Basics of Food Preservation and Great Alternatives to Canning

Basic methods of food preservation for saving the harvest: find alternatives to canning such as drying and fermentation.
root cellar illustration
 Artwork by KT Shepherd.

A lot of damage is done to the planet so that humans can have food to eat at all times of the year. Think about all the packaging, refrigeration, energy consumption, landfill waste, and ocean/air pollution caused by the harvest, storage, and food preservation.

As permaculture designers, our ethics demand that we incorporate these needs into our whole system design strategies.

Traditional types of food preservation

The ability to preserve food has been a lifeline for humans throughout history, allowing us to store food for long periods of time and provide sustenance throughout the year. Food preservation has come a long way since our ancestors began experimenting with salting, smoking, and air-drying meats and fish.

As the years progressed, humans have developed a variety of techniques to help preserve food, from the ancient art of canning to modern-day freezing and vacuum-sealing.

From making sure that food remains edible and nutritious, to helping us explore new cuisines, the history of food preservation has become an invaluable part of our lives.

These traditional methods of preserving food can help to ensure that your food stays safe to eat and is full of flavor. With these methods, you can preserve food longer and minimize spoilage, saving money and keeping food fresher for longer.

  • Boiling is an effective traditional technique to keep food safe for a longer period. It can help to rapidly kill any bacteria present in food, significantly increasing its shelf life.
  • Burial is a great way to store food in colder climates. It is an effective way to preserve food in the ground, ensuring that it remains safe to eat for months.
  • Canning is one of the oldest methods of preserving food and produces delicious results. Canning is a great way to keep food fresh and ready to eat, while also making it easy to transport and store.
  • Confit preserves food in fat for a long time without it spoiling. Confit and jellying are two traditional methods of preserving food that are still used today.
  • Cooling food is a great way to slow down spoilage and keep food fresh. It is a great way to slow down the decay of food, allowing it to last longer and remain safe to consume.
  • Curing is an ancient method used to preserve food by salting, smoking, or drying. It is one of the oldest forms of food preservation, and can be used to produce some delicious cured meats and fish.
  • Dehydration removes the moisture from food, making it last for longer. It is a great way to remove moisture from food, making it last longer and retain its nutritional value.
  • Fermentation uses natural processes to create a preservation environment and also alters the flavor of the food. It can not only preserve food but also add a unique flavor and texture to many dishes.
  • Freezing is a great way to preserve food and keep it fresh for longer. It is the most popular form of food preservation today and is incredibly effective for keeping food safe and fresh for long periods of time.
  • Heating food can slow down spoilage by killing off bacteria and germs. Heating can help to sterilize food and make it safer to eat.
  • Jellying is a great way to preserve fruits and vegetables for a longer period. It helps to retain the natural flavor and nutrients of food.
  • Jugging is a technique to seal cooked food in a container, preserving it for later use. It is an old method of preserving meat by cooking it in an earthenware or iron pot.
  • Lye is a traditional method used to preserve certain types of food. It is an alkaline solution that can be used to make food safe to eat.
  • Pickling preserves food in vinegar, wine, or brine. It is a great way to extend the shelf life of vegetables and other foods while also imparting an interesting flavor.
  • Salt helps draw moisture out of food, creating an environment that is inhospitable to bacteria, and thus helping to prevent the growth of bacteria. Food preservation using salt also provides a natural flavor enhancement that can make food more enjoyable to eat.
  • Smoking is an ancient technique of preserving food by exposing it to smoke from burning wood or other materials. It adds flavor to the food while also making it last longer.
  • Sugaring is a great way to preserve fresh fruits and vegetables without them losing their flavor or texture. It can be used to preserve fruits, making them last longer and keep their flavor and texture intact.
Food Preservation - door to a root cellar built into a hillside

4 reasons you need a root cellar in your life

  1. They’re magical. The smell of the earth, the experience of squirreling your food away–even with some tiny version of a root-cellar-like contraption, the whole thing is just…delicious and fun!
  2. The food retains flavor and nutrients. In some cases, as with ferments, these qualities increase. Not like in a fridge or freezer, where flavors tend to fade, and nutrient value decreases over time.
  3. Way, way less packaging. Foods are stored in glass jars, wrapped in cloth, or simply stacked in reusable boxes.
  4. Refrigerators are gross. They’re loud, toxic, and consumptive, and most of what you put in there can absolutely be stored elsewhere, with a minimal amount of preparation.​ 

Assuming you’re not quite ready to build a full-on root cellar, this video focuses on storing potatoes on a small scale, AND on using recycled materials!

Experiment: Mini "Root Cellar" from broken freezer (for storing potatoes)

Are you ready to build a full-on root cellar?

If you want to go all in, here’s an amazingly thorough 2-minute video on how to build a root cellar that will last for generations.

These materials could be replaced with recycled sources too!

How to Build a Root Cellar in 7 Steps | Food Storage

And here’s a handy chart from Common Sense Homestead, listing temperature requirements for storing a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Want to learn more about this and other topics related to permaculture, sustainability, and whole-systems design?

We offer a range of FREE (donations optional) online courses!

You can have your permaculture and eat it too!​

Robyn Clayfield’s superbly-written book is one of the very best resources for learning how to integrate preservation, storage, and fermentation projects into your whole system permaculture design.

She really gives plenty of attention to the FOOD parts of this whole thing! And…she gives away a significant portion of the book for free!

Food Preservation - canned vegetables in jars in a root cellar

And here’s some more great stuff from Crystal Stevens. Check out this article, about how to eat with the seasons and preserve autumn’s bounty. And, as always, Permaculture Magazine is filled with good info on this topic. Here are a couple of good ones to start with:

Food Preservation - cucumber pickles in a jar

Sandorkraut and the Art of Fermentation

If you’re interested in fermentation and in learning how to make a huge variety of yummy foods that will keep for many months without canning, sugar, vinegar, or refrigeration, then you’re definitely going to want to get into the work of Sandor Katz.

Check out this lovely interview, “What Sandor Katz wants you to understand about fermentation,” and visit the lively discussion forums on his website, here.

And for an introduction to making your own sauerkraut and kimchi, start here.

Food Preservation - red cabbage sauerkraut in farm kitchen
A fridge-free kitchen in Oregon. Photo by Heather Jo Flores.

This passive-cooling “refrigerator,” called a “draft box,” mounts onto the north side of the house and uses convection to pull cool air through the shelves for preservation.

draft box illustration by Jackie Holmstrom
Art by Jackie Holmstrom

How will you integrate food storage spaces, alternative cooling technologies, and places for processing and fermenting foods into your whole system site design? 

Relevant Links and Resources​

Hands-On Sauerkraut Video! 

How to Make Sauerkraut in a Mason Jar (The EASY Way!)

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