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Living Without a Refrigerator – 5 Easy Ways to Preserve Food Without Electricity

by Victoria Gazeley

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Have you ever had this happen:  the power goes out due to a storm or some other calamity while you’re away on vacation, and you come home to a freezer full of spoiled food?  If not, count yourself lucky!  So imagine what would happen if you had to depend on that food and couldn’t replace it – say, in a natural disaster, electrical grid failure or some big disruption in the food distribution system.  If you don’t know how to get that frozen food into another form so it lasts longer and doesn’t spoil, you’d be hungry, that’s what – not a good state to be in, especially during stressful times.

So how can you preserve your food so that you don’t need to rely on electricity to keep it safe to eat and so you can rest easy knowing your family won’t go hungry?  To find out, I asked organizing expert Elvie Look to weigh in with her husband Ken’s food preservation experience from growing up in northern Canada.  We’ll be covering all of the following topics in detail over the next few weeks (as well as in my new online personal food security course, launching September), but for now, take it away Elvie!

5 Easy Ways To Preserve Food Without Electricity

By Elvie Look

I am not an “expert” in food storage, but I AM married to a man who grew up in the Northwest Territories and lived off the land. Due to their isolation, there was no “new” food brought in after the last barge at the end of summer, and before the first barge in May/June. He grew up without refrigeration in his early years. This is what I learned from Ken and his stories.

One story he tells if of coming upon a solitary man travelling by canoe camped on the banks of the Mackenzie River. It was considered proper northern etiquette to check up on whomever you met on the river in case they needed help. His dad was a game warden working for the government. They stopped and passed the time of day with the traveller. Ken’s dad asked if he needed anything. Ken could see why he asked him, because the man was from Norway and had nothing for food except a large block of cheese and dry bread. From his dad’s point of view this man was starving! This traveller insisted he was just fine and expressed appreciation for the offer, but he declined it. Ken learned something from that experience.

I asked Ken…. how could he keep cheese without refrigeration? Before I answer how this traveller fared, let’s talk about how to store food without a fridge or freezer. After all, people of the north have been faced with doing just that for centuries.

Ken said it is very simple, there are only three ways to store food for any length of time. There are a couple for short periods, but to store for a winter, only three:

1. Freezing

This of course is easy to do up north, the whole outdoors is your freezer in winter. You just have to keep it safe from wildlife. I saw a documentary once about a loner in the wilderness who built a pantry up high in the trees and a ladder to get up to it. This kept it safe from the wildlife, and he was well fed all winter!

2. Canning

If you don’t have electricity, this is possible on a wood stove, though it would be a lengthy (yet effective) process. You can process anything: meat, vegetables, stews, fruit, fish and dessert like carrot pudding. Here are some very general canning tips:

  • The jars and lids must be sterilized first, by boiling for a few minutes.
  • Then add what you want to can, add boiled water, and some seasonings.
  • Leave at least 1/4 inch space at the top.
  • Tighten the lid, then loosen a quarter turn. This will allow room for the air to leave.
  • Submerse in water and boil for the required amount of time.
  • Word of caution, beans take 3-4 hours.
  • A high pressure canner is ideal, it cuts the time by at least half.
  • Take out, tighten the lids and let cool completely.
  • Ensure that all jars have sealed – the lids will be concave.

[Editor's Note: If you've never canned food before, it's critical that you get a solid book on canning and preserving and use the recipes there, at least in the beginning - or locate someone who is experienced with this method of food preservation.  It's not difficult, but there are some things you need to know as you go through the process to keep the food safe to eat.  There's no teacher like experience!]

3. Dehydrating

Almost everything can be dehydrated (dried), plain and simple. The First Nations people up north dry their meat and fish by hanging it, and smoke it to keep the bugs off. The meat will last for the remainder of the warm months and all winter. They usually ate it as is, dried. But I would venture to guess you could rehydrate it with water if you wanted to… hmmmm, now there is an experiment. You can purchase dried fruit, mushrooms, vegetables, and hydrate them, so why not meat?

Up north they used a teepee for smoking (and still do in many cases) – there were racks built between the teepee poles and the fish hung from there. A fire below was kept smouldering all day long. It varies on how long it takes. For example, if it was raining and damp, it would take longer, but other than that, it could be done in one day.

Once the food was dried, the meat and fish were just wrapped together, tied with a string and stored in a warehouse.

Wherever you are going to store your dried food, you must consider two things:

  1. You must keep them free from insects; and
  2. Be sure they have plenty of air.

Because as soon as you seal the product, it will very likely go bad.

When we were first married, I purchased a dehydrator and tried drying fruit for a few seasons, like apples, bananas & berries. I have a great granola recipe where after baking the oats with nuts, honey and coconut, I add dried fruit. (click for the recipe) You could also use your oven. You can have a wood oven and a wood dehydrator – as these would run without power.

Now there are other methods to help keep food, but this is for shorter periods of time.

4. Salt Preserved

Around the world, meat is preserved with salt, thus the birth of sausage. But sausage does not last long without cooling. 

5. Vacuum Packed

Canning is basically vacuum packing in sterile environment, that is why it works so well. I looked to see if you can vacuum seal without electricity and found this:  

I have purchased cheese in large blocks, cut them into smaller chunks and by vacuum sealing each piece, they lasted for months in the fridge. So without electricity, they would still last quite awhile just by keeping them in a cool place.

The Wrap Up

One more story: Ken and his dad made a trip in the heat of the summer, by canoe taking only a hind leg of caribou meat along with fixings for bannock and tea. To keep the meat fresh for the 10-day trip, they wrapped it tightly in a canvas bag and sunk it to the deepest part of the lake every night. The cold water preserved it for that trip.

Now for the Norwegian traveller I mentioned at the beginning, his cheese lasted the trip because it was dried.

And for the record, I think I would get a propane powered fridge, we had one in our camper, then you have the convenience even WITHOUT electricity!

[Editor's Note:  If you're interested in finding out more about personal food security and preparing your family for an emergency or simple self-reliance in terms of food, get our special interview with a food security expert and learn how you can go three weeks or more without going to the grocery store!  It's important info everyone should have, regardless of where you live.  Get Emergency Food Storage - Why Bother? now.] 

Elvie Look: Your Professional Organizing Coach who is helping people get organized with her easy tips and suggestions. These systems help the busy mom, businessman or woman, entrepreneur or student learn the keys to organizing in simple, actionable and manageable steps. She teaches how to get organized and maintain your organized space while carrying on your normal busy life. She is the author of “21 Steps From Chaos To Calm.”  You can find her at elviesessentials.com.

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Revised on August 21, 2011

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Michele M Tremblay August 14, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Holy Cow…What an enormous amont of information! Ok…I am even more grateful than before for every modern convenience that I enjoy!
Elvie, thanks for sharing that information. Victoria, thanks to you for having Elvie share this info with all of us. What a real reminder of what every one on earth did just to survive.

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Victoria Gazeley August 15, 2011 at 2:02 am

Thanks for stopping by, Michele! It’s definitely ‘food for thought’, isn’t it?… ;o)

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Anonymous August 15, 2011 at 11:38 am

Guess I’m just too urban!  Growing up in Latin America, we had frequent (and sometimes lasting) power outages (and revolutions!), so always had a supply of commercially canned and dried foodstuffs.  And now I live in South Florida where hurricanes can leave us without power for weeks.  Every year we lay in stable food supplies in May, and give them to a food collection drive that the Post Office coordinates in November.  But I never hear of anyone preparing those supplies themselves.   Hmmm … this was an eyeopener!

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Mike Lieberman August 15, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I’m definitely intrigued by all this information. Luckily living in LA have access to fresh and seasonal food year round, but would love to be able to stock up like this. Thanks for the great info!

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Victoria Gazeley August 15, 2011 at 11:07 am

Thanks, Mike! We’ll be working on articles with actual processes and details in the coming weeks. Stay tuned! :)

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Anonymous August 15, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Have spent more weeks than I care to count without power due to hurricanes and thunderstorms in Florida…most have gas powered generators to hook up to necessities like freezers and refrigerators. However, as we sadly found out, gas pumps need power to operate sooo you need to keep a surplus of filled gas cans as well! Great ideas as always from the “oh so amazing” Elvie Look!! Thanks for sharing this Victoria!

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AJ August 16, 2011 at 12:55 am

Nice tips, thanks!

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Solvita August 17, 2011 at 5:43 pm

Great tips Elvie! Very interesting information, thank you for posting!

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pi March 11, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Don’t forget fermenting! Turning things that would go “bad” into even better things over time, like miso, sauerkraut, kim chi, kvass, pickles, etc. Redirect the rot! Check out the book “Wild Fermentation” ~

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Victoria Gazeley April 8, 2014 at 10:28 am

Love that book! :)

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