If you’re living on a budget off-grid, you may have decided to go with a small, undersized fridge or forego one altogether. While you can keep a lot of food at home without a fridge, you may need to consider alternative preservation methods to keep your produce and dairy from going bad.
What are some of the ways to preserve food without a fridge? Drying, canning and fermenting are a few!
For as long as humans have been eating food, they have been storing food, the modern-day refrigerator has only recently become a preservation method.
If you’re looking for off-grid ways to store food, there are plenty! Here are 10 ways to preserve food without a fridge, all ideal options for homesteaders living in the tropics.
Drying works for meat, fruit, vegetables, and mushrooms. There are four different drying approaches used to preserve food: Dehydrating with a food dehydrator, oven-drying, sun-drying and salt-curing.
Dehydrating, in this sense, is done with a food dehydrator. Some foods need more rapid dehydration to preserve the best or have so much moisture (celery) that sun-drying would be impractical.
Foods to dehydrate in a food dehydrator include:
– beef or goat jerky
– thick slices or cubes of mango or papaya
- Oven Drying
Oven drying is another way to draw the moisture out of a product to allow it to be stored for years without worry. If you don’t have a dehydrator, most of the same foods can be dried in your oven, too.
A low temperature with the oven door cracked open is the best chance of avoiding burning your pieces of fruit, while also allowing moisture to escape.
Favorite foods to oven-dry:
- Herbs: basil, mint, oregano
- Citrus rings (orange, lemon)
- Banana chips
- Grapes (i.e. raisins)
If you live in a warm climate, most anything you can oven-dry, you can sun-dry. It might take a day or two longer to completely remove the moisture than with a food dehydrator or oven, but it will require zero power to finish!
I have some posts about how to sun dry mangoes and papaya, but it’s important to remember thin, uniform slices will give the best results.
You will need drying racks for drying anything in the sun. I don’t find baking sheets are the best option. But its easy to make your own, with a bit of wire mesh or over-lapping (clean and unused) chicken wire nailed to a simple box frame (even an old, thrift-store frame can work in a pinch!).
Easy foods to dry in the sun include:
- Pineapple slices
- Herbs: basil, oregano, lemongrass (wrap together and hang upside down for best drying and storage).
The history of curing meat is estimated to be thousands of years old.
In countries like Italy, France and Spain there are time-honored traditions for salt-curing meat to remove moisture (through the process of osmosis).
Before you go out there and start drying all the meat you can find on sale, you need to know the proper way to salt cure your own meat (and why it’s trickier to do in a warm climate like Hawaii) before you start.
This video from Eat and Be Eaten Hawaii shows you exactly who to salt cure wild boar starting at the 7:11 mark. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwlonUTm-_8
But know that it is possible to store your own fish and meat products for years through salt-drying.
One of my favorite ways to preserve food is by using the power of evaporation and damp sand. This approach has been successful in North Africa and West Africa for centuries, being a sustainable way to store root vegetables and more.
- Zeer Pot
The Zeer Pot has a few names: pot-in-pot refrigerator or natural clay pot cooler. No matter the name, the science behind it is the same: using evaporation through a clay container to create a cool environment.
All that is reqiured are two pots (one large and one small) and damp sand, packed between the two pots. The inner pot will cool down from the evaporation of the damp sand and keep anything inside the small pot cooler. It’s a great solution for storing dairy products or leftovers for a few extra days.
It is not a long-term storage solution.
- Box of Sand
Another way to utilize damp sand is to store vegetables in it. Veggies like beetroot, celery, or carrots (ones that tend to get wrinkly and lose their crispness at room temperature) can be stored in damp sand to stay fresh for weeks.
Don’t use overly wet sand or store in a plastic bowl or bucket (this will result in too much moisture and adversely affect your carrots). Use a cardboard box, whicker basket lined with newspaper or a wooden box instead. Lay the carrots or celery length-wise in the box and cover with a layer of damp sand.
There are two different types of canning and various ways to preserve food (storing in oil, pickling) that requires canning if you are storing outside of a refrigerator.
While you can store food in oil or pickle in vinegar, for most of these methods they will only be edible for a short period of time outside of the fridge. Otherwise, there remains a risk of botulism (which you most definitely want to avoid).
The easiest and best way to avoid this nasty bacteria is to can your food. This way, you can pickle your peppers, store sundried tomatoes in olive oil and save homemade pasta sauce for years into the future.
There are two types of canning, both require suitable glass jars and matching lids, but the difference between them really boils down to the type of food you’re canning inside of those jars: low-acid or high-acid.
Pressure canning is used for low-acid foods (or really, all foods), while a hot water bath can safely can high-acid foods.
- Pressure Canning
Pressure canning requires more materials, a higher temperature ( it will probably make your kitchen very hot for an afternoon) to effectively can.
However, you can pressure can more types of foods than you can safely can with a water bath – for example: meat, chicken and milk.
More foods you can pressure can:
- Green beans
- Other beans (navy beans, kidney beans, black beans)
- Fruits (in juice or water with lemon)
- Prepared meats (seasoned taco meat, beef stew with potatoes and carrots, roasted chicken, etc)
The options here are really endless. The important think to note is that you need a pressure canner to do this the right way.
- Hot Water Bath Canning
Hot water bath canning is easier than pressure canning, and you only need a big, deep pot and boiling water to complete it. But you need to know that not all foods can be safely canned with a hot water bath.
It all comes down to the acidic content of the food you’re canning.
Tomatoes and tomato sauces are great for hot water bath canning, because of their naturally high acid level.
Foods to can with hot water bath include:
- Pickled veggies (note that they must first be pickled, the acid of the vinegar is important)
- Fruit preserves
- Tomatoes and tomato sauces
Along with canning comes pickling. Beyond just cucumbers, you can pickle just about any vegetable you can think of- zucchini, sweet peppers, carrots, onions, radishes, beet roots, etc.
Pickling is also very easy, just make a brine from water, vinegar, salt, sugar and spices (if you’re doing undiluted pickling, skip the water). You can bring the brine to a boil to help dissolve the salt and sugar, but it’s not necessary.
Now, you do not have to can your pickles – you can make refrigerator pickles, or you can eat the pickles within 2-3 days. However, for long-term food storage of your pickled vegetables or pickled cucumbers, the safest way to preserve them is to also can them in a hot water bath, ensuring the lid is secured.
They can keep for 6 months like this, but eat within 2-3 days of opening once you do start eating them.
Another ancient food preservation method is fermentation – kimchi, sauerkraut and tempeh being well-known fermented foods.
It’s not difficult to ferment cabbage or other vegetables, as the natural yeast and bacteria within the food is what is fermenting, you’re not adding anything (hence the difference with pickling- you add vinegar). However, the issue becomes how to stop the fermentation process.
Kimchi, for example will naturally ferment in a glass jar over approximately a week. But it will keep fermenting as long as it stays at room temperature.
In order to keep the best taste and stop the fermentation process, you do need to either store your kimchi (or jar of sauerkraut) in the fridge – or can it in a hot water bath. Either approach will preserve your fermented food for longer.
Remember, though, once you open it you should consume it within a few days, or store it in your zeer pot to keep it cool.
So, there are 10 ways to preserve food without a fridge for off-grid homesteaders looking for alternative ways to store their home-grown produce.
As you can see it’s pretty easy. It may take a little bit more work than just opening the fridge and placing your food inside, but when you have no fridge, these options will get you through.