Friday, December 12, 2008

Food Security, Part II

In my last post I talked primarily about dry storage, but now I'd like to turn to the importance of freezer storage and the role it plays in my family's food security. I'd be remiss for not pointing out here what an incredible luxury freezers represent for food storage; they are by no means necessary. People stored meat on the hoof, smoked, cured, dehydrated, and devised ways to keep foods cool before the advent of electricity, including ice houses, spring houses, and even ice pits, which many grand mansions in Europe relied upon for hundreds of years. Familiarizing ourselves with alternative storage methods makes sense on many levels—economic, ecological, preparedness—and there are many wonderful resources available. Preserving Foods Without Freezing or Canning makes an excellent reference addition to any bookshelf.

Freezing is also a huge energy draw, so considering carefully how to preserve different kinds of foods is crucial. Valuable freezer space should be reserved for the most perishable items in order to maximize the investment. Freezing produce often seems so much easier than learning to can, but by doing this, you're giving up space for meats, fats, and whole grains that go rancid quickly when stored at room temperature. Freezers offer the luxury of longer term storage for these kinds of items. While meats can be dried, smoked, canned, and cured, this kind of preservation changes the quality and the consistency as well as the nutritional aspects of the meats. Dry cured meats, for instance, should be eaten far more sparingly than frozen meat because of their high salt content.

This would, in addition, be the moment to point out that avoiding animal products altogether can drastically reduce or eliminate the need for freezers completely, though as I said, even a small chest freezer can be useful for storing whole grains, nuts, and oils long term, ensuring that essential fatty acids are part of food stores and the family diet.

A full freezer is more efficient than an empty one, so keeping the freezer at least 3/4 full at all times will increase efficiency. Chest freezers are more efficient than uprights, taking advantage of cold's natural tendency to sink: opening a chest freezer releases less of the refrigerated air than opening an upright, which allows that air to quickly spill out. If I had my druthers, I'd have chest freezers and do away entirely with electric refrigeration by rotating frozen water jugs from my freezers into a large upright box fridge for cooling, much like the old fashioned ice boxes, but that's another post.

Freezing is convenience, certainly, but it also allows us to preserve safely many things that do not store well dry, like butter, milk, or colostrum for instance, and even very low acid foods like pumpkin, as well as to preserve more of the nutrients in the foods as they've not been subjected to the heat processing of canning. Freezing, however, does not stop microbial action, so careful maintenance and organization of freezer stores is essential, particularly with chest freezers that have the ability to bury older items at the bottom or in corners. Those that come with compartments will make the job easier, though homemade compartments can easily be fashioned. Vacuum sealing can extend the freezer life of any food because it excludes oxygen, which supports bacteria growth, and seals in moisture. Vacuum sealed meats can easily last a whole year in a deep freezer that goes down at least to 0° F.

Freezers also enable people to purchase pastured meats from local farmers by buying in bulk. Many farmers sell beef or pork by the whole, half, and even quarter at a much better price than each individual cut would cost. Some sell by the share, but most sell by "hanging weight"—a per pound price based on the weight of the cleaned carcass. For example, buying a half beef at $3/ lb would mean expensive ground meat, but very cheap tenderloin. So if you like the more expensive cuts, buying by the half will definitely save money. More than that, however, many small, sustainable farmers don't have the capacity to sell individual cuts, so buying a half or a quarter is the only option. If that amount seems overwhelming, finding a friend or family member to split the share with you can be very helpful.

There's a learning curve to buying meat this way if you haven't grown up with it, and having an adventurous spirit—and a few reliable cookbooks—can help. Those of us who grew up in the supermarket generation have missed out on the incredible variety of butcher cuts. An old fashioned butcher will offer dozens of cuts never seen by cellophaned grocery aisles. Learning what to do with and how to cook all the different parts of an animal takes a bit of time and experimentation. Mostly, you'll come to realize how much gets wasted in conventional food systems! Well, not wasted necessarily, but funneled into different food chains, obscuring the relationship of factory processed meat to a living, breathing animal. I'd like to see an artist's rendition of the supermarket animal along the lines of Kingsolver's "vegetannual." Now that would be a scary sight indeed!

Here on the farm we use freezers for storing most of the meats we produce, allowing us to focus on seasonal production, giving the pastures (and farmers!) a much-needed rest. We can raise a batch of meat birds when the weather's warm and put them up in our freezer for the rest of the year until the cycle begins again. Meats take on a seasonal quality in much the same way as produce: chicken in mid-summer, turkey in November, pork in December. Everything but our breeding stock is off the farm by the time cold weather sets in. Of course butchering traditionally took place in the fall, taking advantage of the natural cold weather and the animal's well-fed state heading into winter. Butchering in one large batch can also save both time and resources over one-at-a-timing it, offering another potential advantage of freezers over storing meat on the hoof. As with most things, however, the energy equation certainly isn't cut and dry; there are savings and expenses on both sides. Finding a food storage system that works for your family and maximizes energy savings will take some tinkering.

Arguably the most important aspect of food security that a freezer offers is the ability to store humanely, sustainably raised meats from farmers you know and trust. A freezer can mean the ability to disconnect entirely from factory farmed meats and the many hazards they represent to animals, the earth, the workers, and the consumers. Knowing where your meat comes from can be the biggest step towards food security you can take short of cutting animal products out of your diet entirely. There are loads of resources out there that detail the dangers of factory farming, including both Eric Schlosser's and Michael Pollan's excellent work, but the Meatrix videos offer a clever overview if you haven't already seen them. The sustainable family farm is not just a fantasy, but it does take some effort from the consumer to find one.

For those interested in some really good resources for cooking, curing, and butchering different kinds of meats, I highly recommend Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. (Love the guy, have to look up his name every damn time.) His River Cottage website has some wonderful recipes and info, but his books are simply outstanding. Though I haven't read them all, I can't imagine you could go wrong with any, but I've listed my favorites below along with some other useful books.

The River Cottage Meat Book, now available in paperback, is worth every penny for its information; Hugh's outstanding commitment to organic, sustainable meat production; as well as its amazing photos. A truly stunning book.

The River Cottage Cookbook, also available in paperback, is another must have. Its seasonal recipes are delicious, and it has lots of valuable information about curing meats.

Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn is another excellent addition to your collection, especially if you have any inclination towards making sausage and salamis.

And of course, for anyone interested in raising and butchering their own meats, I'd recommend Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game by John Mettler.

Our basic freezer stores are listed below. At the moment, we're out of beef and goat, both of which we often have in the freezer; next year, we'll also add lamb. After Bella calves in February, I'll also be sure to freeze some colostrum to have on hand; same when our goats kid. This can mean the difference between life and death for an animal.

breakfast sausage
sweet Italian sausage

legs/ thighs
soup backs

Whole Turkey

chevre cheese
pine nuts
pumpkin puree
shredded zucchini
basil leaves
roasted red peppers
cherry tomatoes
whole wheat flour
yeast and cultures


mnultraguy said...

We have one small chest freezer that is full of a bunch of our own veggies, 4 roosters, and some farmers market produce. We are looking at getting another one, as we have access to some venison and fish from a friend.

Matriarchy said...

Thanks for the freezer run-down! We bought our first freezer this past fall, a small 7.2 cf chest that is the largest we can get into our small cellarway. When we have a bigger house, we will get a larger second freezer. I filled the first one within weeks, including 30# of WW flour, and a lot of smoked pork products, chicken parts, soup bones, butter, and frozen fruit. As we eat out of it, I put in quarts of soup and more flour, to keep it full.

I am interested in the "ice box" method of replacing a fridge. Do you have any references on that? I am sure I would need a larger freezer, but I am curious for our next house.

Jack Moeller said...

Hello Danielle,
I have been enjoying reading though your blog for some time now so I thought I would tell you about a homesteading, emergency preparedness, and survival forum that I am a member of, It has a ton of great information on simple and frugal living, green living, financial insight, gardening, livestock, food storage including canning and preserving, natural health and medicine, and much more!

I'm sure the members of the forum would love to hear from you! It's free and easy to sign up.

Hope to see you there!

Jack Moeller

Bruce said...

Freezing is great ... for as long as you have power. Canned foods from the grocery store will store FAR longer than their "Use By" dates state. And they require NO energy usage. Please see

From those articles, I'm betting that 30 to 50 years is not an unreasonable length of time for them to store!

Sarah said...

Thanks for the great book recommendations!

We have an upright (my husband wanted a chest freezer) because I knew I'd never use the stuff in the bottom of a chest freezer. Now that I'm more into the rhythm of life with a freezer in it, I'm wanting a chest freezer.

Using a freezer has allowed me to start using dry beans more. I cook up a big batch at once and then freeze most of them to pull out when needed. It's been lovely to be able to save even more money than canned beans would save me.

Danielle said...

Great ideas—thanks for sharing them!

Bruce, I agree that there are definite limitations to the usefulness of freezing. Still, I wouldn't want to give it up if I didn't have to for all the reasons I talked about. As far as store bought cans, well, yes, I imagine they would last a very long time. Still, I prefer to do my own canning and know exactly what goes into each one.

Matriarchy, I had been freezing soup as well, but now with all our meat production, I've moved to pressure canning and I love it!

As far as the ice box method, it's not too involved. It really just consists of storing jugs of water in the freezer (which help keep it full) and rotating them into an unplugged fridge to keep it cool. There are some beautiful old-style ice boxes on the internet that would be much more efficient I would imagine because they're broken into smaller compartments, allowing one to only open a small section at a time.

Another option is to turn a chest freezer into a really efficient fridge, and there are plans for this online, too. It's so efficient because the cool stays in when you open the top, but I think organizationally speaking, it would be difficult to deal with.

Sarah, have you considered canning the beans yourself? This is what I did just to have the convenience of being able to open a can of beans at the spur of the moment. I still save the money on bulk purchasing but without sacrificing convenience. I like that!