Apr 13

Food handling and long term food storage.

Now since food preparation has implications for storage, I recommend everybody study a good Food Service Handler’s training guide like you can find here. Study it to the level that you could pass a test on it. It’s kind of implied that stored food eventually becomes consumed food. All that traffic, all the repackaging associated with bulk foods, all that represents it’s own series of threats to the whole of your stored food stocks.

Cross-contamination of foods and food preparation surfaces.

One thing the food-service-workers training teaches us is not to cross-contaminate. The scoop you use for flower should never be used for meats or wet foods. The scoop in an infected bag of grain will happily infect another. Treat your dry storage and root cellar spaces as clean or cleaner than your kitchen. I know full well in households all over America today there are cats jumping from litter boxes right onto kitchen counters. You might think your kitchen is clean but if you own household pets, your whole house is a biological disaster waiting to happen. Don’t reach into things with dirty hands. And until you disinfect them, your hands are always dirty. Don’t even walk in there with those barnyard boots fella! Learn to see YOURSELF as the number-one transporter of infection into your food storage.

Other cross-contaminators you should never, ever, ever let into your root cellar or dry storage unit:

  • Animals. No cats, no dogs, no parakeets, no ferrets, park your pets outside the door, preferably far, far away.
  • Kids (the other animals). Kids, especially city kids just LOVE sneaking into root cellars, smoke houses, well houses, sugar houses, cheese houses, neighbors houses, you name it. City kids associate these places with buried treasure and Harry Potter movies. Country kids know not to mess with the food production.
  • City adults. Before you know it they’ll have a table set with a red checker cloth and be having tea in there with the door wide open. They think they are on a Better Homes And Gardens photo shoot. To them it’s “rustic” and to you it’s “dinner”. Don’t confuse the two. Folks generally don’t let ANYBODY into the root cellar for good reason.
  • Barn boots. Don’t be tracking in fecal matter. Some folks have “cellar slippers” outside the root cellar door for this handy purpose, but overall we want to see nice clean momma dealing in the cellar while poppa deals with the dirty barn chores.

Some creatures we like in root cellars.

I guess I should touch on some creatures or peoples we traditionally like in cellars. Spiders. Pretty much good. They are our helpers, catching bugs and cleaning up the place. Silverfish are OK. They come out of the ground. Moles. Some disagreement here but moles are carnivores and they eat other bugs which are vegetarians. Snakes. Snakes are best left alone under any circumstances but they are one of the few things that can actually help you with mice. Modern science tells us the snake’s skin and droppings are just full of salmonella, but keep your containers sealed and keep good food-handling and prep practices and you should be OK. The thing with most snakes is they are there looking for mice and stuff and if they can’t find them, they move on. The mice will stay forever unless somebody or something stops them. The battle here is traditional ways against science. The medicine tradition states that snakes, spiders and amphibians are “old magic” and their purposes are often remote from our understanding. Their great power can hurt us or help us, but it’s best to appreciate them from some distance and simply not trouble with them. The Way is to be at peace with them. I just leave them dwell in peace.

Apr 13

Rancidity of foods in long term storage.

Rancidity is oxidation or other chemical breakdown applied to oils and fats which we discusses as keeping water locked up in greasy globules. Kind of. What they mostly are is twisty little chains of oxygen and carbon and hydrogen molecules, but these are kind of the building blocks of life as we know it. So we tend to think of fat and water as two different things, but fat is really just nature’s way of storing water long-term. Water bound to fats in this twisty carbon hydrogen chain are more chemically stable than water splashed on a sidewalk, so the regular water will evaporate in minutes whereas fats will stay on the sidewalk and cause countless people to slip and fall. The example of the banana peel has to do with this as a banana keeps lots of water in fat (that’s what gives the banana it’s incredible flavor—the banana oils coat the inside of your mouth and taste buds, making them more receptive to flavor which is part of why bananas go well with so many other flavors in your mouth, but the banana peel also has a mechanical slippery-mechanism: it’s tactile outer surface debonds with it’s interior surface—lubricated by banana oil—resulting in a truly admirable method of putting a human down ass-first) is only part of it. And it happens that banana oil, when it rancidifies, pretty much develops an alcohol smell which is the excreta
of bacteria, but in cooking, the alcohol evaporates quickly and leaves a delicious aroma. The blackest banana gives a sweet bread. Other fats, like animal fats rancidify and give our noses a danger signal at least in contemporary times. Time was when a man who slicked his hair down with bear fat, rancid bear fat, it was a signal to the ladies that you were a great hunter! Nobody but a great hunter could afford such a precious thing as fat to smooth his hair and oil his skin. He was sending a signal to you ladies: get with me, I am a provider. But perhaps he wasn’t just being sexy in his eagle feathers. Maybe there’s more to bear fat eh? Good thing science is here to confirm.

Fats (lipids) are absolutely essential parts of our diets, we get sick and die without them and lack of them is the nutritional downfall of almost every longterm food storage plan. And most of the time there’s not much we can do about it. This chemical breakdown de-enhances it’s vital nutritional power and can result in “rancid smells” or tastes in the oil. Virgin cooking oil will rancidify generally in under a year. And worse, it’s susceptible to bacterial colonization. All things combined, lipidic fats can turn into something pretty toxic and harmful to us. It’s certainly what makes meats among the most challenging things to preserve and store longterm. And many toxins, unlike the living things that excreted them, can’t be killed. It was never alive to begin with.

It may be some comfort to note that in the case of bacterial colonization, cooking oils can be heated and that will kill them off. The problem is with many bacteria, we’re not so much worried about them as their excreta, and many toxins are just fine being heated. Even more disconcerting are viri which by current scientifical definition are not alive, never were, and yet they can reproduce and get along just fine in levels of heat that no other living thing can tolerate. They aren’t alive to begin with so it’s literally no sweat to them. Above all, keep your oils out of sunlight and cool. Beyond that, figuring out WHY your oil is rancid and what you can do about it might require more of that fancy scientifical testing equipment but fortunately this is one thing Mother Nature sought fit to equip us with: a nose with a distaste for rancidity. Oils, regrettably, are not something that lend themselves well to long term anything. So in addition to other things from the past, look for the return of the grease can. Bacon grease, the oil that comes out of canned tuna (preppers always buy canned tuna packed in oil for this reason plus if you really needed to you could make a really smelly oil lamp with tuna oil), we’re gonna start saving it and using it. Commercially bought oils should be stored and oils derived from our bacon used first before opening a container of stored oil. Oil is something we’ll have to replenish to survive. But all this talk about
rancidity and food is really getting me in the mood to discuss cadavers in some detail.

Apr 13

Oxidation, wastage and rotation of foods in storage.

Oxidation is when things combine with oxygen on a chemical level. Rust on your car is oxidation and so is the brown layer that forms on your avocado almost as fast as rust on your car. On a chemical level, the oxidizing substance is loosing electrons (reduction) so it’s loosing integrity at the atomic level. Some highly fascinating visible aspects of this is vegetables breaking down under heat or acidity so the succulent aspect dissolve and leave fibrous matrices behind (delignification) and other utterly useless comparisons to electrochemistry. Except for useless examples like what happens when moisture comes into contact with metal canned food. It starts to oxidize the can and then the can integrity might be compromised and then you are flirting with lady Botulism and she’s a jealous gal.

Those of you living by oceans will have problems with oxidation because there’s salt in the air, literally in the air and when it precipitates out by condensation or rain or whatever. This is corrosive to cans (metals) the electrons start a merry little parade. And if the cans themselves happen to be sitting in water, what we now have is an electrolyte which really speeds things up. Our little parade of migrating electrons has become a stampede because what we have going now is more like a battery. Rusty cans are dubious.

This naturally introduces wastage which is food you let spoil instead of eating it before it did. This is a major threat to long term food storage. You might have a basement full of cans in your summer house but do you know it’s actually EDIBLE? Or do you just assume it will be fine?

For this reason, product rotation is crucial. The term of craft is FIFO, Fist In First Out. In other words, when you reach for a can of peas, make sure it’s the oldest can on the shelf. Most commercially canned products have dates lazer-written into the bottom of the can but the old and true technique is labeling everything with an indelible marker, label the date and the contents of the can. And don’t write on the can label, you write it on the can itself. Those labels fall off with moisture in storage. Yup, that dang moisture thing again. But this presumes that you are actually USING your precious long term stored food! EEEEEEEEEEEK! Well settle down, it’s exactly what I’m telling you to do.

Yup, except for the fancy freeze dried stuff, I recommend people not make distinction between their stored food and their table food. Buy in bulk, buy quality for cheap and start eating it. When is a better time to start saving money and eating healthier? Pretty much any time but today for many of us and I know why. It involves that horrible and repulsive concept of lifestyle change. See once you start buying in bulk and not eating it, you can just put the spoilage dates on your calendar and use this as a handy guide for how many garbage bags you will be using. It makes a great new twist on old kids chores because now not only do they know when they’ll be taking out the trash, they’ll know what they’ll be throwing away in advance. Start buying, start eating.

I had a guy tell me “well I’ll eat the foods I enjoy now and when TSHTF I’ll get used to eating my stored food”. I wished I had a spare jackass award on me (I need mine as a credential). “Let me get this straight” I said, warming up for a kill, “you want to overspend on food now so you can eat sub-par food when you really need it?” The guy said “yeah”. Well ok then. I guess people have some idea of “we’ll all be screwed together” but all I heard this guy saying is “I’d rather hurry up and starve”. Like TEOTWAWKI is gonna be like summer camp, tough it out for two weeks and enjoy the pictures for a lifetime? I don’t know how to break it to the general public that surviving isn’t going to look like The Swiss Family Robinson. Me personally, my internal dictionary has getting screwed and starving under “things to avoid”. Somehow the whole romance of the notion was left behind in my pubescence.

Apr 13

Light. Specifically sunlight, but any UV light and stored food.

First off, sunlight makes heat or is heat depending on how you look at photonic energy. And that’s generally bad. To make matters worse, sunlight happens to be an active ingredient for photosynthesis. Many types of fungi just leap for joy when they see it. And worse yet, it seems to have mechanically disruptive effects, particularly in fluids like essential oils, and cooking oils which is why we store such things in dark colored bottles. It is, after all, photonic energy. Sunlight heats and cools things unevenly, driving moisture from one place to another. Sunlight attracts certain creepy crawlies. It used in drying of course, but this is a method of preparing food for long term storage. The storage almost never has anything to do with sunlight longterm.

Apr 13

Cold and food storage.

Cold is generally good. Anyplace between 40-65 °F is good in a root cellar. However, there’s some foods we’d often rather not let freeze. Naturally, these would be our high-moisture content foods in storage.

The reason for this is that freezing mechanically breaks down fibers in food or other glutinous or lipidic structures that give food it’s texture and it’s cellular integrity. It breaks down cells which are little puddles of biology surrounded by membranes that ideally keep the stuff inside in and the stuff outside out. Breaking down these fibers and barriers makes the food itself more susceptible to penetration by nasty organisms. This breakdown happens all the way down to the chemical level as we see conventionally frozen foods loose some nutritional value. Repeated freezing and thawing just makes the damage happen again and again.

Freezers in general I don’t really consider to be long term unless it’s always frozen where you are. I try to keep the engineering low-tech, on the off-grid or off-gridable. Where I live, all that freezes will one day thaw.

Probably the best research that anybody has ever done and actually shared it with the world are the folks at Walton Feed. Their information was put together by true experts and has evolved over the years into a series of charts. Now charts are great for condensing information but all the richness of the stories has been sanitized away. But feast your eyes and brain on this. This really tells you how not just temperature but the right temperature at STABLE LEVELS really makes or breaks you. And how the label or the guarantee of “shelf life” really don’t mean squat in terms of our traditional methods. And we see how even one day of super-heat can really screw canned food contents. But don’t despair. Don’t give up if your treasured preserved overheated for a day or a week, keep every practice here going, don’t stop, “long-term” in survival terms means one more day. For us humans, survival in the basest terms means eyes-open tomorrow. Keep thinking “every trick in the book”.

Apr 13

Environmental factors and food storage, heat and cold.

Heat and long term food storage.

Heat is totally great for serving food. Get food up to around 140 F and you kill almost all the nasty micro-bugs that make us sick. Unfortunately it’s the enemy of stored food. Some say every degree increase in temperature takes a year off the life term of your food in storage. Obviously this would be different for different foods stored with different methods. Some say that every 10 °F above 30°F cuts the storage life of dry grains in half. That would product something like the following table.

Temperature Storage life of dry red beans
60°F 20 years
70°F 10 years
80°F 5 years
90°F 2.5 years
100°F 1.25 years

Incredible, no? And with temperature instability, meaning temperatures where food is stored are constantly going up and down, the effect can be as bad or worse. By storing food in the hot garage or attic you could take it’s life down to below one year!

There are a few situations where we use heat to disinfect certain suspected foods (like honey, jellies, nut butters) that come out of storage but that’s more of a salvage thing that a storage technique. Heat also decreases nutritional value in foods at the chemical level but it’s a physical disruption: cells are literally exploding, chemical bonds are becoming more excited and likely to run off with the neighbors to create new chemicals, so on and so on. This is a major trade-off with steam-canning.

Apr 13

Rather larger biological threats to stored food.

Roaches, mice, rats, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, bunnies, racoon, dude, there are like so many things that wanna munch out on your food. Then there are humans. Don’t worry, the universe in her infinite fairness has allowed at least a chance that the people who eat your food might themselves be eaten as food by something. Which puts a whole different spin on storage and food in general. And it’s not like sharing isn’t fun and all but most of these creatures will urinate or defecate on what they don’t eat. Each one of these creatures has special talents and skills to try and sneak inside of your storage units. It’s a point separate from the cross-contamination each of these creatures represents. In this, we make the point that you and every other living thing is in competition for food and since you have a lot of it, you just made a whole pacel of new enemies. Controlling mice can be quite a headache as they just LOVE the idea of a dry indoor place with more food than they ever seen in their furry little lives and plus, you were kind enough to leave them all this sack and bag material to use for nesting! Mice have no sense of long-term planning atall. Given more than a mouthful, they decide it’s perfectly acceptable to urinate and defecate on the remaining hoards. Trapping them in the classic guillotine-type trap causes problems as you have just made a feast for the bacteria and whatever else Mr. Mouse has in him or on him and worse, flies love dead corpses and with flies come maggots. For mice and such I go for live or (humane) traps. Situate your trap on a piece of cardboard or something on the floor to catch droppings. You want that prisoner taken alive.

Things like bears can cause bigger problems. Doors to root cellars are generally thick. Humans can be even worse problems. Doors to cellars are often padlocked. It bears mentioning that in times of crisis, being known to have a lot of food stocked up could make you popular in all the worst ways. One good idea is not to tell anybody that you have a hoard. Another is to make sure your closest friends and neighbors are in on the deal. Give those who can help you defend it a stake in it. In troubled times, people will fight very, very hard to get food and to keep it.

Apr 13

Nasty little microscopic life forms: bacteria, fungus, viri (viruseses).

Like many life forms, bacteria, fungus and evolution’s retarded son viri are happy to have a free meal in a warm place but if they can’t get it they hang out just about everyplace. Many people are surprised to find that a lot of these organisms that make us sick don’t come from the food or because somebody didn’t wash their hands, they are ubiquitous in our environment. That means they are in our air and water and hanging out on our skin and inside our houses. Yup, freaky but true. Normally they don’t get out of control and our immune system fights them off. Naturally, raw foods pose more of a threat that cooked foods because cooking destroys most of these germs so it’s not always a problem. When they do get out of control, they mass populate and that’s where the problems start for us humans.

Some nasty organisms like viri and fungi are bad for us all by themselves. There are forms of bacteria and fungi that excrete things that are poisonous (toxic) to us. Examples include botulinum toxin and some forms of black mold mycotoxin. Some less lethal forms of them will leave your food visibly behind but rob it of nutritional value and leave behind a really lousy flavor. This can be the case with mold. Moldy flour makes for some pretty unappealing bread.

Food, water, warmth. My don’t we have a lot in common.

So these nasty microscopics, as humans, like food, water and warmth in general. In terms of need they may differ only in their needs for shelter and emotional warmth and acceptance but it’s difficult to prove objectively. Perhaps science will one day provide us with the means to communicate with bacteria. We can tell our head cold that we feel like crap and it will reply “well that makes one of us!”. Thankfully this day has not yet come and we do not care for the emotional lives of nasty biologicals or their families, jobs, churches or communities. We are pretty prejudicial when it comes to their civil rights.

A focus on common killer food born microorganisms.

The most common foodborne micro-nasties are Campylobacter (bacteria), Salmonella (bacteria), botulus (bacteria) E. coli (virus) and by a gang of viruses called calicivirus, also known as the Norwalk viruses. Now since these and other micro-murderers are so well documented, there’s no point in re-phrasing it here now. In a rare example of government being helpful, a great review of these plagues are found here. These are of limited utility to our discussion to this point however. There are so many microbiotics that can feast on our various foods it’s impossible for me to list them. Besides, new ones seem to pop up now and then.

Molds, fungi, mushrooms and food storage.

In traditional terms, mushrooms and molds are “old”. They have mysterious powers. Mushrooms and molds can form overnight, almost faster than anything else that lives, but tradition teaches us that these things live underground. So we were not surprised when science told us that the mushroom us just an above-ground manifestation of something large, even ubiquitous in the soil, in the Earth. Moldy or mushroomy soil has a smell, and molds are pretty much welcome in our composts. They are the Fungus amongus. Let this balance get out of control and we are in trouble.

As we’ll state repeatedly, microorganisms are older life forms in competition with us for food. The fungi have had a winning strategy for a long time. Some of them populate on our food and some of them populate on us whom they consider food. But some of them can do us favors. For instance, we get penicillin from mold and it’s a very powerful bactericide which means it can kill bacteria. Which makes total sense if you are a mold, a microscopic mold, because your main competitor is nobody else but bacteria. So you want to repel them. And it’s this quality that makes mold our friend, particularly when we get to cheesing and curdling. So let’s get friendly with mold for a minute.


There are dozens of types we are concerned with out of thousands or even millions of varieties. They all have really complex sounding scientific names which do us no real good to repeat here. Molds seem to do fine in dark environments although many can tolerate sunlight. Controlling mold is a matter of keeping humidity and temperatures down low. And fortunately most of them are aerobic which means they breathe air. This means our modern packing methods which remove oxygen from sealed containers can stop them from multiplying. This is why we’ve moved away from storing grain in sacks and towards sealed containers for storage. Bleach will take out most forms of surface mold but the problem with molds and fungi is they can cover amazingly large pieces of ground. When a mushroom pops up overnight, you aren’t seeing a mushroom, you are seeing a small visible manifestation of something very large underground. By the time you see it, often it’s released spores and maybe other things.

Some molds emit “mycotoxins”. We’re not sure why, maybe it has to do with weakening competition or the host organism but some of them do. And i’m not sure whether the micotoxins are sporous or gaseous in nature but when it gets into you it can cause all kinds of illness. Illnesses associated with them are respiratory problems, liver damage, renal failure and cancer. Yes, they are that nasty. These mycotoxins are what kill people when they eat the wrong type of mushrooms.

When most food gets moldy we throw it out. However, for our curing hams hanging in the shade house, we let the exterior surface mold over, we cut the top layer off, cut as much ham as we want and let the fresh surface mold over again. Cheese and fruit are much the same: we cut off the effected surface and eat what’s below. Other people don’t do this these days but we did it for generations. Nobody ever got poisoned. The men in my family mainly succumb to gales and gunfire not the grub. However, beyond hard cheeses, cured meats and some fruits, mold + food = compost.

As we’ll discuss, root cellars make dandy fungal incubators and once overrun it can be impossible to get rid of. Quarantine, purification by fire and decomissioning the cellar loom as necessities.

Apr 13

The science of long term food storage.

These are the cardinal rules of food storage.

In general the threats to our food value over time in storage are:

  • Nasty little microscopic life forms and near-life forms will start eating our food and populating on it.
  • Extremest of temperature or other physical agents such as sunlight get to our food.
  • Rather larger life forms will take our food from us and start eating it (and likely populating).
  • Natural disaster ruins our stored foods.
  • We allow our food’s storage terms or limits to be overcome before we ourselves eat it.
  • We can’t get the kids to eat it no matter what we do.

The history and science, over time, address each of these concerns. But let’s start simple. Short of really obvious stuff
like don’t store your ham in a working outhouse.

The Four Factors of Long Term Food Storage.

More than any single thing, temperature but the real 4 things, the 4 threats are these:

  • Temperature. This should always be under 65°F.
  • Moisture (water, H2O)
  • Exposure to light and air (O2 and CO2)
  • Exposure to microbiotics.

The 4 rules of long term storage for food:

  • Keep it cool.
  • Keep it dry.
  • Keep sunlight, CO2 and O2 away from it.
  • Minimize exposures to microbiotics.