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Real Food
Savor the flavors of everyday real food, fresh from the garden or stored on your pantry shelves.


Safe Food Storage of Your Dehydrated Food

After you have dehydrated and vacuum-sealed your garden's goodies, it's time to store them either for use during the winter and early spring months, or for those people who wish to have on hand an emergency supply of food — this post covers both!

I love to use Mason jars. Why? They are great for storing dehydrated food for daily/weekly use. It's so easy to screw off a lid, rather than having to cut the top seal off a vacuum-sealed pouch then having to re-vacuum seal it. Mason jars store easily in your kitchen cupboards making them a handy go-to while cooking your favorite recipe.

Use Oxygen Absorbers

With the use of Mason jars, I still use oxygen absorbers (more on those coming up in the next post). An easy way to know if the oxygen absorber is defunct is to listen for a "pop" when you unscrew the lid. If you hear that, then you know there's still some life left in the oxygen absorber. When it's completely dead, replace it.

What Size Oxygen Absorber To Use?

In my quart-size Mason jars I use a 100cc oxygen absorber, just like we use in the vacuum-sealed pouches. For the smaller pint-size Mason jars, a 50cc oxygen absorber is ample. So why use different sized jars? For lesser-used veggies, such as garlic in my case, the slices of dried garlic fit easily into the smaller half-pint Mason jars. Sometimes I'll use an "almost dead" 100cc oxygen absorber for use in the smaller half-pint Mason jars, therefore bypassing the need to purchase the smaller oxygen absorbers.

It doesn't take long to fill a quart-sized Mason jar with celery, corn, peas, hash-brown potatoes — and these are the mainstays of great soups! Back to the garlic slices: They're easy to crumble up into soups and stews.

Mylar Bags

As an alternative to Mason jars — especially for long-term storage — I highly recommend storing your vacuum-sealed pouches in Mylar bags. They're rip-proof, water-proof, and block out the light. Yes, the three enemies to food storage: Air, light, and water. Do a search online for Mylar bags. Amazon have them (but then again, what does Amazon NOT have?) The size of Mylar bags I choose to use are 10" x 14". Many times, the Mylar bags are bundled with oxygen absorbers so take that into consideration while perusing.

A quick note about Mylar bags: DO NOT attempt to draw the air out of them. Only the vacuum-sealed pouches have the air removed — in fact, it's pretty darn near impossible to draw the air out of a Mylar bag because both inner sides of the bag are smooth. When the bag is clamped in the food vacuum-sealer, the air cannot pass through! (In contrast, the vacuum-sealer bags have one inner "side" textured to allow for air-removal.)

I attempt to put in four vacuum-sealed pouches of food into each Mylar bag at the most. Don't overstuff — there's less risk of puncturing the vacuum-sealed pouches.


Plastic Lidded Bins

The use of plastic lidded bins are great for storing pouches of vacuum-sealed foods that are contained in the Mylar bags. If the plastic bin is classed as "airtight," then by all means you can add a 2,000cc oxygen absorber before snapping on the lid. For the most part, these plastic lidded bins are NOT airtight (the handles usually leak air) so I don't recommend wasting a 2,000cc oxygen absorber.

So why use these bins? They're great for stacking and are well-suited for long-term food storage! In a future post I'll show you how I made a great storage area along a bare wall instead of taking over a closet.

Feed Buckets with Lids

Head on down to your local DIY store and pick up some FOOD-grade buckets (#2 food grade). Don't forget the lids! Or you can go to Amazon. These buckets are definitely air-tight so please feel free to use the 2,000cc oxygen absorbers in the bucket along with your Mylar-bagged pouches.

Do I have to use the Mylar bags? No. But they help segregate your food — keeps you organized. Also, the Mylar bags are great for writing on the date and noting what's in it! Use a fine-tipped black felt marker.

Regarding the buckets: Amazon also have some special lids that you snap on called Gamma2 Lids — and the interior of the lids screw out. The manufacturers claim they are air-tight. Hey, they are great — have you ever had sore fingers from trying to pry off lids (especially in cold weather). Ouch! These save the day (and your fingers!).

Folk also use these big buckets with the screw-out lid centers to store their bulk dry dog and cat food. A user noted that she stored flour too without any bug problems.

Oxygen Absorbers Up Next!

In the next post, I'll get into oxygen absorbers and cover why they are necessary to combat mold-growth.

To read all of Susan's posts, please visit this page on MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

Since December of 2010, Susan Gast has operated Easy Food Dehydrating, a website dedicated to dehydrating fresh fruits and vegetables, and cooked meats. Susan teaches you how to safely store your goodies too—for long-term food storage. Keep your food pantry full—whatever the reason or season!


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

Re-hydrating Dehydrated Food

vegetables before re-hydrating

So you have jars full of dehydrated food; now it's time to put the water back in! But not just "any old water!" If you wouldn't drink it, don't use it. It's common sense. The measuring jar shown in the above photo contains dehydrated carrots, peas, green beans, and potatoes. Yes, the humble beginnings of a great vegetable soup!

How Much Water To Add?

The rule of thumb when re-hydrating dehydrated food is two to one. Two parts water to one part food. If you have excess water in the jar after re-hydrating, just toss it.

Let's take a look now at how much water these veggies soaked up!

vegetables after re-hyrdrating

Just look at how far up the jar they are after the dehydrated vegetables sprang back to life!

Should I Use Hot Or Cold Water?

If I'm creating soup, for instance, I'd use hot (as in boiling) water to re-hydrate my vegetables. Always bring your re-hydrated vegetables back to a boil. Why? If ANY germs are present, the boiling of the vegetables in the water will take care of the germs.

If you use cold, or room-temperature water, we don't want to run the risk of any airborne germs getting into your open measuring jars or bowls. Also, using a glass jar or bowl keeps the "plastic taste" at bay. If you're re-hydrating veggies (or fruit, for that matter) in non-boiling water, then cover the jars/bowls with plastic wrap, and/or put them in the refrigerator (especially if you live in a warm climate).

Back to making soup from re-hydrated vegetables: it's OK to make your stock base first. I use the brand Better Than Bouillon. There's no need to try to crumble hard blocks of stock; BTB's stock is in liquid form! Makes it easy to add more of the stock if/when desired.

Re-Hydrating Shredded Dehydrated Carrots

Dehydrated shredded carrots before rehydrating

Dehydrated shredded carrots after rehydrating

It's amazing, isn't it? Look how much water these shredded carrots absorbed. These re-hydrated carrots are now ready to use in our awesome Carrot Cake recipe found on our site, Easy Food Dehydrating.

How Do Re-Hydrated Foods Taste?

For the most part, re-hydrated vegetables, and fruit, pretty much taste like fresh. The same cannot be said for meats though. They tend to be a little more chewy after re-hydrating.

I did dehydrate whole baby carrots once; they were, admittedly, a little spongy when biting into one. 

I look at it this way: it's better to have some food stashed away for emergencies, even if they're a little on the spongy/chewy side, than to NOT have any emergency food at all!

To read all of Susan's posts, please visit this page on MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Since December of 2010, Susan Gast has operated Easy Food Dehydrating, a website dedicated to dehydrating fresh fruits and vegetables, and cooked meats. Susan teaches you how to safely store your goodies too — for long-term food storage. Keep your pantry full — whatever the reason or season!


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

The Natural Pantry: How to Add Nutritious Dehydrated Foods to Your Food Pantry

dehydrated foods for long-term food storage pantry

One thing I like to tell my readers at Ready Nutrition is to eat the food that you store. A way to do this is to take some of the food that you normally eat (fruits, vegetables, meats, etc.) and dehydrate them for later use. Doing so ensures you have your favorite foods on hand when you need it the most. For centuries, dehydrating food was used as the go-to method of expanding and maintaining a nutritious pantry. Nowadays, food has become more expensive, and with the added preservatives and artificial colorings, many are starting to consider the old ways of living are healthier than the modern one. Dehydrating food is a fast and affordable way to ensure you have all the right kinds of food at your disposal with minimal investment.

As well, this is a frugal way to use up any fresh foods whose shelf life needs extending. Any fruits or vegetables that my family does not eat gets sliced and dehydrated for pantry snacks. As well, I purchase meats in the discount aisle at the grocery store and slice it for jerky or dried meats for sauces and soups.   

The Dehydration Process Minimally Effects Food Sources

The dehydration process removes moisture from the food so that bacteria, yeast, and mold cannot grow. The added benefit is the dehydration process minimally affects the nutritional content of food. In fact, when using an in-home dehydration unit, 3%-5% of the nutritional content is lost compared to the canning method which loses 60%-80% of the nutritional content.  Additionally, vitamins A and C, carbohydrates, fiber, potassium, magnesium, selenium and sodium are not altered or lost in the drying process. Therefore, the result is nutrient packed food that can be stored long term.

Fruits and vegetables are not the only food sources you can dehydrate. In the book, The Prepper’s Cookbook, I outline the multiple ways that one can use a dehydrator: vegetables, fruits, make jerky, make fruit or vegetable leather, dry herbs, spices, soup mixes, noodles, and even crafts. As well, you can make tasty “just add water” meals to your pantry for those busy days. When I began dehydrating foods, I purchased a modest dehydrator. Then, I realized how much I loved it and got a higher end model.

 Essential Rules to Follow When Dehydrating

Before you go crazy dehydrating, keep in mind that there are a few rules to follow to ensure food longevity, freshness, and prevention of discoloration. 

You can dehydrate any fruit or vegetable, regardless of quality or ripeness. If something is too ripe and soft, you can always puree it and dry the puree. Although using the best quality fruits and veggies will result in the best quality dried goods, remember that the goal here is preservation, not perfection. So don’t be afraid to dehydrate the bruised, overripe, and slightly damaged goods. Just make sure not to put mold in the dehydrator as it can spread and infect the rest of the foods.

Some food items can be air-dried. Herbs and other green leafy food sources, in particular, do not necessarily need a dehydrator. They can be set out on the way and air-dried.

Some foods need to be blanched. Blanching certain foods like onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes ahead of time will limit discoloration and the risk of food-borne illnesses. While it isn’t necessary, it certainly helps in the longevity of your dried foods.

Cook potatoes thoroughly for further enjoyment. Potatoes, beans, and other root vegetables should be cooked thoroughly and then dehydrated. I’ve made a pot of beans and dehydrated them for soups. I have also made dehydrated potato flakes to use in my prepper pantry.

Don’t dehydrate foods from different families at the same time. If you are dehydrating foods from different family groups, the flavors can cross over. For instance, if you are dehydrating tomatoes and peppers, note that the tomatoes will end up being spicy. As well, any Brassica should be dried on its own. Otherwise, the sulfur taste will permeate into the other foods. The only exception is dehydrating fruits. Fruits can be mixed together, but mixing them with strong tasting or smelling vegetables is not recommended.

Be consistent with your cut size and spacing. Try to keep the slices of food the same thickness to encourage even drying times. As well, try not to allow the food to touch one another or overlap (green leafy vegetables are ok though). Otherwise, it can block the airflow and prevent drying. 

Storage Life for Dehydrated Foods 

In most cases, dehydrated food can be stored for up to a year. Once dehydrated, the food shrinks in size and does not take up a lot of space and can be stored in a more organized fashion. For example, one pound of apples roughly turns into two ounces of dried apples. How’s that for space efficiency? 

1. Fruits and vegetables can last for up to 1 year if properly stored.

2. Dried meats should be consumed within 2-3 months.  However, it is suggested that if dried meats have not been consumed after one month, they should be stored in the refrigerator to prolong the freshness.

3. Herbs can last for years.

4. Noodles should be eaten within one year to enjoy the freshness. 

Dehydrating foods is a cost-effective solution to creating a nutritious and delicious pantry and use up any existing food you already have. Next time, we will discuss some cost efficient solutions to supplementing your food pantry!


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Dehydrate Potatoes for Various Uses

When I set out to dehydrate potatoes, I think of potential meals I might use them for. If I plan to make a lot of scalloped potatoes, I slice them. For stews, soups or casseroles, I cut them into cubes which can later be rehydrated and mixed with vegetables, meat and spices. Hash browns are popular for breakfast around here, so sometimes I shred potatoes for dehydration. (I once even learned how to make my own instant mashed potato granules by accident when I over-cooked them before dehydrating.)

Dried Potatoes 

Use Vitamin C to Prevent Browning

Regardless of shape or size, the process is the same: I start with peeling the potatoes, although you can dehydrate them with the peels on. As they're peeled, I drop them into a bowl of water that has a crushed vitamin C tablet in it to keep the potatoes from turning brown.

Even if you leave the peels on, you will want to treat them with something to keep the other (cut) surfaces from turning brown. The unpeeled, uncooked surfaces turn brown when exposed to the air for more than a few minutes.

Products such as Ball Fruit-Fresh or citric acid are available in most grocery stores near the canning supplies, or you can order them online. These are not chemical additives; they are primarily ascorbic acid, also known as Vitamin C.

Dehydrated Potatoes 

Choose Potato Shape Based on Need

After peeling the potatoes, I decide whether to chop, slice, or shred. If I know specifically what I want to do with the potatoes later, I proceed with whatever shape they need to be in. Otherwise, I just look at my stored dehydrated potatoes and see which I'm lowest on, or I choose based on what we use most.

When they're cut into shape, I boil them until they're about half cooked before I spread them on dehydrator sheets. Be sure to drain and run cold water over them to stop the cooking process.

One time I cooked them too long but I went ahead and dehydrated them anyway, then ran them through the blender and tried them out as instant potatoes. That worked very well, so that's one of my regular projects now. We just add butter, salt, and milk to the potato granules along with boiling water. After that, I simmer them for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until they are soft.

Dehydrated Food 

Blanch, Partially Cook or Fully Cook Before Dehydrating?

Potatoes can be dehydrated from uncooked potatoes, blanched, partially-cooked, or fully cooked potatoes. From my own experience and experimenting, I've found that half-cooked potatoes rehydrate the best.

The uncooked can be stubborn about rehydrating and softening, staying somewhat rubbery and crunchy at meal time, whereas the fully cooked potatoes can resist absorbing water. I've ended up with a whole range of textures in the bowl with soft pieces and hard chunks, and white runny water around them. When that happens, I put the whole mess in the blender and turn them in to mashed potatoes.

Potato Chips 

Air Drying Potatoes vs Using Electric Dehydrator

When the potato pieces are cut and pre-cooked to whatever extent you choose, place them on dehydrator sheets. If you're using an electric dehydrator and it has a temperature control, set the temperature around 125 to 130 degrees. Dehydrating will take 6 to 8 hours at this temperature.

You can air-dry them if you live in an arid climate, but it will take 10 to 12 hours. It helps to turn the pieces over every few hours if you are air-drying them.

When they're finished, they will feel crispy and hard. Store them in an air-tight container, preferably in a cool, dark place.

Using Dehydrated Potatoes

To use the dehydrated potatoes, reconstitute them in very warm water for a half hour, then add them to whatever you're making. I have tossed dried vegetables and spices in the warm water with dried potato cubes and let them soak together. Then I add meat or broth and proceed as though they were fresh potatoes.

For gourmet hash browns, I add dried onions and peppers to shredded dried potatoes. These could be mixed and stored together for convenience in airtight containers.

More information and pictures are available at Susan’s blog. This blog is a companion to several of her published books and centers around food preserving and food storage. Click here to browse her books.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

How to Dehydrate Fruit, Vegetables and Cooked Meats


Dehydrating food for long-term storage is the third step to ensuring safe food dehydration. Click here to read about the other steps. In this post I'm going to cover how to dehydrate:

1. Fresh or frozen fruit

2. Fresh or frozen vegetables

3. Cooked meats

Why "cooked" meats, you ask? It's easy and it's safer. I'm not talking about jerky-making here as that needs spices. What I'm proposing is to use the Sunday dinner's leftovers. I'll continue with the cooked meats shortly.

Dehydrating Fresh or Frozen Fruit

Pardon me for plugging my own website here: Easy Food Dehydrating. In my Fruit section that currently lists the top 14 fruit, you'll see exactly what each fruit needs (prep wise) and at what temperature to dehydrate them at and for approximately how long. Notice that I use lemon juice to deter oxidation (browning) — a prep step — and I use a glass bowl in which to spray and toss the fruit (and veggies). Here are my top five fruits to get you started:

• Apples - peel and slice - spray with lemon juice - lay on trays - dehydrate between 125 degrees Fahrenheit and 135 degrees for 4-10 hours until pliable
• Bananas - peel and slice lengthwise or in coins - spray with lemon juice - lay on dehydrator trays - dehydrate between 125 degrees and 135 degrees for 6-12 hours until they are leathery
• Grapes (for raisins) - rinse and pat dry - slice in half, cut side facing up on the dehydrator trays - dehydrate between 125 degrees and 135 degrees for 6-10 hours until pliable
• Pears - wash them - peel if desired - remove the core and cut into halves, quarters, or 3/8-inch slices (so long as they're all roughly the same size for even drying) - spray with lemon juice - arrange on your dehydrator trays - dehydrate between 125 degrees and 135 degrees for 6-16 hours until pliable
• Strawberries - wash and cut off the top, cut into 1/4-inch slices or into halves - arrange on your dehydrator trays - dehydrate between 125 degrees and 135 degrees for 6-15 hours until crisp and leathery

Even though the "owner manuals" state you don't have to rotate the trays during drying, I do. Those trays closest to the fan are obviously going to dry faster — and it's better to have them all dry at the same rate!

Don't forget to use your dehydrator sheets to keep your trays clean. Check out this post for more information on accessories to use when dehydrating sticky fruits.

Regarding using frozen fruit, you do not have to do any prep steps! In the five fruits I mentioned, their prep steps included washing, slicing, and spraying with lemon juice. When using frozen fruit, any big clumps of fruit can be run under (good) tap water for a few seconds to loosen them (while on the dehydrator tray). If the fruit is still in the bag, thump it on the counter-top a few times to loosen clumps — and don't blame me if the bag bursts — just be careful!

Dehydrating Fresh or Frozen Vegetables

Again, visit Easy Food Dehydrating. In my Vegetable section that currently lists the top 16 veggies, you'll see exactly what each vegetable needs (prep wise) and at what temperature to dehydrate them at and for approximately how long. Here are my top five veggies:

• Broccoli - cut your broccoli florets into even-sized pieces, rinse - blanch for 2 minutes - lay on trays - dehydrate between 125 degrees and 135 degrees for 6-14 hours until brittle
• Carrots - peel and slice in coins — or dice them - blanch for 3 minutes (see note below) - place on dehydrator trays - dehydrate between 125 degrees and 135 degrees for 6-12 hours until they are leathery
• Garlic (regular or elephant) - peel and slice as evenly as possible (mandolines are great for elephant garlic) - place on the dehydrator trays - dehydrate between 125 degrees and 135 degrees for 6-12 hours until brittle
• Onions - peel - slice into rings, chop into slices, or dice (so long as they're all roughly the same size for even drying) - arrange on your dehydrator trays - dehydrate between 125 degrees and 135 degrees for 4-12 hours until pliable and please keep your windows open or run your stove's vent hood to remove odors. Why? Onion odor is poisonous to pets.
• Zucchini - wash and slice into 3/8-inch slices - arrange on your dehydrator trays - dehydrate between 125 degrees and 135 degrees for 5-11 hours until brittle

Note for the carrots: if you don't want to blanch your carrots, you can simply spray them with lemon juice instead. Much faster!

Don't forget you can also dehydrate frozen vegetables just like the frozen fruit.

 

Back to Dehydrating Cooked Meats

To dehydrate cooked meat, it really is simply a case of cutting up leftover chicken, beef, or ham into pieces that are roughly the same size. Consider dehydrating tubs of cooked meats, or if you have time to stand in line at the deli, ask them to slice your chosen cuts of cooked meat about 1/16-inch thick. When you get home, cut into strips and dehydrate at the higher temperature of 160 degrees F.

In the next post, I'll get into the step that many fans of dehydrating omit. It's a super-important step, especially for mushrooms! It's called "conditioning." Until then, have a super week!

To read all of Susan's posts, please visit this page on MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

Since December of 2010, Susan Gast has operated Easy Food Dehydrating, a website dedicated to dehydrating fresh fruits and vegetables, and cooked meats. Susan teaches you how to safely store your goodies toofor long-term food storage. Keep your food pantry fullwhatever the reason or season!


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

Cooking with Wood: Choosing Wood, Timing and Retaining Heat

Supper on the Grill 

After many years of trying to successfully mesh my love of the outside with my love of food; I have found a true wood fire to be the most satisfying way to get supper on the table. Cooking with wood is not always practical; however, when utilized can produce wonderful flavors. There is no proper way to go about cooking with wood; and I believe it is because this is the way we, as humans, began our path to cooked food. How you accomplish your wood cooked food will largely depend on your resources and taste. This article is not necessarily a “how to,” it is more of a “lessons learned” for you to take and build on as you build up your own cooking fires. 

The Wood

Depending on your location in the world, you may or may not have access to readily available wood. Fortunately it takes a surprisingly small amount of wood to cook a meal. For most hardwoods, you could imagine that the volume of wood to cook a meal would be one and a half times larger than the amount of charcoal you would use to cook a meal. That is a very safe over estimation. Depending on what you are cooking you may need less fuel. For example, hamburgers and hot dogs require a very small amount of wood, while cooking a roast requires more. Learning the types of wood available in your area is important. Each type of wood burns differently.

We live in the Appalachian Mountains so we have ready access to hardwoods. If I want to cook something fast and hot, searing steak for example, I like to use ash wood. If I am cooking something that needs time and low heat, like a roast, I will use oak. Woods all result in different tastes as well. In our area we have a number of locust trees. Locust trees give off a most unappealing smell when they are burned so I never use them for my cooking fire. Even if you are cooking in a closed dutch oven; a small amount of smoke will permeate your food so foul smoke will taint the taste of your food. 

You do not need to cut down healthy trees to cook your food. Oftentimes I will poke around our woods to find limbs that have fallen from storms to use as cooking wood. Some of our trees are the victims of invasive species and need to be culled anyway. The ash trees are a prime candidate for culling as they have been attacked by beetles in the past few years. Dead wood will burn more efficiently and more hot than “green” wood. Using the leftovers and castoffs from the forest are beneficial to both you and the trees. 

Whatever wood you use, the most important thing to know is to only use natural wood. Wood that has been treated has harmful chemicals that should not be used to cook with. Also be cautious if you have poison oak or ivy in your area; burning those plants can cause allergic reactions. 

Chopping Wood for the Fire

Timing

Cooking with wood is different then cooking with gas or charcoal. You need to give the wood fire time to come to its full potential. There have been many times after a good meal when I have said, “Look at that fire, it's just now ready to cook on.” Cooking the natural way, with wood, takes patience. You can always add more wood, or take coals away as your temperature needs demand. 

Depending on the heat you want to cook on also makes it necessary to plan ahead. If you need a hot fire there is a high point for wood heat just before the coals take the downward turn. If you need a steady heat it is best to wait until after that peak. The only way to get a true understanding of when to put certain foods on a grill is just a bit of experience. Typically I wait until the flames have ebbed off and you see coals begin to emerge for any food that goes on the grill. At that time, I will place the racks on the grill and close the lid so the racks get cleaned with the heat and so the coals slow down. It is extremely beneficial to have a temperature gauge on your grill. A temperature gauge will keep you from putting your food on the grill too early and monitoring the gauge will keep you from burning food that will be on the grill for an extended time. 

Grill with Temperature Gauge

Starting the Fire and Heat Containment

A grill can come in all forms. I have cooked on everything from hot rocks to a lovely steel and iron grill. The things to consider are; having a food safe grate to use as a cooking surface, the ability to keep your grate up off of the hottest parts of the fire, and a cover for your food if you need to do more cooking than just searing. I once made a functioning grill out of some rocks piled up in a circle, a grate, and a large lid to an oven roaster. There were many meals cooked in that pit. One of the most important things to think about when putting together a wood cooking system is to use things that are food safe. For example you would not want to use a barrel that had paint on it without first burning off the paint. Any materials that may have dangerous chemicals can leech off into your food either through direct contact or from smoke. 

Starting your fire requires the same considerations. If you are like me you may have some difficulty starting a fire. I like to use things that cannot be used anymore to get my cooking fires going. Old cotton, in the form of blue jeans and all cotton t-shirts, are an excellent fire starter. Whatever materials you use be sure they do not contain plastics or other harmful chemicals. For example I would not use any old materials that contain polyester. Using newspapers and cardboard are a great way to eliminate waste with a purpose. I also like to use the food grade cheese wax from my homemade cheese after it has served its time preserving the cheese. 

Dry wood and kindling arranged in a tripod style over top of your fore starter will give air circulation enough over your flames to get the wood burning.  

Fire Tripod Arrangement

The Reasons Why 

Hands down the number one reason why cooking with wood is an excellent choice is that wood is an easily renewable resource. It can be done sustainably and economically. Using propane, gas, and electricity is an extra cost that may not be necessary for all forms of cooking.

Cooking with wood is also a healthy option. Many charcoal brands use chemicals that stay on the charcoal and could possibly leech into your food. And eating food that has been cooked over a fire just tastes wonderful. People have developed a taste for “smokey” flavors in food because we have a history of cooking our food over hearth fires from one end of the planet to the other. Dinner does not have to be from the inside, it can happen outside. There is no singular approach to cooking food, it can be an adventure. 

Holly Chiantaretto is an organic farmer, farmer market manager, and goat breeder in Kentucky where she also raises cattle, pigs, chickens, and hops, and preserves the harvests from her garden. Connect with Holly on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Early Spring Foraging: Garlic Mustard

garlic mustardGarlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has been hanging out all winter, even when its leaves were buried under snow. The plants will start putting out lush and perky new growth now that the days are noticeably longer and temperatures at least slightly milder.

Garlic mustard tastes like a lightly bitter leafy green with flavors of…you guessed it, garlic and mustard.

This plant offers several different ways to spice up your cooking. It is a biennial, which means that it starts growing in the late summer and fall of one year, overwinters, and then goes to seed and completes its life cycle the following year. During its first year, it hangs out as a rosette of heart-shaped leaves with scalloped margins and a net-like pattern of veins.

In late winter and early spring, I like to use foraged garlic mustard combined with milder greens and field garlic in pestos and braised greens. Now is also a good time to dig up some of the roots. These can be used just like horseradish. They're stringier though, so best minced very finely.

Further into spring, Alliaria shoots up flower stalks that can get to be 2 1/2 feet tall. The flowers start out looking like miniature broccoli heads, then open into small, 4-petaled white flowers. The leaves on the flower stalks have a more pointed, triangular shape than the rosette leaves.

When the new flower stalks are still tender (around 8 inches tall), and bearing the green, unopened (or just starting to open) flower heads, treat them like broccoli rabe. At this stage they are one of my absolute favorite wild vegetables. Stir-fry the greens in a little extra-virgin olive oil, a few red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt – delicious as is or added to pasta and served with grated cheese.

In summer, the flowers turn into slender, dry capsules 1 to 2 1/2 inches long. Before the seed capsules are fully dry, when they are still green and easy to pinch in half, they are a good, mildly-spicy raw snack. Once ripe, each capsule contains a row of black seeds. Not everybody loves the taste of these seeds, but I find them very good lightly crushed and added to curries. You can also sprout them.

Garlic mustard is an invasive european species that has naturalized on four continents. You can harvest it freely without worrying about sustainability issues. You won’t make a dent in this plant’s population by eating it all year.

Look for garlic mustard in places that will be only partially sunny or in light shade once nearby deciduous trees have leafed out in the spring.

Wild Greens Pesto with Garlic Mustard Recipe

  • 1/4 cup walnuts or pine nuts
  • 1 cup garlic mustard leaves
  • 1 cup chickweed (Stellaria media) or fresh parsley leaves
  • 1 teaspoon cleaned field garlic bulbs OR 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese (or a pinch of nutritional yeast if you’re keeping it vegan)
  • Salt to taste
  1. Put the nuts and garlic into a food processor or blender. Blend until the garlic is minced and the nuts are finely chopped.
  2. Add the garlic mustard leaves and the chickweed or parsley. Pulse a few times to coarsely chop the leaves.
  3. With the processor or blender running, add the olive oil in a steady pour, stopping 2 or 3 times to scrape down any leaves that are clinging to the sides of your machine.
  4. Add the cheese, if using, and blend for a few seconds longer. Add a little more oil if it seems too thick, more nuts or cheese if it’s more liquid than you’d like. Add salt to taste.
  5. Toss with pasta, add a spoonful to winter root vegetable stews, or use as a dipping sauce for a good, crusty bread.

Always be 100 percent certain of your plant identification before eating any wild plant.

Leda Meredith teaches foraging and food preservation skills internationally. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos. Her latest book is Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries.







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