Saturday, February 25, 2012

No Refrigeration? No Problem!

Have you ever given thought to what you would do if you suddenly lost
power and had no refrigerator or freezer for an extended amount of
time? Nearly everyone has experienced a power outage. Even us who live
off-grid can experience them. Shocking, huh? For us, having a power
outage takes on a new meaning.

No matter what your power source, if you use a refrigerator or freezer
there is a chance that you will be without power at one time or
another. In our state, severe thunderstorms or ice storms are typical
reasons for power outages. I have written about it before, but the
message still needs to be shared. If you had a storm knock out power
for a week, what would happen to your food supplies in the refrigerator
and freezer?
If you are like so many people seem to be, you will suffer a complete
loss of all foods you were unable to consume during the outage. That
isn't necessary though.

We have been off-grid for about 4 years now. At first, we had no
refrigeration for about 2-3 weeks. We were lucky that we went off-grid
in the winter and were able to utilize the outdoor temps and water to
keep our perishables cold. In summer months, that isn't an option. So
what do you do? First, we got a propane refrigerator through a barter.
We had some old equipment that we couldn't use and traded it to a guy
who liked to tinker and repair stuff. In return, he gave us the propane
refrigerator. The refrigerator worked well. A single small tank, like
the bubble tanks used for propane grills will run the refrigerator for
about 2 weeks. We are finding a downside to it however. The old
refrigerator isn't as efficient as a new one would be. This brought
about a bit of reevaluating. I will address that at the end of this post.

One of the main ideas that I use to help avoid the need for
refrigeration is to home can everything. Vegetables, fruit, sauces,
soups, stews, meats, and broths. I look at all my meal planning around
the idea that if I make too much, can I jar it up for another day's
meal. Often, I will plan to make extras just for that purpose. I found
a long time ago that it takes little more time to make a triple sized
batch than a single batch. The jar sizes that I use are pints and
quarts. The pint size is perfect for Joe to take on the truck for his
meals. The quarts work well for the 2 kids and I. When Joe is home, if
I use a home canned item for a meal, I simply open up a quart and pint
of the meal and mix them together.

The second idea that I follow is to try and cook in such a way that
there are no leftovers. If I make a food that cannot be home canned in
jars, then I make only enough for that meal. This eliminates the need
for refrigerating leftovers. If a small amount is left over, but not
enough for a meal, then it is set aside for one of 2 purposes. If the
meal did not contain meat or other items that cannot be composted then
it can be added to your compost bin. If it does contain meat, then it
is added to our dog's dish.

Another way to cut back on refrigeration is to limit your store bought
condiments. Instead of buying large bottles of salad dressings, learn
to make them yourself. You can adapt the recipe to fit your family's
needs. If a recipe makes a pint jar of dressing, you can often cut the
recipe in half and make a 1/2 pint instead. This would give you 1 cup
of dressing which would be plenty for a family meal without having too
much extra. You can purchase the large #10 cans of ketchup from a
grocery store or a membership warehouse store such as Sam's Club. Take
that ketchup and repackage it into 1/2 pint sized jars. A single can
will give most families a year's supply of ketchup. We use ketchup very
seldom, so a large bottle is a waste in our refrigerator. Another
option we have used is to buy the small single serving packets like you
find in fast food stores. You can purchase mustard, relish, and other
items in these little packets also. Be aware that some items sold in
those little packets will need refrigeration and may not work for this

Our family is blessed with lactose intolerance issues of varying
degrees. With that in mind, we are making the switch to using almond
milk. One of the blessings in this is that I am able to buy a case of
12 cartons (1 quart each) and store it on a pantry shelf. It doesn't
need refrigerated until you are ready to drink it or are storing an
opened carton. The only other milk that we use is powdered milk that I
use in baking or for making a homemade hot cocoa mix. Because the
powdered milk is only used in baking or a cocoa mix, I don't have to
refrigerate it at all.

Items like eggs are used rather quickly. If you are lucky enough to buy
farm fresh eggs, or raise your own chickens, you are doubly blessed.
You do not need a refrigerator for them at all as long as they are used
within a week from gathering. A trick that the Amish use to give eggs a
longer shelf life in their pantry was to dip the eggs in melted
paraffin. They understood that by sealing the eggs in the paraffin, air
could not penetrate through the shell and thus spoil the eggs. Katie
could store eggs this way in her pantry up to 3 months without losing
them to spoilage. Her pantry was in an unheated room, thus stayed very
cool. A root cellar would serve the same purpose. The option that I am
using is to substitute the flax seed meal/water mixture for eggs in my
baking. This keeps the amount of eggs that I need down to a minimum. I
often will hard boils a dozen eggs at a time to be used in egg salad,
deviled eggs, or just plain. By doing this, it cuts down on the
likelihood of spoilage.

When they had fresh milk or items that needed to be chilled, Katie kept
them in the spring house. This was a small shed with a water tough on
one end. A pump run by a large windmill would pump water from their
well up into the trough. The water circulated through the trough and
filtered back down into the well. This gave them a ready supply of
fresh icy cold water. In the trough were kept canning jars filled with
milk. On a shelf just above the trough were containers of fresh cheeses
and butter. She never stored her eggs in there since she sold what her
family didn't need. When we first went off-grid, we used a similar
method to keep our perishables cold. We set up a shipping crate in a
shaded & protected corner next to the house. Inside the crate was
placed a large cooler and an 18-gallon capacity tote. In the cooler was
placed the milk, freezer baggies of lunch meats & cheeses, a jar of
mayo, and a bottle of ranch dressing. We filled the tote with cold
water and placed the end of the water hose under the lid to keep the lid
slightly opened. In the plastic tote were placed items like a bottle of
ketchup, relish, eggs, and other items that didn't need to be kept as
cold as the milk. A lid was placed on the tote. I placed a scrap sheet
of plywood on top of the shipping crate and placed firewood on top to
keep critters from taking the lid off. I kept a good check on the water
temperature in the cooler and simply ran more water into the cooler any
time the water needed to be made colder. Quite often, I had the problem
of having to thaw the milk out a bit to be able to pour it! The point
is, in a pinch this method works beautifully.

This leaves only a small handful of items that need refrigeration.
Among them are butter, cheese, quart of almond milk, bottled water in
the summer months, salad fixings, and any small jars of condiments that
we may have. With only these few things, we are considering the option
of only having a small propane refrigerator similar to that used in a
camping trailer. A refrigerator of that size would easily meet our
needs. Yet, the best part is that should we run out of propane the food
loss would be extremely minimal. I am looking into other options to use
in place of butter that do not require refrigeration for storage other
than once the packaging is opened. At the most, our food loss would
cost under $25 if the refrigerator were full.

I know that there are other ways to cut back the usage of
refrigeration. This gives you an idea of how we are doing it. It comes
down to a point of changing your way of thinking. Learning home food
preservation techniques is a great start. Portion control in food
preparation is a good way to begin also. I try to note how much my
family eats and cook accordingly.

Take a good look into your own refrigerator. When you clean it out,
what percentage of the food is tossed out? What do you store in there
that could easily be repackaged into smaller quantities? Are there
leftovers from a meal that indicate that a reduction in the recipe
quantity may be needed? What are possibly home canning those leftovers
for another meal? If you take a hard and honest look, you can always
find a way to lessen the amount of food stored in your refrigerator or
freezer. Who knows? You may even find a way to downsize!