When it comes to prepping, food is usually number one. Most people start out by stockpiling food and are usually still stockpiling food when they get done doing everything else. Between the cost of the food itself and the vast quantity that you really need for surviving a long-term disaster, it seems like no matter how much you have, it's still not enough.
The problem is, paying for all that food can be a bit difficult. Food prices have been on the rise, at a time when salaries aren't. That just makes it harder to stockpile enough food. Some get discouraged, thinking that they'll never be able to stockpile the things they need, especially the more expensive foods, like meats.
Producing your own food is at least a partial solution to this problem, especially once your initial investment in getting your food production going has been covered. There is a move in the prepping community towards homesteading, mostly for the purpose of having food in a post-apocalyptic time. By starting now, these people are able to save money on their current food bills, as well as learn the skills needed to raise their own food when needed.
This might be the solution for you too. Backyard farming is growing in popularity, and just might be the tool you need to build your food stockpile. Those who get serious about their farming efforts produce more food than they can conveniently store, so end up preserving the extra and adding it to their stockpile.
Of course, when the SHTF, being able to preserve food is going to be just as important as being able to grow it. You'll only going to be able to grow food for part of the year and are going to have to preserve most of that food for use in the colder winter months. This is the root of food preservation, as our long distant ancestors sought to survive the long winter months when they couldn't grow food and the animals they hunted were hiding out from the cold.
Not all food preservation techniques were created by the same people or in the same time period. Often, one group of people would have only one or two food preservation techniques that they used. That would make their winter diets rather limited, but at least they'd have food.
While these techniques have all existed for at least a couple of centuries, recent advances have made the process of preserving foods easier. However, in modern times much more is done with chemicals to preserve our food. That's not because preserving food with chemicals is better, just that it's easier for the food processors. In a post-disaster world, where we can't buy packaged foods, we'll probably be back to doing things the ways our ancestors did them, using the most simple methods and tools.
The Basics of Food Preservation
The idea of preserving food is mostly to protect it from bacteria. Those pesky little bugs will eat anything and everything they find. If any food or biologic residue (plants or animals) are left lying, bacteria will attack it and start eating it, breaking the food down to its basic nutrients, so that they can be returned to the soil.
While protecting food from bacteria is a very important part of preserving it, possibly even the most important part, that's not our only concern. In addition to bacteria, there are insects and rodents that want to get into our food supplies and eat them. So, in addition to protecting the food from the bacteria that is probably already in it, we have to package it in such a way as to prevent these insects and rodents from getting into it.
This makes most preservation a two-stage process, although we may not see it that way. The first part is usually about killing the bacteria in the food and the second is about ensuring that nothing can get into it. However, there are some food preservation techniques that don't include this second step. In those cases, we need to ensure that the food is stored in such a way as to preclude insects and rodents getting to it. For that matter, it's a good idea to keep the family dog from getting to it as well.
There are two other things that can damage food, besides those that want to eat it. Those are oxygen and heat. Some nutrients in foods will actually oxidize over time, especially if the food is stored in a warm area. Keeping the food cool helps prevent that. Keeping it cool also helps reduce any other chemical reactions that could alter the food, as well as slowing the growth of bacteria.
Salt and Sugar - Nature's Preservatives
When salt and sugar are placed on any type of food, they immediately start drawing the moisture out of them, in a process known as osmosis. According to the (chemical) laws of osmosis, the level of salinity has to be equal on both sides of a membrane. So, water moves from inside the plant or animal cells of the food, to the outside, where the salt is. At the same time, the now salt starts migrating into the cells.The idea of using chemicals for preserving food actually comes from nature herself, as she supplies us with the two most common chemical preservatives; salt and sugar. Both work the same way, although salt is much more commonly used.
If this process is allowed to go far enough, it partially dehydrates the food, while absorbing salt into the food. If any bacteria are in the food, the same happens to them, killing them. Any bacteria attacking the food later end up with the same result. As bacteria lose their water, they die.
Salt is commonly used in the preservation of meats for this very reason. Most food preservation techniques that are used for meats require the use of salt, usually large amounts of it. Salt might also be used with vegetables, but not in as large a quantities. Sugar is used exclusively for preserving fruits, especially in making jams and preserves.
Interestingly enough, both salt and sugar will store virtually forever, if moisture can be kept out of them. Sugar also needs to be protected from insects, especially ants, who seem to have a severe sweet tooth. However, properly packaged, you can easily store these two food items for over 20 years.
Refrigeration - Our Most Common Modern Food Preserver
Today, we use refrigeration (and freezing) as our most common means of preserving food. You go to the grocery store, buy your food and when you come home, a fair amount of it ends up in either the refrigerator or the freezer. This keeps the food fresh longer, but as a preservation technique, really isn't as efficient as others. Food won't keep indefinitely when refrigerated, but it will keep longer.
Basically, refrigeration slows down the metabolism of any bacteria in the food, causing it to eat less and multiply slower. That's what makes it possible for the food to last longer. However, that really doesn't stop the bacteria's feeding or multiplication, all it does is slow it down.
Freezing will actually stop any action on the part of the bacteria, allowing frozen foods to last considerably longer than refrigerated ones. In some cases, freezing actually kills the bacteria, making it possible for the food to be bacteria free when removed from the freezer. But freezing isn't perfect. Some foods are damaged by freezing, which causes the water in the cells to expand, sometimes rupturing cell walls.
Foods can also become "freeze dried" in a modern "frost free" freezer. These freezers try to remove moisture from the air in the freezer, so that it can't freeze. In the process, it also removes moisture from some types of food, if they are left exposed.
But the biggest problem with refrigeration or freezing is that we probably won't be able to use it in a post-disaster situation. Refrigerators consume a fair amount of electricity to work. If the grid is down, then there won't be any electricity to run refrigerators. Unless you have a fairly good solar power system, with a battery backup, you won't be able to use your refrigerator.
Just because your modern refrigerator won’t work in a post-disaster situation, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to totally forget about the idea of refrigeration at all. Our ancestors used non-electric refrigerators, long before they had the electric kind. The most recent of these is known as the ice box. Ice was harvested in the wintertime and stored in ice houses, often underground. That ice was then sold to people, who would keep it in their ice box to keep food refrigerated. The ice box itself was an insulated cabinet, with different compartments for the ice and for food storage.Just because your modern refrigerator won't work in a post-disaster situation, doesn't necessarily mean that you have to totally forget about the idea of refrigeration at all. Our ancestors used non-electric refrigerators, long before they had the electric kind.
Harvesting ice is much harder than it seems in the movie Frozen; but it is possible to do; especially if you happen to live in the northern part of the country, where you have lots of cold weather. Working together with neighbors, you could gather ice off lakes and store it in caves, so that it is available in the summertime.
Speaking of caves, that brings us to the second means of natural refrigeration, the root cellar. A root cellar is nothing more than an artificial cave, or perhaps a naturally existing one, in which produce is stored. The cooler temperature of the root cellar works much like a modern refrigerator, allowing the produce to last longer, without spoiling.
There are a number of ways of building a root cellar, including digging an actual cave and lining it with shelves. This is actually the best, especially if you can keep the whole of the root cellar below ground level. Some people dig them into the side of a hill or build an artificial hill over a root cellar that is at ground level, but those don't get quite as cold as a root cellar that is dug into the ground.
One of the things that makes a root cellar work is basic thermodynamics that we all learned in elementary school: heat rises and cold drops. By building the root cellar underground, you ensure that the coldest available air goes into it. That usually happens at night, when things cool down. You also guarantee that the cold air stays there, while the ambient air warms up during the day. This simple action ensures that the root cellar is always cooler than the ambient air.
Another way of building a root cellar is to close off a corner of your basement, turning it into one. If you put a vent pipe from ground level into the root cellar, opening at floor level, you provide an excellent way for cool air to "drop" into the root cellar. Adding an additional vent into the rest of the basement at ground level, provides a means for warmer air to leave the root cellar. Insulate the cellar and put shelves in it to finish it off.
Some people have also build root cellars by burying a container in the ground, such as a non-working refrigerator or a plastic storage bin. While not as effective as a root cellar that is buried deeper, these will still keep food cooler than leaving the food sitting out in the open. A refrigerator works particularly well for this, as it is already insulated and has an insulated door that animals can't get through. Just bury it, laying on its back, at ground level.
In Africa, the need for refrigeration was solved centuries ago with evaporative refrigeration. A simple device, called a Zeer Pot was made, which would keep produce stored inside it cooler, allowing it to last longer. In fact, produce stored in a Zeer Pot can keep about four times longer than food stored in the ambient air.
It is extremely easy to build a Zeer Pot. All you need is two unglazed ceramic pots. One needs to be smaller than the other, so that the smaller one will nest inside the larger, with a little bit of space between them. This space is filled with sand, leaving the top of the two pots at the same height.
To use the Zeer Pot, water is poured into the sand, saturating it. This water seeps through the ceramic, soaking it as well. The water on the surface of the pot then starts evaporating, drawing heat from the pot to do so. This cools the pot and its contents. Placing a thick wet cloth over the mouth of the pot helps the cooling process and protects the contents from the heat of the ambient air.
Other than refrigeration, canning is probably the most common form of food preservation done in America today. While commercial canning uses metal cans and requires a fair amount of expensive machinery, canning in glass jars is quite simple and can be done in a home kitchen.
All that is needed for home canning is a supply of the glass canning jars, along with their lids and the screw-top rings used to hold the lids in place. The jars themselves are reusable, but the lids can't be. So, as part of your survival stockpile, you'll need a much larger supply of lids than of jars. You will also need a large pot to heat the jars in. If you are going to can meats, that should be a large pressure cooker, more properly known as a pressure canner.
Canning works with all wet foods; including fruits, vegetables and meats. It depends on the idea that bacteria die at 158oF. During the canning process, the jars and the food within them are raised up to this temperature, long enough to ensure that any bacteria contained within them die. Then the jars are allowed to cool.
During the heating process, the contents of the jars expand, once again, depending on laws of thermodynamics. When the contents cool, they contract back to their original size. This creates a vacuum, drawing down the lids onto the jars and sealing them. As long as the seal isn't broken, the contents of the jar are safe from bacteria, insects and rodents.
Canning meats and non-acidic vegetables requires a higher temperature than canning acidic fruits. The acid in the fruits helps to kill the bacteria as well. But in the case of meats, which generally have the most bacteria in them, a higher temperature is needed to ensure that it penetrates all the way through the meat, killing off the bacteria, and cooking the meat at the same time.
Any food preserved by canning will last virtually forever, as long as the seal of the jar is undisturbed. It is easy to tell if the seal is broken, as it will be slightly convex, rather than concave. Any food in a can or jar with a suspect seal should be considered tainted and disposed of.
Since the specific temperature for canning different foods varies, it is best to work from a canning recipe book. These all trace their roots back to extensive testing that was conducted by the USDA and which can be found online. But buy a recipe book anyway, so that you have something to use when the power goes out.
Some foods are pickled or fermented before canning. Pickling adds acids to the food, usually from vinegar, which make an inhospitable environment for any bacteria. Sauerkraut, pickles and most condiments are all pickled products.
While these pickled foods are also canned, the acid in them makes it possible for these foods to be left out, even after being opened. While our modern condiments all say “refrigerate after opening” that’s more done to protect the manufacturer from lawsuits, than for any practical need. They aren’t actually producing those condiments with the idea of them being left out in the open, but most could be, without any risk of becoming tainted.
Dehydration is probably the oldest form of preserving foods in existence. Ancient tombs, such as for the Egyptian Pharaohs, often have dried grains in them, buried there to feed the spirit of the dead in their journey through the underworld. Many grains readily dry on the stalk, indicating that it is quite possible that the whole idea of dehydrating food first started with observing this natural process.
Grains are not the only thing that can be dried or dehydrated. Most foods can. Fruits, vegetables and meats are all good candidates for dehydration. Throughout history, different cultures developed means of dehydrating foods, often using the heat of the sun to do so.
What makes dehydration work is the same thing I said about salt earlier. When food is dehydrated, any bacteria that comes in contact with it has the moisture drawn out, through the cell wall. This eventually dehydrates the bacteria itself to the point where it dies.
Dehydration can be done in an electric dehydrator, in an oven (if it's controls allow it to go low enough), in a solar dehydrator or simply by spreading them out in the sun. In past times, most dehydration was done by simply spreading the food out in the sun, either on drying racks or in large, flat baskets. The difference between this and solar dehydration is that a solar dehydrator is an enclosed, glass-topped box, which generates more heat, speeding up the drying process.
Fruits and vegetables are the easiest to dry. In most cases, all that needs to be done is to cut the food up and lay it out for dehydration. It should be cut to a 1/4" thickness for best drying. Thicker pieces may not dry fully and if they do, will dry very slowly. Sprinkling sugar on thicker slices or slower drying fruits, such as pineapple, will help protect them from bacteria.
Meats must be either marinated in a brine (salt water), which can also be used to flavor it, or have a salty meat rub applied, before dehydrating. Simple dehydration isn't enough to protect the meat. The salt protects the meat, as discussed earlier. It is also important to trim off all fat, as the fat can easily turn rancid.
The biggest risk with dehydrating meats is that it is not salted well enough. I've dehydrated meats, making jerky, only to have it turn moldy in the refrigerator. In those cases, it turned out that not all the meat's surfaces were coated with the marinade. The cut up meat itself formed a seal, preventing the marinade from getting to all the surfaces. It was necessary to move the meat around in the marinade several times during the process, to ensure that all surfaces were treated.
Meats also need to be dehydrated fairly quickly. Although it is possible to dehydrate it in slices up to 1/4" thick, it is better to cut it to half that thickness. The American Indians dehydrated meat by lying it over poles in the sun, but it is safer and faster to use an electric dehydrator.
Salt Fish is essentially the fish version of jerky. It originates in Northern Europe, with seafaring people. The process is similar to that used by the American Indian, with one notable exception. Whereas the Indians rubbed salt into the meat before drying it, salt fish is packed in layers of salt for days, before drying it.
Part of this comes from the fact that fish flesh is softer and will fall apart if a meat rub is used on it. By packing it in layers of salt, two things happen. First of all, the salt draws much of the moisture out of the fish. Secondly, the fish flesh absorbs salt. Then, once all the moisture that can be removed from the fish by salt has been removed, the fish is removed from the salt and placed on woven surfaces for drying in the sun.
Smoking is probably the least effective means of preserving meat, although it is very popular. Today, most smoking of meat is "cold smoking," which is done purely to add the smoke flavor to the meat. But in times past, it was not uncommon to have a smokehouse on the farm, in order to smoke anything from sausage and hams to turkeys.
Hot smoking is what is used for preserving meat. In hot smoking, the meat is cold smoked first, to give it the smoke flavor; then the temperature in the smoker or smokehouse is raised, allowing the meat to be slow cooked. This tenderizes the meat while cooking, much like cooking it in a crockpot. It also allows the proteins in the outer layers of the meat to form a skin over the meat, protecting it from new bacteria entering.
The problem with smoking is that the protection to the meat is lost as soon as the meat is cut. Cutting off a piece to eat invariably exposes meat that isn't protected by that protein coating. Airborne bacteria then have the opportunity to enter the meat and start reproducing.
This problem can be solved by storing the meat in a smokehouse, so that the new surface is smoked as soon as it is cut. Some homes in pioneering times had wide enough chimneys over the kitchen fireplace to allow hanging of meat in the chimney, where it was constantly being smoked. This eliminated the risk of the meat becoming spoiled.
Meats that are to be smoked are always soaked in a brine before smoking. The salt penetrating the outer layers of the meat help prevent the meat from spoiling as well. However, like the skin, this protection is lost once the meat is cut. Some smokers will inject brine into the meat during the brining process to try and extend this protection.
Cured meats are smoked meats that have been prepared with salt and spices, before smoking. Some are even refrigerator cured, although that is not the traditional means. Most of what we currently know as deli meats or lunch meats started out in Europe as cured meats.
When curing meats, the meat is cut up and mixed with fat, spices and salt. This mixture is then put into sausage casings and allowed to sit, usually refrigerated. While sitting, the salt spreads through the meat, ensuring that every bit of it is salted. It is this process of the salt spreading through the meat that actually protects it from decay. Finally, the meat is smoked, cooking it.One nice thing about curing meats is that the combination of grinding the meat and the slow cooking process allows normally tough, unusable portions of meat to be turned into a delicacy. Rather than being tough, the meat is soft and easy to eat. It also keeps quite well, even after being cut.