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5 Forgotten Ways To Keep Food Cold Without Electricity

5 Forgotten Ways To Keep Food Cold Without Electricity

We have a hard time even thinking about living without electrical power. We use it for everything, from powering our cell phones to running our factories. Without it, modern life, as we know it, would cease to exist.

That’s why the loss of the electrical grid is one of the most challenging survival scenarios that we as a society face. While electricity is not normally considered a survival priority on an individual level, it is for society as a whole.

Quite literally, the entire infrastructure breaks down without electrical power. Besides all the obvious things that would stop working in such a situation, we would also lose the entire distribution system. Without electrical power to run the computers and the machines, getting products from manufacturers and distributors to stores comes to a screeching halt.

But we’ll feel the pinch of losing electrical power long before things get to that point. Without our appliances, society would be set back by over a century. Actually, it would be worse than that, because our great-grandparents knew how to live without electricity … and we don’t.

Of all the domestic uses of electricity, the single most important one is refrigeration. We depend on it to keep fresh food fresh and frozen food frozen. Without that capability, those foods would spoil fast.

Yet refrigeration, in one form or another, existed long before electric power and the modern refrigerator. If we are going to keep foods fresh, once the grid goes out, we’re going to have to rediscover those methods and put them to use.

Here’s five ways to do that:

1. Go underground

Long before refrigerators or even ice boxes, people discovered that they could keep food cool by keeping it underground. Those who had caves on their property would use them for food storage. But even people who didn’t have a cave would take advantage of things being cooler underground, if they had a well.

Pitchers of milk, cheese, sides of meat and other foods could be kept cool, helping them to last longer. The further down in the well the item was hung, the cooler it would be. So, it wasn’t uncommon to see a number of ropes going down into a well, with each one holding something that the owner wanted to keep from spoiling.

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This idea evolved into the root cellar, which was extremely common in the pioneering days of our country. Root cellars are nothing more than man-made caves, carved out of the ground to provide a cool place to keep food — especially root vegetables like potatoes and carrots – cool.

The home I grew up in had a concrete bomb shelter attached to it, a leftover from World War II. That became our family’s root cellar, giving us space that we could use when our refrigerator was already full.

2. Running water

There’s nothing better than fresh water from a cool stream, especially if it is fresh runoff from melting snow. While that might be a bit cool to bathe in, it’s great for keeping food cool. This is a trick that’s been used by campers and backpackers for years. But it’s one that we need to add to our survival arsenal.

Running groundwater stays cool due to evaporation. That’s why running water is usually cooler than standing water. The movement of the water exposes more of it to the air, increasing the amount of evaporation. In cases of whitewater, where the water is being thrown into the air by rocks and other obstacles, evaporation increases even more, making the water even cooler.

5 Forgotten Ways To Keep Food Cold Without Electricity

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The one problem with using running water to keep food cool is that there is a chance of fish and aquatic animals eating your food. So, if you’re going to do this, you need the food in a container to protect it.

3. Evaporative cooling

Since evaporation cools water, we can use evaporation to cool food, as well. All we need is some means of putting the food in a place where it is surrounded by evaporating water. This is easily accomplished by wrapping fabric around a shelving unit and wetting it down. Food placed on the shelves will be nice and cool. Of course, you’ll need to add water from time to time.

A makeshift evaporative refrigerator like this works best if it is placed where a breeze is hitting it. The breeze increases the amount of air flowing over the wet fabric, thereby increasing the amount of evaporation.

Of course, for evaporative cooling to work, you need to be in a relatively dry climate. High humidity lowers the amount of evaporation you can expect, which in turn lowers the effectiveness of these methods of keeping food cool.

4. The zeer pot

The zeer pot is a primitive, but quite effective, evaporative cooler that is still in use in parts of the world today. It consists of two unglazed clay pots, one larger than the other. The small pot is placed inside the larger one and the space between the two filled with sand. Food is placed inside the inner pot and the sand is filled with water.

Since the pots are unglazed, the water will soak through them, making the clay wet. Water on the surface of the outer pot will then evaporate, cooling the pots and their contents. Covering the top with a wet cloth will increase the overall cooling, helping to keep the food inside fresh.

In tests, produce kept in a zeer pot will last four times as long as comparable produce kept at room temperature. These tests were done in a hot climate, so it’s possible that in a cooler climate, the zeer pot would be even more effective.

5. The ice box

The most recent means of keeping food cool, before the refrigerator came on the scene, was the ice box. I’m not talking about an ice chest that you’d use on a picnic here, but rather something that was in the kitchen and used to keep food cool.

An ice box, obviously, requires ice. This was delivered every few days by the ice man, who brought it from a warehouse called an “ice house.” This ice would have been harvested from lakes in the wintertime and stored in a well-insulated area – using straw and sawdust — until warmer weather. Anyone who has seen the movie Frozen should be familiar with this concept, as the movie shows workers harvesting ice and storing it away in an ice house.

While it would be difficult, you could build an ice house and harvest ice in the wintertime, for use when the weather is warmer. The best ice houses, of course, are underground.

What advice would you add for keeping food cool when it’s warm? Share your thoughts in the section below:

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  1. This is not for everyone, and not for short term. One of the oldest methods commonly used in Europe before the advent of electricity was do dig a very deep pit and then in the winter fill it with snow. The snow would last though till the next winter and kept things at the freezing point, maybe longer is well insulated from above. You can build a walk-in in freezer type room inside where the snow will cover, or place smaller containers to haul up when needed.

    something similar can be accomplished by putting out actual ice which you get from cutting up a frozen lake or from leaving appropriate containers of water out on freezing nights and storing them so it takes months to melt.

    As an aside, I find it ridiculous that people pay for freezers and fridges in the cold months when things could be kept outside when it below freezing, especially given that such appliances use the most electricity. Even sillier is keeping such an appliance inside a room that is you are also paying to heat! (either with money or time and effort to fuel!)

  2. As a kid in the ‘forties I lived next door to an icehouse and the pond from which the ice was drawn. The icehouse was double-walled and heavily insulated; the blocks of ice were stacked inside, each block separated from its fellow by several inches of sawdust. the entire pile of sawdust kept the ice pretty well insulated throughout the Summer. “Iceboxes” in American kitchens were common beginning in the ‘twenties. One block of ice would keep your food cold for one week. When the electric refrigerator was invented in the ‘thirties, the monthly payment was equal to the already-established charge for four weeks worth of delivered ice. This quickly drove the ice man out of business.

  3. I know when our power went out we just put everything in coolers and bought dry ice at the supermarket to put inside. Then we put them in the utility room in the basement were it was naturally cooler. Then we taped the coolers shut to keep people from opening them and melting the ice faster. This worked for a whole work week (five days).

    Beings im a renter I can’t really dig any holes on the property and others may be in this situation as well so thought I would share.

  4. I built a zeer pot from online specifications using two unglazed terracotta pots, one inside the other, with the space between them filled with wetted sand. I placed my zeer pot on a wheeled pot stand so it could be mobile to catch summer breezes. My vegetables amazingly stayed fresh for nine months until I forgot to water the sand and the vegetables ended up mummifying. I learned my lesson.

    When my 22 year old Kelvinator fridge decided to die it was the weekend before New Year’s in 2017 I had to move my food from the fridge part into cooler options. There was no time to clean out my zeer pot, so I built another version of it using a 20 litre maxipail. I 3/4 filled it with cool water and wrapped my food in leak proof plastic and submerged the food until the new fridge arrived 2 days later. The freezer part of my old fridge worked fine so there was no thawing of the food when the new fridge was switched on. The result was that the water cooled food was still good to eat and nicely chilled. However, a deeper container will produce more of the chill factor to preserve food. If you’ve ever noticed, the deeper one submerges into a body of water the colder it gets. I will be investing in a full sized 240 litre wheelie bin, the kind you put your weekly rubbish in, and using that as a deep water substitute for a fridge in the event of another fridge failure. You can buy these wheelie bins brand new at any hardware and home improvement warehouse.

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