5 Ways to Preserve Food Without Refrigeration

Pickled Food Stored on Wooden Storage Shelves

YinYang / Getty Images

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.

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Cucumbers being pickled and put into glass jars

Treehugger / Katherine Martinko

Canning is a traditional method of preservation that partially cooks food to kill bacteria and seals it up until you’re ready to eat it. The food can be eaten right away, unless you make pickles, which usually require a couple weeks for flavour to develop properly. 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. (My grandmother has been using the same jars for decades.) All you have to replace is the snap lids that seal in the food, and those don’t cost much.

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Slices of dried fruit laid out on white surface

 K8 / Unsplash

Drying is considered to be the easiest and least labour-intensive way to preserve food. Since mold, bacteria, and mildew thrive in a moist environment, drying is effective for food storage because it removes all water and can be stored safely for a long period of time. You can buy a food dehydrator or use a low-temperature oven, although the latter can take many, many hours to accomplish the task. Dried food, especially fruit, can be eaten as is, or you can rehydrate it by soaking in water for several hours. You can also make delicious snacks such as fruit leather and beef jerky. (Here's an excellent recipe for jerky that I like to make.)

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Pickled red cabbage in two glass mason jars and on a plate

The Matter of Food / Unsplash 

Fermenting is somewhat similar to canning, although it doesn’t seal up the food, allows entry of ‘good’ bacteria, and uses acidic brine. Paul Clarke of Resilient Communities explains: “The brine allows for controlled fermentation of your food by select anaerobic bacteria, killing off potentially harmful molds or bacterial strains while preserving your harvest against future breakdown.” Lately I’ve become hooked on making fermented kimchi, a spicy Korean condiment. A huge head of cabbage reduces to fit inside a single 1-quart jar. The recipe I use comes from Alice Waters' cookbook, "The Art of Simple Food II." It’s quick to prepare and only takes two or three days before it’s ready to eat. The fermentation continues to deepen the flavour until it’s all been eaten.

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Salt Curing and Brining

Cured pancetta

A. Drauglis / Flickr /  CC BY-SA 2.0

Using salt to preserve meat is a very old method, as salt creates an inhospitable environment for bacteria and most microorganisms cannot tolerate a salt concentration of more than 10 percent. Curing involves rubbing a mixture of salt and sugar into pieces of fresh pork, packing it tightly into a crock, and then storing it a stable, cool temperature. Brining starts out the same as salt curing, but uses an additional salty brine solution that must be changed on a regular basis. Salt-cured meat requires a lengthy soaking in water to remove the excess salt and bring it down to edible levels.

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Homemade chouriço on a cuttingboard on an outdoor table

Dennis Wilkinson / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This is similar to salt-curing, but goes one step further to create a finished product that requires no further cooking. On his award-winning blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, Hank Shaw explains why curing meat is an essential part of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and why you should start with goose or duck prosciutto: “It’s probably the easiest charcuterie project you can undertake."