Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tips on living without refrigeration

We're back in Santa Cruz, tucked away in a lovely mountain nook, working out kinks in our home on wheels, looking for work, and trying to plan deep into the future (with variable success).

We have exciting bus project updates to share, but that will have to wait until we actually get around to taking some pictures. In the meanwhile, I thought I'd share a few tips about living without refrigeration, for anyone else out there who might be curious about the possibilities.

Our experiment with non-refrigeration actually started by accident. When we arrived in California about five months ago, we were horrified to discover that block ice costs about twice as much down here than in Oregon. Ack! It's about $5-6 dollars for two ice blocks here, which run out in about 3 days. That realization coupled with with a 30 min - 1 hr city bus ride home (with leaking ice all over the bus floor) made it just a little too inconvenient and pricey.

Luckily, we discovered that if you are a bit more discerning in your purchases and put a little more planning into your meals, you can most definitely do without a fridge! The main change that has to take place is giving up some sweet luxury (yet perishable) food items. The main foods we have to do without are milk, yogurt, and extra soft cheeses like cream cheese. Jelly and jam also doesn't last that long before it starts growing mold, but you might have a couple days of jelly overdose.

I think it also goes without saying that they'll be no frozen food items or ice cream either, at least not on a regular basis. Boo.

It turns out that eggs and butter are pretty much good to go for quite a long while at room temp. Of course if it gets really hot, you may have melted butter everywhere, so be warned. Also, hard cheeses like cheddar last a while too (maybe about a week?). Plus, you can always cut off any suspicious looking parts. Foods preserved in vinegar like capers, kalamata olives and pickles seem to be ok without refrigeration after opening. Mustard too. Your nose and eyes are key allies in rooting out any possible spoilage.

If you've really got to have a spot of milk in your tea, or in a bowl of cereal, dried milk works just fine. It may not be the most tasty, but it does the job. Plus, you don't have to feel too deprived, because you can still buy such perishable items, you just have to make sure you eat them FAST! For example, I recommend the single serving containers of yogurt for a treat. Pre-made salad dressing might not do so well, but a dash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar is all you really need!

Vegetables will last a long while too, and with a little fore-planning, non-refrigeration won't be an issue for them either. Lettuces and leafy greens probably wilt the fastest, so make sure you just get enough for a few days to a week at a time. I have found that actual heads of lettuce last longer than those bags of mixed greens. Beets and cabbage are especially good at staying fresh without refrigeration. Again, the trick is to just keep an eye on them, and eat your foods in a timely manner. Keeping veggies in a cooler part of your house can also help - we have started keeping our veggies in a bag/box under the bed, which seems to always stay very cold.

The last thing to consider is left overs. This doesn't have to be a major problem either. Instead of making enough food to last a week, we tend to make enough beans/rice/veggies to last about 2-3 days, which seems to work fine.

Come summer-time when our entire bus becomes an oven, our non-refrigeration scheme may not hold up as much. We'll have to see.

I'm sure there's many more tricks to this, so if anyone has anything to share, we'd love to hear it!


greencocoon said...

I was told once that if you put spinach, lettuce, kale, in some water..( the bottom bits) they will keep longer out of the fridge. Kind of like having cut flowers!!
For soups I always leave them out on the stove untill we finish them..(2-3 days) I bring the soup to a boil with the lid on after everyone is done eatting and leave it be. That way nothing gets in..keeping it fresh longer. Then I make sure I bring it to a boil before serving the following days.

John Labovitz said...

A while back I did some research on keeping food without refrigeration, and took some notes. I'll list a few of the things I learned. Note that I haven't tested most of these, so be careful, and if you're at all doubtful about the quality of a preserved food, it's probably best to just throw it out.

Eggs: keep cool & dry for a week or so
Potatoes, onions: dark, in burlap bags
Butter: in "butter bell" (works great!), or clarify (like ghee) to keep indefinite. Also can be canned.
Grapes, carrots: put stems in wet sand, in dark place
Condiments: canned in small jars (like baby food jars?)
Mayonnaise: can keep at room temperature if never contaminated or refrigerated (yes, sounds weird, but apparently true)
Cheese, sausage: salted or rubbed with vinegar, then sealed with wax

If you're in a hot, dry place (like Oregon in the summer), you might be able to build a "zeer pot" or evaporative cooler. Here's a plan for a pot within a pot.

I bought an incredible book on food preservation that I highly recommend: Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation.

I hope this helps a bit! Have fun!


Anonymous said...

Check out some backpacking recipe books--they're full of info about foods that keep well without refrigeration. Mayo is contaminated the second you put something into it (like a knife) but it's super easy to make some up from scratch and use it up in a dressing for a salad if you get a hankering for it. Tastes mighty fine too. ;-)

Doctor Julia said...

Thanks for all these wonderful tips!! There's so many good ideas out there - thanks for sharing.

- Julia

Red Rev said...

You do'nt have to cut out milk, just use powdered milk and make it by the glass or small pitcher.

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Cait said...

A lot of pre-made salad dressings that don't have dairy are actually okay to leave out - my favorite is a blush wine vinegarette and we've always kept our salad dressings other than stuff like ceasar and blue cheese on the counter - it does fine as long as it's not in the sun.

new reader and first time commenter - your story is an inspiration!

Cait said...

Oh, and eggs can keep for a good long time at room temperature- several weeks for sure, as long as you know when they were laid. Eggs from big-box stores may be VERY old though- some of them are stored for at least 6 months before being shipped from the warehouse to the store!

Marie said...

Thanks for this post. So many folks use refrigeration for completely unnecessary reasons! I wonder if everyone with a giant fridge switched to a small (4 foot by 2 foot) fridge, how the energy consumption would change?! "eco" people get so worked up about turning off lightbulbs but can't live without refrigeration.

I live off the grid, and have learned what foods go bad first, and work with our harvest and our buying accordingly. We have never used refrigeration and don't plan to unless the energy profile works out with our solar panels.

Anyway, thanks again, cheers,