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Food preservation – it makes sense from a survival standpoint

While watching old episodes of Little House on the Prairie (great series if you haven’t seen it before!), something caught my eye that I never had really put too much thought into before. I saw that their sod house out back had baskets of apples and potatoes that just sit there and look to be fine all winter long, yet I struggle to keep apples and potatoes in my house for more than 2-3 weeks without them going bad. Granted this is a TV show, and those apples are probably fake, but it got me thinking about food preservation lately.

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but our ancestors would plant in the spring, grow all summer, harvest in the fall, and then preserve the food in the winter. From a survival perspective, this makes sense. You work hardest during the spring and fall when temperatures are moderate, when it is hot you mostly just let your plants sit there, and then when it is too cold to even go outside you sit inside and work on food preservation. This formula is set up for maximum calorie preservation. You can even go so far of thinking about the fire and heat produced from the canning and other preservation methods blends well with the need to keep the house warm during the winter. I just thought it was a beautiful balance that we may not realize today with tropical fruit shipped in from all over the world every month of the year.

I feel like food preservation is kind of a lost art for many, and most (myself included) were just taught that putting things in the fridge will make them last longer, and putting them in the freezer will make them last even longer. I no longer want to be apart of that crowd though. Call me a rebel, a food preservation rebel! I want to learn how to preserve food without refrigeration like millions before us knew how to do before the invention of the refrigerator. And sure, even on Little House on the Prairie it shows Ma putting some milk in a cold box, and they have the town ice house, but still they knew how to preserve things.

So, smart people of these forums, teach me about food preservation. What kinds are out there? I’m aware of dehydrating and canning, but please teach me about it. What can I preserve using different methods, what gear is involved, how long do things last with each method, etc…

I wanted to get my feet wet in this field, and so I went out and bought a dehydrator. In the comments below, I am going to tell my story of making some homemade beef jerky and some dried blueberries. I want this thread to be mostly teaching me about food preservation, but still wanted to share one of my successes! 

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  • Comments (40)

    • 6

      4

      For the beef jerky, I started out by using 2 pounds beef round steak cut into thin strips and marinated it in a Ziploc bag over night. Here is my marinade recipe:

      • ¼ cup soy sauce
      • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
      • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
      • 2 teaspoons salt
      • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
      • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
      • 1 teaspoon onion powder
      • 1 teaspoon paprika

      1

      You then take your marinade mixture and place it in a pan and add water until it is covered. Bring your meat strips and water to a boil for 5 minutes and then strain the water out and get your strips as dry as possible. Then place your strips in your dehydrator.

      I also wanted to try something other than just meat, and saw blueberries were on sale, so I bought some of those. For the blueberries I rinsed them off and then added them to a pot of boiling water for 1 minute and then dunked them into an ice bath to crack the shells. (my shells didn’t seem to crack though) dry off and place in the dehydrator.

      2

      This all was based off of the booklet that came with my dehydrator. I used the $40 Presto Dehydro electric food dehydrator

      How did it turn out? Great! For a first timer.

      The book did warn that if I cooked the meat strips before dehydrating, it would cut down on the dehydrating time, but would make the jerky crispier. And although crispy isn’t my favorite, it still was pretty good. I think next time I’m going to cook it after I dehydrate them though.

      The jerky took 4 hours to dehydrate.

      3

      The blueberries were in there for 7 hours. It was funny how they would shrink in size as the moisture was sucked out of them and they would get smaller. Occasionally I would hear a little thud and it was the shrinking blueberries getting too small for the mesh screen and dropping through to a bottom level. I stopped the blueberries at 7 hours (I wanted to go to bed and not have to watch them). Some were really small and dried completely, others were perfect and had the consistency of a raisin, and the really big ones were still a bit juicy.

      I wish I could share my spoils with you all! They both really turned out delicious!

      Lessons learned!:

      1. I will cook my jerky after dehydrating next time
      2. Cut the extra fat off of the meat strips before marinating or dehydrating
      3. Sort the blueberries by size next time so that the small ones can be taken out when they are done, and the others can stay in there longer
      4. My bedroom (where my computer is) was cold that day, so I put the dehydrator in there with me when I was messing around on the computer and it really warmed up the room. Another great reason to preserve in the winter and double as a space heater instead of mid summer when it is already too hot.
      5. And while it probably is cheaper and so much easier to just go buy a bag of dehydrated blueberries and a pack of jerky, this was a much healthier option (no added sugars, no weird stuff), and I feel pride that I can preserve my food a little bit better.
      • 2

        I have only made Jerky once, I’m not a fan to be honest. Friends in the USA who make a lot of it gave a a few bits of advice, the one that I found most useful was to part freeze your joint of meat to firm it up to make it easier to slice thinly.  

      • 2

        Just thought I’d post a quick picture of the Leeks I dehydrated yesterday.

        IMG_20210216_113305

        A Kilo of leeks in a jar.

      • 3

        Gorgeous Linnet! How much can you dehydrate at one time?

      • 3

        I have a 4 tray Excalibur, it all depends on what I’m dehydrating, but to put it in context I can dry a kilo bag of frozen peas in one sitting. Frozen veg are great for dehydrating. No preparation!  

      • 2

        Thank you for the info, Linnet. I’m smacking my forehead – I never thought of using frozen veg for dehydrating! It would be so much simpler! Frozen veg are just as nutritious. I use them all the time, especially in winter and always have them on hand in my deep freezer. They’re cost effective, too.

      • 3

        It takes out a lot of tears dehydrating bags of frozen onion!

        Onions, Peas, Sweetcorn and mixed veg (with diced carrot) work best. Once dried a kilo of any of the above will fit in a pint canning jar. 

        I like to dry Grated and sliced potatoes, They are very handy to make quick hash browns or a gratin.

        The best time saving thing to dry is cooked beans! I don’t know about you, but I’m really bad at remembering to soak beans to use in a recipe. Again a 500g bag of cooked, dried beans will fill my dehydrator.

      • 2

        Brilliant timing Linnet! I was about to add dried beans back into my preps again and now I can dehydrate them. Thank you!

        I had switched over to canned beans only because I received an old batch of dried beans from a bulk food store. They were so old I couldn’t hydrate them to the point of being at all edible. I was very wary of purchasing food that might not be edible in a crisis (or in the best of times, too).

        I really want to build variety into my pantry as to how the food is preserved. This is great.

        Also to be able to dry potatoes is wonderful. It will really help prevent food fatigue in a crisis.

        I meant to ask you, how long is your storage time with this type of preservation?

        Thank you so much for the info, very appreciated, Linnet. 

      • 2

        I don’t use any special method, just store in a canning jar in the dark. I get 2 years or so like this. In the past I have used oxygen absorbers and to be honest, I found no difference in the keeping qualities. 

        I do use my dehydrated foods day to day so I’m constantly rotating them anyway.

        Bad prepper that I am, I don’t do long term food storage, I prefer to rotate. However, I do eat what I store.

      • 2

        Rotation is a sensible approach. I think it is a way to stay more mindful of how our pantries are stocked. I believe we have to eat what we store or it won’t serve us well in a crisis, which can be the pitfall of longer storage practices.

        Good to know about using the oxygen absorbers versus not using them. I use them in my pails of brown rice and oats. Brown rice isn’t supposed to keep as long as mine, but I believe it does keep well more to the cool conditions in my basement. I need to replace my oxy stabilizers because mine are quite old (now who is the bad prepper?)

    • 11

      Homesteadingfamily.com is a great site for food preservation. Also, if you live in the US, you should check with your county extension office. They have lots of resources for learning food preservation. If you want to get into canning, start small. For ex. I started with apple butter and I was very pleased with how it turned out. 

      The time frame for canning is going to be very different depending on your location. Most food will need to be preserved as soon as it’s picked.  I live in East Texas. Our harvest comes in late spring/ early summer. Therefore, it’s normally very hot when we’re canning and standing over a stove with all the burners going full blast is pretty uncomfortable. But we really have enjoyed home canned goodies this winter! 

      I haven’t tried dehydrating yet,  but I love jerky so I may have to give it a try. Good luck!

      • 6

        I’ve never heard of a county extension office before, but one quick Google search later and I found mine!

        I love their mission statement: “Providing trusted, practical education to help you solve problems, develop skills and build a better future.

        So far i’m very impressed with the programs they are offering (although it looks like many are shut down because of covid). I do like that they have a section called Plant Diagnosis where you can contact them and have their help identifying plants. That’s a skill i’d love to learn, I want to learn what wild edibles are around me.

      • 4

        Hi Robert, I found a few titles for you that may be helpful:

        Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods [Thomas S. Elias & Peter A Dykeman]

        Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt to Plate [John Kallas]

        Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants [Bradford Angier]

        You might also be able to locate books on Indigenous food gathering and growing for your area by speaking with people from those communities also.

      • 1

        WOW! Thank you so much Ubique. Those look like great resources 🙂

        -Be Prepared-

      • 5

        I can’t imagine canning in Texas during the summer! 

        But thanks for the link to that website. I’ve bookmarked it and am going to be spending the next few days reading a ton!

    • 7

      On our farmstead, we water bath can our fruits & berries, mainly as jams & jellies as well as apple butter.  Have done a pit of pickling, mainly our fresh eggs.  However, if it came down to needing to preserve food to survive, canning would be difficult for most because it would require a tremendous amount of jars & lids.  Most folks don’t keep a fraction of what would be needed to preserve all the food you would need over a long winter.

      My strategy for large scale food preservation is to grow foods as done by the native Americans.  The three sisters (field corn, pole beans & winter squash) can be eaten fresh but all can be left in the field to dry naturally and can store over the winter without much additional resources.  Other foods such as our apples, could be dehydrated but in a survival situation, I doubt a small electric dehydrator would do much good (we have around 150 trees).  You might not have electricity.  In the old days in the south, apples & other farm produce would be dried on the metal roof of a building.  It would be the small kids job to get up there and keep turning the slices over.  Another way to preserve fruit such as apples or grapes is to make into cider or wine, and then even process that into vinegar.   Jerky can be made in bulk over an outdoor wood fire.

      I suggest preppers practice methods of growing & preserving your food naturally without electricity and modern conveniences.

      • 4

        I love your suggestion of growing and preserving your food without electricity and modern conveniences. As that is pretty much why i’m getting into this kind of work, I wanna eat when the power’s out.

        Can you tell me more about your egg pickling? What are the steps to that? How long do they last? Do they taste all vinegary?

      • 6

        Since your title states from a survival standpoint, you have to change your way of thinking.  As opposed to trying to figure out what food to grow & how to preserve it over the winter, I decided to do as our forefathers did… to include the native Americans.  They let their corn dry in the field then put it up in corn cribs to store until the next year.  The beans can be shelled & stored in plastic pails.  Most winter squash stores fine as long as it doesn’t freeze.  I recommend reading Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden to see how the native Americans handled this issue.

        Well the eggs are pickled, so yes they taste vinegary. Anything you pickle will taste that way. In a refrigerator, they stay good for around 4 months, but mine never stay that long. 🙂

        I hard boil a dozen large eggs & peel. I also boil a 1 qt canning jar until sterile.  Then in a pot I boil for 5 minutes 1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup water, 1 Tbs Kosher salt, 1/2 cup sugar & 1 Tbs pickling spice.  Put the eggs in the jar & fill with your liquid.   Refrigerate and start tasting after around 5 days or so.  By that time they should start tasting right.  Some folks like their eggs tinted pink.  If so reduce the vinegar to 1 cup and add 1/2 cup pickled beet juice.  You can play around with spices you like.  Not unusual to see sliced onion and peppers in there.

        clear

        red

      • 4

        Thank you so much for sharing! That doesn’t look too hard at all. 

        My family ran out of eggs in our fridge today and no one felt well enough to run to the store to get some. It would have been great to just pull a jar out that we canned months ago. 

        And yes, I’ve been hearing you talk about the three sister plants in a couple of these forum threads. I’m super intrigued into learning more about that, cause it must have worked well for them over the hundreds of years they have lived here. I’ll check out that book you recommended. Thanks again!!

      • 6

        You are welcome.  When it comes to the three sisters, the categories are rather broad.  There are lots of varieties of each of the sisters, so I strongly suggest testing out some & finding what works best for your situation & climate.  For me, I use Trucker’s Favorite field corn, Rattlesnake pole beans & generally Seminole pumpkins.  Seminole pumpkins are great for folks living in warm, humid climates but I find pretty much any winter squash stores well for me.

      • 4

        I preserve a good deal of our home grown food too. Like yourself I make a fair bit of jam and water bath any fruit I can come by.

        I used to pickle a lot, but I have found as I get older, vinegar pickles don’t agree with me. 

        I love making fermented coleslaw though and this year I am going to try fermenting other types of pickles, never really done this so it could all go horribly wrong. 

    • 6

      I make a lot of fruit leather. All the recipes I use are on the Excalibur website here

      My favourite are Pina Colada and Apple Pie recipes. They are a healthy alternative to sweets or candy if, like me you have a sweet tooth! 

      • 4

        I checked out those recipes on that site, and it looks easier than I thought it would be.

    • 6

      I think what we perhaps need to remember is that houses were a lot cooler and probably had quite a bit of unintentional ventilation. Root cellars were the norm. I always think of the root cellar in the film ‘The Searchers’ 

      Here in the UK the country estates had brick built cold houses to store their produce, just a glorified root cellar really. 

      These days, I’ve made a very good root cellar from burying a dustbin and then storing what I want in smaller containers within the buried bin. I got this idea from Alys Fowler and have used it with great success.

      • 5

        That sounds like a smart idea that even people with not very large yards can do. So is the dustbin underground up until the top lip of the bin? And then you just put the lid on the top to seal it?

        Have you ever put a thermometer inside to see what the temperature is compared to outside?

        What kind of things do you store in there?

      • 1

        To be honest it never occurred to me to put a thermometer in there, doh! When I get the next one dug, I will.

        I stored carrots, beetroot and apples as that’s what I had needing storage. 

        I have Alys Fowler’s book ‘Abundance’ which goes into a bit more detail.

        I would certainly recommend it as a beginners preserving book. 

        Here is a bit about it in one of her articles in the Guardian.

        Alys Fowler: winter’s coming.

    • 7

      Back in July, I had a bag of blueberries that were on the verge of going bad. Many of them had gotten soft and had broken open, leaking juice all over the bag. I simply placed them on a cookie sheet and cooked them at 175F in the oven for a few hours. I baked them until they looked like rabbit pellets, and then I stored them in a Mason jar. It’s February now and they still look good!

      IMG_0320

    • 2

      I bought a 50 pound bag of Jasmine rice from Costco yesterday. How do you guys recommend storing it?

      It is in one of those plastic woven bags and doesn’t look airtight. I’m not going for 25 year long storage, but just to keep it as fresh as possible until we eat it all. I was thinking about buying some mylar bags and oxygen absorbers and splitting the bag into those. That way if we need to fill up our rice jar, we won’t have to lift a 50 pound bag to pour into the jar and can just rip open one of the mylar bags.

      Are the oxygen absorbers overkill if i’m not going for long term storage and will probably use them in the next 5 years or so?

      rice

    • 4

      Old House Girl gave great advice. The extension info is up to date and a great guide. I have also used information from the Human Sciences (used to be called Home Economics) departments of Universities and Colleges.

      I have old cookbooks from my grandmother, but I can’t use some of the canning recipes as times have changed. One of my books talks about canning fish in a oven. That is so dangerous and not recommended. Even with a pressure canner, canning fish is not recommended.

      So the information the extension services will give you will be up to date for what are safe methods and recipes for our times.

      One other point that might help out is to never substitute or change the proportions of a canning recipe. It can change the safety of the recipe. For example, have you ever noticed how the expiry date of low-sodium or low sugar canned products is not the same as their full sodium or sugar counterparts? It is because the salt and sugar are preservatives and reducing their amounts will affect the preservation of the product.

      Using fresh, ripe but not overripe produce is also important. 

      Last point, storage of canned goods is very impacted by temperature. Even a few degrees can make a huge difference to the life span of any canned good. I use my unfinished basement for storage. It doesn’t freeze, but is definitely a cold area.

      Good for you for learning new skills, Alisa. You can do it.

      • 3

        Thanks for your kind words of encouragement Ubique. I sure am excited to learn more. 

        So storing your canned goods in as cold of temps (but not freezing) is recommended? That makes sense. 

        And I’m glad you said something about the low sugar. I’ve seen my grandma can fruit before and was surprised how much sugar she put in. I thought I could just use less and it wouldn’t harm anything and be a healthier option, but glad you taught me otherwise.

      • 3

        Hi Alisa; It is strange how food is canned at high heat, yet storage at higher temperature is not good for shelf life. UMN extension recommends canned goods be stored in a clean, cool, dry place at between 50-70 F and below 85 F.  

        I also use a dehumidifer in my basement to keep the humidity down around food items.

        It’s amazing how much sugar was used. There are recipes for diabetic jams, and now that I think of it, freezer jam. It is a bit runnier from what I understand, but still tasty.

        Canned tomatoes are a good starter project because they are acidic and a safer item to can. Pickles are a nice way to ease into canning, too. 

        Learning new skills is really a fun and wonderful part of prepping. If you make jam or jelly, then there is the fun of making bread to go with it.

        By the way, I like your jerky recipe and plan to give it a try. Thank you for sharing it.

    • 4

      I have tried them all. The best, albeit the most expensive method is freeze drying. Technically known as sublimation, freezing food, rewarming it in a vacuum, and storing it in an oxygen depleted environment eliminates the need for refrigeration, and is said to preserve meats, fruits, vegetables, and even milk for up to 25 years. I cook before freeze drying, and only need water and maybe some heat to warm and the taste and nutrient preservation is incredible. Harvest Right makes the machines and can provide all the needed bags, oxygen absorbing packets, and the instruction about how it is done. As a hunter, this method has allowed me to long term preserve precious and tasty venison, wild pork, vegetables, and fish for consumption later. I spent about $4,000 for the initial setup, but the equipment will last many years with proper care. What do you think?

      • 3

        Dr. Mac – I think it is a brilliant idea. If a person could properly and safely freeze dry food, that would solve many food storage and cooking issues. $4,000 is a bigger investment for a prep item, however, the cost could be shared between family members or a group of prepper friends. It would be an investment that would pay off in a big way considering how much money you could save by making your own freeze dried foods v.s. buy commercial brands.

        Thank you very much for writing about this. I have Harvest Right bookmarked and will explore their webside later.

      • 3

        Happy to contribute.  And yes, I share this appliance with our prepper group and all have benefited from its use.  Clearly one of the best long-term investments I have ever made.

      • 1

        My great uncle bought a freeze dryer and I’ve heard that he absolutely loves it. He is a big gardener, and spends so much time freeze drying all of his produce. 

        Just like Ubique, I think it is a brilliant idea to get a freeze dryer and personally would love one. I think it would get more use for those who hunt (like yourself) and big time gardeners. The average joe (like me right now) who isn’t one of those probably wouldn’t get the most use out of one though.

      • 2

        Robert, if you wanted, you could freeze dry store bought meat and produce. Then you could use it for regular meals and the surplus for emergency food.

        It is an investment on the front end, but I’ve been turning over in my mind and it wouldn’t take long to pay for itself. The cost could be shared between family and friends if sharing the unit was an option.

    • 1

      You are making me hungry! Thanks for sharing that recipe Alisa. What are some other things you can use a dehydrator for?

      • 4

        Well, you can dehydrate various vegetables and fruit.

        One thing i’ve tried in the past is to make my own soup mixes. I took sweet potatoes, onions, and carrots and dehydrated them until they were bone dry. Then you mix them in a food processor and make them into a fine powder. When you want to make some soup, boil some water and add a scoop or two of the various dried powders. 

        You can also make these dried powders to sprinkle a bit of extra nutrients on various foods.

      • 2

        What a great idea! It’s perfect for so many conditions and situations. It makes so much sense to do this.

        Thank you so much.

      • 1

        @dragoon thanks for the great suggestion. I think i’d like to make some strawberry or raspberry powder that I can then sprinkle onto yogurt or ice cream. 

    • 1

      Hi Alisa,

      I found a link that might be helpful for you re food storage. Apples and potatoes shouldn’t be stored close together. Apples give off ethylene gas which affects other produce.

      For example, if I want to ripen bananas quickly, I put apples beside them.

      Here’s the link: How to store vegetables and fruit