As a society, we tend to prefer fresh foods. That makes sense, as fresh foods tend to have better flavor, texture, and in some cases, even nutrition. But much of what we call “fresh food” isn’t really that. It’s food that was harvested early and then has been kept preserved by refrigeration, slowing the growth of bacteria that would otherwise destroy the food.
That does us little good in a survival situation. Even if we are growing our own food, the vast majority of it will need to be preserved in some way or other. Fresh food doesn’t stay edible for long, when it isn’t refrigerated; and refrigeration requires a lot of electricity.
Fortunately, our ancestors dealt with this problem long ago, coming up with a variety of different ways of preserving food. Much of the food we buy in the grocery stores uses modernized versions of those techniques, often combined with chemical preservatives that kill bacteria. Those same techniques will work for us, both now and when we’re operating under survival mode. The big difference is that we won’t be using chemicals, other than salt.
Learning these techniques now is a valuable skill area, which will make survival much easier, especially if we are faced with a long-term survival situation, where we are going to have to produce our own food.
Canning is the one method we have for preserving wet foods, while still keeping them wet. The process consists of packing the food in vacuum-sealed jars, usually in a salt bath. In order to do this, the food is cooked and then put in the jars, in a salt-water bath. Then the jars are heated in a water bath, both killing any bacteria and causing the water in the jar to expand. Then, when it cools, it creates the vacuum seal.
Canning is easy to do and doesn’t require a lot of specialized equipment. There are countless recipes available, as well as reliable information on what’s needed to preserve various types of food by caning on the USDA website.
Pickling is usually related to canning, in that pickled products are usually canned afterwards. But the preservative in this case is vinegar, creating an acidic environment in which bacteria can’t survive. At the same time, the pickling process chemically changes the food, providing us with different food products.
Most condiments are actually pickled products, containing vinegar. But other things are as well, like olives and sauerkraut.
Smoking meat is unique in this list in that it is not as permanent as some of the other techniques. When meat is hot smoked, the collagen protein in the outer part of the meat turns into a hard “skin,” called a “pellicle,” which protects the meat inside. This is combined with salt, as the meat is soaked in brine before smoking. As long as the pellicle is not broken, the meat will stay preserved; but once it is cut, the cut surface can start to go bad.
There is a difference between cold smoking and hot smoking. Cold smoking will impart the smoke flavor into the meat, but will do nothing to preserve it. Preserving by smoking usually means starting out with cold smoking, and then raising the temperature to hot smoke it.
Curing is a process of partially drying meat, drawing a lot of the moisture by using salt. The salt is combined with nitrates and nitrites in specific amounts, which help to break down the meat, making it more tender. The low moisture level of properly cured meats creates an atmosphere that is hostile to bacteria. Some cured meats are then smoked, affecting the flavor and providing greater protection.
The history of many meats we buy in the deli started out with curing meats. Usually the tougher portions of the meat were used for this, portions that couldn’t readily be cooked to eat, such as the neck muscles. It became a way of not only making that meat edible, but turning it into a delicacy.
Dehydrating or drying is one of the most common ways of preserving foods, although we don’t think of it that way. Much of the packaged food that we buy in the grocery store is actually dried food, often mixed with other foods and cooked. Anything that contains grains can be considered dried food.
While drying grains is useful, pretty much any other type of food can be dried as well, usually with a liberal dose of salt. Dried meat becomes jerky, dried grain becomes flour, dried vegetables can be reconstituted in soups, and who doesn’t enjoy eating dried fruit?
Most drying requires the use of a dehydrator. However, the power of the sun can be harnessed for this and has been for millennia.