Apr 13

Dry storage & drying grains, beans for long term storage.

Drying of grains and beans for storage is historically done in the sun. Grains are dried in all kinds of indoor or other drying apparatus. Historically, some grains such as corn are allowed to dry on the cob, beans and other berry grains are dried whole, such that they can be preserved for seed crop. However, whole grains tend to preserve a lot of moisture and fat content. De-hulling grain berries for storage and separating components like germ can enhance the storage life term. For this reason, white rice is preferred by many for long term storage; the oils in brown rice tend to rancidify more quickly. Drying can be done in bins and it can be done under cover and with the benefit of heat from various sources. Grain storage silos themselves are big controlled drying storage units, and are ventilated and heated by solar or other means. Think of a silo as a big thermal tube that gets air moving vertically up through it from the bottom.

Desired moisture content levels for dried grains are below 15% for any period. In long term storage and for preservation of seed stock we want those moisture levels down to 10% or below. This can take a couple weeks and if you are in a humid climate you might have a hard time getting there. Air flow and temperature are important factors here. Once a good low moisture content is achieved, however, we want to get that grain into stable 60-65°F temperatures immediately for long term storage. From here, maintaining those levels of moisture and temperature are key. Our desert experience suggests that low humidity is more important than temperature, at least for very low-fat grains and beans.

Air flow remains important to the long term storage of grains in normal atmosphere. This is why burlap and canvas bags were often used for their storage. Folks buying grains specifically packaged for long term storage don’t need to worry about this until the packages are opened. In general, packages are removed from dry storage areas upon opening for use in the household.

More specific data on grain drying and methods.

Apr 13

Food dryers.

Any of these can be hybridized which means you can mix and match power sources. You can start stacking drying racks, just make sure that air can flow through and between your racks. Rotate your racks and product from top to bottom or however necessary to maintain even drying. With all foods you dry, the more uniform or even the shapes and thicknesses or the food, the more evenly it will dry. Feel free to experiment! Drier foods last longer, less dry foods have all kinds of variable textures and “rehydrate” faster when needed.

Wired food dryers.

The easiest way to get started drying foods is to pick up a little commercially bought unit. These are almost always electrically powered and have a little circulating fan. They can be found in thrift stores for a couple of bucks. Commercial dryers are all electric these days. You could easily design your own with a blow dryer. However there’s no point in not investigating alternative heat sources.

Solar food dryers.

Solar food dryers are dandy. If you live where it’s sunny. The work marvelously in deserts that’s for sure. Solar dryers can just be a baking pan out in the sun or a string of chillies hanging or it can be a boxed-in, glass-topped affair. With a fancy solar food dryer, we design it to draw fresh, dry air up from the bottom and hot air vents from the top. Naturally, the fancier dryer is hotter, so you are rotating and moving more product through.

Fired food dryers.

Using fire to dry things like meats and fruit is pretty ancient and it speeds things up bigtime. We can dry a lot more product in a smaller area using fire (and electric for that matter) since we can stack our drying racks vertically as tall as we like. With fire you are keeping very busy rotating drying racks and keeping the fires even.

Apr 13

Processing and preparing food for long term storage.

Drying foods for long term storage.

Drying is one of the oldest methods of preservation. In drying, we’re making life more difficult for the micronasties by removing water from their park. And for a very long time, humans have relied heavily upon the drying power of the sun which was widely recognized as having a monopoly on the heating industry. Sun-drying works on a wide rage of things: meat, fish, fruit, grains, vegetables and insects. Indeed, every insect I have ever eaten either did or would have tasted better for sun drying. Or maybe it’s a textural thing. I prefer “crunch” as opposed to “squirt”. Drying goes by a lot of fancier names these days like dehydration and desiccation but the basic methods and utilities are still available. Spread food out on a rock in the sun and wait.

Something to remember! normal food when harvested is between like 90% for fruits and down to like 20% for lean meats. “Drying” is thus a pretty gross term and it means any less moisture content than present when the food was harvested. For practical purposes, dried fruit is somewhere around 15-20% moisture content but it only gets harder then crunchier the lower you go. In desert environments we can get things pretty dry, almost to the level we know call dehydration which is around 3% for fruits and vegetables.

Did you get that last point? Mostly we can only conventionally dry things as dry as the air in which we are drying it. Using a heat source, we can dehumidify an area around our drying food, but let it sit out in the air and it will start re-absorbing moisture. You folks in damper regions know this when your bag of potato chips is stale one day after opening. If you are drying to below-ambient humidity levels, you have to package the food fast just like they seal up your potato chip bag at the processing plant.

Drying meats is kinda different because a lot of moisture is contained in lipidic state, in fats in the meat. It’s possible to totally dessicate meat, it can be dehydrated but it’s generally not all that nice to eat. Meat is totally not supposed to go “crunch”. But for practical purposes, simple drying down to around 7% delivers a longer lasting food source in the field. The new techniques such as commercial dehydration and freeze-drying take this a big step forward.

Moisture content of “raw” foods.

Let’s just think in terms of basics and not list off 100 foods. Water is 100% moisture content (duh, I know) and it’s where our table starts. It ends with freeze dried food under 3%.

Foods Moisture
Water 100%
Cantaloupe, cauliflower, celery, most lettuce 90%
Apples, cherries, potatoes, grapes, apricots 80%
Beef, chicken, fish, bananas, sweet potatoes, ginger 70%
Grains 20%
Honey 15%
Some nuts 10% and lower
Dehydrated and freeze dried foods 3%

So we see most of the fresh foods we eat are in that 70-90% moisture content range. I suppose from the table above, nature is telling us it’s long term storage foods are honey, nuts and grains which is no secret to bees and squirrels and the myriad grain-eating creatures that store up for winter.

Apr 13

Ice chests, ice houses, strawboxes, streams, springhouses and evaporative cooling. And coolers too.

Ice chests were great things. But they were kind of a rich man’s (or wive’s) convenience. Ice, formerly being a strictly seasonal type of product, was wickedly expensive in summer and it’s harvesting was time and labor intensive. What we used to do was wait for a lake or pond to freeze, walk on out to the middle, drill a hole and begin cutting with saws that looked very much like one-man buck-saws with smaller teeth. Ice was sawn into blocks, loaded onto sleds and drawn for storage in ice houses. If you see old buck saws and ice saws at garage sales, buy them and stop calling them antiques. They really come in handy.

Now the ice houses, big surprise, were often a lot like very large root cellars, there are examples of them being located in caves, but they were often basically barn-like structures. The one thing you were sure to find around ice houses was huge amounts of straw. Above-ground structures required lots more straw. You can store ice under straw right on the ground in straw until spring when you can move it into your root cellar. Packing straw thick and tight on all sides of the ice did so well that New Englanders started shipping it all over the world! And this was with wind-driven craft, sailing ships. Ice was an international industry until refrigeration came along. Imagine being the lucky guy that got to work in the ice house all summer back then eh? Nobody wanted to hear how bad your day was.

Now straw is a really awesome insulator having high mass and low density. Ice houses were packed with it, the ice was packed in it and shipped in it. An ice-box isn’t that well insultated but it wasn’t your only cooling mechanism. Strawboxes are the intermediary. Strawboxes are really big boxes made of wood with drain holes on the bottom and you put down a good foot of straw in the bottom and lay your block ice in nice and tight and put a foot of straw on the sides and on top of the ice. It usually has a lid that hinges down shut on top. The thickness of straw here is arbitraty, the more straw, the more insulation.

So this is where the root cellar can hit the next level. A really cool root cellar can have a massive strawbox in it, there’s ice in it and things we want to keep extra cool stay in there. We’ll use the ice to preserve cooler temperatures in summer as needed or to chip away at for cocktails or to make ice cream in late summer if our stocks hold up well. You want to have some sort of provision for melting water for this.

Now here we go with the hybrids. Don’t worry about finding an icebox at the thrift store, modern coolers work better and that’s your daily household ice supply which you take from the strawbox in the cellar.

A final tip on straw boxes, they are good for more than just cooling. Insulation is pretty indifferent about what temperature it’s maintaining. It keeps in heat too. So let’s say you only have a bit of cook fuel and a big pot of rice. Make your fire, boil your rice as much as you can, when the flame dies, transfer the covered pot to a strawbox, cover it over and wait. Be patient. Let it go about twice as long to check on it and I’ll bet your rice will be done enough. Yup, you knew horses ate straw but you didn’t know straw was so helpful to you eating did you? Try the same trick in a thermos for dehydrated or freeze-dried food, it’s a great field-technique.

The refrigerator-icebox

Don’t worry poor man, I’m always on your side too. Grab a fridge, strip off all the cooling gear (you don’t want chemicals in the ground and around your food), drill some holes into the back for drainage and sink it right into the ground where there’s some shade. Used refrigerators come in handy for all kinds of things. The big thing about using a fridge as an ice box is that you want it on it’s back with the door on top so you are reaching down into it. Cold naturally sinks, and when you open a strawbox or cooler, you access it from the top so all your cold air doesn’t just literally spill down onto the floor.

Evaporative cooling and food storage.

Like many of our environmental factors, evaporative capability is a regional thing. It only works in dry environments, low humidity environments. However, evaporative coolers or “swamp coolers” are used to great effect here in the desert where they do the job of air conditioners at a fraction of the operational cost. I don’t know anybody who’s doing it but there’s little reason not to try it to help root cellars stay cool in hot summers. They do introduce moisture into the air, but air dry enough to benefit from evaporative cooling is dry enough to tolerate some moisture as I mention elsewhere here. Evaporative
cooling can be used in a humbler capacity. We have these butter boxes, a sort of open wooden cube that wet cloths are draped over and you put a stick of butter down in the middle and the evaporative action will probably keep your butter from melting. How do they work? Well in dry air, water evaporates pretty easy. The air is “thirsty”. But converting that water into vapor is a physical change of state and that requires energy. So simply put, heat is the energy that is expent to turn the liquid water into vapor. The heat comes out of the air. The cooler the water, the more heat energy is exchanged with the air to turn the water into vapor. The result is cool air. Or cooler air. You can generally get 20 F below ambient temp with a swamp cooler, more with a more expensive one.

Obviously our examples like the butter might seem trivial, however this is a short-term tool that might help you save your stash one day. In a dry climate, water can help you control the temperature of the air. I’ve made a “butter box” out of a whole RV that was roasting by hanging wet towels all over the place.

The springhouse and springboxes.

Any cool running stream is a great boon to food storage. An icy spring is truly a miraculous thing. The very first thing we can do is make a “springbox” which is a box with holes in it. Milk crates work just fine. We settle this down in a shady part of the stream (or ideally a nice cold spring) and put cans and jars and bottles of food and milk in it to keep cool. Make sure you weight the bottom of your springbox with rocks and tether them to a nearby sapling, they have a tendency to want to migrate downstream. A slightly evolved version is an actual house or structure built over your springbox. Generally these are low-roofed structures with an earthen, stone or gravel floor and they have only minimum venting to keep their moisture and coolness inside. They tend to be small and have low roofs. Things might be kept right in the springbox such as milk or on shelves such as canned goods.

Sand storage of foods.

OK so we’ve seen how we can create particularly cold parts of our root cellar with straw boxes and ice. We talked about a certain level of humidity being good but some foods like to stay a bit dry while they are staying cool. Root food like potatoes, carrots, parsnips and the like really like being kinda medium-dry. So we as we recall using gravel on the floor to assist drainage and evaporation in a root cellar. Moisture coating the gravel increases it’s surface-volume, exposing more of the water to airflow and thence helping with evaporation which produces cooling. As well as giving your feet something to walk on besides mud. We use the same trick with tubers. This includes potatoes, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, parsnips and stuff like that. A favorite trick is to store them buried in buckets of clean, dry sand. This increases air flow across the tubers themselves and helps wick moisture away from their surfaces but it doesn’t let them dessicate. Keep an inch or two layer of sand between it’s neighbors and the sides of the bucket. Now put the buckets higher up in the cellar where it’s likely to be just a bit warmer. This will tend to keep them dryer and will keep old mold at bay. That’s “dry storage” they only teach in the mountains.

Hanging and stacking foods in storage.

Herbs, plants and flowers do fine hanging upside down in storage. Dried flowers and herbs maintain much of their flavor in oils, and by not breaking down or chopping them, we preserve these oils in the freshest state we can so they are “virtuous”. We generally want herbs and flowers to dry slowly and the cellars can be good places to start, and we start them up high where our temperature is higher and the moisture is lower. Other oily things such as cheeses and hams tend to do well hanging because their oils will tend to bleed out onto whatever surface they are sitting on. Hanging these types of food in storage eliminates all the issues of cross-contamination with surfaces. Be aware that hams and cheeses (and other things) can sweat and drip on whatever is below them so you don’t want much of anything below them. Some people say to stack your apples high and close to vents. The explanation goes that apples and fuits will emit chemicals as they ripen which can trigger other vegetables and fuits in storage to spoil faster.

Apr 13

Welcome back root cellar! The ultimate long term food storage technology.

Of all the awesome innovations of time, the root cellar stands out as something available to both rich and poor. If you got a shovel and you can dig a hole, you are on your way to a storage environment that costs basically nothing to operate.

Root cellars have a few properties we want such as being cool and dark. Additionally, they tend to be stable in terms of humidity although moisture is pretty much the number one thing to be on the lookout for in a root cellar. But they have another incredible virtue.

Where I grew up it was quite common to keep refrigerators and freezers outdoors in winter. The idea is that the Earth produces plenty of coldness in the winter in most places so paying to heat a house in a cold planet and paying more to keep a part of your warm house cold on a cold planet made no sense atall. The trick was to make the door-activated light switch a manual-activated light switch (or even wire the switch in reverse so a low-watt light bulb burned with the door closed instead of open) so you could keep the light on at night and not have everything freeze. Kinda ran them in reverse in winters. Light bulbs are cheaper to operate than refrigerators in hot houses.

Root cellars keep things from freezing as well as from getting hot. And as we know from previous chapters, there’s lots of food like milk and cheese and eggs that we’d rather not have frozen because it reduces their palatability and pleasant character. So a lot of this thing is gonna be about root-cellar evangelizing. I’m anointing each of you to practice and spread this gospel: the root cellar, ancient friend of man, has returned to us in our hour of need.

How to build a root cellar for food storage.

The most basic version is a hole in the ground. Any amount or depth of hole will help but in most parts of the country, you get about 3-4 feet of dirt on top of you and you enjoy year-round thermal stability. In other words it will always be between 40-60°F in a good root cellar no matter what the air temperature is. So we tend to make them elaborate holes in the ground.

Root cellars are often dug into hillsides for convenience, and in this configuration often have a regular door on the front, leading city people to believe that hobbits live nearby. But basically, a root cellar is a room with a floor and walls and a ceiling and about 3-4 feet of dirt on top of the ceiling and outside the walls. The floor is really important in root cellars, often have a central drainage ditch cut into the earth and a deep layer of gravel forming a flat surface on top. This floor drain system is our number one method of controlling moisture in our root cellar. We also usually have vents in the wall near the floor and others up by the roof or whatever top covering you have. This helps you regulate temperature as well as moisture. Ideally, cooler air flows in the bottom vents and warmer out the top.

The moisture issue is huge. In rainy parts of the country, any hole will tend to fill up with water and root cellars can be quite damp, inviting in all kinds of microscopic meanies like bacteria but fungi really love a nice damp dark root cellar. Things like blackmold might force you to abandon a cellar altogether if it gets out of hand. And in drier climates it can be just the opposite. There’s people in the desert that bring cans of water INTO a root cellar to keep things like dried fruit from becoming entirely desiccated. Contact with dry air will seep moisture out like a huge dry sponge. A very patient and huge dry sponge. But in most places you are mostly concerned with the thing filling up with water. So we always find shelves in root cellars and seldom do we see foodstuffs stacked on the ground or floor of a root cellar. And it’s why it’s not uncommon to see temperature and humidity gages inside a root cellar. This is why it’s important not to let your city friends into your cellar to do a magazine photo shoot.

The walls and roofs of root cellars vary. Sometimes they are just dirt. Sometimes the walls are stone or brick or concrete. Sometimes the walls and roof are simple boards which inevitably rot away and become subject to fungi. Stone, brick and concrete are obvious choices for obvious reasons: they resist rot, they can be made seamless barriers against larger biological threats and they are strong enough to where your root cellar can double as a fallout shelter. Wood is often the material at hand, so we try to waterproof the exterior, and for this reason a lot of root cellars end up being boxes that are buried in the earth.

We don’t like pressure treated woods in root cellars. They outgas nasty stuff. Many modern composite materials such as particle boards may also outgas nasty stuff. I know the temptation is to find a rot-resistant material. Cedar and redwood are naturally rot resistant. We’ll talk about some other stuff as we continue.

Root cellar hybrids (& illustrations some day).

There are kind of hybrid designs as well. The hillside root cellar has one problem: one of it’s walls is in direct contact with the very hot or very cold outdoors which reduces it’s effect. In some places this isn’t such a big deal. In some places the Earth is cool enough to where you can have a sunken room with a normal roof on top. Plus you can use environmental factors such as shade trees or placing your door on the north side of a hill for a hillside cellar so it never gets direct sunlight.

Some houses have actual cellars underneath them, as in basements, particularly where it’s cold enough to freeze the Earth itself on top. These make handy root cellars.

Why skimp if you can afford it?

Some really smart people with some bucks at their disposal take a shipping container, apply waterproofing to the outside, dig a big hole and just lay her right in. Fashion an entryway, cover it all over with dirt and now you have a combination root cellar, storm cellar and you are half way to having a bomb shelter to boot.

At any rate, root cellars aren’t really about insulation as they are about thermal massiveness which is kind of the opposite of insulation. Insulation is a barrier between one heat zone and a different heat zone. Thermal massiveness soaks in heat or cold and let’s it go very slowly. There’s this huge interaction between the Earth and the air. The Earth itself emits warmth in winter and soaks it up in summer. It soaks up cool in winter and releases it in summer. This effect is obviously different from region to region, but the more extreme the temperatures, the deeper you want to go. One way to tell is to measure the temperature in your cellar using a thermometer. These rare scientific instruments can only be obtained from such exotic purveyors such as Walmart. Want to know what the soil temperature itself is? Get a meat thermometer, dig a hold and jab the thermometer in at various levels. Don’t wait too long between the digging and the thermometering because the exposed soil is either soaking up heat from or loosing heat to the air, but it will give you a much clearer idea than guessing. The rule of thumb is once you are under 3 feet of dirt, you are temperature-stable pretty much year round. I guess there are places with such a thing as permafrost and maybe a reader from Alaska will tell us how they manage their root cellars. In most places, once you are under 3-4 feet of dirt you are around 50-65 °F. year round. That, incidentally, is the minimum depth range to protect you from the radiation of a thermonuclear detonation. If you are one of those lucky people outside of the immediate blast radius (in which case it’s better to be outside in a lawn
chair because you probably want to be vaporized instantly) but inside the reach of it’s waves of penetrating radiation, this might be of some comfort to you. If you have a good way of sealing off all your vents or even using them for air filtration, you have a pretty nifty fallout shelter coming together. If this is a glum topic, be encourage by the fact that for a while, global nuclear warfare is not our greatest threat. Now it seems to be terrorism or natural disaster, each of which are local or regional in scope. Basically this means if a nuke goes off near you, you have a hope of riding out the initial period and then making it to someplace that’s not as bad effected. In other words, you might actually make it if you are prepared. But this site isn’t about nukes, it’s about food.

Even more tricks! More micro climates inside your root cellar!

By playing all the tricks together we can in effect induce our own micro-climates in storage. The first ones we have if our cellar is well ventilated top and bottom, is that it’s cooler on the floor and warmer towards the roof. I also once saw a cellar that had two rooms, one after another, and the first room had a concrete floor and was pretty dry and the rear one had a dirt floor and kept moister. Just by hanging and shelving things at different heights in one room or the other allowed the owner to really dial in on what balance of temperature and moisture different foods did best in. That was impressive.

Contagion, quarantine and purging of root cellar foods.

I hate to leave my fave topic on a down note, but as I mentioned, a root cellar can become hopelessly colonized by fungi and other stuff. The fungi have microscopic spores that are almost impossible to clean from a root cellar. If your cellar becomes overrun you might develop allergenic sensitivities to it that can make your life really miserable. Some studies seem to show a linkage between mold and childhood respiratory diseases and immune system insults. If this happens, you will be happy if you are one of the few with the sense to have two root cellars to at least half of your provisions will be safe. In any case, you will have to evacuate the overrun root cellar. DO NOT BRING ANYTHING FROM THE CONTAMINATED ROOT CELLAR INTO ANY OTHER STORAGE SPACE. All contents of the compromised root cellar are quarantined. If you think you can still use the contents of the canned good, leave them outside. Pour their contents into bowls to take inside and cook. Don’t even stack the compromised food upwind of a good root cellar. The spores are airborne. A breeze will blow them for miles.

The outsides of non-permeable containers can be washed in bleach and left to dry in the sun and the food in the sealed storage containers is probably fine. Don’t worry about the negative effects of sun this time, this is a salvage operation. Everything else is probably compost.

When a root cellar gets overrun like that, mountain wisdom says it’s over. Purging with fire is one often tried method. Or it was anyway. You’d burn the cellar and all it’s contents. Or just filling them in with dirt. Or sometimes they just got locked and left as an empty space full of memory until some kid finds his way in there. There was some sense of never going back, turning your back on that piece of dirt or hole where the dirt used to be.

Apr 13

Hiding and defending stored food.

Along with natural (and other types of) disaster comes the possibility that you’ll have to defend your food and yourself to keep it. Not letting anybody know you have it is a good start but this might not do it. A combination of active defense such as pitbulls and passive defense such as barricade or fortification are prudent. Caching is another method in which we hedge our bets by distributing emergency food and supplies in different places so hopefully you don’t loose everything at once. So along with nature and man’s assaults on our stored food, we might think in terms of “store some high and store some low”. Keep some high and dry and some buried deep. Keep some here and keep some there. Keep some on your land and some off it. Keep some with friends and some on the way to friends. If you have multiple homes, keep them all stocked. If you have a motorhome or a camper, keep it stocked and ready to roll.

Author’s note: since the publishing of V8.0, lots of folks have said they would love to speak more clearly to defense in martial terms. We don’t feel this is the proper place for us to talk about that. For one thing, it freaks some people out and for another, there are lots of places on the internet to discuss those things. With respect, this is neither the time nor the place for us to discuss these things. It’s just not where we’re going with this thing.

Apr 13

Natural disaster and long term food storage.

There’s really no limit to how many types of natural disasters (or any other kind) that might strike. There’s usually the direct effect, like an earthquake and the secondary effect is a whole lot of people need help at once and the infrastructure that was there to help them isn’t operating too well. Long term food storage is all about helping with the secondary effects of disaster. Most environmental threats are regional and most advice on any topic has to be adjusted regionally or locally.

I don’t doubt there’s places in Alaska where a “root cellar” might translate to “walk in freezer” a good part of the year. In humid places, you open a bag of potato chips and a half hour later they are soggy. Altitude makes a huge difference to things like boiling point which is pretty important when canning: above 10,000 feet, boiling water isn’t hot enough to sterilize things! Remember that next time you are canning yams on top of Mount Ranier. I guess the point here is there’s no one set of rules. You have to adapt everything to your climate and bioregion. Remembering the pueblo example, we see that deserts can be great for storing grain. We can see that polar regions are great places for storing wooly mammoths. We can see that both environments call for some tweaking to the plan.

By now it’s pretty much clear what the planet has in store for us, we can get deluged by water, burnt by wildfire, choked by volcanos, rattled by earthquakes, smashed by asteroids, smitten by plagues, all that good stuff as well as the manmade disasters as outlined in the first chapters. Coming up with a contingency plan for each of these is a bit tricky.

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.