Simplicity by Choice

Off-Grid Living & Self-Reliance

How to Thrive Without Refrigeration October 20, 2014

Picture in your mind the following scenario. You awaken in the morning and start your day as usual. When you go in to the kitchen to start breakfast preparations, you make the discovery that your refrigerator stopped working during the night. Your financially not in a position to be able replace have the refrigerator repaired. What do you do? Depending on the time of year, you have several options.

The fast solution could be grabbing up a cooler and placing ice or dry ice into it along with your perishables. But what if you were forced to go without a refrigerator for a period of time. How would you manage?  Let’s face it.  In modern society, people have become spoiled with the modern conveniences.  So much so that when a storm takes our their electrical power, they have no clue how to manage without it.  One such case is refrigeration.  How often do you hear people talk about food loss after a storm knocked the electricity out for a few days?  Each winter season, I can only shake my head at the way people complain of food loss after a winter storm.  Yet, if they would have put the food into plastic totes and placed the totes in a safe outdoor location, they would not have lost their food supplies.  Because of this, I decided to write a post about how to thrive without refrigeration.  The ideas shared here are ones that we have used to reduce our need of a refrigerator and freezer.  I hope that as you read through these ideas, you will find some that would benefit you should the power go out.  Some of these ideas take advance preparation and some can be done without advance preps.  Whichever the case may be, you will have some ideas to consider in how to thrive without refrigeration.

One option is a Zeer Pot. This clever design is an evaporative cooler which works as a non-electric refrigerator. In rural Africa and the Middle East, this is one way that people have to keep produce fresh. Easy to make, these pots are 2 large terra cotta pots sized so that one fits into the other with a 2” space between the walls of the pots. You place sand in the bottom of the larger pot and center the second pot inside. Again, you will want about 2” gap between the two pots. Fill in that gap with wet sand. For best results, keep the Zeer Pot in a location where it will always have shade. The wet sand and terra cotta pot helps to keep the inside of the smaller pot cool. The Zeer pot is covered with a wet piece of fabric to use as a lid. You keep the sand wet and dampen the cloth as needed. The only drawback to the Zeer pot is that it does not work well in a humid climate. So, being as our state can get humid, I will be trying the Zeer pot on a small scale next summer before making a large one.

The cooler of ice is always an option, but I can tell you from experience that it can also be a pain in the keester. We went that route for a long period of time but it truly was a pain and very inconvenient. If we lived in an area which still sold blocks of ice, it may have been better. The cubed ice sold at stores or the self-service dispenser machines simply tend to melt too quickly. If using the cooler as your refrigeration method, I strongly recommend that you get a Yeti brand as they are one of the most efficient on the market.

Our lifestyle and diet is one that really fits in well with the minimal refrigeration. Actually, refrigeration was once considered to be a luxury to earlier generations. Like many such conveniences, as they became more common in society, they began to be seen as critical needs. People depended on them. If you use alternative means to preserve your food, you could easily live without any form of refrigeration. We don’t go completely without refrigeration, but we have significantly reduced our need for it. Here is how I manage to do this.

First, I home can everything possible. If I buy meat, I get large packages of it to process in canning jars and store in the pantry. In the jars is enough meat for one meal. This eliminates the problem of leftovers that would need refrigeration.

I cook proper amounts for the number of people eating the meal. I try to have as few leftovers as possible. If the meal is something that can be processed in canning jars for a later meal, then I may make extra. Usually though, I try to just limit the quantity to what we actually need.

I don’t use eggs in my recipes. I bought a quart of ground flax seed meal and keep it for my egg substitute. For each egg in a recipe, you mix together 1 Tbsp of ground flax seed meal and 3 Tbsp of water. Let it set for a couple of minutes to allow the flax meal to absorb the liquid and become thick. Just as eggs work as a binder in recipes, this flax seed meal mixture will do the same while adding additional nutrients that eggs lack.

I never buy milk that requires refrigeration. Instead, I do one of two things, We either use the cartons of almond milk that can be stored on a pantry shelf, or we mix up powdered milk as we need it. The almond milk comes in 1 quart containers. Once I open a carton, I pour any leftover milk into a glass jar and place into the cooler. We generally will use it all up within 24 hours.

We buy lunch meat only when we will be using it immediately. It is a rare thing for us to buy lunch meat, but when we do, we only get enough to last two days. This is also stored in a cooler, just as you would if your were going camping.

Sometimes, we want the fresh eggs to cook up for breakfast. In those situations, the eggs can be safely stored in the cooler. We never have a carton of eggs for very long, which is why it is safe to store them this way.

If you have a Zeer Pot, you can place all your produce into it for storage. The pot is cool enough to prevent the produce from spoiling too quickly. One idea that I am considering is to set up a Zeer pot to use in place of a root cellar for over winter storage. In this case, no water would be needed to cool the pot. It is cold enough here in winter that the insulation of the sand between the pot may be enough to help prevent freezing of the vegetables and fruit. Instead of using a cloth to cover the produce in cold months, I would use a piece of cut plywood or possibly invert a clay saucer (like those you use under a flower pot) to be used as a lid. This heavier material would also help to prevent frost damage to your stored produce. Of course, if using these as a root cellar, I would still only store items like potatoes, winter squash, apples, and other root cellar friendly produce.

In winter months, we use a cold room for our refrigeration. A storage room is left without heat and allowed to become very cold. In the coldest months, it is like walking into an unheated garage. This is perfect for storing perishables! If the temps are cool enough, we have been able to store eggs, cheese, and a small container of milk on a shelf and it will be kept very cold. Sometimes, we have actually had milk freeze in the storage room. If the temp is just a little too warm, then the food can be placed into a cooler with water in it and the lid propped open. The cold temps will chill the water and this becomes your refrigeration. It works very much like an Amish spring house. In the Amish spring house, there was a trough of water that jars of milk, butter, and other perishables were placed into. The water was cold enough, even in summer, to keep the food the proper temperature. I would not use the water method in our area in summer however. The summer temps just get too hot for this to be a safe option. In winter though, it is a very effective option.

If you really want off-grid refrigeration though, you have a couple of easy options. The more expensive is to simply buy a propane refrigerator. These are expensive however. Another option is to buy a small chest type deep freezer. The thermostat control can be changed out with one that will essentially turn the chest freezer into a refrigerator. We have considering trying this with a propane freezer. Only downside is that you are still having to provide a fuel source. Also, if there is a motor or condenser involved, there is always a risk of mechanical failures. On the upside, unlike a refrigerator that losing cold air each time you open the door, a chest freezer conversion would not do so. Still haven’t decided on that yet.

As I mentioned, with the way I preserve foods and am careful with meal preparations, we have been able to have very limited refrigeration needs. I actually enjoy this because it makes the size of refrigerator we would actually require to be the size of a small office/dorm type. Primarily being a source for keeping drinks cold in summer. There again, we have a way to eliminate most refrigeration need. We purchased one of the large water coolers like you see on job sites. We fill it with ice, then add water to completely fill the cooler. This gives us 5 gallons of cold drinking water. If the kids are wanting a powdered fruit drink, I pour the sugarless mix into a container and add sugar according to the directions on the packet. After mixing this well to blend the drink powder with sugar, we use it just like the pre-made drink mixes from the store. Just like with mixing powdered milk as we need it, the kids’ fruit drink mixes are made one glass at a time.

What alternative methods do you have for emergency refrigeration should there be a need? Do you have a backup plan in case your first option doesn’t work out?

 

Canning for Convenience July 29, 2014

I have been being asked if I would be posting more about home canning.  It has been on my mind to do so, but life happens and I haven’t made any new entries on canning.  I am wanting to change that.  It is as much of a help to me to have my recipes on here as it (hopefully) is to those who try them out.

Before I get started, I want to state that this will likely become a series of entries.  Sort of like the ones you see on other blogs, such as the “Throw Back Thursday” type posts.  In this case, it will be all about canning.  There are a few things that I want to state about home canning.  First, ALWAYS check the instructions for your own canner before trying any of these recipes.  I will purposely be leaving the exact canning instructions out of the recipes.  To state that I process a canner load at 10 lbs of pressure may be accurate for those living at the same elevation as I do.  For those who live at an elevation that needs 5 lbs or 15 lbs of pressure, it would be a problem if you used my pressure levels.  To give the time amounts would also be wrong for me to do.  One of the best and most current resources that I have used is the National Center for Home Food Preservation which teaches in detail how to home can, dry, freeze, and pickle just about anything.  It also has great information for those new to home food preservation, including basic information on how to use home canners.  I strongly recommend that you print the pressure and time charts for each type of food or recipe that you will be home canning.  This will make a quick reference for you to follow later on.

In starting from the basics, you will need a few items to do home canning.  The first is your canner.  For fruits and tomatoes, you will need a waterbath canner.  This is a very large kettle with a wire rack inside.  It is deep enough to allow you to fully submerge quart size jars under water.  In this canner, jars are processed through boiling them for the amount of time listed in the instructions from the above website.    Foods processed in a waterbath canner are high acid foods.  Tomatoes and some fruits contain citric acid naturally.  Others require that you add citric acid to prevent browning.  This acid level is enough to allow you to safely process the foods by boiling the jars.  These are the ONLY foods that are processed by waterbath method.

pressure canner is required for low acid foods such as vegetables and meat.  These foods must reach a very high internal temperature in order to kill off any natural bacteria that can become harmful during storage.  A pressure canner is a large, deep kettle with a locking lid.  Some have a gauge to help you regulate the pressure, others have a weighted gauge.  I use a weighted gauge style and find it far easier to work with.  Modern pressure canners have a venting system that helps to prevent accidents.  On mine, there is a vent that pops up once the pressure is above 10 lbs.  which is the amount needed for our elevation.  As a safety measure, there is also a small rubber plug in the lid that will completely pop out should the pressure become dangerously high.  I have never had that one pop out.  I find that once my canner has reached just enough pressure to make the vent lift up, I turn down the heat just enough to keep that vent slightly open.  This allows me to be certain that the pressure in the canner is high enough without worry that it will over pressurize.

The next thing you need are your canning jars.  I have to admit that I am a jar snob.  I only buy Ball or Kerr brands.  Ball was one of the oldest canning jar manufacturers and have been around for ages.  Kerr eventually bought the Ball company and now makes both brands.  I have tried lesser known brands and every time have had a percentage of the jars break in the pressure canner.  That jar breakage causes not only the loss of the money used for buying the jars, but the food as well.

I am developing a routine with the jars that I use.  Food items, such as when I can up homemade stews, meat, or other chunky and large items always are done up in wide mouth jars.  This is for two reasons.  First, the food is easier to remove later on than it is with the regular mouth size jars.  Secondly, in the case of canning meats, if there is any grease from the meat, the wide mouth are much easier to clean thoroughly.

Regular mouth size jars are used for liquid items, such as tomato soup, juices, and small vegetables.  Cut up green beans, shelled peas, and baby carrots are some examples of the small vegetables I use the regular mouth jars for.  I use this method for all the foods that I home can.  Gradually, I will be using only the wide mouth jars in all my canning.  This will make it easier all around.

Some tools that are extremely useful and that I highly recommend are the following.  A jar lifter is used for lifting the hot jars out of the canner.  They look like a large pair of tongs that have a rubber coating on the portion that grips the jar neck.  Of all the tools, this in one of two that I couldn’t do without.  The second tool is a canning jar funnel.  This funnel has a large bowl with the funnel portion being just small enough to fit inside the regular mouth jars.  Using this, you are able to fill the jars with messy food items without getting food residue on the jar rims.  It makes filling the jars faster and easier as well.  The third item that I use each time I home can would be my kitchen timer.  With kids in the home, I cannot trust myself to use a clock to track the processing times.  I get interrupted or distracted way too often.  It is just good practice to have a timer for canning anyways.  The last items are ones that many use on a consistent basis, but I don’t personally use.  One is the magnetic flat lid wand which is used to lift the flat lids from a pan of hot water,  The other is a similar product, a little rack that you stand the flat lids in while they are being heated in a pan of water.  This process is important in that it helps to insure a good seal on the jars.  I just use a pair of metal tongs to lift the lids.  It is what I grew up seeing done and seems to work just fine for me.

When you buy a case of new canning jars, they always come with the rings and flat lids.  I always keep at least 4-6 boxes of replacement flat lids on hand in the pantry.  There are times when a new lid will fail during processing and you will need a replacement lid before you can re-process the jar.  Reusing the flat lids are a good way to risk the jars not sealing properly.  The last thing you want to risk is a jar lid popping open while on the pantry shelf and food spoiling.

Before you start canning, you need to take a hard look at how your family eats.  While there are a lot of yummy recipes out there to tempt you, the mainstay of your canning should reflect your family’s typical diet.  For example, in the cold months our family eats a lot of homemade soups and stews.  These are eaten on nearly a daily basis in the coldest months especially.  So, when I do the home canning, I will be sure to stock our shelves with a good supply of these types of meals.  I began by looking at what our favorite stews and soups were.  Then, whenever I made them, I would make a double or triple size batch.  As we sat eating dinner, the canner would be processing the extras for stocking the pantry.

Another great use for the canner was when my husband was a truck driver and away from home for up to 8 weeks at a time.  I would home can meals in pint size jars for him to take on the truck with him.  Using a cooker powered by the 12 volt plug in the truck, he was able to cook the food for his meals.  One pint size jar gave him a good sized serving.  Doing this saved us a fortune in food expenses on the road.  When we first began doing this, he was spending $600 a month on his meals and drinks on the road.  When he took a month’s supply of meals on the truck with him, he only spent $150 a month on drinks and snacks.  That was an instant $450 savings each month!  Not to mention that he ate far more healthy meals that way.

One of my favorite meals to home can is beef stew.  It is SO easy to do that it doesn’t take long to have a nice supply of it on hand in your pantry.  I like making this when I find a good sale on stew meat.  I buy a large package of the meat then cut it into bite sized pieces.  In a large roasting pan, I place enough vegetables for one meal and all of the meat.  I oven roast the stew as I normally would in preparing a meal.  About a half hour before the stew is done roasting, I start preparing my jars but filling them 2/3 full of the same mixture of vegetables as I am cooking with the meat.  These vegetables are placed into the canning jars while they are raw to prevent them from being over cooked once the jars are processed.  Potatoes, for example, would completely turn to mush if they were roasted before canning.  If I get the jars ready too soon, I fill them with water to prevent the vegetables from browning if necessary.  Once the stew is done, I remove the cooked vegetables and just enough meat for that night’s meal.  The remaining meat is divided up between the prepared jars. (NOTE: if you out water in any of the jars, the should be drained off before adding the meat.)  I then divide up the broth from the roasting process between the jars as well.  If necessary, I will add some beef broth to top off the jars.  The jars should be filled to 1/2″ from the rim.  Wipe off the rims to make sure there is no juice or drippings from the meat on the rims.  Any residue can prevent the lid from getting a proper seal.  Next, add the ring to the jar to hold the lid in place during processing.  Load up your pressure canner and then process the jars while enjoying your dinner.  By the time you are done eating and dinner dishes are being cleared away, the canner will be done processing in most cases.

I don’t have a specific recipe for making this.  My beef stew is different each time I make it, depending on what vegetables I have on hand at the moment.  Use you own favorite recipe.  If you have a recipe that your family enjoys that comes from a favorite cookbook, use it.  Just double the recipe for a canner of pint jars or triple the recipe if using quart jars.

In future posts, I will be sharing some recipes that our family enjoys.  I hope that this series will be one that will bless you in your efforts in building your pantry with healthy wholesome meals for your family.

 

Recycled Containers in the Pantry April 18, 2013

I wanted to share a simple and frugal idea. I saw a great idea on TV while spending a few days with a dear friend a couple of months ago. They showed a family who used 2-liter soda bottles for storing rice. That got me thinking.

With many grains or items like powdered milk, you have to watch out for pantry pests such as weevils. Those little buggers will eat their way through paper packaging to get to the dry goods. Many times I have opened a brand new package of saltine crackers and found that weevils had gotten to them. Same thing has happened with various grains, including rice, flour, and powdered milk. If you store these in bulk amounts, such as a large 4-gallon bucket, you can lose the entire bucket of food if weevils happen to have been in the smaller package purchased at the store. What happens is that the weevil can get into the food at the store or warehouse. When you empty it into a larger bulk container at home, yoou have just contaminated the entire supply. This is where creative storage comes in handy.

I don’t use much soda, but we do use a lot of juice. The juice bottles that we get are flat enough that when laying on their side, you can easily stack them. I am using these for rice, oatmeal, granulated sugar, and any other item small enough to easily pour from the bottle. Things like brown sugar are stored in wide mouth containers such as peanut butter jars. I love the fact that if something gets in one container, it won’t cross-contaminate into the entire supply. Case in point, I had a peanut butter container of grits. Weevils got into it and I was able to toss out that one container instead of all the supply. I purposely will buy the amount of an item needed to fill new containers. Unless it is something like sea salt, I typically won’t add new supply to the previously purchased supply. I am able to better rotate my stock this way as well as lessen the chance of contamination should I get a bad batch from the store. With the amount of juice that we drink, I easily have the ready supply of juice bottles ready to be used.

One new idea that I am going to start doing is to buy a pint container of dried herbs at a time. I have certain dried herbs that I use very often. By buying a pint container worth of the herbs at a time, I can fill a peanut butter jar with the herbs. I purchase my herbs in bulk from a health food store for far less than what a grocery store charges. Once I am able to get the herb garden fully established, I will dry my own herbs instead of buying them. Until then, this is my most economical way of getting the culinary herbs that I need.

What inventive ways do you have for storing your pantry supplies?

 

Wood Stove Canning February 12, 2013

Today, I tried something new that I have avoided. I canned spaghetti sauce and peach jam on the wood stove. I don’t know why I avoided it as long as I have. I used the waterbath method since the sauce didn’t contain large chucks of veggies or meat. It is a basic sauce and I add the veggies & meat when I set it to simmer during meal preparation.

It was so easy to process the sauce. No different than canning on the modern stove. The only true difference is keeping the fire in the firebox hot enough to keep the kettle of water boiling.

I used a large stockpot that was deep enough for processing pint jars. That is the size jar that I use most often, so getting out the large canner made no sense. I placed a small round rack in the bottom of the stockpot to prevent the jars from resting on the bottom of the pot. The stockpot held 7 jars, which is similar to the large waterbath canner.

I set the filled jars into the canner and covered them with water so that the water level was about 2 inches above the jar tops. I used the stockpot lid throughout the processing to help keep the water boiling consistently. I allowed the water to boil for the recommended amount of time in my canning book. When they were done, I lifted the jars from the water to place onto a folded towel. As I lifted them out, I heard that wonderful noise that all home canners listen for – the popping of each jar’s lids as they sealed.

I tried a new idea as I did my canning. I had a large, tall jar of peach jam that was less than half full. It was becoming difficult for our young daughter to remove some jam out when making herself a sandwich. I took out a couple of 1/2 pint size canning jars and filled them with the jam. I had a small amount left over that was placed into another small jar for our daughter to use.

I placed these into the canner along with the 5 pints of spaghetti sauce. The jam sealed wonderfully. If this little experiment works, then I will have yet another way to break down large bulk size containers of food that I buy on sale. In retrospect, that size jar of jam that I had bought would easily have spoiled by the time it would have been used up had I not broke the amount down into smaller jars. We simply don’t go through jam that quickly. This jar was an exception as it was a new flavor for the kids.

If the jam turns out well, then I am going to start watching for the good sales on large containers of jam. It is far cheaper to buy it than to buy the fruit and make your own. I watch closely the ingredients and stay away from high fructose corn syrups and other questionable ingredients. To be able to save extra money this way will sure help the family grocery budget.

 

Pantry Building for the Holidays November 24, 2011

I had an idea just prior to making the holiday dinner preparations.  Instead of just making what we would need for the meal, why not start early and cook double or triple the amount?  It isn’t as silly as it may seem.

I make fresh whole cranberry sauce each year.  I buy the cranberries at a good price so that I can buy extra.  This year, I made the sauce and then canned it up in jars for the pantry.  I have enough for the holiday meals with a bit extra for later.

Sweet potatoes were on sale a month ago.  I purchased 9 pounds of them.  They were peeled, diced, then processed in canning jars.  I ended up with a dozen jars.

An extra turkey was roasted, then deboned.  I removed any skin and placed the meat into canning jars with broth mixed with a bit of water.  Once processed, this gave me jars of cooked turkey to use in recipes this winter.

I home can many of the foods in pint or half-pint jars so that my husband can take them in his truck.  This makes healthier meals than eating truck stop food every day.  It is also much easier on the monthly budget.  Knowing he wouldn’t be home for Thanksgiving, I had an early holiday meal last time he was home.  When he went back on the road, he had all of the fixings for the holiday meal in canning jars to take with him.  In his lunch box cooker, which plugs into a 12 volt outlet in the truck, he is able to fully cook any of the meals.  I sent along some stuffing mix to add to the turkey & broth so that he will have turkey & dressing.  Half pint jars of turkey gravy, some sweet potatoes, and home canned pumpkin round out his meal.  Needless to say, he thinks he is spoiled.  I love spoiling him.  It is my small way to be able to still provide meals for him, even when away from home.

Now that I have seen for myself just how stress-free the canning made my holiday meal preparations, I will be doing this again.  I may take advantage of the season and buy more of the cranberries and other holiday foods while they are on sale.  It is a great way to stock the pantry.