03 December 2008

Ditch the Fridge Challenge

I challenge you to Ditch your Fridge! With cooler, or down-right cold, weather coming on, it is a perfect time to challenge your dependence on your refrigerator.

When we moved off-grid, we came with a small fridge and small chest freezer. We had a small generator, battery bank and a solar panel. We could run the darn things, but it was ridiculously expensive to produce enough power to keep our food stored this way. I didn't keep much beyond dairy products in the fridge at the time, without a cream separator, the fridge was pretty full with pots of whole milk, bottles of cream and yogurt. Once it was skimmed, the milk was turned into cheese or fed out. I kept some leftovers in there, where space allowed, but mostly my fridge was an integral part of our dairy processing. The freezer was full of our year's supply of meat, some frozen vegetables and fruit, and extra butter and frozen milk to last through a two month dry period, before the cow calved again.

When we realized we had to make some changes, figuring out how to do without refrigeration was a huge challenge to the milk maid in me. I could do without the freezer, canning the meat, vegetables, fruit, and even the milk for the dry spell. What to do with the extra butter, stumped me until Mr. Fritillary enlightened me about ghee, a traditional Indian or Hindu way of processing butter into pure butterfat, which stores at room temperature like oil. So that took care of storing butter, when fresh butter is not in season. The freezer was soon empty.

I was hesitant to ditch the fridge, but with winter coming on, I was able to cool my twice-daily pot of filtered milk, in a basin of cold water, and let the cream rise in an unheated room that kept at refrigerator temperatures. I could also keep my cream and yogurt in the cold room, as long as winter lasted. But I knew I would need a cream separator by spring. We found one in time for warmer weather. Now I only had our daily table milk, a few liters of cream, a few liters of yogurt, and a pound of fresh butter to keep cold at one time. We do not have a spring or any running water on our property, but the water from the well stays quite cold, even in the heat of summer. We took an old camp cooler, and filled it with cold well water, and submerged everything into the water. Even the butter went into pint jars, same as leftovers or opened bottles of applesauce, etc.

The cooler is on an outside porch, where no direct sun falls on it at any time. In the heat of summer the water must be changed two or three times daily. I put the fresh milk, and separated cream into cold water, morning and night. And change it if need be again in the middle of the day. Come spring and fall, the water only needs to be changed in the evening, the cool night air keeps it cold, and does not start to warm up until late afternoon. In the winter, I change it every few days to keep the water from going stale, and even have to bring the cooler into an unheated room to keep it from freezing out on the porch.

Refrigeration can be done many ways. A small pump from the well can run to a cooling basin, with an overflow, to simulate a spring. Water is a more stable cooling element than air, so it works well. But air can be cooled by a small fan pushing air past a mist or trickle of cool water. In hotter climates, the ground temperature a few feet down can be cool enough to store food.

But designing a way to cool and store your food is only part of the challenge. You may also have to change the way you cook, and even the types of food you eat, to ditch the fridge. Take a look at the contents of your fridge. Eggs and many cheeses can be stored in a cool cabinet. Eggs store quite well at 60-70F for at least two weeks. The only reason they are refrigerated at the grocery store is so they can be kept for 3-6 months. Homemade preserves, pickles and jams will keep in a cool cabinet or submerged in the cooler, for a week, so preserve your food in one week sized portions. With a backyard garden, produce is eaten straight from the garden, and with the exception of lettuce, will keep in a cool cabinet for a few days. Vegetables like shelled peas or broccoli heads can be put into a jar or water-proof container, and submerged in the cooler and will keep fresh for a day or two. For the most part, the refrigerator only prolongs the distance food takes to get to your table. The fresher your food is, the less you will need your refrigerator.

The challenge I have set for myself next year is to expand my range of fermented vegetables. Many people prefer to freeze vegetables over canning them for the nutritional value that is maintained in frozen vegetables. More than just cabbage can be fermented, including beans, cauliflower, roots, and cucumbers. Even a medley of vegetables, onions, peppers, garlic and herbs can be fermented together. Fermentation preserves the nutritional content, since vitamins are never destroyed by heat, and pathogens are kept from spoiling the food with friendly-bacteria that also add their own health benefits to the foods. And fermented foods can be kept for months, or even a year, in a cool room at 50-60F.

Ditching the fridge is not only environmentally progressive, it can wean you off of a dependence on consistently available cheap power, and give you the opportunity to change your relationship to the food you eat.


Susy said...

When my parents first went on the mission field they were in the jungles of Colombia, S.A. and they only had a tiny kerosene fridge. My mom said it barely kept things chilled in the 100 degree weather. They often cooked just enough and only used the fridge to keep the meat fresh until supper for cooking.

Anonymous said...

I have come over to your post from "arts and herbs".
I really love your blog and will keep reading it.
One question, where are you. Your obviously in the northen hemisphere, but where.
I'm in Australia, we are just into summer now but the weather is cold for this time of year and the poor garden is a bit confused.
I dont think we could last long without a fridge or freezer as it gets very, very hot here.
You are so lucky you get snow, our winters are very mild.
But at least we can still grow vegies.

Anonymous said...

You are such an inspiration my friend. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences.

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

Susy, when we first came off-grid, we tried running our electric fridge only twice a day with the generator running, and not open it again for 12 hours. It is hard to keep air cold. The cold water did a much better job than staying cold. We even noticed that in our shallow well, the water got colder as the summer months came on getting down to 4C or 5C, and it warms up again in the winter to about 8-10C. We don't exactly understand why, something to do with the ground slowly releasing heat during the winter, and slowly absorbing it again in the summer so that there is a delay. Anyhow, it works out very well for keeping things cold in the hottest months.

Angela, what is "arts and herbs", if you don't mind me asking? I'm glad you like this blog, thanks. We are in North America, zone 4b, so we do have long winters, and a short summer, only two or three weeks of 30C+ (90F+). But we have both lived in hot climates, and Mr. Fritillary has done without refrigeration in the desert. Since this is a challenge, I will challenge you a bit...
In your climate you can grow fresh vegetables year round, decreasing your dependence on storing roots or canning/freezing green vegetables. You also have the ability to dry just about anything, without a dehydrator. I dried all of my fruit, and some tomatoes, this year, to save my jars for canning meat and stock. I would love to try some dried meat next year as well, jerky and smoked meat, etc. I am pressing the point because I believe that refrigeration is not a necessary or superior way to store and preserve food, it is just that we have become accustomed to the relative ease and convenience of it. What do you think?

Try an experiment this summer, if you are in a dry climate, using the principle of a canvas water bag. A mister in a shade house, with a breeze blowing through it will bring the daytime air temperature down to about 15C, perhaps lower, in which case you can keep fresh vegetables, harvested early in the morning, fresh until evening. In hot climates, cultures typically eat fermented dairy products, cheeses and ghee. Depending on your water availability, and how cool your nights get, you could use hydrocooling as well.

farm mom, you make me smile, thank you!