Refrigerators serve their purpose, but sometimes low-tech, back to basics food storage is better for the food and saves energy.
By Wendy Priesnitz
Refrigerators are taken for granted as an essential part of food storage in kitchens in the developed world – the bigger and fancier the better. In our culture, they are assumed to be necessary for keeping food safe and preserving its nutrition, as well as eliminating labor-intensive daily food shopping. And, in many cases, they accomplish those goals well, especially protecting us from harmful bacteria and rancidity.
However, not all foods need to be kept in the refrigerator. Some keep just as long, if not better, and preserve their taste and nutrients better if they are kept elsewhere. Is your fridge are filled with stuff that would last just as long and probably would taste a lot better if it was never lost in the back corner?
At the same time, refrigerators take up a lot of space and use a lot of energy – two commodities that we need to conserve if we are to live more sustainably. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in most homes, the refrigerator is the second biggest user of electricity, right after the air conditioner, even though the newer, Energy Star rated appliances are much more energy-efficient than older models.
Are you paying a lot of money to store what Shay Salomon called “C and C: condiments and compost” in her book Little House on a Small Planet (Lyons Press, 2006)? If so, you might be able to live comfortably and safely with a smaller refrigerator – or even get by without one at all.
So What is Back to Basics Food Storage?
Before the refrigerator was invented, people used low-tech solutions to keep food cold in cellars or underground caves. Otherwise, food was preserved using methods such as smoking, salting, pickling, fermenting, or drying. Kris De Decker of No Tech Magazine “refuses to assume that every problem has a high-tech solution,” and shared the innovative out-of-fridge design work of Korean designer Jihyun Ryou, who says, “We hand over the responsibility of taking care of food to the technology, the refrigerator. We don’t observe the food any more and we don’t understand how to treat it.”
Whether you want to avoid upsizing your refrigerator, are living off-grid and need to conserve battery energy, want to go fridge-less, or simply have a harvest bounty to store, here are some foods that don’t need refrigeration, and some suggestions for better ways to store them.
Potatoes: The cold temperatures in your fridge will actually turn potatoes’ starch into sugars, changing the flavor and darkening their flesh upon cooking. You can store potatoes at room temperature in a paper bag with holes punched in it. (Plastic bags increase condensation, which leads to mold.) Store in a cool, dark place, with ventilation. A root cellar or cool basement is best, but for short-term storage of a week or so, a pantry or cupboard away from light and heat-generating appliances will work; direct sunlight is harmful. Check regularly and remove soft, shriveled, or sprouted potatoes. Sweet potatoes also require low humidity and higher temperatures, which makes them unsuitable for refrigerator storage; store them at room temperature but check often because they are more delicate than regular potatoes.
Onions: Onions will soften in the fridge and spoil faster than when stored at slightly higher temperatures. (Their smell will also migrate to other foods in the refrigerator.) The simplest way to store onions for regular use is in a hanging basket in your kitchen – preferably in a relatively dark place and certainly out of direct sunlight. For longer storage of onions from your garden, cure them first by allowing them to dry for several weeks after harvesting. When the outer skins have completely dried, you can either braid the stems together or cut them to around an inch above the bulb. Store in any cool, dark, dry place with adequate air circulation, such as a garage, root cellar, or dry basement.
Garlic and spices: These also require low humidity and temperatures that make them unsuitable for refrigerator storage. Braids of garlic can be hung in any cool, dry place away from direct sunlight; individual heads can be stored on the kitchen counter in a specially designed garlic keeper with a lid and ventilation holes. Fresh ginger can also be stored in such a container. Store dried spices and other seasonings in air-tight jars topped with a bit of rice to absorb humidity.
Fresh Herbs: Do not wash fresh herbs until you’re ready to use them. (If you are growing them yourself, don’t harvest until you’re ready to use them.) Snip off the bottom of the stems, gather a bunch together, and place in a small jar or vase of water as you would fresh flowers. Change the water daily. Loosely placing a plastic bag over the herbs will conserve moisture while allowing air to circulate.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes can get mealy and mushy if refrigerated. However, along with peppers, squash, and eggplants, they need high relative humidity. They all can be stored on the kitchen counter in humid weather. Or you can put them in a colander or unglazed pottery bowl placed inside a tray of water, which will help increase the humidity and help to keep them cool as well.
Bread: Bread (like other baked goods) doesn’t have to be refrigerated; although it will last longer there, its texture will change. If it will be eaten within a few days, you can protect freshly made, uncut loaves of bread from pets and other creatures by storing it in a wooden or metal breadbox on the kitchen counter, just like grandma did.
Butter: Many people prefer to leave their butter out of the fridge in a covered container so it is easy to spread, and that is fine providing your kitchen isn’t so hot that it melts. Or use a crock based on a French design (sometimes called a “butter bell” or “butter boat”), which keeps butter fresh without refrigeration for up to a month. Butter is packed into the underside of the bell-shaped lid and then put into the crock filled with cold water.
Eggs: Since eggs have porous shells, they easily absorb odors from other foods in the refrigerator. In fact, fresh eggs don’t have to be refrigerated, and many people outside North America store them in the pantry rather than the fridge. (You can test an egg’s freshness by floating it in a bowl of water; the fresher it is, the further it sinks. An egg that sinks but stands on its end is about two weeks old and should be eaten soon; if it floats, don’t eat it.)
Vegetables: Many fresh vegetables don’t need to be refrigerated. For instance, green beans can be kept in an open container on the counter, covered with a damp cloth. Put upright stalks of fresh asparagus loosely in a glass of room temperature water and they’ll stay fresh for up to a week. Zucchini can also be kept for a few days on the counter in a cool kitchen.
For longer term storage, place carrots and other root vegetables vertically in boxes of damp (not wet) sand, which will keep them cool and maintain the necessary humidity. Keep the boxes in a cool basement or root cellar, spraying the sand with water occasionally. In Northern Nigeria, a man named Mohammed Bah Abba won an award for an improvement on this food storage idea. He put an unglazed earthenware pot inside a larger one. Fill the space between the two pots with wet sand, place vegetables inside the smaller pot, and cover with a wet cloth. As the water evaporates, it removes the heat.
Apples: Since apples emit ethylene, if you refrigerate them, they could hasten spoilage of adjacent produce. So store apples in a bowl or basket on your kitchen counter. You can keep them for three or four months in a box in a cool, dark spot where they won’t freeze. Prevent contact between each apple (so one bad one won’t spoil them all) by wrapping them individually in sheets of newspaper.
You can also try drying or canning for long-term food storage. The bottom line is that the more food you can keep out of the fridge, the smaller it needs to be, the less energy (and money) it will consume…and you just might find that less of your valuable food ends up as compost.