We Make Do Without A Refrigerator

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The refrigerator is a thing of the past for one homesteading couple.

If the Joenses can do it in south-central Texas… you should be able to do it no matter where you live!

About a year ago, we cranked our courage up and took a big step in the direction of self-sufficiency: we began to live without any refrigeration.

Since our somewhat remote home has no electricity, we’d been relying on two butane-powered fridges to keep our perishables cold. We’d also been watching in quiet desperation as butane prices soared out of sight. (It got to be downright maddening after a while.) Finally, when our gas bill went from astronomical to absurd, we just said, “That’s it. No more refrigeration for us.”

For the next week–as a steadily growing lump formed in our collective throat–we waited for the butane to run out. I guess, to be honest about it, we sorta hoped that final bottle of fuel would last forever . . . because when it was finally empty and the coolers’ flames went out, we immediately panicked. Or to put it another way, our position was the classic one in which necessity suddenly becomes the mother of invention.

Then again, we didn’t actually invent anything in the weeks that followed. We did, however, discover a few of the wholesome changes in one’s lifestyle that can occur in the course of learning to live without refrigeration. And we found that the changeover to a freezerless existence was not as hard to make as we had imagined.

As we prepared for the switch, we asked some older friends how they’d gotten by without refrigerators years ago, BE (before electricity). Their answers usually involved putting milk and butter in a cistern, or storing perishables in a screened-in enclosure covered with a damp cloth (evaporation from the cloth would keep the box’s contents somewhat cool).

Well, we’d already tried the second suggestion . . . with poor results. The humidity in our area was simply too high at the time of the experiment to allow much evaporation to take place. Thus, we gave up on the idea since–even though it may work during dry summer weather–we felt that any technique which couldn’t be relied upon year round wasn’t worth our time.

One trick we discovered early on which is useful during any of the four seasons is that food can be saved from spoiling if it is heated close to boiling every 24 hours. Apparently, this procedure kills the micro-organisms which are responsible for decay.

A big aid in our initial adjustment to a life without refrigeration was the fact that we’re almost entirely food self-sufficient. Virtually everything we eat is provided fresh on a day-to-day basis. For example, our milk is consumed within hours of the time it comes from the cow, and what’s left over is made into butter and cheese. Likewise, our meat (which includes chickens, guineas, ducks, rabbits, and deer when in season) is either eaten fresh or dried right away. Hence–because we rarely buy meat, milk, or other perishables at a grocery store–we don’t have the problem most people have of coming home from the market and needing a cool place right now for our food.

Of course, for most folks–and that includes us–the list of refrigeratables goes beyond milk and meat. Here’s how we dealt with other common edibles:

Fresh fruits and vegetables, in our experience, tend to keep very well without refrigeration. In fact, some fruits (citrus, apples, and others) require no chilling at all. Grapes will store for quite some time if their stems are placed in wet sand.

Lettuce leaves, we’ve learned, remain fresh when their stems are submerged in a little water at the bottom of a jar or container. Even whole heads of lettuce can be kept this way (a head is set on top of a water-filled glass so that its stem just touches the water). Okra, carrots, greens–in fact, most anything with a stem–will keep well in water much the same way that flowers stay fresh when arranged in a filled vase. Once again, for what it’s worth, we allow only the tips of the stems to touch the liquid.

Storing leftovers without a refrigerator hasn’t proven to be a problem at all. We simply leave them on a corner of our wood-burning cookstove–where they remain toasty-warm and reasonably well-preserved–until a subsequent meal. Sometimes it’s refreshing to wake up to a breakfast of stew, or perhaps refried steak ‘n potatoes, instead of the traditional fare. ( Due to the ever-present possibility of microbial infestation, I don’t–repeat, DON’T–advise anyone reading this to try the above technique unless the food can be kept steaming hot at all times. Even then, the vittles should be eaten as soon as possible . . . certainly no later than 24 hours after they were originally prepared.–MOTHER.)

To avoid waste, we put up our condiments–catsup, pickles, preserves, and the like–in small jars so that we can consume the whole contents of an opened container within a day or so.

Our sourdough bread starter took a turn for the worse when the refrigerator stopped. (We even thought it was dead for a while, but it eventually revived.) All we do currently is keep the culture at room temperature, feed it every day or so . . . and marvel at the way it stays vigorous and happy. I might mention that biscuits, cookies, etc., are actually easier to make now, because the sourdough is always “ready to go” without our having to prepare it or plan ahead in any way.

When we know we aren’t going to bake for a while, we leave only a small amount of starter back (a few tablespoons instead of the usual one or two cupfuls). If we were to save a cupful of the culture and feed it every other day without using it, the starter–at room temperature–would soon overrun the house!

We’ve learned the hard way that many edibles won’t keep as long without refrigeration as with it. Interestingly enough, though, we don’t lose as much food to spoilage now as we did when we had our fridges. That’s because everything we consume is fresh and sitting out in the open, tempting us either to [A] eat it forthwith or [B] cut it up to dry on our drying racks (which we suspend over the stove when there’s no sun outside). Believe me, having the victuals in plain sight this way is much more desirable than keeping them hidden in the back of the cooler, where they’re apt to be forgotten until they’ve collected a blanket of mold.

To sum up then, our first days without refrigeration could only be called “calamitous” . . . but now we can honestly say that if we had our refrigerators back, we wouldn’t know what to put in them! (We might enjoy the ice occasionally, but that would hardly make the expense worthwhile.)

Makin’ do without a refrigerator isn’t easy at first. Like riding a bike, however, “it’s simple once you know how”.*