What Mountaineering Accidents Can Teach Us About Food Preservation

Would you eat pickles made by these two?

Each year the American Alpine Club publishes a book detailing all the mountaineering accidents in North America. The club’s goal is simple, as they put it, “to help you learn from the mistakes of others.”

I’ve often thought that the same approach should be applied to many of the activities we love in the homesteading movement, especially food preservation. Now, I think that home food preservation is very safe. Indeed, it’s much healthier than eating commercially processed foods. But I find mistakes to be one of the best ways to learn. In the case of food preservation, like mountaineering, I’d prefer to learn from the mistakes of others rather than experience them myself.

As it turn out, food safety scientists do keep a close eye on, especially, botulism. With the increased popularity of home canning there have been a few botulism outbreaks in recent years. Botulism is very rare, but you definitely do not want to get a case of it (just read about the symptoms and treatment here if you don’t believe me). Periodically, the Center for Disease Control publishes a review of all the cases. The last one looked at botulism incidents between 1990 and 2000.

The CDC’s botulism review is informative. The majority of cases in the US are related to traditional meat fermentation practices of the Inuit in Alaska, compounded by the inappropriate use of modern materials such as plastic and glass. The leading cause of botulism in the lower 48 is, however, improper home canning. All incidents were low-acid foods, such as asparagus, canned without following proper procedures. I suspect most of these cases were people using a boiling water bath instead of a pressure canner. Other home cases involved storing low acid foods at room temperature (which is just plain dumb).

Four cases that stand out are related to storing garlic in oil at room temeprature. The National Center for Home Food Preservation now recommends the following if you want to preserve garlic in oil:

Garlic-in-oil should be made fresh and stored in the refrigerator at 40°F or lower for no more than 7 days. It may be frozen for long term storage for up to several months. Package in glass freezer jars or plastic freezer boxes, leaving ½-inch headspace. Label, date and freeze.

The take home from the botulism review is that the problem is rare and that home food preservation is very safe assuming you follow standard procedures, most notably using a pressure canner to can low acid foods. None, zero, zilch of the incidents were related to high acid foods such as jams and jellies.

Now go pickle something (and you won’t need a pressure canner to do that!).

How To Ice Glaze Fish

Frozen fish
Photo by Portable Soul

Ice glazing is a process of creating a thin layer of ice to help preserve foods, usually chicken or fish. Ice glazing prevents freezer burn and helps preserve texture and flavor. The big processors do it, but it can also be accomplished at home.

To ice glaze fish you need to do some pretreatment. You dip fatty fish in an ascorbic acid solution. Lean fish are pretreated in a brine. Once treated, you then put the fish in the freezer. Once frozen solid, you take them out of the freezer and dip them in ice water and put them back in the freezer. You repeat this process until there is a thin later of ice around the fish. Alternately, you can use a lemon-gelatin glaze. Full instructions for ice and gelatin glazing can be found on the website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation, an excellent resource for reliable, science-based recipes.

Ice glazing is a somewhat laborious process, so it’s probably best reserved for that special catch. If you’re in a hurry you can just freeze fish in a solid block of ice but, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, this will result in poorer quality. But it’s better than just throwing fish in a plastic bag to dry out in the freezer.

Thanks to fellow Master Food Preserver Jake Mumm for this tip.

How To Dry Food With the Sun

Drying Apricots in Southern California–early 20th century style.

Dehydration is one of my favorite food preservation techniques. Drying food concentrates flavor and is a traditional technique in our Mediterranean climate. Best of all, drying food is one of the best applications for low-tech solar power. In many places, you can simply set food out under cheesecloth to dry in the sun.

But there’s a catch to sun drying: humidity. Food dries best when temperatures are above 85º F and below 60% humidity. If you live in a desert, humidity isn’t a problem. But in most other places in North America it’s simply too moist to set food out under the sun. It will rot before it dries. In Los Angeles, due to the influence of the ocean, it’s slightly too humid most of the year for sun drying to work well.

But there’s an easy way to overcome humidity: convection, i.e. hot air rises. Most solar dehydrators take advantage of the passive movement of hot air to lower humidity enough to dry food. Here’s a couple of solar dehydrators that harness this simple principle to dry food without electricity:

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Why You Should Have a Thermometer in Your Refrigerator/Freezer

While I’m tempted to buy lots of kitchen gadgets (a male disease, I think), I know that to do so with a kitchen as small as ours is a foolish and costly pastime. One gadget that I picked up recently, however, has proven very useful: a refrigerator/freezer thermometer.

Freezers should be kept at 0ºF (-18ºC). At that temperature most frozen foods will keep for a year. The refrigerator should be below 40ºF (4.5ºC). (Source: Food Safety Advisor)

After picking up an inexpensive thermometer, I discovered that our old fridge/freezer was simply not keeping low enough temperatures. I made the mistake of replacing it with a used fridge, which also did not maintain low enough temperatures. Nor did the loaner fridge, provided to us by the shop that sold us the used fridge, keep low temps. Thankfully we were able to return those units and buy an inexpensive new fridge which works just fine. The moral here was that I should have listened to the advice of a friend of mine who owns a restaurant who told me that you should buy used stoves and new refrigeration. Stoves are easy to fix, but fridges, often times, are harder to keep running.

So why don’t fridges come with a built-in thermometer? How else can you know the temperature?