Earlier this week I wrote a rather long-winded email to a friend on the subject of seasonal food storage, which I’ve adapted some of here. It’s canning season after all, the time of year when many of us think about filling our larder.
I really think about food storage on an annual basis, with some key times in the cycle. August and September are canning months, I order meat in quantity from the local farm in October around the same time that we are butchering a deer or two from hunting season, and dry goods have a quarterly cycle depending on what’s been used. This past weekend I did my annual “inventory” of the canned goods situation, and so I’ve got my list of everything that needs putting up before this time of fresh (and less expensive) produce is over.
I have a few general principles that guide my pantry stock-up:
1) Eat and replenish your supply on the regular. Canned items and dry goods may have a long shelf life, but they aren’t particularly *good* if they sit too long in jars and bins. While it’s true that you can eat a ten-year-old quart of tomatoes to no ill effect, they will be pretty unappealing (and don’t get me started on grey peaches – no one wants to eat those). Similarly, grains like to be rotated through as they can grow stale over years even in tightly sealed buckets.
2) Only put by food you and your family will actually eat. This second principle flows from the first. I used to put up a lot of canned fruit, but then after several years realized that it never got eaten (hence, grey peaches). Ergo, I stopped wasting my time and pantry space on canned fruit (except applesauce).
3) Always be canning/dehydrating: We tend to think about canning as a summer activity, but I look for produce deals at the grocery year-round and do small batches of canning or dehydrating as it makes sense. I do small batches of stock whenever we have leftover bones or enough veggie trimmings collected in the freezer, January is marmalade season, red cabbage is always available at the grocery for pickling. This approach spreads the work out over time, and allows you to take advantage of deals that come up over the year.
Now – onto the specifics of my pantry – which I hope helps in you are thinking about your own food storage and security needs and desires:
Throughout the year I purchase dry goods in bulk through a distributor on Gabriola Island. I used to purchase them through a co-op in East Vancouver when I lived there. If you don’t have a bulk distribution service where you live, I understand that many grocery stores will do special orders, and your local grain mill likely also has 10kg and larger bags of oats/wheat/barley for sale. Point being, there are sources for bulk goods but sometimes you have to hunt around for them.
I purchase my dry goods in bulk for two reasons 1) It’s much cheaper than buying smaller quanties and 2) I like to have a six-month food supply on hand at any given time. Purchasing dry goods in bulk requires a place to store them, and sufficient (rodent and insect proof) containers to store them in. I use the opaque-white 5-gallon food safe buckets with Gamma Seal lids which allow for easy access to contents. (A 10 kg bag of something fits into a 5-gallon bucket.)
I’m lucky to have a pantry which accommodates twelve of these buckets in which I keep:
Why these particular dry goods? These are all ingredients I cook/bake with regularly; some have been specifically selected for longevity (whole grains store indefinitely), and some for ease of nutrient availability (oats and barley can be soaked in water to become edible if there is a fuel/electricity shortage for cooking). Foods that are both a protein and carb source (legumes and quinoa) offer full-spectrum nutrition in the event of food shortages.
In addition to the large quantity dry goods, I purchase smaller (1-2 pound) quantities of nuts and seeds, dried fruits such as apricots and dates, pastas and other grains which I store in sealed glass jars. Nuts, seeds and dried fruits all have a shelf life of six months or less, so you only want to buy what you can use in that time period. They key to all of this storage is containers (plastic or glass) that have gaskets which keep out insects and pantry moths. Check jars and buckets every couple of months to ensure you haven’t brought any critters in with your grains as that is often where the problem starts.
Seasonal canning begins for me in May when I make my first batch of rhubarb ketchup. Then throughout the season I attempt to get canning quantities of veggies and tomatoes to fill the larder with the following staple recipes:
(Pressure canning is for low-acid foods such as legumes and low-sugar veggies, tomato sauce with additional ingredients such as onions and garlic, meats and fish. Everything else on that list is done in a steam-canner which uses the same processing times as a boiling water canner.)
In addition to the canning, I do a lot of dehydrating in a productive year as well. Tomato skins from the canning process become a powdered add-in ingredient akin to using tomato paste in a recipe. Apples get turned into rings, and plums halved to become year-round snacks. In the winter we do citrus slices in the dehydrator for easy cocktail and sparkling water add-ins.
And there is always at least one fermentation project – usually sauerkraut which gets stored in the fridge after fermenting for a few weeks in a crock. It can also be canned, but my preference is to keep the active good bacteria alive through cool storage.
In the summer and throughout the year, I pressure can a lot of “meals in jars”. Everything from soups to chicken pot pie base and curried chickpeas. Meals in jars are handy when you don’t feel like cooking or when the power goes out (which it does here frequently and sometimes for several days) – they also make legumes readily available for weeknight dinners. What follows is a list of safe pressure canning recipes that I like to have on hand:
When choosing pressure canning recipes, it is important to follow instructions from a safe canning website. As home food preservation has become more popular, there are an increasing number of recipe books and youtube channels promoting unsafe canning practices. Food safety is extremely important when canning meat and low-acid veggies. Read more about botulism here if you don’t believe me.
Both Bernardin Home Canning and Healthy Canning are reliable online resources for canning tips and recipes. The USDA also offers a complete guide to canning in PDF form and recipes found on US Extension Offices websites are also tested and safe. Stay away from any Facebook canning groups unless they promote stringent food safety – not only are they full of dangerous advice, the individuals promoting that advice are often less than pleasant when challenged on it.
Storage basics: Only purchase what you can safely store and keep free of rodents and insects. Do not bulk-order food you don’t have a solid storage plan for or you will find it quickly over-run with critters. Similarly, do not store canned goods in unheated sheds or crawl spaces; freeze/thaw cycles lead to burst cans, broken jars, and bad rodent infestations (leading to hazmat level clean-outs). Food should be stored in easy-to access containers that are in range of your kitchen; cycling through your stored supplies is key to keeping them renewed over the long term.
Supplies: Use only tested canning supplies from reputable companies. Having the appropriate equipment really does make a difference! Some items, like pressure canners, are best purchased new (unless you know enough about them to restore and test old ones). A reputable Canadian company selling goods that support survival and food security without too much super-fringey messaging attached is the Good 2 Go Co. They carry food safe storage buckets, reusable canning lids (Tattler lids), silica packets, water filtration systems and pretty much everything else you can think of. From time to time they have decent markdown sales as well – which is a good time to stock up on the pricier stuff.
Long-term food planning and storage isn’t just a summertime activity by a long shot – it’s something I build into my annual cycle. But it wasn’t always this way! I started out wanting to make jam for Christmas presents when I was 22, and my practices have evolved from that point over the intervening (27) years. Your own food storage and security practices will rely on your own needs, experience, and access to space and resources. While I try to maintain six months of whole foods supply for myself (and a few friends), someone else might just put a few flats of canned tuna and lentil soups under the bed and call it a day.
During the pandemic, we had our first real taste of supply-chain issues which were compounded by the hoarding behaviours of a few. Being food secure and putting stores away over time really cuts down on the impulse to overshop when the supply-system is stressed, and leaves food on the shelves for those who really need it (and can’t do storage for any number of reasons). But ultimately I don’t kid myself about our level of survivability. The truth is, if food systems are knocked out for more than six months and we haven’t come together on a local level to figure out how to provide for ourselves collectively – then I’m not sure that’s a world worth surviving in. Mostly the preserving and storing of food fits a different kind of practical-aesthetic in my life: the ability to feed lots of people on a moment’s notice; the security of never running out of necessary items; the ability to control the amount of sugar, salt and preservatives in my food; the lessened environmental footprint in terms of packaging and water use. A wave of self-reliant feeling washes over me when I put another batch of jars on the shelf, my world feels a little less frail when I know I can always feed someone at my door.