illness did it become clearer. Just prior to Pasteur’s discovery Raymond Chevalier-Appert patented the pressure retort (canner) in 1851 to can at temperatures higher than 212ºF. However, not until the 1920’s was the significance of this method known in relation to Clostridium botulinum.

Can with pressure canning. You will need a store-bought pressure canner. As with water bath canning, check the jars for nicks and scratches, and heat them in boiling water or the dishwasher. Prepare the food according to your recipe and fill hot jars with the food. Place the jars in the canner and lock it in place. Vent the steam according to the manufacturer’s directions. Process the jars at the recommended pounds pressure stated in your recipe. Adjust for altitude. When done, remove the jars, allow them to sit for 12 to 24 hours and check the seals.

Preserve meat and fish. 
In an economic collapse, food stores could become dangerously low. If you are going to stock up on meat and fish ahead of time, you will need to know how to cure it. This will allow it stay fresh and edible much longer. Also, it can be stored at room temperature. This will be helpful in the event of a power outage.

Salt cure meat.
Salt curing means using salt to kill the microbes that would spoil it. For every 100 pounds of meat, you need 8 pounds of salt, 2 ounces of saltpeter and 3 pounds of sugar. Apply the cure mixture directly to the meat. For bacon, allow the meat to cure for 7 days per inch of thickness. For ham, leave the mixture on for a day and a half per pound. After curing, rub off the salt under running water and allow it to dry.
If the outdoor temperature is expected to rise above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you will need to allow the meat to cure in a meat locker.
If the outdoor temperature is below freezing, allow an extra day for curing.


Smoke cure meat.
Wood smoking meat not only adds flavor, but it also protects your meat from pests and spoilage. Cold smoking smokes the meat without cooking it. Hang the meat in a smoke house, light the fire and allow the meat to smoke for 10 to 20 hours. You can purchase a ready-made smoke house or plans to build your own.
Use aromatic woods to add flavor, such as hickory, mesquite, apple, cherry, pear or cranberry-apple.
Woods to avoid include all conifers, crape myrtle, hackberry, sycamore and holly.


Jerky meat.
To make meat jerky, you can use a store-bought dehydrator. However, if you do not have one of those, you can do it in your oven by cooking it at a low temperature for several hours. Choose an inexpensive cut of meat, such as brisket. Trim the fat and slice thin strips against the grain. Season the meat with salt and pepper, and if desired, marinate it overnight with diluted barbecue sauce. Arrange the slices on a cooking grate, and put them in the oven at 170 degrees Fahrenheit for two to six hours.
Line your oven with foil for easy cleanup.
Prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon to allow air to circulate.

Can fruits and vegetables. 
Canning involves heating food in a glass jar to remove the air and prevent spoilage. Choose from two methods to can food: water bath and pressure canning. The method you choose depends on the kind of food you want to can. Water bath canning is for jams, jellies and for acidic foods such as tomatoes, berries or cucumbers in vinegar. For main meal foods such as meat, beans and other vegetables, use pressure canning. To ensure safety, always use tried and true recipes.
Can with the water bath method. Gather a deep pot with a lid, a rack that fits into the pot, glass preserving jars, lids and bands and a jar lifter. Check the jars and lids for nicks and scratches which would prevent proper canning and allow spoilage to occur. Heat the jars in a pot of boiling water or in the dishwasher. Prepare your recipe and fill the hot jars with the food. Place the lids on the jars and immerse them in boiling water. Make sure the water covers the jars by 1 to 2 inches. Leave them in the water for the amount of time stated in the recipe. Remove the jars with a jar lifter and allow them to sit for 12 to 24 hours.
The lids should not flex up and down when pressed. If they do flex or if you can easily remove the lid, then the jar did not seal properly.

The astonishing fact about food preservation is that it permeated every culture at nearly every moment in time. To survive ancient man had to harness nature. In frozen climates he froze seal meat on the ice. In tropical climates he dried foods in the sun.

Food by its nature begins to spoil the moment it is harvested. Food preservation enabled ancient man to make roots and live in one place and form a community. He no longer had to consume the kill or harvest immediately, but could preserve some for later use. Each culture preserved their local food sources using the same basic methods of food preservation.



Some historians believe that food preservation was not only for sustenance, but also cultural. They point to numerous special occasion preserved foods that have religious or celebratory meanings. In America more and more people live in cities and procure foods commercially. They have been removed from a rural self-sufficient way of life. Yet, for many, a garden is still a welcome site. And, annually there exists a bounty crop of vegetables and fruits. It is this cultural nature of preserved foods that survives today. Interests have shifted from preserve “because we have to”, to “preserve because we like to.”




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