Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
It’s easy to forget that people didn’t always have refrigerators to stop food from spoiling. They had to rely on natural methods to keep food cold; that’s why so many foods were seasonal. In case of massive power outages, you need to learn ways to keep your food cold without electricity.
Depending on your location, it can be hard to use some of these methods. Areas with arid, dry weather excel at keeping food cold with electricity, but humid areas struggle because most off-grid methods for keeping food cold rely on evaporation. Humidity reduces evaporation.
Don’t fret! No matter where you live, there are ways to keep your food cold without electricity.
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What Temperature Does Food Need to Be Kept?
Storing food without electricity requires understanding what temperatures food need to be stored. When foods are stored at improper temperatures, especially perishables, it allows the growth and spread of bacteria. If you eat food that’s been held at too-high temperatures, you increase the risk of contracting a food-borne illness.
Foods That Need to Be Stored at 40℉ and Below
Foods that require refrigeration need to be kept at temperatures at or below 40℉ for proper food safety. Examples of foods that need to be stored at these temperatures include:
- Dairy Products
- Cooked Foods
- Eggs – not farm fresh eggs
- Opened Condiments and Sauces
Foods to Store at Room Temperature
You can store plenty of foods without the use of refrigeration at all. Examples of foods that you don’t need to keep cold include:
- Canned Food, Unopened
- Dried Beans, Rice, Pasta
- Winter Squash
9 Ways to Keep Food Cold Without Electricity
Here are the most useful ways to keep food cold if the power grid fails.
1. Wrap Your Food
If you only need to keep your food cold for a short period, one of the simplest methods is to wrap the food in a large piece of fabric. The fabric needs to be kept wet with cold water consistently, and then keep the fabric-wrapped food in a shady, cool place.
This won’t work for long, but it keeps food cold for a short time frame if you went camping without a cooler. You only can store as much food as your fabric fits, and everything needs to be in waterproof containers.
2. Use a Zeer Pot
One of the most interesting ways to keep your food cold without electricity is to make a Zeer pot, a primitive yet effective cooler for food. Many regions of the world still use Zeer pots; it’s a beloved method that some use to make ice!
But what is a Zeer pot?
It’s two unglazed clay pots – one larger than the other – with the small pot inside of the larger one. You must fill the space between the two pots with sand. You put your food inside of the small pot and pour water into the sand.
You have to use unglazed pots because it allows the water to soak through, making the clay wet. The water on the surface of the exterior pot evaporates, cooling the sand and the inner pot. Make sure to cover the pots with a wet cloth to help increase evaporation.
Here’s how to make a Zeer pot.
3. Make an Evaporative Refrigerator
Evaporation is a natural process that cools water, so tap into that to keep your food cold. One method is to make an evaporative refrigerator that keeps food in a place surrounded by evaporating water. Foods kept on the shelves will be cool, but you need to remember to add water.
If you make an evaporative refrigerator, it’s best to keep it somewhere that it gets hit with a breeze. A breeze increases the amount of air flowing over the wet fabric, increasing evaporation. This method works best in a dry climate; high humidity regions reduce the amount of evaporation.
Take a look at instructions by Chelsea green on how to make an evaporative cooling box.
4. Store Food Underground
Before refrigerators and iceboxes, people learned that it was cooler underground. You probably realize that as well if you have a basement; basements are always colder than upstairs. People used caves at first, but since those aren’t available everywhere, the idea evolved into a root cellar.
Root cellars were typical a century or two ago; people created underground rooms to store root vegetables like potatoes and carrots. Homes built before the 1960s might have cellars in the basement; my homes have always had cellars. These are cold rooms with doors that people used to store food.
You can make a root cellar at home! Here are directions to build a root cellar from an old fridge or freezer.
5. Use a Cool Stream Nearby
Do you have a cool stream running near your home? It might be too chilly to take a dip, but streams are perfect for keeping food cool. It’s a trick that campers use, but preppers should know as well.
Running groundwater stays cool due to evaporation; running water is always cooler than standing water. Water movement exposes more of it to the air, increasing evaporation. So, a puddle isn’t going to keep your food cold without electricity, but a small creek or stream will.
The biggest consideration is keeping the water and aquatic animals out of your food storage. You’ll need a waterproof, air-tight container to store the food. Otherwise, the water and fish will ruin everything.
6. Build a Spring or Well House
Centuries ago, people built small buildings over springs or wells. These are unique buildings that are noticeably cooler than outside, even in the summer. Water from natural springs is much colder, and you kept food in pottery inside the spring houses. The cold from the spring water keeps the food cold without electricity.
The problem with building a spring or well house is that it’s major construction and a lot of work. It’s going to cost money to build a spring house, but it lasts for years. Some well-built spring houses survive for well over a century.
Here are instructions to help you build a spring house on your property.
7. Make an Ice Box
Iceboxes aren’t as old as you might think; they were common in the 1940s and 1950s. This was common right before the invention of the refrigerator. They were kept in the kitchen and used to keep food cool.
To have an icebox, you need to have ice. Decades ago, an iceman delivered ice to your house from a warehouse. Ice was harvested from lakes and stored using straw and sawdust. Then, you’d put the ice into your icebox and keep your food cold.
You could use the same idea, but an ice house needs to be built underground to keep ice cold.
Watch how to build an ice box for your preps.
8. Make an Ice House
So, if you want to use an ice box, you need an ample supply of ice, and the best way to do that is to make an ice house. To make this work, you need a space underground suitable for storing large pieces of ice. The room needs to be insulated enough to keep food cold.
The best method is to go as deep underground as possible. Doing this keeps the heat out; the surrounding earth keeps cold temperatures locked inside. Then, you need to gather large ice fragments, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
If you don’t have a frozen lake, you’ll need to make these yourself or order them. Line the room with the ice blocks and use sawdust or straw to keep the room as insulated as possible.
Take a look at how to build an ice house on Mother Earth News.
9. Make a Coal or Charcoal Cooler
The idea behind a charcoal or coal cooler is similar to a Zeer pot because it uses evaporation to keep the interior temperature cool enough to refrigerate food.
You make a charcoal cooler by constructing an open timber frame and filling the sides with charcoal kept continually moist. As dry air flows through the damp charcoal, the water starts to evaporate, keeping the inside of the frame cool.
Take a look at how My Homestead Life created a charcoal cooler to keep food cold without electricity.
Keep Your Food Cold
Keeping food cold without electricity is tricky. You have to keep your food at a consistent temperature to avoid the spread of bacteria. These nine methods will keep your food cool, but make sure you have a thermometer to monitor proper food safety temperature.
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Don’t forget shade. If you can, plant more trees for the future. Before electricity, traditionally, vines were also used to cool walls, which made rooms cooler. How about using misters to cool an area, especially effective in low humidity areas. These solutions can make low tech refrigeration solutions more effective.
Carol Stowe says
I think I was born in the wrong time
Period or lived in that time when
people had to make do. All of this seems familiar and comes easy to the knowledge of how to do these tasks. I am so glad others can learn how to also do these things.
Thank You for Sharing….
During WWII I lived in a small town in southeast PA. During WWII, ice was delivered to houses on my street by a horse-drawn ice wagon. That continued for about two years after the end of WWII and then the ice was delivered by a truck. That only lasted a year because by three years after WWII everyone on our street had an electric refrigerator. I think in metropolitan areas ice delivery ended before the 50s although at this late date my memory is not laser clear as the discontinuance of ice delivery was a minor event in growing up.
Zeer pots and evaporative coolers only work well in low humidity environments.