If you live in the United States and are reading this, chances are you have a good-sized refrigerator. This is where you store much of your food, putting it in the fridge because it’s convenient and you don’t have to think much about the food once it’s there. Most produce from the store, if you buy any quantity at all, is often tossed into the fridge. Leftovers go into the fridge and often scoot to the back, forgotten for a long while, if we’re honest.
What happens if the electricity unexpectedly goes off (for whatever reason) and stays off for an extended amount of time? What if you want to go on an extended camping trip and don’t have refrigeration? What if you want to build a homestead without the use of a refrigerator, to save money on electricity or gas? Or what if a fuel source is simply not available? What then?
You could, of course, purchase a solar or gas refrigerator, but let’s consider what people did prior to the industrial revolution and what people still do in areas without electricity widely available. How do they deal with food without the use of a refrigerator and not get sick?
Change Your Food Storage Mindset
Believe it or not, more food than you might think can go for some time without refrigeration and still remain safe to eat. While we may be used to stocking up on and refrigerating cheese, butter and fruits and vegetables, it is entirely possible to buy just enough of these items for a week and store them in a cool, dry place on your countertop. Say goodbye to huge stock-up trips, though, because without some sort of cooling system, your food will eventually go bad the longer it sits out at room temperature.
Know Your Fruits And Veggies And Their Needs
Your only option of storing your fruits and vegetables need not be the refrigerator. There are plenty of other options for storing them, and some of them may even allow your food to last longer than if you kept them in the refrigerator.
Generally, the optimal conditions for storage of fruits and veggies are a temperature between 50 degrees and 55 degrees Fahrenheit (pumpkins, winter squash, and sweet potatoes can tolerate up to 60 degrees) and low humidity. Cabbages, celery, and root crops can handle cooler temperatures, down to 30 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and can tolerate more humidity.
Is there a place that you can think of that might offer such conditions? Do you have a basement or garage that stays cool? A spare bedroom that you keep closed most of the winter? Perhaps, depending on your climate, a shed? If there isn’t any place that will work for you, you might consider making a root cellar to store your produce.
Mother Earth News offers a “Guide To Simple Storage Of Produce” chart that gives instruction specific to each fruit or vegetable.
Learn To Cook Just Enough
Okay, so we’ve covered what to do with the fresh produce. What are we supposed to do with the food that we’ve cooked and is left over from the meal after everyone has eaten? What do we do with the leftovers?
The first answer is to plan ahead and cook only enough for the meal so there is nothing left over to worry about storing.
The second answer is, depending on what the food contains, to set the food aside in a semi-cool place and eat it for the next meal or snack. In other countries, such as Japan, meals are often left in a covered pot at room temperature. The food is eaten as snacks throughout the day or is eaten at the next meal. Don’t get all hung up on what foods are appropriate for which meals — food is food; it doesn’t matter what time of day it is eaten. Do keep in mind that the Japanese eat very few, if any, dairy products, and little meat. That may factor into their success with on-the-counter storage, and it may color your decision as to what to do with your particular leftovers.
My grandmother-in-law stored leftovers in a covered container at room temperature. I was amazed that she was not sick all the time, and that we didn’t get sick from it. I am glad I didn’t know at the time I was eating the food that had sat out all day, but what I didn’t know didn’t hurt me.
Still Need A Cooler Food Environment?
Let’s say you have considered all of the above and still decide you want a cool place to store your food. Perhaps you just want a cool drink on a hot day, or perhaps the power’s gone out and you have a whole fridge of just-purchased food to keep cool until the power goes back on.
Enter evaporative cooling methods. Evaporative cooling isn’t necessarily a new thing, but it is something that has been used in the past that has been largely forgotten in this day and age that we live in. These methods work far better the more arid the climate, though it wouldn’t hurt to give them a try if you live in an area that is more humid.
Here are some alternative cooling options for your consideration:
1. Create A Zeer Pot. A Zeer Pot is a fairly new invention, created in 1995 by a Nigerian pot-maker by the name of Mohammed Bah Abba who wanted to help Sudanese families to preserve their food. His invention won him the Rolex Award in 2000 and the World Shell Award for Sustainable Development in 2001.
A Zeer Pot works through evaporative cooling. To make one, you will need two unglazed Terra Cotta pots that will nest together and leave a space between the pots, wet sand to fill that space, and a wet cloth. Place the smaller pot inside the larger pot, fill the space between the pots with the sand, and cover your pot-in-pot with the wet cloth. As the water evaporates, it pulls the warm air outward, causing the inside of the pot to be cooler than the outside air. Place whatever you want to keep cool in the inner pot. Dampen the sand and cloth as needed.
Simple instructions on How to Make a Pot in Pot Cooler are found in a short YouTube video.
2. Use Your Solar Oven to Cool. You may have a solar oven that you use to heat your food, but did you know that it is possible to use the same solar oven that you use by day to make a radiant refrigerator and possibly even to make ice by night? Based on the concept that the ancient Egyptians used to make cool water or ice, it entails exposing water to clear night sky.
In the daytime, the solar oven is set up to invite as much sun into the oven as possible. In the evening, your reflectors are set up similarly, only their function is now to release the heat in the box into the night sky, which is a “heat sink.” You don’t want the oven/refrigerator to “see” any buildings, trees, etc. You only want it open to the clear night sky, and as much of it as possible.
To use your solar oven as a radiant refrigerator, place a jar or pan in the solar oven with two bags around it with air pockets in each of the bags. Alternatively, fill the bags with water — experiment to see which works best. I have read about it both ways. Either put water into the jar/pan and end up with cool water/ice to use during the day for cooling, or put your food straight into the jar/pan to cool it. Adjust your radiant refrigerator so that it is only seeing the clear night sky, and then be sure to retrieve your ice/cool water before the sun comes up, for coolest results. Insulate your cool water/food/ice during the daytime to help maintain the cool temperature.
Tests that were done by BYU students using this system routinely yielded inside temperatures of 29 degrees Fahrenheit below the ambient temperature.
A set of detailed instructions (with pictures!) on how to build your own collapsible solar cooker is available here.
3. Make An Evaporative Refrigerator. Sometime you might just need more cooling space, and that’s where the evaporative refrigerator comes in.
Start with a heavy-duty plastic utility shelving unit, and set up the top shelf so that it will hold water. If you are unable to re-adjust the top shelf, you can alternatively find a large shallow pan to place at the top of the shelf.
Once you have your shelf set up where you need it, you will need enough burlap or other heavy cloth to completely cover all around the shelving unit. This might take some piecing together and sewing. Or, you might be lucky and have one huge piece that will wrap all around the unit and leave you a way to get into the front. Wet the cloth and wrap it around the shelving unit, securing it with clamps or clothespins and leaving some extra length of the burlap hanging into the top of the shelving unit/pan filled with water.
As water wicks down the burlap/cloth and evaporates, this causes a cooling effect and cools whatever you place inside on the shelves. Refill the water on top as needed.
Evaporative cooling will be more effective, the more arid the climate. Because of this, you will want to locate your evaporative cooling units in an area that receives plenty of air movement and as little humidity as possible for optimal performance. You may also want to be careful what you have around your evaporative refrigerator, as it will be damp around it.
Now, even on a hot, no-electricity, no-refrigerator, no air-conditioning day, you can help yourself to make your food last longer. You can also, after a hard day’s work, pull a cool drink out of your evaporative cooler and be refreshed!
What tricks have you used to keep things cool without your refrigerator?