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In honor of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s birthday, your friends at Woodshed Kings convened the Splitting Maul Think Tank to address the question, “What can we do personally to solve food waste?”
Woodshed Kings: Preserving food in an era of waste 110117 AE 1 For the Capital City Weekly In honor of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s birthday, your friends at Woodshed Kings convened the Splitting Maul Think Tank to address the question, “What can we do personally to solve food waste?”

Smoked salmon dries on a rack. Dick Callahan | For the Capital City Weekly


These fall harvest extras were headed for the canner. Dick Callahan | For the Capital City Weekly


A year's supply of canned spruce tip jelly. Dick Callahan | For the Capital City Weekly

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Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Story last updated at 10/31/2017 - 6:15 pm

Woodshed Kings: Preserving food in an era of waste

In one year of the nutrition cycle, Americans waste about 33 million tons of food. We toss out 50 percent more food than we did 50 years ago, and an average family of four throws away $2,275 worth of edibles. We’ve got a youth obesity epidemic at the same time 13.1 million children live in food-insecure households. Given that every calorie of food energy on American tables required ten fossil fuel calories to get there, we need to turn this bus around.

In honor of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s birthday, your friends at Woodshed Kings convened the Splitting Maul Think Tank to address the question, “What can we do personally to solve food waste?” The consensus was to preserve food ourselves so it doesn’t get wasted and to support food preservation in public education—yes, bring back old-style home economics classes. Lesson one would be that the best time to learn preservation arts is before you need the food. A food crisis is a really bad time to be trying to figure this out.

Drying

Drying was humanity’s premier food storage art from the beginning of agriculture until the industrial era but doing it outdoors is a marginal proposition in Southeast Alaska most summers. If you do dry food outdoors, keep it out of direct sunlight, preferably where a breeze can get at it but bugs can’t.

Indoor drying methods are more popular here. Some people in the bush still dry fish and venison on racks above the woodstove. In homes where I’ve seen it done, both commodities were sliced very thin and dried to the texture of belt leather. I can’t vouch for safety of the process, or what, if any, brines the meats and fishes stewed in before drying. All I can say is that my hosts were alive and had the vitality of a Spartan army.

An easy, reliable, affordable device is an American Harvester (or similar) dehydrator with a couple extra racks. You fill the racks, plug the machine in, and let it go. Heat is adjustable and steady. This is excellent as you cut back the herb garden in fall, when you’re drying aromatic leaves for foot baths and teas, and for drying seasonal fruits like apples when they’re cheap, or for making jerky.

Smoking

We covered smoking in a previous article, but in brief, most of us don’t rely solely on smoking to preserve the meat. We brine salmon, then hot smoke it a few hours at around 140 degrees Fahrenheit to partially cook the fish. (People who smoke are all over the chart on what they consider the ideal smoking temperature.) Then the fish is cooled, sealed and frozen. Traditional smoking for preservation is a cold smoke under 90 degrees Fahrenheit, often for days. This process requires someone (who is certainly not me) to be there to show exactly how it works and how to test for when it’s done. Even at that, a lot of traditionally smoked salmon ends up being canned or frozen afterwards.

Cellaring

Root cellars are coming back! Here’s a ten thousand year old technology that utilizes the constant coolness and humidity of the Earth to store vegetables long term. Some vegetables and tubers can go all winter in a cellar with proper humidity. Ideal root cellars have good drainage and ventilation (air in from a pipe into the bottom, another pipe venting out the top) to let out ethylene gas that ripening vegetables give off. Vents have screens to keep out vermin, there are racks to keep produce off the ground, and there’s enough insulating earth that temperatures don’t get too warm or cold. We generally think of root cellars as big walk-in affairs, but American colonists would commonly dig a barrel into a hillside to store vegetables. Today there’s even a pre-fab model called “Groundfridge” from the Netherlands. Conceived and built for community gardeners, the Groundfridge uses no electricity and claims to hold the equivalent of twenty refrigerators.

Freezing: With a well-managed chest freezer, even a small one, you’ll never feel that you’ve got no food in the house. When you make a pot of soup it’s just about as fast and easy to make a triple batch and freeze the extra. Frozen fish and meats, especially when they’re vacuum-sealed in plastic with a food saver or similar thing, will easily last six months to a year. If you buy bulk food in season when it’s cheap, a chest freezer pays for itself in no time. You want a chest freezer because a stand-up freezer spills all the cold air out every time you open it so it’s more expensive to run.

To keep up good freezer practices, put dates on the foods you store. Use your freezer a few times per week. That way you’re sure it’s working and you’re rotating food so it doesn’t get old, freezer burned and nasty. Keep a thermometer in there and check it every day or two. A neat trick is to freeze a small container of water, then lay a quarter on the ice. If the freezer kicks off for some unknown period, then kicks back on without you noticing, the ice begins to melt and the quarter sinks down. If you find the quarter partly frozen but only a little way down, you know something happened and you can make an informed judgment of whether the food is still okay to eat.

This is one home investment worth buying new. Garage sale freezers are often nearly dead or energy hogs. If you take one of those, you’ll pay (a lot) to have the refrigerant removed and to dispose of the freezer when it dies.

A small home generator like a Honda 2000 is quiet, fuel-efficient and will keep most freezers down to temperature in an emergency by running it a few hours per day if the power goes out.

Canning

Canning has two broad categories: pressure canning and water-bath canning. We’ve talked about both in previous articles. Canning provides cheap, nutritious, shelf stable foods that don’t need refrigeration. It takes more time and effort than throwing something in the freezer and you have to pay attention to your cleanliness and cooking times to avoid food poisoning, but easy-to-follow directions from the Cooperative Extension Service have made canning one of the safest means of preserving unrefrigerated food.

Pickling and fermented foods

Pickling is storing food in an acidic medium like vinegar. Lacto-fermentation uses microbes to convert sugars to lactic acid. This may be the only food preservative method that can actually increase the food’s nutritional value and supply probiotics that promote digestibility, weight loss, and support the immune system. Sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt etc. are products of lacto-fermentation. “Lacto” doesn’t mean it involves dairy; it’s only called ‘lacto’ fermentation because when scientists were figuring out the process, the first organisms they studied were from dairy products. First nations in northern regions even used lacto-fermentation to preserve fish and marine mammals.

Freeze Drying

The new kid on the food preparation block is freeze drying. Home units are about the size of a dormitory refrigerator. Harvestright is the primary manufacturer and their salesperson tells me they’ve shipped several units, with good results, to Alaska for people wanting to freeze dry salmon. Pretty much any type of food: sliced fruits, vegetables, soups, entrees etc. are placed on trays. The unit chills down to negative 40 Fahrenheit, then the condenser removes the moisture that sublimates off the food as it warms. When it’s done the food looks exactly the same as when it went in. You seal it in Mylar bags, then store the bags.

The nutritional value of freeze dried food is, according to the company, about 97 percent of fresh. Sealed in a packet with an oxygen removing pellet, the food will hold its nutritional value for 25 years. The food is lightweight, so you can pack a lot of it if you have to. It only needs some water to reconstitute. There’s little or no cooking time compared to something like rice or dried beans. Kitchen leftovers turn into camp meals for pennies on the dollar compared with the price of freeze dried foods. You also know your freeze dried foods are organic, gluten free or whatever it is you’ve made.

Home freeze dryers have come down radically in cost over the past few years. They’re about $2,600 for a four tray unit, shipping to Alaska included. It takes 24 to 36 hours to process a six to 10-pound (starting weight) batch of food. The company recommends a designated 20 amp circuit. Like any food storage method, there’s a learning curve, and you have to use it regularly to make your investment worthwhile.

Historian Will Durant said, “In the last analysis civilization is based upon the food supply.” Right now we’ve got the food. Let’s not waste it.

Dick Callahan is an award-winning Juneau writer.

Note — Christmas gift/stocking stuffer opportunity! Cooperative Extension Agent Sarah Lewis will be teaching a “Canning Soups and Sauces” workshop Saturday Nov. 11, and a “Pickling and Fermenting” workshop on Saturday, Dec. 16. Bring a dozen half pint jars. You’ll learn the process and fill them up. Sarah is also teaching a “Preserving Juneau’s Bounty” course over four Saturdays in January. Sign up through Community Schools by calling Suzanne Ainsworth at 907-523-1761.