Long Term Food Storage Methods

What is long term food storage for you? One year? Five years? Thirty years or more?

We’ve been conditioned to believe that food goes bad quicker than it actually does. In many cases food manufacturers are required to place code dates on their products. This is good for highly-perishable foods like raw meats, eggs and dairy.

The Code Date Myth

On the other hand, companies have taken to placing code dates on products that really don’t need them. Many food manufacturers use the “best by” code under the guise of preserving freshness.

This doesn’t mean that the product necessarily goes bad exactly on the prescribed date. It just means that the product tastes the best it will ever taste on or before it. But many people see this “expiration” date and assume the product is unfit or unsafe to use.

Instead of a can a beans of beans lasting five years, the manufacturer has it down to two years or one. You toss your “expired” food and their sales increase.

Jaded? Perhaps.

But I don’t really blame the food manufacturers. After all, running a business is hard (really, really, hard). And the food industry suffers from low profit margins and strict regulations, making a tough job even tougher. Believe me; I sympathize.

However, it’s our duty as consumers to understand what’s happening and why. Simply, most food lasts longer than you think.

Best (and Worst) Long Term Food Storage Methods

All food preservation methods do one or a combination of these three things:

  • Remove moisture.

  • Remove air.

  • Remove heat.

Canning

A standby of farmers and homesteaders, canning preserves food by applying heat to remove air and to kill microbes, while retaining moisture. We buy canned food all the time. Jellies, vegetables, beans, meats, soups, and sauces are all preserved by canning.

long term food storage methods - canningHomemade Crab Apple Jelly

Canning is a simple, low cost way to preserve food, and is particularly useful if you keep a garden. Acidic foods like tomatoes are well suited to canning and can last for 5 years or more on the shelf.

Canning may be intimidating at first, (there are many different ways to can: water bath, pressure cooker, oven, wax), but it mainly involves making sure the jars are properly sterilized and the lids have a good clean seal.

  • NOTE: Water bath canning is only acceptable for certain foods, like preserves, jams and jellies. In order to kill harmful bacteria in vegetables, meats and seafood, pressure cooker or oven canning must be used to achieve temperatures of 240 F or greater.

  • TIP: Pouring a layer of paraffin wax over the top of jellies and jams can preserve them for short periods. Wax canning is not recommended for long term food storage and for this reason has largely fallen out of favor.

The beauty of canning is that once sealed, jars will keep on the shelf without any ongoing expense. If the cans are kept in a cool place like a basement, root cellar or a spring house, the food will last even longer.

Click here for more information on canning as a long term food storage method.


Freezing

Freezing preserves food simply by removing heat. It is also one of the easiest ways to preserve. Make sure the food is in a sealed container and toss it in the icebox. Done. 

long term food storage - freezingA freezer. Full of Food.

The problem is that this preservation process requires the ongoing expense of electricity (freezers are electricity hogs) and they’re highly vulnerable to failure. One blackout can ruin hundreds of dollars of food.

Additionally, food frozen without vacuum sealing (we’ll get to that in a bit) is subject to freezer burn. This occurs when air is allowed to reach the food, causing oxidation and dehydration. It doesn’t make the food unsafe to consume, but it can alter the texture and flavor of certain foods.

However, commercially-packaged frozen food, especially fruits and vegetables, is minimally processed and devoid of preservatives and chemical additives. And since commercially-packed produce is frozen immediately after picking, most of the vitamins and nutrients are preserved as well.

Despite these benefits, freezing alone is not a viable long term food storage option for survivalists. There are just too many ways for it to go wrong.

Dehydrating

The process of dehydrating, or the removal of moisture from food, has been around for thousands of years. The simplest and cheapest way to dehydrate is to spread food on a sheet or place it on racks in the sun.

long term food storage - dehydratingEntry-Level Dehydrator

Using a commercial solar cooker, or even a hand-made glass-topped box, allows you to better control not only the temperature around the food, but to help protect against insects or other larger pests.


But nowadays a common way to dehydrate food is with an electric dehydrator. (This is especially handy in climates that receive little or inconsistent sunlight.) Good machines cost a couple hundred dollars, but allow precise temperature controls that can produce a commercial-quality (or better) product at home.

The goal of dehydrating is to remove moisture without actually cooking the food. Doing this correctly retains as many nutrients as possible. Dehydrating also concentrates flavor without adding sugars or oils. Taste the difference between home and store-bought dehydrated bananas and you’ll see what I mean.

When combined with vacuum sealing, dehydrated foods can last for decades, making this a great option for long term food storage.

Vacuum Sealing

Like canning, vacuum sealing helps to preserves food by removing air. Vacuum sealing works for all kinds of foods, from fresh produce, meats and cheese to even sauces. But because this process only removes air (it doesn’t “cook” the food like in canning) and retains moisture, foods must be either frozen or dehydrated to be safely preserved with vacuum sealing.

long term food storage - vacuum sealingHome Vacuum Sealer
  • TIP: When vacuum sealing dehydrated foods, include an oxygen absorber packet. This extends the shelf life of your preserved food even further.

A good home-use vacuum sealer can be purchased for under $100 dollars. After this initial investment, the ongoing expense is minimal (bags can be resealed after opening), making vacuum sealing a good long term food storage method.

Freeze Drying

Freeze-drying is a highly specialized process that involves flash-freezing food, then dehydrating it inside a vacuum. It is the best way to preserve a vast majority of foods for very long periods (decades or even a lifetime), but it is unsuitable for most home applications. This is mainly due to the cost.

For example, Harvest Right offers a home freeze dryer at around the $4,000 mark. 

If you have the means, this is by far the most efficient and effective long term food storage method of those listed here. But for the rest of us, it's best to leave this expensive process to the pros.

Additional Resources

Want to learn more about code dates? Check out stilltasty.com.

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