Most of America’s food storage today depends on refrigeration or freezing, or processed foods that we purchased at a grocery store and then stocked in a pantry. But there was a time when food storage wasn’t quite so easy.
On a fundamental level, old-time off-the-grid food storage involved a series of dedicated spaces or locations to allow temperature and conditions to preserve the food. It also included various preservation processes that further helped with preservation and flavor.
Below are a variety of processes that many of our grandparents, great-grandparents, and their ancestors uses.
1. Off-grid freezing. Yes, freezing. The cold winter months, combined with a dedicated space in an attic or outbuilding, allowed for fish, game and livestock to be butchered and frozen. The meat was usually hung from the rafters in the ceiling to protect it from mice.
This freezing approach to food storage usually occurred from mid-December to at least the end of February.
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2. Off-grid refrigeration. Here’s another surprise, and we’re not talking about a propane refrigerator. Cold springs, water pumped from a cold creek with a ram pump, and water pumped from deep underground with a windmill were often used either to chill a large metal box immersed in the spring, or to continually fill and drain a brick-and-mortar tub where food items were often stored in milk cans. The milk cans were metal, and the circulating cold water effectively kept the internal temperature chilled for things like eggs, butter, bacon, other meats, and, of course, milk.
3. Root cellars. Root cellars were as much a standard feature on a homestead as a refrigerator is today. These were deep pits dug into the ground and covered with timbers and earth with steps leading down to a door that opened into the cellar. The walls were lined with shelves for the storage of winter roots, canned goods and certain fruits. The floors were often dirt, sand or stone. This allowed the natural moisture and coolness of the surrounding earth to keep the root cellar at a consistently low temperature.
4. Canning. This involved adding fruits, vegetables, fish or prepared sauces to glass jars with lids that would create a vacuum seal. The jars were then processed in boiling water for a specific length of time to kill and prevent microbial growth. Sometimes ingredients like vinegar or salt were added because of their natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Often, these canned goods were also stored in the root cellar and sometimes in a pantry.
5. Fermenting. Here’s one we don’t think about often. Fermentation is the process of allowing good microbes to grow to kill the bad microbes.
Examples include sauerkraut, Korean Kimchi, yogurt, wine from grapes, beer from grains, cheese and pickles. Some of these were stored in a root cellar or a cold box. Cheese was often coated with beeswax to further preserve it.
6. Drying. This was a simple process that made storage fairly simple. Classic examples are any and all varieties of string beans that are threaded onto a string and allowed to dry to a leathery texture. These were then hung in the kitchen or a back porch. They had to be reconstituted with a water-soak for a day or two, but it was easier than canning.
Dried and cracked corn was another staple that was usually stored in barrels or large sacks in the kitchen or a dry space like an attic. Herbs were also dried and often bundled and hung from an attic ceiling and in the kitchen, where they could be easily used in winter.
7. Smokehouse. When many of us think of smoking foods, we usually imagine a variation on a barrel smoker and a duration of four to 12 hours. A true smokehouse is much larger and allows you to walk into it. It was often made of brick or stone and had an external firebox and pipe that allowed the smoke to enter and vent through a chimney in the tin roof.
Large meat hooks were hung from the ceiling rafters, and hams, pork shoulder, pork bellies, turkeys and other meats were suspended. This was a dry-smoking process which often went on for weeks and was typically preceded by a curing or dry-salt process. Curing is a brine solution that is either injected into the meat or used as a marinade, while dry-salting is a salt-based “rub” that is rubbed over the outside of the meat.
The combination of salt-curing, the drying from the low temperature heat, the smoke, and the enclosed space allowed some smoked foods like hams and pork bellies to be stored in the smokehouse long after the smoking process was complete.
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