Amassing a mountain of food isn’t going to do you any good, if most of it goes bad before you can eat it. Additionally, becoming ill from eating meat, vegetables or fruit contaminated with these pathogens is unpleasant enough when you’re in a civilization with easy access to medical care; put yourself in a post-breakdown world where there are no doctors or hospitals, where you need to be physically strong to survive, and it could get pretty scary. On the plus side, there are plenty of time-honored methods for preserving food and protecting yourself from food-borne illnesses in the process, from creating an old-fashioned root cellar, to canning meats or drying them to create jerky. But you’ll need to study the techniques carefully and accrue the right equipment to do the job. One great resource is the National Center for Food Preservation’s website. NCFP is a great one-stop location for information on methods of preserving and storing food.
Here are some tips:
- Keep Cans, Jars and Packages Cool and Dry: As Practical Preppers’ Scott Hunt notes, any sort of food—even if it’s packaged military-style Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) or canned vegetables—will remain edible longer in a cool environment. The National Center for Home Food Preparation advises storing food in a room where the constant temperature is between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and specifically warns against storing foods in temperatures above 95 degrees, or putting them near hot pipes, a range, a furnace, in an non-insulated attic (remember, heat rises through your house), or in direct sunlight. Additionally, you should avoid excessive humidity, because dampness can corrode metal lids, break seals, and allow recontamination and spoilage.. But the big bugaboo that you want to avoid, Hunt notes, is fluctuations in temperature, which seem to degrade food quality faster than a sustained temperature increase.
- Create a Root Cellar: Fresh, non-canned fruit and vegetables obviously are even more perishable than the canned stuff. But an old-fashioned root cellar, the sort that every farmhouse used to have, can prolong their edible life. According to the National Gardening Association, fresh root crops ideally are stored in a temperature of 34 degrees Fahrenheit, with high humidity. Again, maintaining an even temperature is more important, because fluctuations of five degrees in either direction can cause rotting or new growth to sprout. Insulating a cellar can help to maintain the right climate.
- Learn the Art of Canning. Canning is a complex art, far too complex for us to give a worthwhile explanation here. But you can teach yourself by diligently following the instructions in a good how-to tome, such as the Natural Canning Resource Book. The most general key points: cook the food properly, quickly pour it while hot into freshly scrubbed and sterile containers, and then immediately seal it to establish a vacuum lock that will preserve the food. (If you let the food cool, the seal won’t hold.) In particular, Hunt advises paying meticulous attention to sanitary precautions, such as washing jars in hot water and soap, and keeping them in simmering water until you can put the cooked food into them. He also warns against using water-bath canning, a method intended for fruit preserves and pickles, to can veggies or meat. He also urges you to stock up on jars and other containers, because you may not be able to get them once civilization collapses.
- Don’t Build a Smokehouse (unless you are heavily armed!). As Hunt warns, “They’re terrific for fine-flavored meats—but strategic nightmares, in terms of security.” The smoke is a dead giveaway to marauders that there’s a settlement up there in the woods, even if they can’t see the plume through the trees. Smoke from burning hardwoods, the only type that should be used in smoking meats, can be smelled up to a half-mile away.
- Do Dehydrate Meat. Dehydration is a great method for parts of the country where the humidity is moderate. You can turn meat into jerky, a lightweight food that needs no refrigeration and is ideal for taking with you on treks through the wilderness, since it will last for two weeks in a sealed container. According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s primer on jerky-making, jerky can be made from almost any lean meat, including beef, pork, venison or smoked turkey breast. Be forewarned that the process is a bit involved, and energy-intensive; you have to marinade and cook the thinly-sliced meat before drying it in an oven.
- Freezing Food is an Option, if you Have an Off-Grid Refrigerator. Conventional refrigerators, of course, are energy hogs. But there actually are a new generation of energy-efficient refrigerators designed to run on electricity generated from solar energy. If you’re really handy, you might even try building your own refrigerator or ice plant that uses solar energy directly to power the cooling process, instead of a compressor. Here’s a 2008 Scientific American article which explains how that works.
If You Only Do Three Things…
- Find a cool, dry place to store your canned and preserved food. Hunt says the general rule of thumb is that for every 10 degrees that you lower the temperature, you double the shelf-life of your supplies.
- Buy an off-grid solar-powered refrigerator. If you’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on solar panels for your roof, it makes sense to spend a couple thousand dollars more for a refrigerator designed to run off that system.
- Stock up on jars and cans, a pressure cooker, and a good book on canning. Maybe you’re too busy to learn canning now, but after civilization collapses, you won’t be wasting time re-watching old episodes of Lost anymore.
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