Preserving food is an essential survival skill. Even if you’ve got an extensive stockpile of food to take care of your family in an emergency, that food will eventually run out. Before it does, you will need to be thinking about what you are going to do to keep feeding your family, especially in a long-term survival situation.
Of course, this means that you’re going to have to be harvesting your own food, so that you have something to preserve. That, in turn, means that you’re going to have to be growing it or harvesting it from nature, becoming like the hunter-gatherers of old.
Today, the only way that most of us preserve food is by refrigeration or freezing it. But that probably won’t be available to us in a survival situation, especially a long-term one. Therefore, we’re going to have to count on more primitive methods of food preservation; things our great-grandparents used.
There are many ways of preserving food that have been developed through the centuries, but the most common for our purposes are either canning or dehydrating. There are few foods that can’t be preserved by one of these two methods.
Let’s Define Preserving
When we’re talking about preserving food, what we’re mostly talking about is keeping other living things from eating it. More than anything, we’re concerned about bacteria eating our food, although we also need to be concerned about insects and rodents, both of which will be glad to eat whatever we’ve got.
Bacteria can be killed in a number of different ways. This is what most chemical preservatives do. However, Salt will do the exact same thing. As you learn about preserving your own food, one of the most outstanding things you will find is that most means of preserving food require salt. That’s because salt, and to a lesser extent sugar, are nature’s preservatives.
The second thing that will kill bacteria is drying them out. As single-cell organisms, bacteria require a moist environment. Otherwise the water inside the bacteria leech out by a process known as osmosis. Once it drops too low, the bacteria die. This is actually the mechanism by which salt kills bacteria.
Finally, bacteria can be killed by heat. Louis Pasteur, a French scientist in the mid-1800s discovered that bacteria die at 158°F. The process of raising food to this temperate to preserve it, is called Pasteurization. If you don’t have a thermometer available, water boils at 212°F, so boiling water or food in water will preserve it as well.
Protecting food from insects and rodents is mostly accomplished through packaging. Cans, canning jars and five-gallon buckets are all effective barriers against insects and rodents, although plastic bags are not.
Basics on Canning
Canning uses a combination of salt and heat to kill the naturally-occurring bacteria in food. The food is then sealed into an airtight container, which insects and rodents can’t get through. This makes canning an almost ideal method of preserving all wet foods, fruits and vegetables, as well as meats.
For any canning you do, make sure you get a recipe from a reliable source. Canning recipes are based upon testing that was accomplished by the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) and provide important temperature and time data that must be followed to ensure that the food will be properly preserved.
Everything must be sterilized when canning. This is accomplished by boiling it in clean water. While the jars and lids are being boiled, the food is prepared. It is advisable to use the freshest food possible, so that you end up with the best possible canned food. That food is then placed in the sterilized jars, and the jars are filled with water, leaving a small amount of “head space” (an air gap) at the top.
The filled jars are placed in a water bath, which is brought up to boiling temperature. In the case of meats, a pressure canner is used, raising the actual temperature higher than 212°F (water boils at a higher temperature as the pressure raises). The cans of food are left in the boiling water long enough to ensure that all bacteria in the food is killed. Then they are removed and allowed to cool. As the jars cool, the lids are pulled down by vacuum, sealing the jars.
Basics on Dehydrating
Dehydration preserves food by eliminating the moisture that bacteria need to have in order to survive. In addition, many dehydrated foods are salty, providing extra protection for the food. Jerky, which is dehydrated meat, is typically marinated for 24 hours in a salty marinate, before dehydrating it.
Many foods can be dehydrated, including vegetables, fruits and meats. Vegetables are normally dehydrated without adding anything to them; fruits are normally soaked in a sugar solution or have sugar sprinkled on them and meats are soaked in a salty solution with spices or a salty rub is used on them.
Most dehydrating today is done in an electric dehydrator, which is like a low-temperature oven. Dehydration takes place at between 100°F and 165°F, whereas the average kitchen oven can’t go below 200°F. The better dehydrators have an air circulating fan, to ensure that the food being dehydrated is dried evenly. You have to shuffle the trays around on lower cost dehydrators, as those closer to the heating element dry faster.
Dehydrating food can still be done without an electric food dehydrator. The American Indians made jerky by hanging strips of meat over poles, left in the sun. That method will still work today, especially in areas with strong sunlight. A solar dehydrator can also be used. This is essentially the same as a solar oven, an enclosed case with a glass front, angled towards the sun. The advantage of using a solar dehydrator or oven, over just putting the food to be dehydrated out in the sun, is that it gets hotter, drying the food faster. Meat being dried over wood racks will probably not fully dry in one day.
Now, if you are not yet comfortable with canning or preserving food, especially during a survival situation, you’re better off storing your own emergency food kits. These emergency food kits have a shelf life of 30 years and include many of best comfort foods available.