There are lots of reasons that could force us to live without refrigeration and this would create a lot of life changes. People will have a hard time preserving food without using a freezer. Many of them will stick to eating dry goods. If your fridge stops working due to a community-wide power outage, you might want to learn about alternatives methods to preserve your food.
Almost all Americans own a refrigerator and for them, the thought of not being able to preserve food for more than a couple of days is unthinkable. However, there are also those who live without refrigeration and they’ve learned how to adapt to this lifestyle. Some live close enough to store that they shop daily while others learned from their grandparents how to adjust their eating styles to a life without refrigeration or how to preserve food using a cold or frozen storage.
We cannot predict the future, but there are many reasons why you could be left without refrigeration. It could be voluntary, such as moving to an off-grid property or it could be involuntary like a power grid failure due to events that can’t be controlled. Whether it’s voluntary or involuntary, it’s always a good idea to have some backup plans and information on how to live without refrigeration.
Although many processes would help us preserve food without the need of a refrigerator, there are certain foods that need to be kept cold. The cold temperatures create an environment which slows the growth of bacteria that can spoil food. Refrigeration slows down the growth of bacteria and keeps your food edible. Even though it cannot last forever, it will still be safe to eat after a week or two.
Places to keep your food cool if you are forced to live without refrigeration:
Most of the people who decide to get off the grid will dig a root cellar on their property. Even a primitive root cellar that is 6’ by 8’ and 6’ deep does a great job at preserving your food. Many books will teach you how to build a root cellar. These books will even teach you what foods to store in one. From experience, I’ve learned that a primitive cellar can be damp and storing metal cans in there is not a good idea. I now stick to fresh food like potatoes and carrots and I use plastic buckets or containers for other foods such as grains.
During summer, when our days get into the 80s or 90s, the temperature drops to 40s in the root cellar and it’s even colder at night. The root cellar stays 40 degrees year round and rarely gets higher than 45 degrees. I’ve kept butter and cheese in plastic containers and many condiments and never had any troubles with them. It is a perfect place to store cooking oil, peanut butter, shortening and dehydrated foods.
This is a method used in arid climates. It involves making a cold box that will be at least 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding air. I’ve learned this technique from a close friend who lives in Nevada. It can be as simple as a wet towel placed over the food, to a box covered with a cloth and a water hose dripping onto the fabric to keep it moist.
During a desert camp-out, we’ve tried this method to preserve cheese and butter. We took a small cake pan and placed a small bowl in the middle. We put a block of cheese and two sticks of butter in the pot and then we poured water in the cake pan halfway up the bowl. Afterwards, we laid a piece of cloth over the bowl and we tucked the bottoms of the fabric into the water from the cake pan. The dish would wick up water and kept it wet. We placed the cake pan in the shade and we checked the temperature using a thermometer placed inside the bowl.
The temperature under the towel stayed in the 50s range while the surrounding air temperature was in the upper 70s. I’ve asked my friend how he learned about this method of preserving food. He told me that he first saw an evaporation cooling box at the library in Searchlight. The picture on the right shows how to make a simple evaporation cooler and it is something I’ve discovered after reading the “Carbon-free home” book.
Related article: How to live without electricity
If you discuss with other preppers about how to live without refrigeration. Almost always, many will bring up to the topic of sand pots. I’ve heard mixed opinions of whether this actually works well. I believe it may depend on what you are trying to keep cold. This is a method that works for the foods that don’t need to be kept as cold as others. It is a simple method and you can try it yourself, without having to be a good handyman.
You take two pots, one about an inch more significant overall and you fill the layer between the pots with wet sand. It doesn’t matter what type of sand you are using, but you should make sure there is a little damp sand on the bottom of the large pot. You place the food in the smaller pot and you cover it with a wet towel that is tucked in the wet sand between the pots. I’ve seen many variations of this method. The main lesson is that you need to use a porous inner pot for this technique to work.
You will also have to pour water into the sand from time to time as it evaporates. You should not let the sand dry out and keeping it damp will suffice. Put a thermometer in the inner pot and monitor the temperature. You will know whether is cold enough for the foods you want to store. Make sure the pots are shaded as this will help with the watering times.
The video below shows how to make a sand pots refrigerator:
This is a method used by those who live in the northern mountains where they get a lot of snowfall and snow cover. This technique can be used in any region that has snow packing down and piling up. It is used in areas where the last of the snow melts to late April. You can use a 50 gallons barrel to build your snow cave. Lay it on its side in a shady grove and brace it on each side with boards so it wouldn’t roll.
Set a small piece of plywood inside over the curve of the barrel’s side to create a flat shelf. Shovel snow up against the outside of the barrel, around and over it. Pack it as hard as you can and add more snow as it ices up. Add more snow until it is all covered except for the lid which will become the door. Use the lid to cover the door or you can use styrofoam if you have any.
Make sure you have at least 2 feet of snow packed around and over it. Some people will add straws under the barrel and over it, once covered with snow. They do so to insulate the snow cave. In some cases, this helps to extend the life of the snow cave by the end of May. This is a useful method for those who live where it snows. It provides them with a good outdoors cooler even when there are “warm” winters.
My grandmother had an Ice cellar, also known as an Icehouse and it helped her preserve food all summer. The Ice cellar was built under the barn. This was a common practice of those times in places where ponds and lakes freeze in winter. It is one of the lost ways of preserving food that is being used even today. There was a trapdoor leading to the Ice cellar and we weren’t allowed to go there without her permission. Wooden stairs descended into a dark room lit by one light bulb hanging from the side of a cement wall.
My grandfather used to cut the ice with a long saw with big teeth. They used to make a hole in the ice and put the saw through it to cut blocks about two feet by two feet, whatever the thickness of the ice was. They were usually making test holes to check the thickness of the ice and to avoid breaking their backs for nothing. When a block of ice was cut, they attached tongs to it and a rope ran from the tongs to their horses. The horses would pull the block up and across the lake. All the blocks were loaded onto a wagon and taken back to the barn.
Suggested reading: Eggs and Dairy Preservation Techniques
They were using the pulley from the ceiling of the barn to lower the ice into the cellar. I remember they used to line the floor of the cellar with sawdust. They would then stack the blocks of ice on the sawdust. The sawdust wasn’t used for insulation as many would think. It was used primarily for preventing the blocks of ice to fuse together as they melted. In the old days, people used to dig into the hills and shored the caves with boards and lined them with sawdust in order to create ice caves.
The generation of people who know about ice houses from real life experience and about other lost ways to preserve food is fading as time goes by. Most of the information you can find online about how to build an above-ground ice house involves building an insulated building that has double walls filled with sawdust, hay or other natural organic insulating material.
Spring and wells
If you picked a piece of land that has a cold spring on or near your property you could use it as a refrigeration method. You can use the cold water from the spring to keep the food chilled. You can dig a small spring pool that will provide a constant water flow to a small hole near the spring. In the middle of the pool, you can place a plastic gallon jar (or more) with a screw-on lid and put the food that fit in it. Use large flat rocks to weight them down.
Another method used by the old-times involved building spring-houses which were small sheds built over the source of the spring. They made a trough out of wood and the cold spring water runs through it. It was shallow and food in crocks was set in the water. It was designed and built so that the water wouldn’t cover over the foods. The flow was slow enough to prevent washing them along the trough. There aren’t many open, hand-dug wells nowadays as in the past, but if things go south, they may again be hand-dug wells where the water table is shallow enough. The pioneers used to lower a bucket on a rope and suspending at for or so over the water of a hand-dug well. They were used to live without refrigeration and this simple method of keeping the food cold was used by many of them.
A final word
The methods listed in this article are good alternatives to keep your food cold when electricity is not available. These are some of the lost ways our ancestors used to preserve food. While these options are safe with some foods, they may not work with others. I’m not an expert when it comes to living without electricity and I’m sharing what I’ve learned from people who live without refrigeration. As with everything in life, it is better to test these methods yourself and see if they work for you.
Stay safe and God Bless!
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