Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Food Storage: Freezing and Drying

But not freeze-drying, which is an entirely different matter.

I come from a place and a people where emergency preparedness, and particularly food storage, are nigh unto doctrinal teachings. A long-running joke among the "Doomsday Prepper" types is "Find a Mormon and take their stuff." While we can debate the wisdom of actually following this course of action, there is a bit of twisted logic to it: we Mormons are experts at buying it cheap and stacking it deep, and here are a few insights into how we keep it from going bad.

The most basic and common way to store food is simply to freeze it:
  • Everybody has at least some freezer capacity in their home, and deep-freeze units can be purchased fairly inexpensively if additional storage is needed.
  • Foods can be purchased in larger quantities during sales, broken down into convenient packaging sizes, and simply put on ice until needed. 
  • No other special equipment is required.
  • There is minimal overhead cost involved.
  • As long as the electricity stays on, everything is happy. 
  • Even if the power goes out briefly, a good freezer will keep food safely cold for a decent period of time (assuming the door is left shut to keep the cold in). 

(Protip: Keep a cup of ice cubes in your freezer, and replace them as they evaporate away. If for some reason the temperature in your freezer increases to an unsafe level, the ice will melt. If power is restored without you noticing, the water will re-freeze, but will no longer be in cube form. It's a handy, free way to monitor the system.)

Foodsafety.gov has a handy chart that lists best-quality time frames for foods that are frozen. They also note that frozen foods are safe to eat virtually indefinitely. The key to ensuring quality in frozen foods is keeping out air and moisture:
  • Commercial bags and heat sealing units are available for a modest price and will make freezing foods far easier and more effective. 
  • For shorter-term storage, or if heat-sealing is currently outside your budget, a quality zipper freezer bag will suffice. 
  • In the worst case, freezer burned food can usually still be used in soups, stews, and slow-cooker recipes. (If any readers have a recipe like this to share, by all means leave it in the comments section.)

Dehydrated foods store incredibly well. 
  • They require no refrigeration or freezing, so they have no maintenance cost, save for the shelf space they're kept on. 
  • Kept in cool, dark areas and sealed in a similar manner to the ones discussed for freezing, dried grains, vegetables, and other non-proteins will keep for 8 years or more. 
  • Dried fruits store for five years or better.
  • Dried meats have a fairly short shelf life, so meat often does better in the freezer. 
  • Dried foods also have the advantage of being far easier to transport, as they weigh a fraction of their original weight, and require no cooling considerations for short term use. 
  • David covered how to store food in buckets, and his advice in using buckets to store dehydrated foods, in addition to store bought, holds true.

Drying your own food 
It's a fairly simple process, accomplished several ways. The easiest is through a dedicated dehydrator. These consist of a low-temperature heating element and a fan which moves air across slotted or vented trays. The linked unit is the modern variant of the ones mom and grandma used for years when I was a kid. 
  1. Foods are prepped by being sliced thinly and cut into manageable sizes if necessary. 
  2. Slice as thinly as practical, since thinner slices dry more quickly and completely. 
  3. The slices are then placed on the trays in a single layer with no overlap, and the machine is turned on and let run until the food is as dry as desired.
  4. Remove the dried food from the machine, package it for storage, and you're done.
Foods can also be dried in an oven, but it is a far more involved process, and far less energy efficient. It is an effective method, but won't work in all ovens, and the energy costs involved will go a long way towards purchasing a dehydrator that will do the job far better. If you do choose this technique, elevating your food on a stainless steel cooling rack will help the process along.

Dehydrated foods can be used dry (raisins, dried apples, etc.), or can be re-hydrated to use as if they were fresh. Simmer or boil the dry product for 20-30 minutes, then use it as you would fresh food. They can also be thrown dry into soups and stews, and they'll reconstitute as they cook.

Food storage doesn't have to break your budget, taste like cardboard, or be entirely alien to your diet. Freezing and drying allows you to put up foods that you like and know, and are confident that you and your family can and will eat.


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