Back to Basics – Secret Food Storage Tips from Times of LockdownApr 13, 2021
Guest post from Vegan Chef Iris Zajac
About the author
Iris Zajac is a Vegan Chef and Food Coach, with a focus on creating simple foods for everyday life. She expresses her artistry when making raw vegan desserts and cakes while catering for people with allergies and specific health goals who still want to live their sweet tooth.
Being in Lockdown in a Third World Country brings with it the opportunity to learn from direct experience how to best store, preserve and keep foods for long periods.
I always find it powerful to see directly where and how systems of our current society have come about. Why they are as they are now and what their purposes are.
Many of us find ourselves rebelling against systems, rebelling against the status quo and rebelling about being told something from someone.
However, what I have often found is that by either connecting with the History of a certain field, experimenting and learning myself or speaking with experts who have worked in a field for a long time, I understand much better why things are as they are.
From there, I find myself appreciating much more the work and efforts that every human on the planet has and is putting into providing solutions for us on a day to day level.
And from there I see that I can support to bring about innovation and solutions from a place that is much more at ease and in connection, together with the people around me rather than from a place of rebellion.
We have so much to learn from everyone around us. Knowing that enables us to work together harmoniously and peacefully, always keeping in mind how to benefit everyone rather than just individuals.
When we entered this time of Lockdown, I just came from a time of cooking at a Retreat Center for a couple of months, so naturally and instantly I went into a modus of food planning and preparation.
Not knowing how long the Lockdown would last and how much and if at all food was going to be available, I felt like it was important to be able to ensure food supplies for at least a couple of months in terms of the basics, and buy fresh greens and veggies on the go.
And in summary, I have to say I feel just so grateful for a time that allowed me to connect completely with how we feed ourselves, how to grow, store and plan for food intake and support, not just my family but also potential people in need who would not be able to plan accordingly.
And if I may I add, I was just surprised how all skills and projects I worked on suddenly became relevant and how I was able to apply the knowledge from then in this circumstance. Even the Development of a Weight Loss program proofed valuable at this time. I certainly didn’t expect that ;).
Ok, so enough for the long intro story, let’s get practical. Here are some very helpful tips that I started to apply for preparing, keeping and preserving foods and this is how you can apply them:
1. Rice and Grains
I want to start right off with the types of food that I found to be most impressive. Did you know that apparently, all grains have some percentage of insect larvae on them? Did you know, that when kept at room temperature for a long enough period, they will eventually grow and be in your food?
Being in India, I got to see this VERY quickly. So I very quickly had to find solutions to deal with the insects which’s growth I wouldn’t be able to avoid just by buying from different sources.
Some people don’t mind eating insects, they say once they are cooked they are dead anyway, and the insects or worms contained in rice are not usually harmful to humans - in fact, there are enough trends of eating insects anyways, and a bit of extra protein won’t harm will it?
However, I chose a different approach, not just because at this point I still prefer not to eat insects, but also because I wanted to avoid insect infestations and insects actually eating away at the foods that I am planning to eat at some point.
So the solution that I went for was one I never heard about but that was easy to apply and very effective:
Freeze any rice or grains for about 4 days after you buy them.
That’s it. If there are any worms or bugs, they will be killed in that process. After, you can choose to either keep your rice in dark tinted jars in a cool room, a fridge, or even continue to freeze it.
In my case, I opted for the Freeze option, simply because I know that while the insects die through freezing, not all eggs will, so by keeping the grains frozen, I can be sure that there won’t be new insects growing.
Every time I prepare the rice, I soak it in water first, rinse and strain the water several times before cooking.
In this way, I can make sure the rice is of the best quality for serving.
2. Beans, Chickpeas and Other Legumes
Similarly to rice, when it comes to legumes, bugs just LOVE them. Hence I thought of a few options on how to avoid these bugs.
Also, of course, I saw that there is only limited freezer space in most kitchens. While we are lucky to share a whole chest freezer with our neighbor, most people only rely on 1 -3 freezer drawers and that space needs to be used wisely!
So, here are my suggestions:
- Like with the rice, freeze your legumes for just 4 days, then store them in a dark room
- If you have a bit of space in your freezer, keep the dried legumes in there
- Legumes usually take some time to prepare, so if you have lots of freezer space, I have two more options for you:
- Rinse and soak your legumes overnight. In this way, you get rid of bugs and larvae but also your legumes will already be prepared for cooking. Portion up your legumes in bags or containers and freeze the uncooked but pre-soaked legumes. In this way, when it is time to cook, you save lots of time and you can be a bit more spontaneous.
- Cook your Legumes. You can either cook them on their own, then portion them up and freeze them ready to be added to other dishes. Or you can make the dish in advance and freeze that, so you have it readily available when you need them.
All of these are good options to keep your grains and legumes bug-free - however, when it comes to food storage, insects or spoilage are just one problem, another important aspect is nutrient quality. We want to ensure the highest levels of nutrients in our foods, even when we store them for some time. To ensure that, we need to be diligent in our food preparation. More on this in the next section:
3. Blanch Vegetables for Freezing
When it comes to vegetables, freezers are really indispensable (and don’t worry, I will go into other techniques later here as well).
However, before using vegetables in any kind of food preservation, it is extremely helpful to blanch them. This makes sure any bacteria are removed, which also reduces the risk of spoilage. For greens, it reduces volume, so it allows for more food to be kept.
This is how you properly blanch your foods. We use low times here, as we will have to re-cook the foods again, once we are ready to use them.
To Blanch Foods: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Prepare another bowl with cold water and ice (made from filtered water). Once at a roaring boil, add your vegetables. Bring back to a roaring boil and cook for about 30 sec (for greens) to 3 Minutes (beans, carrots). Strain vegetables and immediately move to iced water. This will ensure that the temperature of the vegetables is reduced and it won’t cook any longer after sitting at room temperature - which ensures that nutrient levels are maintained and texture remains crisp.
I use these techniques for Broccoli, Spinach, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Celery, Herbs,…
When it comes to potatoes and beetroot, I like to cook them in a way that they still have some bite instead of blanching them before freezing
When it comes to any type of vegetable - if you blanch them for freezing, keep them as a whole if possible: Peel them, yes. But don’t cut them up into the smallest pieces - the larger they are, the fewer nutrients they will loose.
Ideally, you spread the vegetables out on a flat surface and freeze as quickly as possible to ensure maximum nutrient levels and minimum risk of exposure to bacteria.
Of course, you do as best as you can in a home environment. Whatever you do try to ensure that foods don’t still condensate before moving into a fridge or freezer. It will not just prolong freezing time and create a risk for bacteria growth for the foods themselves, but it will also offset the temperature in the freezer or fridge and hence affect all foods stored with them.
If stored properly, you can keep foods frozen for about 3 months without losing nutrient content.
4. Freeze Fruits Peeled and Bite-Sized
When it comes to fruits, you don’t usually need to blanch them, though you can if you want to. For bananas, pineapple or papaya, I just like to peel them and cut them into bite-size portions before freezing.
For berries, I like to wash them or blanch for 30 seconds before freezing.
All these fruits I love to use in my smoothies!
5. Lettuce, Fresh Greens, Herbs
If you want to keep Lettuce and other greens fresh longer in your fridge, place them in bowls of water - like you would do with flowers. Make sure it is not too much water, so the greens don’t get moldy, but in this way, you will gain a few extra days!
If you want to keep fresh greens in the fridge, clean them, then wrap them in a wet paper towel and then in a plastic wrap for longer shelf life.
6. Nuts, Seeds, Oils and Other Fats
If there were no limits to the space I had in a fridge or freezer, I would definitely keep all nuts, seeds, and fats in the freezer, or fridge (in that order).
I understand that for most people fridge space is quite limited. So in this case, find the coolest room, or use a basement. And keep your Nuts, seeds and other fats in tinted and airtight jars - as cool as possible.
Using jars ensures that there can be no contamination of any kind from the outside. The tinted color and air right containers ensure there is no sunlight coming in touch with the food, as well as little oxidation and risk of spoilage.
It is good to be aware that nuts, seeds, and other fats LIKE to go rancid - even at room temperature.
Hence protecting them from light, heat, and the air is important not just to maintain nutrient levels but also to make sure they remain safe to eat.
7. Foods that Can be stored Outside
Of course, the general rule is the cooler the environment the better. However these foods can be stored outside without problems at room temperature, but ideally in the dark:
Potatoes, Onion, Garlic, Ginger, Turmeric, Apples, Melon, Pumpkin, Oranges.
8. Superfoods, Spices and Other Powders
While Superfoods, spaces and other powders are generally also stored at room temperature, it is good to be aware that they are also very prone to oxidation which results in a lack of flavor and nutrients.
It is important to move any powdered foods into tinted, ideally UV-proof jars and keep them sealed.
9. Check Storage Temperature and Storage Facilities Regularly
Generally, when it comes to all your storage rooms and facilities, it is important to check on those regularly.
Your ideal fridge temperature is around 3°C. Freezer Temperature is -15°C. Room Temperature should be around 20°C, conservatively.
Opening storage rooms and fridges, as well as fluctuations in electric current and voltage, creates fluctuations in temperatures, which can also impact food durability. So be aware of that.
I like to check temperatures daily with an infrared thermometer to make sure that I know the temperatures of my foods, which also helps me to know how quickly I need to use up those foods.
In my daily checks, I don’t only check the temperature but I also check the foods themselves.
Knowing the status and quality of the foods each day helps me to plan my meals and helps me plan food shopping.
It also avoids the spread of mold - since you may know that as soon as one food item is moldy, that mold quickly and easily spreads to the foods around it. And not just that - the mold spores then circulate in the fridge or room, easily contaminating other foods as well.
This is why the fridge and storage hygiene is so important!
10. How to easily spot foods that have gone off
Follow these 4 steps to identify foods that have gone off:
- Look: First, check if you see any discoloring, growth of molds like air bubbles or other indications of spoilage. If yes - discard. If no: Move to the second step.
- Smell: Foods that go off often have a sour or even alcoholic smell. If that is the case. Discard. Otherwise - move to 3. By the way: for spices often the opposite is true: They lose all scents - which is an indication that their aromatic oils have evaporated, and with them their flavor and nutrients. A good time to discard.
- Feel: When foods ferment, most of the time the fermentation gas creates air bubbles. This creates more spongy or fluffy textures that can indicate that the foods have gone off.
- Taste: And lastly, if all of the above are good, you can taste your foods: If it tastes sour when it is not supposed to, this is the first indication of fermentation and your foods going off.
- Other means of Preservation
Food preservation carefully plays with those factors that usually cause food spoilage, introduces ways to slow down the spoilage or turn it around into a way that does not lead to cause harm.
Fermentation is actually the will-full introduction of bacteria to food. By introducing beneficial bacteria, that actually support our digestive system, these bacteria outgrow any harmful bacteria that may cause food poisoning and other harm. In this way, we trick the ecosystem and pro-long shelf lives of foods while at the same time making many of them easier to digest and adding more flavor profiles.
Examples of fermented foods are (vegan) cheeses, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, but there are also fermented drinks like ginger bugs, kefir or kombucha.
When fermenting foods it is important to carefully clean foods and to work with sterile utensils, to ensure that no harmful bacteria get into contact with our foods.
Bacteria grow off sugars and carbohydrates - which is why often sweeteners are added in fermentation - to give them foods.
Also, acids and salts are often added as means of changing ph levels and thus prolonging shelf lives and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria.
When it comes to pickles, a brine of salt or/ and acids is created to avoid the growth of bacteria altogether. The foods can be blanched or used raw for pickling, usually resulting in sour and salty tastes. Examples are Cucumber Pickles or Preserved Lemons or Onions.
Conservation in Oil
Whether it is fried foods like eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, cheeses or herbs - oils close up the preserved foods from oxygen, which is needed for most bacteria to grow.
The oil can be infused with deep flavor using this technique and then used for other purposes.
Pestos are a wonderful example of the deep flavor that can be maintained through storing foods in oil.
Jams and Compotes
The last means of preservation that I want to touch on here is the one using sugars.
The high sugar levels in jams and compotes, paired with sterilized and airtight sealing have always been used to preserve flavors of fruits and even foods like rhubarb for a long time.
You see there is a reason why all of these foods that we are today so used to eating have come about. These foods have come about from the necessity of preserving foods when foods, where harvested only in specific times of the year and supplies, were not imported from other countries.
I find it powerful and beautiful to connect with the seasonality and essentiality of food preparation in a time like this.
Back to the basics. Backing off the trends. And connect with foods on a deeper and more heartfelt level.
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