When you buy and eat unprocessed food you need to take a little extra care with it so that it doesn’t spoil before you get a chance to use it. Unlike processed foods, real food isn’t loaded with preservatives which means it doesn’t have a long shelf life. However, you can use these natural food preservatives and tips to make food last longer and reduce your grocery budget.
Along with dehydrating food, preserving food with salt is one of the oldest food preservation techniques. Cultures all over the world have used salt to preserve vegetables by using salt to make things like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kvass.
This is called fermentation or lacto-fermentation and actually increases the nutritional value of the food. Fermented foods are very good for your gut. A Year of Fermented Food is a great resource for fermenting your garden harvest.
Salt can also be used to preserve herbs in a fun way. Herb salts are easy to make, convenient to keep in the pantry, and make fantastic gifts.
Salt is used in the curing process for meats and is one way that meats were stored before refrigerators were invented. Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman is an excellent book if you’re interested in preserving meats by salting, smoking, and curing.
Like salt, sugar pulls the water content out of food which inhibits bacterial growth. But be aware, you need a lot of sugar to safely preserve food with sugar alone.
If you want to try preserving food with sugar, you might consider dehydrating it first and then packing it in sugar….this is called sugaring.
While most jams and jellies have a high sugar content, don’t be tempted to forgo processing them in a water bath canner – that’s not a safe canning practice.
Pure, raw honey never goes bad. It can crystallize which is just the sugar molecules stacking on each other and it can ferment if too much moisture gets into it, but it doesn’t spoil.
Herbs, especially root herbs such as garlic and ginger, are fantastic preserved in honey. Honey infused with garlic cloves makes a great cold and flu season remedy.
Because raw honey has antimicrobial properties it makes a great pre-treatment for dehydrating fruits. Just mix 1 part honey to 3 parts water and dip the fruit in the mixture before dehydrating it.
Some cultures would even preserve cooked meat in honey While I don’t know that this would be a good way to preserve meat in our modern time, honey would certainly be tasty and provide extra antimicrobial support for jerky.
Whatever you decide to preserve in honey, just remember that if too much moisture gets into the honey it will eventually ferment – which may or may not be a bad thing depending on what you’re preserving.
Vinegar is an acidic liquid made through the fermentation of ethanol alcohol. Any ingredient that has ethanol in it can used to make vinegar, although the most common items are distilled grain alcohol, wine, champagne, beer, and cider.
Vinegar has 5-20% acetic acid by volume which inhibits bacterial growth making it an excellent natural food preservative.
Usually when food is preserved in vinegar we call it “pickling” and almost anything can be pickled – vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, and even pigs feet.
For long-term, shelf stable storage, most pickles need will need to be canned in a water bath canner. There are recipes for quick pickles and refrigerator pickles which will need cold storage. If you love pickled food, you should check out The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich which covers a wide variety of pickled items.
Vinegar infused with herbs is a good way to preserve garden herbs so you can have them all year long. If you’ve purchased a bundle of herbs and didn’t need them all, putting them in vinegar is a good option for preserving them. The herbal vinegar can be used to season salads, meats, and cooked vegetables.
Oil and lard preserve food by smothering out the air from around the food. Of course, oil can go rancid, especially when moisture it added to it. So, using oil as a natural food preservative isn’t the answer for all foods.
However, there are vegetables and herbs that can be preserved with oil. Some of these will need to be stored in the refrigerator but some will be shelf stable. Here’s an good article from Oregon State University that has guidelines and recipes for preserving herbs and vegetables in oil.
Traditionally lard was used to pack meat into to preserve it long term. The meat was salted and then packed into barrels with the lard for long term storage. If you want to try your hand at preserving meat in lard this recipe is good one to try – just note that it will need to be refrigerated.
Believe it or not, alcohol is a pretty potent natural food preservative – at 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume) no bacteria can survive. Usually preserving food with alcohol is limited to herbs and fruit.
Herbs that are preserved in alcohol are called tinctures and are super easy to make. While they are most often used medicinally, they can also be used to flavor food – like vanilla extract – or in a nightcap.
Fruit can also be preserved in alcohol, good choices are peaches, cherries, and berries. This fruit infused alcohol can be used in drinks, of course, but you can also cook the alcohol off and use the fruit as a dessert topping. Here’s a good recipe to get you started preserving fruit in alcohol.