Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lessons from the Larder

As we approach our second anniversary living out here in the middle of nowhere, without refrigeration and easy access to supermarkets, I thought I'd pass on a few things we've learned about our food storage planning.

Dehydrated food saves a lot of space and weight -- BUT -- it takes a lot of time and water to rehydrate. The beans and veggies are the worst*, so you really do have to plan ahead much further than you'd expect to make them even vaguely chewable. If you don't get them rehydrated and cooked down enough they will seriously mess up your guts! Dried grains and fruit are much less of a problem. Dried meat, unless it's jerky or meant to be eaten in its "dry" state (like salami), is also a bit of a problem and never really gets the right texture back... this can really upset your tummy.

* However, dried beans and veggies are AWESOME if you grind them down into powder/flour to add to recipes. They rehydrate almost instantly and add a lot of flavor and extra nutrients to just about any dish.

My tummy does NOT like canned meat chunks AT ALL. Maybe it's the double (or triple) cooking that's the problem, but the only way I can seem to tolerate canned meats is if its been ground down to a paste (like the Underwood sandwich spreads) or I mix in a whole lot of mayo to make it a cold salad (chicken & tuna). So, it looks like we're going to have to adjust our pantry inventory to have most of the meat frozen except for canned meals that contain meat (like chili, soups & stew) or spreads.

Canned beans are gazillion times easier to cook with than dried beans, and they don't bother my tummy as much. So I think what I'll have to do is pre-cook and can a bunch plain/seasoned beans & bean dishes (chili, baked beans, refried beans, pea soup) from the dried bean stores every few months and keep those in the pantry ready-to-eat. I think we'll eat more beans, and suffer less, that way while still keeping the long shelf life and making the most of our space. Sure, we're essentially storing water... but we have to do that anyway, better it's in the food making it edible than just sitting in a jug where it will take hours and hours to make that food edible were it dehydrated.

Some stuff keeps so long in it's natural state, that keeping large canned or dried stores is nearly pointless. Potatoes*, onions, garlic and cabbage come to the top of the list. I'm going to drastically reduce the amount of those things that I can or dehydrate, maybe only 3 months worth instead of a year, and invest in some good storage bins for properly keeping the whole food usable instead. Even if we don't get the garden in, a bulk bag of potatoes or onions can easily keep for 3-6 months between grocery trips.

*However, dried potatoes do have their uses! First & foremost... if you blanch, then dehydrate your potatoes and grind them into a flour/meat you have your own instant mashed potatoes, can add them to breads as a flour, and use them in soups & stews as a thickener. Also, if you slice and boil your taters until they are al dente (mostly cooked, but still a little crispy), then dehydrate them, you can make your own Better Crocker-style "box meals". Make a pre-measured sauce mix from your dry ingredients (powdered milk, cheese powder, sour cream powder), put that into an envelope or baggy, scoop some dried potato slices into a quart jar or vac-bag, put the sauce mix and preparation instructions in, and then dry-can/vac it... voila! Potatoes au gratin in a few minutes, not thought required, just add water!  Bake a thin layer of "instant" mashed potatoes on a cookie sheet and you have passable Pringles, or bake/flash fry your dried and seasoned potato slices and you have really crispy chips without a lot of grease (works with other veggies too!). And, of course, dried onion & garlic can always be ground down into a powder to use as a seasoning rather than a veg.

We go through WAY more sugar and butter than any of the calculators tell you to stock up. No, we're not eating butter and sugar sandwiches or baking lots of cookies and candies. Our climate and activity level require about twice as many calories than your typical RDA and one of the easiest ways to add calories is with sugar and fat (we eat a lot more cheese than "recommended" too). Our sugar consumption is mostly in beverages since it's easy to slam down a couple hundred instant calories in a liquid... coffee, tea and hot chocolate are all made with a healthy dose of sugar and cream/milk, and then there's powdered drink mixes (like Tang, Kool-Aid, lemonade and Gatorade) since we don't always have access to fruit juices fresh or in concentrate (have to learn to make & can them eventually). Did you know that you can make pretty decent sno-cones with real snow and a syrup made from drink mix? YUP, it's tasty!  But anyway, we had to adjust our inventory to include double or triple the amount of sugar, honey, butter, milk and cheese... while, oddly, we barely have much of the dessert/treat things like cake, frosting, pudding, gelatin, cookies & candy.

Portions become really important when you can't refrigerate your leftovers. Most canned goods come in 12-16 oz cans; which is just about right for two people in one meal... if that's the only thing we're eating. But, if you're making a recipe that calls for several ingredients (like stew), or you feel like having peas and corn, you're going to end up with way more food than two people can eat in a sitting, and probably end up with more than you want to end up eating for the next several meals until you finally finish it (or it spoils and the dog gets it). So you either need space in the freezer or plan to can the remainder. G can eat a pint/can of soup or chili or hash all by himself, I normally can only eat about a cup.... so a pint is too little and a quart is too much. All this gets to be factored in when I start cooking and canning my own stuff instead of relying on commercial canned goods. A quart of ready-meal is probably a good size, since I'm likely to come back in an hour or so to finish off that last cup (I don't have as much problem eating the same thing more than once in a day/row). We'll need to can pints of veggies we like to eat by themselves, but we're also either going to have to can 1/2 pints of them, or can up medleys in pints, so we can use them in cooking better... or I have to figure out how to sneak in that other half jar of peas into the next meal in a completely new and interesting way LOL.

In the summer, we can store all the canned foods we want in the shed since it doesn't get hot... this is awesome for canning up the garden harvest. In the winter, we can store all the frozen food we want in the shed since it never gets above zero. The problem comes in during the transition months on either end, and making sure that we have enough room in the pantry (and eventual root cellar) for all the canned goods during winter and all the frozen foods in the tiny DC freezer during the summer (or cook and can like a mad fiend before it gets warm and everything thaws!). It's a careful balancing act... but at least it means we keep our food rotated since we basically shift our entire stock twice a year!

So there are a few things we've noticed while tracking our food inventory, and hopefully it'll give you all a few things to think about with your own food storage plans. All the calculators and recommendations are just starting points, you really have to keep your own inventories and records so you understand exactly what and how your family eats, so that you can tailor an inventory and plan that works perfectly for you. While you're mulling that over, I'm going to go find out where I can safely stash 500 lbs of sugar :D

Oh yeah - forgot to mention... if you don't like something, or you don't eat a lot of something, or you have an allergy or intolerance to something, or you don't have a recipe to hide something you don't like... DON'T STORE OR PLANT IT, no matter what the recommendations are! We don't have nearly the recommended amounts of peanut products (G - allergy), or whole egg powders (G uses more powdered yolk because of white protein allergy, and I use more powdered white because of yolk sulfur intolerance), or wheat & wheat flours (I have a mild/moderate gluten intolerance so we use other grains for at least half), or soy products (G - allergy, and we both have to avoid texturized soy protein like the plague!), or chocolate products (G - allergy), and neither of us can eat mangoes or eggplant, nor do we particularly care for some of the fruits/veg/grains that are always highly recommended in most survival pantry and garden lists. If you can't or aren't going to eat it, don't waste your time, money and space on it!


becky3086 said...

When I first started canning, I canned all sorts of things and then later realized we really wouldn't eat some of it, those things are now off the list to be canned. I also only dehydrate the things that I will actually use in dehydrated form. I found your idea of grinding it up into a powder and adding it to food a pretty wonderful idea.
I keep my canned food in a cupboard in the house here in GA, it really does not stay very cool but does fine.
I would love to have my shed be my freezer. THat would be SO helpful! lol.

Plickety Cat said...

Being able to can up a ton of stuff through the harvest season and not have to worry about rearranging your pantry shelves until a little later when things calm down in the garden is a blessing. There's no way I could leave all that in a shed during the summer when I lived in the Carolinas! Heck, I probably wouldn't leave too many of the dried foods out there either since they'd degrade in the heat.

But having Nature provide you with a free sub-zero freezer at least 4 months of the year, conveniently right around hunting season, is a truly beautiful thing. Especially when you consider that there is no way we could get a whole moose into our tiny 5cu freezer... forget anything else we wanted to keep in there. However, having a case of soda freeze up and explode in the shed because you didn't get it out before a cold snap... not so beautiful! LOL

We normally get weather just right to give us enough time to dress and hang the moose while it's cool during the day and freezing at night, and then it starts freezing up completely.

Of course, all the salmon comes in during the dog-days of summer; but we can make the salmon fillets and steaks fit in smaller and tighter spaces than a moose roast or rack of ribs. But there's that 2-3 week danger area in the fall when the hunt is in and needs to get frozen, the freezer is full of salmon and berries/veg, and it's not quite cold enough during the day to freeze the meat. That's when big coolers and lots of ice come in handy!

When we get our livestock, we'll be able to space out the chickens and rabbits a little to keep eating fresh and frozen without too much pain; but I think the sheep, goats & weaner pigs might take some planning. Especially the hogs since they'll be coming up right about the same time as the moose unless we wait until hard freeze to slaughter them... but butchering a hog when it's below freezing just doesn't sound like tons of fun. We might have to cave in and buy the 8cu freezer that matches, so the big freezer is just for meat and the 5cu freezer is for everything else. But we can at least unplug the big freezer most of the summer, and unplug them both in the winter :)

Drying and grinding is a great way to use up and hide stuff... like the 5 bushels of zucchini you couldn't give away! You can even make your own instant V8 juice powder and colored pastas (tomato, beet, spinach & carrot work great for that).

Anonymous said...

With the installation of about 2100 sq ft of hooped garden this year, winds kill us to leave much without covering, we hope to be doing a lot of 'putting up' of things. The idea of doing some of our own 'pastes' will get me doing some reasearch.
We can totally unplug our freezer but can keep it on a timer for only 3-4 hours at most a day of running.
We are also looking to move to a mostly DC system if the new RE battery/windmill/solar system comes through.
Like you there is still lots of 'learning' when living off-grid. Thanks for the ideas!!