Friday, June 25, 2010

Storing food

Not my kitchen: Friend and neigbour K. has mains electricity, but no running water. He built this kitchen, including adding the window for natural light to feed his herbs throughout most of the year.

Reader "Spokes" commented: "I am moving off grid and wonder what you do for cold storage. Do you have a refrigerator and if you do what type?"

Six or seven months a year, I've stored perishables in the uninsulated shop I pass through to get to my living quarters, this way it stays frozen and close at hand. During the summer I occasionally use a 12v cooler of the kind people use in cars, but this is mostly for luxury purposes., i.e. cooling beer.

Cellars: What I really, really recommend is creating some kind of root cellar. My cabin is placed on poles so I'm at a disadvantage here. But in reasonably cool climates a normal cellar works fine, keeping stuff almost at fridge-like temperatures in the summer and frost-free in winter. If there is no cellar, an alternative, not-so-labour-intensive version is digging a deep hole, putting a barrel in it, and make some kind of system so you can hoist the contents up and down. The reason I haven't done this is that I only have some inches of soil above the bedrock, so I can't dig deep enough for this to work.

A handy guy, with time on his hands, could make a small, earth bermed cellar with cinder blocks and live very, very happily. Information about building root cellars abound, an alternative, and seemingly cost-effective option, is following the fascinating advice on underground building by Mike Oehler.

Food choices: I have gotten around the storage challenge mostly by avoiding food that goes bad quickly. And if I buy meat or fish or soft cheeses during summer I just binge.

Sometimes guests will opine that I must eat a "lot of canned food". Thank goodness, I don't. Canned food is really astonishingly vile stuff. I'm not a picky eater but while I've eaten some wonderful canned food in France, the rest of us seem not to have gotten the hang of this.

Some food tips: I bake all my own bread. Flour and dried yeast is easy to store. I always live in the hope that the smell of freshly baked bread slightly camouflages the reek of crazy guy in the forest. Dried beans and lentils store forever, and can be sprouted when you need fresh greens. I did this a lot for a while, those sprouts can be fried as an alternative to bacon to go with eggs, or eaten fresh as a salad. Fantastic stuff.

Dried and salted meat is good. Yoghurt and especially cottage cheese keeps way longer than those stamps on the containers claim. Nuts last pretty long, so does jam and honey lasts a lifetime.

If you can keep it a secret from your guests, go for baby formula which tastes more like milk than normal powdered milk. (Most people can't keep themselves from imagining baby formula somehow has been made from milked women.)

Peanut butter is not the gourmet's first choice, perhaps, but man, it doesn't go bad and you can still spread it in sub-zero temperatures.

I use quite a lot of fruit syrups, which keep for eons compared to normal fruit juice. Syrups tend to be pretty damn sweet, but there are some options which are ok.

Oats store pretty well and can be used for all kinds of foods.

Refrigerators, coolers and freezers: There are freezers and refrigerators that run on propane, and even some that run on kerosene. I really, really do not recommend using these. They are fine for the occasional weekend use. But they end up being horribly costly for someone who actually lives off-grid. It took me some time to get used to this: There's a fantastic amount of equipment out there geared towards people who just aren't going to use it very much.

Electric versions are better, provided you have a useful solar/wind-powered system. I do not, however, recommend the small car-type cooler I use. Counter-intuitively, the bigger the better. Lots of cold stuff stays cold longer than just a little bit of cold stuff. Chest-type is better than the vertical type, as cold air will spill quickly out of a vertical freezer. Fill the bugger up to the max, with water bottles or whatever. Frozen water stays cold longer than cold areas of air.

I have looked around, a lot, for electric freezers and by far the best one out there seems to be made by a company called Vestfrost. Once you have something this size, adding extra insulation makes sense, as opposed to insulating a small car-cooler. My solar system (panels at 180 w, 550ah battery bank) could probably keep a big Vestfrost running during summer. As the nights get longer, the air gets cooler, and I could shut the system off in the evenings, and simply turn it completely off during winter. Only the cost, and a degree of techno-skepticism, has kept me from getting hold of one.

Typically, I have wanted a freezer because I would have liked to feed the dogs something else rather than kibble during the summer. Personally, I manage pretty fine without one.

Low-tech: My drooling over electric freezers notwithstanding, the best solutions really are low-tech. An intriguing project would be the "ambient air refrigerator". I've seen "coolers" which are small houses built above a spring, and food stored in buckets hung inside wells. Mother Earth News has a pretty inspiring archive of all kinds of solutions.

Conclusion: That business with a refrigerator placed inside the kitchen, one whose door you can simply open up and grab what you want, is surprisingly hard to replicate in an off-grid situation. A typical attempt would be to use the kind of refrigerator made for boats, but remember that these are designed to work for people who are hooked up to the grid while on shore, and who have a generator (the motor) often turned on while at sea. You really need an enormous array of solar panels to make this work reliably off-grid.

I am pretty confident in claiming that all 12v refrigerators that promise on-grid style convenience will disappoint. If I had a chest freezer I would take bottles of frozen water out of it and put them in a normal, non-electric cooler to keep in the kitchen, that's the closest I can imagine to having a "normal" refrigerator.

The most likely solution is a combination of different systems, and one which involves going outdoors, dipping into the cellar etc. to retrieve what you need.

And... Though I am not old enough to remember the moon landing or the Beatles as an active band, I do remember when refrigerators were not entirely taken for granted. Outside the apartment block where I spent my first years, there were food-filled plastic bags hung from the sills of north-facing windows, including ours. Ambient cooling, indeed.

Update: More information in the comments section.

Update 2: Gas where I live is around five or six dollars a gallon. Propane prices are correspondingly high. Depending on location, propane might be a more attractive option than I claim here.


Oldfool said...

When we lived on the boat we had a small propane fired fridge that worked pretty well but hauling propane got old and the beer was cool at best when it was hot out. The little freezer in it would make ice cubes which made the gin more palatable in the summer. It also would keep a small about of shrimp frozen. It was expensive to operate but that was back when I had more money than brains.
Even though my paternal grandparents had an electric refrigerator in the early 1940's my grandmother still kept her milk and butter in the spring. When we lived in town during the early years of World War 2 we had a upright front opening wooden ice boxes. The ice man came every few days in a mule drawn ice wagon and loaded it up.
On the few occasions that I have been off grid ice has always been available and is still the cheapest option. When driving a truck we kept a 12volt electric but it really wasn't worth the trouble. I still have one around here somewhere but SWMBO'd would rather use an ice chest.

Andy in Germany said...

That's a lot of useful information, thanks for being so generous. We do have a cellar, but it's three floors down and I'm not sure beautiful wife will go for using it as a fridge. Although I did think we could make some kind of lift from tha back balcony to the cellar door, so at least we wouldn't have to climb steps with food. And it'd mean all cold things went down on shopping days instead of being schlepped up en masse.
I'll have to think on this...

Where Hope Begins said...

I am so glad to hear more about 12 volt refrigerators not really working so well on a solar power/battery installation. Is this due to living in a cooler climate? Do you think if someone lived in a very sunny place that there wouldn't be a problem?

Spokes... said...

Thanks very much to you both for your thoughts and comments.

Northmark said...

Where hope begins: 12v refrigerators probably works better in a really sunny climate! But you will have panels and batteries worth thousands of dollars tied up to this one appliance.

During the time of year when I would need a refrigerator, I do have quite a lot of sun, because it's up all day. So higher latitudes do not automatically preclude the usefulness of solar power.

I must admit that, much like boat-people and pilots, I have an attitude towards money and mathematics that is not entirely rational. If I could, I might well spend ten times as much on a fridge as I would have in a place with normal AC electricity. I'm not passing a moral judgement here.

If I lived in a really sunny climate, and had some money, I think I would go for a freezer first. I imagine a fridge is more of a convenience, while a freezer doubles up as a real tool. Store fresh honey comb in a freezer for a while, and you can store it for a long time outside the freezer afterwards. Freeze fish, and you can eat sushi. Trap game or pick berries on a day when sun drying is not an option, and you have a storage back-up. That kind of thing.

RB said...

I buy fresh meat when I want it, and the rest is all about fruits, nuts and vegetables. Oh, and some oatmeal for breakfast. I try not to rely on the fridge, too much. Great insight!

analogmanca said...

I am late to the party, but have a little info that might be helpful to others.
I think it was 4 maybe 5 years ago I bought a new Ge 18 cubic foot fridge.It had the best ratings at the time 400-425kwhr a year. The top frezzer compartment was 5 or 5.5 cuft.I bought a $50.00 temperature controller pluged the unit into the wall then the fridge power into it. I then ran the temperature sense bulb up to the frezzer compartment(taped it to the inside wall).I pluged the holes that the frezzer compartment had that aloud the cold air to blow down into the fridge part with a couple of sponges. So I now have a 5.5 cuft fridge,at perfect head hieght that uses 266 watts a day(I use a killowatt meter to measure).By using the controler to turn off, and on power to the fridge I have defeated the timer ccts that cycle on the door seal heaters, and defrost mode.Anyway, I hope I didnt make it sound complicated as it isnt.