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Living Without Refrigeration

Updated on December 1, 2014

Living Off The Grid

Living Without Electricity
Living Without Electricity

Living Without Refrigeration

Refrigeration, like the ability to produce ice at will, is a fairly recent event in human history so how did our ancestors keep food fresh and edible without these modern wonders? Believe it or not, it is possible and you are about to learn how to do it by using the same techniques that we have been using since the dawn of time. These techniques are perfect for homesteaders, liveaboards or anyone that just wants to live naturally and off the grid.

Historical Techniques For Keeping Food

Living Like Ancient Man
Living Like Ancient Man

Storing Food Without Electricity

Today we cannot remember a time when refrigeration did not exist and probably have never given much thought to how our ancestors were able to store food without such a modern convenience. Fortunately, some people have kept these practices and traditions alive until this day and I am going to pass them along to you. If you want to live off the grid, reduce your carbon footprint, become a homesteader or, like me, you simply live on a boat that has no refrigeration, these techniques will become invaluable to you.

Not Caning or Pickling

To be absolutely clear, I am not talking about preserving foods by using either the canning or pickling methods. While some people think that canning and pickling are the same thing, they are not. Canning is the processing of fruits or vegetables in jars in a special canner that heats the jars and the contents so that bacteria are killed. Pickling, on the other hand, is the process of putting veggies in a solution, usually salt, vinegar, sugar and spices to make them into a 'pickled' version of themselves e.g. pickles are actually cucumbers that have been put through this process.

I am not going to talk about either of these. I am going to teach you how to store food in such a way that it just lasts longer.

About Refrigeration

I think most of us know that, while fruits and vegetables don't need to be refrigerated, putting them in the fridge does retard the ripening process. However, what you might not have considered is that this is the exact opposite of what we usually want when we buy foods from our local grocery store. A good example of this is that tomatoes will quickly lose their taste of you keep them in a refrigerator.

Storing Eggs

Having grown up on a farm in rural Australia I know first hand that eggs will last a ling time without any refrigeration t all. How long? Weeks. So the obvious question that you are probably asking yourself is how do you know if the eggs are still OK to eat after weeks of sitting on the shelf? Well, there's a simple test that my grandmother taught me. Drop each egg into a glass of water and, the further it sinks, the fresher the egg is. If the egg floats, it is bad and you should throw it away.

According, if an egg:

    • Sinks to the bottom and stays there, it is about three to six days old.
    • Sinks, but floats at an angle, it's more than a week old.
    • Sinks, but then stands on end, it's about two weeks old.
    • Floats, it's too old and should be discarded

Also remember to store eggs far away from things that may 'contaminate' them. Egg shells are porous and will absorb the flavors of the things around them so be careful what you store them next to or near.

Best Way To Store Potatoes

Making Potatoes Last
Making Potatoes Last

Storing Potatoes

It's pretty common knowledge that potatoes will last for a very long time, un-refrigerated, if you keep them in a cool, dark place but what is known only by a few is that you can also keep potatoes from sprouting if you store them under apples.

Why does storing potatoes underneath apples help to keep them fresh longer? Because apples, like many fruits, give off ethylene gas. That's why some people wrap their tomatoes in newspaper to speed up their ripening process, because it traps in their own ethylene gas. As a side not, this is exactly why keeping vegetables in a tray in your icebox is not a very good idea. It traps all of the ethylene gas inside!

Korean designer, Jihyun Ryou, has developed some very interesting storage designs to help us keep our food without relying on refrigeration. The photo to the right shows one of Ryou's designs where the potatoes are kept in the dark in the box underneath while the apples fit into holes in the shelf that allows them to vent their ethylene gas into the enclosed potato box.

Anisa, in her blog The Lazy Homesteader, has come up with her own, alternate way of storing potatoes and apples together by using a system of hanging baskets, one underneath the other. This is similar to a method that I use on my boat where I use a series of hung nets that swing freely.

How to tell if your potato is healthy: A fresh, healthy potato will have a smooth, even color. Remember to check for rot, damage, bug holes and never eat a green potato.

Storing Onions

Both bananas and apples can be used to prevent potatoes and onions from sprouting. Onions will keep for months if kept properly and yellow onions keep best of all. While you can store both potatoes and onions in cool, dark places, keep onions away from the spuds or they will absorb the potatoes moisture, drying them out.

Root Vegetable Storage

Keeping Vegetables Fresh
Keeping Vegetables Fresh

Storing Root Vegetables

Another design by Jihyun Ryou can be seen to the right where sand is used to store root vegetables in wet sand to help keep them at the right level of humidity.It is important to keep them vertical. This method of storing vegetables in slightly damp sand has been used by humans for hundreds of years because vegetables prefer low temperatures and high humidity.

Anisa reports that carrots, onions and celery keep very well this way. She also says that a head of lettuce that might appear to be past it's prime can be resurrected quite successfully by placing it in a sink full of cold water.

A Special Note About Storing Tomatoes

In Italy they keep a crop of tomatoes fresh for up to a whole year without refrigeration. How do they achieve this remarkable feat? By keeping them in a cool, shady, well ventilated place. They hand tomatoes from the ceiling to help dissipate the ethylene gas that they give off as they ripen. If possible, it is best to keep each tomato separate from the others for the same reason.

How To Store Fruit Vegetables

Vegetable storage containers
Vegetable storage containers

Storing Fruit Vegetables

Fruit vegetables like chili peppers, courgettes (zucchini), aubergines (eggplants) and require higher temperatures and will decay at an increased rate if kept in a refrigerator. The shelf to the right, again a design from Jihyun Ryou, is a great idea for how to store these kinds of vegetables to get the longest shelf life possible out of them.

EGGPLANT: Another tip for eggplants is to dip their stems in wax because this reduces the loss of moisture.

How To Keep Spices

Spices lose their flavor when exposed to direct sunlight so keep them in a cool, dark place. Also it is a smart idea to add a little rice to each spice or herb container to absorb any errant moisture and to keep the spices from drying out and clumping together.

Storing Citrus

Oranges & Lemons: Oranges & Lemons don't like cold temperatures and that includes storing them in the refrigerator. Kept in bowls, baskets or nets like I have on my boat, they will keep longer and get tastier as they mature and ripen. Their skins may become a little dry but their insides will be delicious.

Citrus fruits can also be kept in buckets of damp sand that are packed down slightly to ensure that the sand clogs up the pores in the fruits skin.

How To Store Eggs

This is an old cruiser's trick for storing eggs for long periods of time. Eggs, without any special treatment, will last on the shelf for several weeks at a time but, if you need to keep them for even longer, then try these two tricks:

1) Coat the shells in Vaseline. This seals up the very porous egg shells and prevent microscopic contaminants from getting in and causing the egg to spoil. Many boaters substitute mineral oil for Vaseline as it is something that many of us keep on board for cleaning our compass glass anyway.

DO NOT consume any eggs that smell bad when you crack them open!

2) Turn the eggs upside down every week to keep their yolks from settling on the bottom.

Storing Leafy Greens

Dark, leafy greens such as parsley and one of my all time favorite foods, the magnificent cilantro, are best kept like a bouquet of flowers, standing upright in a vase or glass of water. The water level should be below the height of the leaves and you should cut the stems fresh, just before you put them in the vase.

Storing Meat

According to lore, in in medieval Europe people used to keep meat stored by either packing it in salt and / or dried herbs such as basil or parsley before wrapping for storage.

Storing Butter Without Refrigeration

Keeping Butter Without A Refirgerator
Keeping Butter Without A Refirgerator

Storing Butter

Storing Butter without refrigeration just sounds like crazy talk but it is actually fairly easy to do using what is called a Butter Bell. The butter is kept in a container that is then turned upside down so that the water forms an airtight seal over the surface off the butter. The water needs to be replaced very regularly (i.e. daily) or it will quickly develop mold. The water should be a VERY salty brine and the butter bell should be kept in a cool, dark place.

Clarified Ghee

Clarified ghee (Indian butter for want of a better description) lasts for an extremely long time without refrigeration. Keep it in a cool place, out of direct sunlight and it will last for well over six months, even up to nine months.

Storing Lettuce

Lettuce can be kept for extended periods of time by keeping their roots i.e. the stem, in water.

Storing Brown Sugar

OK, this one I have to take on faith since I keep no sugar at all on my boat. According to reliable sources (I forget which ones), you can keep brown sugar and prevent it from going hard by storing it with an apple that has been cut in half.

Storing Fresh Bread

Freshly baked bread keeps for weeks and maybe even up to a month if you keep it in a wooden box. The box needs to be unvarnished, without any finish on it.

Storing Rice

Keeping a red chili pepper in with your rice will keep it bug free.

Storing Garlic

I use garlic in everything so being able to keep garlic fresh is very important to me. Garlic needs to be kept in a dry, cool environment out of direct sunlight. A paper bag works well if you leave the mouth open so that the garlic can vent. Invest in a garlic holder, it's worth it.

How to pick garlic: Look for firm bulbs with lots of dry, papery skin on the outside. Don't buy garlic that has shoots coming out of it. Like all produce, check for blemishes such as bruises, dark spots, soft spots or holes.

Foods That Create Ethylene Gas

Apples, apricots, avocados, ripening bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe, citrus fruit (not grapefruit), cranberries, figs, guavas, grapes, green onions, honeydew, ripe kiwi fruit, mangoes, melons, mushrooms, nectarines, okra, papayas, passion fruit, peaches, pears, peppers, persimmons, pineapple, plantains, plums, prunes, quinces, tomatoes and watermelon.

Foods Most Effected By Ethylene Gas

Asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, cucumbers, cut flowers, eggplant, endive, escarole, florist greens, green beans, kale, kiwi fruit, leafy greens, lettuce, parsley, peas, peppers, potatoes, potted plants, romaine lettuce spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, watercress and yams.

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    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 9 months ago from The High Seas

      Ahoy Peggy! Living without refrigeration was a challenge but one that I could have solved by putting in a refrigerator...if I wanted to. Living without eating meat was odd to get used to but I took to it very quickly and don't miss it at all.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 9 months ago from Houston, Texas

      When I was a child my parents had a root cellar that had access from the basement. It was cool and damp. In it they stored carrots and other things in sand. Reading this brought that to mind. My mother also canned many different items that would just about last from one harvesting of the garden to the next. Very interesting article! I learned a few things that I have been doing wrong.

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 3 years ago from The High Seas

      Glad you liked it. Information like this has been very useful to me as I live on a boat without any refrigeration at all.

    • Insightful Tiger profile image

      Insightful Tiger 3 years ago

      Wow what an amazing hub! I have to store this so that I can refer to it often. I'm thinking of printing it out. Such a useful hub! Thanks!

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 3 years ago from The High Seas

      Glad you found it useful! I've been living without refrigeration for a few years and the only time I ever get ice is if I want a cold beer.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

      Wow, this is a wealth of information for living without refrigeration. That´s a quite common situation in Peru, although I would find it difficult. I wish I´d know about the chili pepper to keep bugs out of rice! Now I´ll put it into practice. Thanks!

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 3 years ago from The High Seas

      If you are following this hub then chances are you will be interested in the updates so I'm going to edit the article AND list the changes in the comments section here for your convenience. Clarified ghee stores for many months without refrigeration and is a substitute for butter. See details under the Storing Butter section of this hub.

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 3 years ago from The High Seas

      Been house sitting for a week and they asked me things like, "Why isn't any of your food in the fridge? why are those spring onions in a glass of water instead of the fridge?...don't you need to put those mushrooms in the fridge?" etc. Been a funny week. Glad you found the article useful.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest

      I am bookmarking this one. My husband is always asking, why is it that now that we have refrigerators we put preservatives in food that weren't there in the past. And even so, the length of time food is keepable seems to have decreased.

      It was sort of a rhetorical question, but we didn't actually know the answers you've given us here. I'll be reorganizing my apples, onions, and potatoes!

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 3 years ago from The High Seas

      Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for stopping by.

    • Jessica Chiverton profile image

      Jessica Chiverton 3 years ago

      Very useful information! Thank you.

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 3 years ago from The High Seas

      So much forgotten knowledge! Fortunately homesteaders, rural folk and boaters have kept these practices alive for all our benefit.

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 3 years ago from The High Seas

      I'm going through the process of pulling out and re-designing the galley and food storage areas in my boat so, while I am doing that I decided to share my thoughts, etc. in this hub. Hope you enjoyed it!

    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 3 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      This is a very interesting and useful article. I only realize now many basic mistakes I make with storing food. Thanks for the info

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      I didn't know that red chilli could keep the bugs free

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 3 years ago from The High Seas

      Glad you found it useful! Your farm(?) sounds amazing and reminds me of growing up in rural Australia. You should try living on a boat even just for a short while, it's amazing. Inconvenient? Yes. Cold? At times. Hard work? Yup. The best thing I ever did? Without question. I'm looking after my wife's place while she is away this week and, all kidding aside, this is the first time I realized I really could not move back to land.

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      Brilliant! You've provided heaps of great ideas ... and taught me a couple of things I didn't know. For instance, I only dig up a few potatoes at a time and store all my excess ones in the ground throughout winter (leaving them where they grow until I need them) - but now that I know they store well beneath apples, I'll give that a try with some of my next harvest. Plenty of apples currently growing on my trees and we'll have an abundance of potatoes.

      I continue to be in awe of your ability to live on a boat. :)


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