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.
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”.
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|
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.
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.
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.
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.