If you’ve been trying to figure out ways to preserve food without refrigeration or freezing, this article is for you!
I live off grid and still rely on my freezer and fridge because I can. I even have an EMP Shield for my solar system to help ensure that my freezer and fridge stay up and running even in the event of an EMP (that’s the theory, anyway).
However, things can still happen so we want to be as knowledgeable as possible when it comes to preserving our food for as long as possible.
Keep in mind, sometimes food preservation means a few months, instead of a few years. While there are some things that can be preserved for many years, some things may only last a few months. It just depends on the preservation method and the type of food.
When people used to preserve food without refrigeration they had the expectation that the food would need to be preserved throughout the winter months until they could garden the next season and do it all over again. Some things were long term, but again, most things were under the assumption that it was simply going to get them through a few months.
I’m saying this to help bring some reality to food preservation. Even things that can be refrigerated won’t necessarily last forever, refrigeration simply extends the life of the food.
People throughout time have always found creative ways to extend the life of their food and I’ll talk more about that below.
Here are 13 ways to preserve food without refrigeration or freezing:
Smoking is a slow process where the smoke naturally preserves meat, fish, avocados, pineapple, peaces, asparagus and eggplant.
There are a couple different types of smoking methods. The first type is cold smoking. Cold smoking tries to keep the temperature below 100F as the smoke slowly dries out the meat over a 1-5 day period. Cold smoke on cold days and before cold smoking, you’ll need to cure the meat with salt or even fully cook it first. Because of the slow process it’s a breeding ground for bacteria growth, however, curing with salt or cooking first will help to keep bacteria from growing and allow it to properly dry it. A smokehouse is ideal for cold smoking, this would keep the meat away from the flames as best as possible.
Hot smoking keeps the temperatures around 220F and this method actually cooks the meat. So even after hot smoking, you’ll need to keep it in a refrigerated area. If you’d like to preserve the hot smoked meat, you’d need to dehydrate it after it’s been hot smoked.
There are many types of smokers, plenty of DIY options in addition to primitive tarp-over-a-fire method.
While you may use salt to cure meat of fish before smoking, there’s a method in and of itself called salting. Salting dries the food, pulling the moisture out. It also kills microbes.
With this method, you’d rub a very thick layer of salt all over the food and even rub it in. You want to have as much of the food cells to be in contact with the salt as possible. Don’t skimp with the salt. It will then need to be hung in a cold area for at least a month. After a month, you’d then cook it.
There’s also another way in which you may a brine where you’d get enough water to cover your food then slowly add in salt and mix until the salt starts to form on the bottom. This is a salt brine and you’d place your food in this brine then place it in a cold spot for a week or more.
You can preserve vegetables, fruits, meats and even eggs in salt. This method takes a lot of salt, time and you’ll need to be aware of the extra salt content in the food that you salt as it will come through when you eat it, even if you cook it. This isn’t a bad thing though, as humans need salt to survive.
3. Underground fridge
No, not a root cellar, though I’ll talk about that in a minute.
An underground fridge is essentially a fridge that you bury underground. A fridge already has some great insulation, so by burying it in the ground, the earth, along with the insulation of the fridge, will work in tandem to help preserve foods.
In most places, even in the desert, you may not need to bury that deep. I’ve seen them buried as deep as a foot. You don’t need to dig terribly deep in most places to get the thermal cooling that you desire.
In some colder areas, you may be able to use something as simple as a 55 gallon drum buried underground.
4. Root cellar
Now onto a root cellar. There are a variety of ways to make a root cellar. You could dig a hole, fill it with a wall of bricks, place a wood top with more bricks on top, and there you have a quick root cellar. If the root cellar has some direct sun on it, you could place some type of shade over it, or even get really creative and place some solar panels above it and create a bit of energy while you’re at it.
This is essentially the concept of most basements and root cellars; bricks/concrete underground or at least mostly underground. They are amazing for insulation.
Your root cellar could even be a closet in your home. If the closet is an interior closet without any direct on it, it could actually remain fairly cool and keep certain things like fruits and vegetables cooler for longer.
Of course, if you want to build an entire basement or root cellar, by all means, do it! I grew up in a house that has a bomb shelter built into the side of the hill behind our house. The door was exposed but everything else was sheltered by the earth and it remained cool in there year-round.
5. Zeer pot
A zeer pot is not something I generally recommend because it won’t work for many areas and it’s also a ton of work and maintenance.
Essentially, you take two terracotta pots, one slightly smaller than the other, place one inside of the other and fill in the gap with sand. You’ll then water the sand and place the terracotta lid or metal lid or even a damp cloth over top. It’ll then be placed in a shady area. As the water evaporates, the inside of the pot cools down and cools the inside.
The sand must remain wet.
It won’t work for really anything other than fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t reach cool enough temperatures for dairy or meats.
It’s a bug magnet. Hopefully you have a good, solid lid as bugs will ravish the food inside.
Keep this option in mind for select foods, but certainly not all and be aware of the water needs.
Canning is a classic and has been done for decades. As we learn more about food and what it needs for proper preservation, many of the ‘old ways’ of canning is obsolete.
Things you’d water bath can: peaches, pears, applesauce, plums, pickles, relish, cherries, berries, pie filling, apple butter, jams, tomato sauce, juice, BBQ sauce, water
Things you’d pressure can: meats of all kinds, veggie and meat stocks and broths, vegetables of all kinds, dry beans, chili and baked beans, soups and stews
It’s possible to water bath can and pressure can ‘off grid’ without electricity on a fire or BBQ, but you really need to pay attention to the temperature to ensure it all gets canned appropriately to avoid botulism.
While modern dehydrators work on electricity, people have been drying with the sun for….ever. I made a solar dehydrator that works amazingly well. I love it.
You can even just place it on some wood with a screen over it and place it in the year under that bright orb in the sky for several hours.
Just like with canning, make sure that your food is properly dehydrated. It should be crisp. You may only be able to dehydrate certain foods in the summer months when the sun it out for longer periods. But that’s ok! Just become a dehydrating fool in the summer and dehydrate all the things.
8. Freeze drying
Freeze drying requires quite a bit of electricity. If you can freeze dry then you can most likely have a fridge, too. However, I’m only mentioning this method because if you’re able to get a freeze dryer now while you have access to electricity, then become a freeze drying machine and freeze dry all the things. You’ll be thankful to have the food that lasts 20+ years without refrigeration.
Preserving in oil is pretty dang cool. Ever seen the canned foods in oil? You can kind of do that at home, too. Oil is a natural preservative. Oil is a type of fat as well and as humans, we need fat in our diets. Though oil can be expensive, especially olive oil, this could still be a viable method. This method has been used for centuries.
First, cook whatever you want to preserve in oil.
Next, fill a glass jar completely full of the cooked food.
Finally, fill the container completely with oil, preferably olive oil, cover tightly and store.
What you can preserve in oil: herbs, vegetables and even tuna.
Each type of food will be preserved in oil differently so check out a recipe first before doing it.
Some say you must refrigerate the preserved food in oil, but in many cases, it’s not necessary. Find a recipe and use your discretion, you could also do some personal tests of your own. Or at the very least, put it down in a root cellar.
Honey is a natural preservative, however, there are only certain types of foods that should be preserved with honey.
There’s so little information on preserving with honey, very little talk about it. However, I would stick with nuts and fruits. Pour the fruit or nuts in a glass jar then pour honey completely over the fruit or nuts.
In many cases, people will also can the fruit/honey combination, but in theory, this wouldn’t need to be done.
Try to look up recipes before doing this, but you could also do some experimenting yourself with nuts or fruits.
Fruits have a long history of being preserved in liquor and more specifically, brandy.
Fill a glass jar completely with fruit, submerge completely in alcohol, brandy is preferable, add a couple tablespoons of sugar, cover tightly then shake.
Lasts quite a while with this method, keep in a root cellar or similar cool area and shake as you remember.
Just remember that the longer the fruits sit in the alcohol, the more they’ll break down. So this method would need to be used within a few months to keep them viable.
Pickling is a classic. Pickling vegetables, fruits and even eggs can not only extend the life but also make them mighty tasty.
Add equal parts boiling water and vinegar, you can use white vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Then add in some salt and sugar. From there you could also add in some additional spices if you’d like.
Fill a glass jar with your vegetables or eggs then completely fill the jar with your pickling brine. Close tightly.
If you choose to can them after this, you can do so. Only thing you shouldn’t can would be pickled eggs. Just eat those.
You may place in a cool place. Most quick brines will be ready within a few hours, but most a few days.
13. Ancient methods
I call these ‘ancient’ methods because they aren’t used hardly at all these days but they would still work to keep foods cool.
Many ancient methods would use nearby streams and lakes to either cool the foods as the water flowed or in the winter would completely freeze the foods. Of course, you’d want to keep the foods safe in some type of container before submerging in water.
Some used ‘ice houses’. These were essentially houses that stored huge ice blocks that were harvested during winter. These ice blocks were kept in partially buried buildings with thick walls. The ice was even sometimes covered with straw or sawdust to further insulate the ice.
You could make a similar system by using old trucks or small buildings that are heavily insulated with Styrofoam.
Many people in the 1800s would have ice boxes in their homes. It was essentially something made out of wood that was lined with tin or zinc and large blocks of ice was stored inside. Usually a local delivery was made daily.
Variety is best
I wouldn’t choose just one of these options. In fact, I’d start experimenting with all of these options to see which ones you like best. You don’t want to be in the middle of a blackout trying to figure out how an ice box works or even unable to get the ice needed until next season. In fact, in some areas, an ice box simply wouldn’t work at all.
Also think about the supplies and resources needed for these preservation items and how you would acquire them. Are you able to keep bees to harvest your own honey? Do you know how to distill vinegar? Could you grow your own olives to press your own oil?
Lots to consider here, but people have always found a way to preserve their food, even if it’s for a few months until the next harvest.
How else would you preserve food?