Thursday, January 19, 2012

Long Term Food Storage

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

Those of us who have lived in Hurricane vulnerable parts of the country get annual reminders at the onset of storm season every June.  Media and supermarkets offer pragmatic lists of supplies to keep on hand. My family took such suggestions seriously, and the resulting preparation came in handy during ice storms and flu season as well as hurricanes and flooding.

I encourage people in the rest of the country to follow suit for whatever reasons make sense to them. I’ve been astonished to read how few households maintain even three days (9 meals) worth of food. For $20, $50, or $100, think of the shelf stable foods that could have enhanced the quality of life for the millions of people trapped by extensive 2010-11 power outages in areas as disparate as San Diego, Cedar Rapids, Tennessee, and Vermont.
The flowers are bok choy, Siberian
wallflowers, and asters 

In Bush Alaska, we stock up on long term food and supplies, primarily because to reach a supermarket we have to fly to one and we don’t do that very often. But, like “Hurricane Alley” residents, many Alaskans, city or rural, are wise enough to be prepared when a tree falls on a power line or a snow plow can’t get through. In one story that sounds like the Arctic version of Gilligan’s Island, friends flew out with another couple in their ski plane for a winter weekend at their hunting cabin. An unseasonably warm storm struck and it rained for days! This softened up the lake ice so much that it was not safe for the ski plane to depart until the temperature dropped for a sustained period, so the foursome was stranded in a very small cabin for s-e-v-e-n-t-e-e-n days. Fortunately, they had bulk storage of grains, pasta, and beans, but surely after a while the menu got pretty dull and the Canasta games pretty boring.


Below is information that I think may be useful for urban or rural folks who can envision a variety of reasons to bulk up on food supplies. You don’t need to be a “prepper”; you might want to have food on hand in case of inclement weather, illness, power outages, transportation glitches, food price inflation or a sudden influx of guests. Some of the products and information are based on personal practice and others are based on websites (see two listed below).



 Packaged Long Term Food Storage

A quick Google search will reveal a number of well regarded purveyors of long term stored foods, usually dehydrated and freeze dried.  Mountain House is one brand (www.mtnhse.com).  Campers are familiar with such prepared meal packages for two people as “beef stew” or “spaghetti with Alfredo sauce.”  An entrée pack for two people usually costs $5-6 and can last 7 years.  A second type of long term storage sells paint bucket size cans (#10) of prepared meals or of individual foods like corn or carrots.  These can last 20 or 30 years, unopened.  The price per entrée drops in this bucket format, to about $2-4 per person.  Buckets of individual foods are cheaper still.  Augason Farms is one brand (www.augasonfarms.com).  From www.luckchen.com, we have bought over 100 lbs of 4 lb tofu packs flavored as meats, which, unopened, will last 5 or more years.  We have found these products versatile and flavorful, even after freezing and thawing a cooked product.       

Normal Foods with a Long Shelf Life
For “normal food” not packaged for long term storage, the most important factors for longevity include temperature, moisture content, and packaging.  Products will degrade much faster in hot regions (AZ) or locations (attics) than in cold regions (AK) or locations (basements). A useful “tipping point” reference is room temperature.   Several graphs I saw indicated an accelerating rate of degradation every 10 degrees F above the mid-60s F and, conversely, an escalating rate of preservation every 10 degrees F below the mid-60s F.  For example, foods stored at 90 degrees might last only months but at 40 degrees would last many years.  In any part of the country, the foods need to be protected from insects or critters.  For example, in Texas, I’ve encountered weevils in store bought bags of beans, rice, and cornmeal, particularly if I stored the (unopened) bags in the pantry for several months.  Many Southerners consequently store flour in the freezer.  In Alaska, voles (furry meadow mice) crawled into a bag of beer grains.  Storage in geographic regions with freeze/thaw cycles can swell foods in otherwise impervious cans and jars.  Food stored in air tight, food grade containers with desiccants to absorb moisture or nitrogen to replace oxygen will likely last the longest.

With these caveats about temperatures, critters, and packaging, below is a list of common pantry foods and how long various websites report they will last, presumably at 65 degrees.  I know that at our cabin in Alaska, several of these products have remained edible several years longer.  

(Good sources of additional information can be found on www.stilltasty.com and www.usaemergencysupply.com)

 Long Term Storage of DRY GOODS
1)      Familiar foods that last F-O-R-E-V-E-R if unopened and for many years, opened include: crystalline products like salt and sugar, also cocoa, solid Crisco, honey, 100 proof alcohol (not just obvious items like vodka, but others, like vanilla flavoring and mouthwash), vinegar, cornstarch.  Some sources say that white rice lasts forever, too, but other sources suggest 2-5 years.    

2)      Foods that last more than a year, if unopened, less if opened.
Pasta can last up to 3 years, canned goods (unopened) can last 2-5 years in stable temperatures, jello, drink mixes, hard shelled items like popcorn, wheat (not flour), beans, lentils, white rice, spices (unground ones, like peppercorns, last longer than ground spices), baking soda (not just for baking, but also for softening beans while they soak) and baking powder, foods preserved in vinegar like jalapenos, sauerkraut, olives, artichokes, ketchup, (Vinegar, salt, and  baking soda are good cleaning supplies, too), powdered milk, peanut butter, jams and jellies, hot sauce, soy and teriyaki sauce, coffee, tea, bags of dried fruits, like sun dried tomatoes and apricots, dried non-dairy creamer.

3)      Foods that last 5-12 months, if unopened, less if opened.
Flour, powdered eggs, bags of nuts in the shell, oatmeal, grits, and other breakfast cereals, crackers, candy bars, jarred salsa, brown rice, coffee, tea, and, perhaps surprisingly, meat jerky.       

In summary, baking ingredients last the longest and appetizers second longest.

Long Term Storage of PERISHABLES
Among fresh foods, I imagine that anyone who goes to the grocery store has a good idea of how long perishable last, so below I’ll just list a few helpful hints.
1)      Milk products: Cheese, sour cream, and yogurt will lose their smooth texture if frozen but are safe and edible, and certainly appropriate in mixed or cooked foods, like dips.

2)      Eggs: 
a) Shelled, scrambled, raw eggs can be frozen.  Add a bit of salt or sugar or you might not like the texture (gelatinous).
b) Farm fresh eggs (not those sold in supermarkets) are "born" with a natural antibiotic coating which, if not washed off, protects them from contamination at room temperature for several weeks, so I don’t refrigerate farm eggs. Think about it: it takes an egg about 21 days to hatch in the warm nest under the hen.  Older readers may recall mothers or grandmothers storing a basket of eggs in the kitchen.  In the winter, we don’t run our refrigerator (which is not in the little cabin but in an unheated shed), so I don’t refrigerate store bought eggs either, but keep a box in the coldest corner of the cabin that won’t freeze.  This terrifies American city friends of mine, but in many shops in Europe, Latin America and Australia, eggs are sold from shelves, not refrigerator cases.  After two weeks, I drop the eggs in a glass of water before using them. Those that float have gotten aerated and are contaminated.  Those that sink retain impermeable shells. I've had storebought eggs last a month stored in the cool corner of my cabin. 

3)     Fruits:
a)  Many can be frozen whole, including lemons, limes, and grapes. The citrus skins will look gnarly but the juice will be fine. All soft bananas of mine gets peeled and stored in groups of 2-3 in freezer bags for the next batch of banana nut muffins or a frozen banana puree with chocolate sauce.
b) Many fruits naturally emit ethylene gas, which causes other foods nearby to ripen faster, and some early picked fruit and veggies are treated with ethylene to help them ripen on the way to the consumer.  Bananas and other tropical fruit, as well as broccoli, lettuce, and cucumbers are particularly sensitive to the ripening effects of gas emitted by apples and melons, for example.  For this reason, pretty as a bowl of fruit may be, you may want to store some items away from others.  It has been my impression that home grown and organic produce, presumably not treated with ethylene, tends to last longer.  
c) Many of us tend to store onions and potatoes near each other but that is not a good idea.  Onions "draw" moisture from items they are stored near, and can therefore degrade potatoes.  However, storing apples near potatoes is a good idea, as the apples will deter sprouting.  
c)  Bruised or damp fruits and vegetables will degrade faster than others that are whole and dry.  For long term storage, I hang fruits and vegetables in mesh bags away from the stove.  Until we do a better job of controlling humidity in the cold-hole, I can't keep onions there - they get moldy. 


 Conclusion:  By having long term items on hand, my stomach, at least, is safe from circumstances in my environment, and by attentiveness to optimal storage of fresh and packaged foods, I waste less, too.   


 

6 comments:

  1. It would amaze you how much perfectly edible food is thrown away because people think it unsafe due to being past the freshness/expiration date. Whenever possible I take it off their hands, enjoy it and laugh all the way to the bank!

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  2. I have a mission that I’m just now working on, and I have been at the look out for such information.
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  3. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic.
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  4. Am considering a trip to some of the bush towns with supplies what are some of the thing people could use there..I'm thinking of moving there and want to bring extras..anything of use Bldg.materials,foods,tires...ect

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  5. Regarding the question, above: once you visit several communities in this enormous and varied state you can assess where you would feel at home and what supplies are available. Island? Tundra? Forest? Coast? Mountain? The definition of "bush" (as opposed to "rural") is that the locale is "not on the road system." This means that all supplies are brought in by boat, plane, or snowmachine (by you or by the townspeople). This is expensive. Best wishes for your adventure!

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