One of the most important things to realize about any off-grid food preservation strategy is that food storage doesn’t mean suspended animation, although I do have some bacon I the shed that might challenge that assertion. Preservation techniques allow us to extend the time period through which we can safely consume and enjoy our harvest and historically have allowed agrarian peoples to avoid the cycle of gorging during times of plenty and starving during lean times. Some techniques are short term, giving us a few extra days to a couple of weeks. Some are intermediate, allowing us to maintain food quality for up to several months. And some of long term methods by which we can store food for a year or more.
Here on Big Turtle Creek our primary method of food preservation is canning. Though not as romantic as some of the older methods like curing or fermentation, canning allows us to store large quantities of food dependably, long term. Though there is an initial cost outlay, there are ways to decrease the expense. Pressure canners can serve for both pressure canning and water bath canning and can be purchased used and easily refurbished if needed. We buy low pressure 1/8” thread replacement gauges at the local oilfield supply at a much lower cost than from the canner manufacturers. This year we invested in a quantity of re-usable canning lids and gaskets which we find are working well for most of our needs. (Look for a future post on canning with re-usable lids.) Jars are the biggest expense outlay. They can be purchased second-hand, but this isn’t always the best economy as you don’t know how many times they’ve been used, how they’ve been treated, etc. We do have some hand-me-down jars but our main supply was purchased new. I advise to always buy brand-name American-made jars, Ball or Kerr. Fuel usage is also a consideration when canning. In the summer we can outside using propane. For years I canned on a Coleman camp stove with good results for both water bath and pressure cannoing though it is a bit trickier than propane. Next on the tricky scale is canning on our wood cook stove which I’m learning now. And finally, I’ve even canned over an open fire though I wouldn’t recommend it for the inexperienced. Canned foods can fit well in a preparedness plan as they’re pre-cooked requiring only a quick 10 minute boil for pressure canned items and they embody a certain amount of water automatically stockpiled with the food itself.
Drying food is the second main technique we use here on Big Turtle Creek. Drying was probably the first food preservation method used by man and can be accomplished using low-tech procedures and little or no fuel depending on climate and time of year. In the summer we use our greenhouses as giant dehydrators. Most years this works beautifully. In fall and winter the wood cookstove provides a great place to dry food. Right now we’re drying our fall crop of paprika and hot peppers which we’ll grind for seasoning. Some will be smoked as well for a gourmet touch. Recently we found a 3-tier screen mesh hanging bag on a frame at the Oriental grocery store. By mounting a pulley in the rafters and a cleat on the wall we can dry things like herbs up and out of the way in the warm dry air that accumulates near the ceiling. Advantages to drying food include less space required for storage, portability and long shelf life.
Curing and cold-smoking meat is the third leg of our food preservation strategy. Cured smoked meat isn’t generally a long-term storage method, especially in the south, but certainly can extend the time the meat harvest can be enjoyed into the late spring and early summer. I would call it an intermediate method. One treat we really look forward to each year is cured and smoked venison loin. We generally use a dry salt/sugar cure and keep a good supply of Morton’s Sugar Cure on hand. Most of our smoking is done over pecan or oak though we’ve recently started adding just a tiny bit of cedar at the beginning of the smoking period. Yes, I know, that’s taboo and we’d never considered cedar for smoking until I was visiting with an elderly home health patient one day. The conversation turned to barbecue and I asked her what kind of wood she preferred. The said without blinking an eye, “cedar.” In playing around with it we’ve discovered that you don’t want to use too much but just a few sticks of cedar added at the beginning of smoking adds a really nice complex flavor. We keep at least 100 pounds of salt in storage for our curing needs.
Fermentation is certainly popular right now and definitely has a place in a well-rounded food preservation plan. Fermentation in my experience is only a short to intermediate term method of preserving food without refrigeration depending on the temperature but is an excellent way to boost both flavor and nutrition in the diet. Sauerkraut is our big ferment (we can it once it’s done) and we do a few pickles in the summer. Currently I’m fermenting both red and green tabasco peppers as the first step to homemade Tabasco sauce. We don’t use air-locks or any special equipment and have had better luck using gasketed metal lids (canning jar lids) as opposed to plastic storage lids for our ferments. The gasketed lids seem to serve as their own airlock and we get less mold when using them. They will eventually degrade under the acid conditions of fermentation and need to be monitored. Our re-usable plastic canning lids with separate gaskets seemed like a perfect solution to this problem but we have found that if any of the acidic liquid gets under the metal ring the plastic lid will etch at that point. It would be nice if someone would make a plastic ring to go with the plastic lids specifically for fermentation use. Similar to fermentation is the old method of storing vegetables in a strong salt brine. We’ve had good luck with preserving green beans this way.
Right now our root cellar is more accurately a really big hole under the house, but even in an unfinished state we’ve been able to begin studying and learning about the process. We keep a remote thermometer in there and in the heat of summer (100+ degree days) the temperature peaks in the mid-70’s. In the winter we see about 55 degrees and right now it’s 65 degrees. Most of those temperatures are too high for traditional root cellaring and seem to be fairly average for cellars this far south. We hope to see some cooler temperatures once we get the cellar finished out and insulated from above. Most resources we’ve read have been geared to the northern homesteader who needs to keep produce from freezing in the winter, but almost every root cellar vegetable (carrots, turnips, cabbage) can be stored right in the garden in this part of the country. So, what is a root cellar good for in the south? Wine, vinegar, extra medications, herbal tinctures, fermenting, a cool dark place to sit in August, a place to hide from tornadoes.
We keep dairy goats and milk plays a big part in our diet. With two does giving one to two gallons a day between them producing dairy products is a large part of my kitchen work for 10 months out of the year. I make quite a bit of cheese, both fresh and aged along with yogurt and kefir. Summer is challenging because of the heat and yeast and I’m focused on learning techniques from the hot weather dairy regions of the world (the Middle East, Africa, the Mediterranean, Mexico). When we have aged cheese that begins to dry out or is leftover when milking begins anew I grate it and dry it completely to use in place of Parmesan. Before the goats are dried off in the winter in preparation for kidding I can enough milk for our cooking needs for an 8 to 10 week period along with several jars of cajeta (goat’s milk caramel)
The majority of our meat is canned though as I discussed above we do quite a bit of curing and smoking. When we don’t have pigs we purchase uncured side meat from the Oriental grocery store for around $2.40/pound to make our bacon. When we butcher livestock or harvest a deer we can a variety of cuts including stew chunks, ground meat and sausage. We can bacon, ham and corned meat as well along with liver and heart, a variety of sandwich spreads and convenience items like a base mix for dirty rice and chili.
I’m beginning to explore producing and using dried fish and if I can get it I like nothing more than canned carp. A “trash fish”, yes, but canned it tastes just like salmon and a much better price.
We’re working towards producing more of these staples here on our homestead focusing on wheat, corn, sorghum, millet and southern peas. We store quite a bit of pinto beans and rice. Most of this category is stored dry including homemade bulghur wheat though having a few jars of canned beans and peas in the pantry helps with a quick meal.
Fats are vital to a food plan and they really aren’t hard to store. We “can” both lard and butter using smaller jars for the summer when they go rancid more quickly after opening.
When we start to drown in eggs we pickle them. I’ve experimented with some of the old methods of egg storage like lime/salt solution but haven’t been impressed enough with the results to make storing them a priority. Here in the south our hens lay practically all year anyway.
Pecans and walnuts grow wild here and shelled they dry-can well.
I utilize left-over bread by drying cubes or crumbs. Either form keeps well in a tightly covered jar for months in my experience.
We can and dry apples, peaches and pears and forage each year for wild plums, grapes and persimmons. After we’ve put up our supply of jams, jellies and syrups the remainder of the fruit goes into wine and vinegar. This year I’ll be experimenting with drying persimmons for use in baking.
Condiments like mustard and ketchup were invented as ways to preserve food. We keep homemade mustard and tomato ketchup without refrigeration with no problems whatsoever. (Jams and jellies tend to mold) . I preserve spring morel mushrooms and fall puffballs as mushroom ketchup and want to try my hand at walnut ketchup if I can remember to pick them at the right time next summer. We started making mushroom ketchup since our morels are always full of fine grit that’s impossible to get out. The fall puffballs also dry beautifully and make a potent mushroom powder for seasonoing. My first attempt at soy sauce is almost ready to bottle and we make a pretty fair Tabasco sauce as well.
And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. 1 Ti 6:8