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How To Keep Your Food Cold Without A Refrigerator

alternative to refrigeration

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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.

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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.

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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?

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  1. I haven’t tried this, and my idea might not hold water, but I had a thought about the Zeer pot.
    What if you just filled one pot with water and sunk your food in an airtight plastic bag in the water?
    Water conducts heat better than air, so it should cool quicker.
    When I was younger we used to keep food cool by storing it in water in a spring house* all the time (*a shed built over a stream or ditch), and when I’m camping I use evaporative cooling to make cool drinking water (though I use a canvas bucket – I stole the idea after I experienced the use of it on a larger scale in the army). This would be kind of a combination of those.

    • I’m not positive, but I think the sand holds on to the water longer and keeps the temperature even, releasing water evenly and slowly. You won’t need to refill the water as often. Again, I’m not sure about that.

  2. Cooling Tests Results 2Aug2013
    OK – I promised I’d let you know the results of alternative cooling methods this summer so here are my results in Houston’s 90+ degree summer during the past week (last week of July).
    Last year I tried the ‘pot in pot’ evaporative cooler – during afternoon I saw internal temps about 10 degree drop.
    This year I tried a different evaporative cooler – a large coffee can with 27 one inch holes cut out then filled with a 1 pint jar of sand and lightly stuffed with wet cotton rags – temps ave 83.
    Five gallon bucket of water – 86 degrees.
    Water from buried supply line – 87 degrees.
    One, two & three foot holes – 82 degrees.
    Four foot hole – 79 degrees. (A bit more promising.)
    The air temp (88 to 100 degrees) averaged over all measurements was 95 degrees, all test locations were 95% shaded and the holes were properly insulated from outside air.
    Conclusion – a 4 foot hole would keep my insulin cool but not cool enough for long storage, would need to find a cold spring or alternative method to dig to 8 feet deep in our clay. It is too humid here for evaporative cooling methods to do much of anything.

    • Two thoughts:
      1) Try the 5 gallons of water in an unglazed pot. That way you’ll get the benefit of evaporative cooling also. – You might also try it in a canvas water bag hung from a tree.
      2) Cover your hole in the ground and insulate the cover (w/dirt, sod, bale of straw, etc.). Leave only an opening about 2 inches round in the lid to let the warmer air escape.
      –While I don’t have one now, the root cellars I used to have stayed much cooler than 79F in the hottest days of summer and they were seldom dug more than 4 feet deep.

      • OK David –
        1) Will try the Zeer pot I used last year, this time only filled with water to see if additional evaporation from that seeping thru the sides and bottom make any real difference. With ambient afternoon temps still in the mid 90s will provide good relative results.
        2) Immediately upon completing each additional 1′ of dig, I did insulate the hole with my zeer pot filled with dirt from the dig stuck into the opening. As I got deeper than the initial 1′, I did cover my temp probe with 1″ of bottom dirt and then 3 rag “T” shirts. For the 4′ depth the bottom foot was a 1″ hole punched into the 3′ deep post hole. Did not vent at all as measurements were of the bottom dirt not internal air.
        For reference, in what part of the country were your root cellars? Unfortunately, when I was a child, I never paid much attention to those that some neighbors/family friends had. I do know that the old spring at the bottom of the hill made large watermelons very cold and enjoyable after being in the water for 12 hours or so.

        • Hi,
          I’m from Montana.
          I can’t actually remember what temperature the root cellars kept as I was young and didn’t pay much attention to it. I do know that it was cool enough so that I felt chilly if I was in it for very long, so I would guess that it was at the very least below 45F.
          (Here in Montana even though we can and do have 100F days or weeks in the summer, winter is fairly cold and in the spring 50F is considered shirtsleeve weather. So as the root cellar stayed a fairly constant temperature all year long, I figure it was cooler than that).

          The spring house we had worked well for keeping the milk, eggs, and other items cool (the milk was kept in a metal milk container and the grocery items in a heavy metal box with an insulated wooden lid, both of which were in the water). The spring house was just large enough to make a great place to sleep in the summer and be out of the heat – I miss it.

          • Until I found the site below, what I’d read suggested that ground temps are fairly consistent thruout the populated earth with the exception of occasional ‘hot spots’. Earth does make a good insulator, therefore my personal opinion that average year round temp for an area has a direct effect, particularly at shallow depths. And with only a few nights below 30 during the past few years – – –
            Don’t remember the details, but research in my area state that a couple feet down temp is around 70 degrees.
            The average temperature of caves in Texas is close to 70 degrees.
            Wisconsin caves will average from 49-52 degrees depending on where in the state the cave is located.

    • I would like to find a way to use the cold spring method as I live on a sailboat on lake Erie. . . . any thoughts?

  3. 2. Use Your Solar Oven to Cool. “In the daytime, the solar oven is set up to invite as much sun into the oven as possible.” Is this required for the nighttime cooling function or merely mentioned as to its daytime cooking use??? I would think that the oven must not be overly insulated else radiant heat from daytime use would defeat the cooling process.

    • The oven isn’t insulated at all. It’s basically just a mirror that you set a pot on and it’s open on top.
      If you use the link that was provided above (the link is the word here) it takes you directly to a PDF that shows you how they’re built.

      Link reposted:

    • Outer space is at something like 5 degrees Kelvin, and the ‘solar oven’ that directed the sunlight into the oven can radiate the heat back out to outer space, if not blocked by trees, buildings or clouds. Frosts on the ground can happen on clear nights that are above forty degrees air temperature. The atmosphere will block some radiation, but on clear nights a solar oven can drop well below ambient temperature.

  4. JJM
    I also thought that once you got past the frost line, or in areas without cold weather just a few feet deep, that the earth was pretty much all one temperature until the core temperature started to affect it.

    Average air temperature affecting the ground temperature hundreds of feet below the surface. Just a few minutes ago I would have said you’re mistaken and that it wasn’t possible, that the earth was too good an insulator. But now after reading your link and doing a little more research on it (I Googled it) I’ve learned that what I thought was true in this area was totally wrong.

    This internet thing is messing with my beliefs. How do you expect me to stay a colorful ignorant bumpkin if you keep teaching me stuff.

    • Internet has answers to (almost) any question we have. Problem is wading thru hundreds of search results and then sorting out conflicting answers.
      I am pretty convinced that if/when building my own ‘house’ it should be ‘earth sheltered’. Problem is determining how much light (and air) to let in thru windows. As a child in MO, we drove past, what I considered an ‘unfinished’ home for many years. It was obvious that they were living in a basement with 3′ or 4′ of walls above ground level. I suspect that after a couple years of warming up the insulating ground that their heating expense was negligible and no need for cooling.
      Still need to fashion a solar stove and check out nite cooling. Yesterday’s search got me sidetracked on Fresnel Lens cookers for stove so might go ahead and acquire a couple page size Fresnels and check them out at night as well.

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  6. omg so cool

  7. As a boy living in SD, we had a metal tube in the ground with a shelved tube with one side open. It could be pulled up to access the inside. We kept home made butter, eggs, and milk in it with no problem for short periods. Later we got modern and got an ice box, there were plenty of them free of charge as people were buying refrigerators. I hated pushing a big two wheeled cart down to the ice house several times a week. Years later my girl and I were visiting her mom in Pacific Grove near Monterey, she had no refrigerator, just a burlap covered window box with a water pan on the top. It had holes along the edge to keep the burlap wet. She had no problem keeping butter, eggs and even meat for a short time. But then, she had a fairly constant ocean breeze. I thought I’d read that the ground temperature a few feet down was in the high 50’s, guess I’ll have to check that further.

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