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An overview of 10 home food preservation methods from ancient to modern

Most of us have probably thrown out food due to spoilage, but regularly doing this is terribly wasteful and expensive. Thankfully, you can safely preserve the quality of your food and make it last longer by learning a few food storage techniques.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when storing food, such as: how to safely handle food to prevent foodborne illness, the types of containers you use, and how long foods normally last in the fridge or freezer. Here are some guidelines from the USDA (and, where noted, other sources):

Handling Food Safely

Keep raw meat, poultry, and fish away from other foods so they don’t contaminate them. (This is probably why many fridges have a meat compartment in the bottom of the fridge; if yours doesn’t, store uncooked meat/seafood on the lowest rack to prevent their juices from leaking onto the other foods.)

Also always wash your hands—there’s a best way to do it—before and after handling food, whether cooking or putting it away.

Much like wiping, washing our hands is something that all of us hopefully do, but don’t really …

The temperature of your refrigerator should be 40 °F or below and the freezer at 0 °F or below.

Storing Leftovers and Perishable Food

Timing: Freeze or refrigerate perishable food within two hours or one hour if the temperature is over 90 °F. A general guideline is to eat leftovers within four days. This chart shows pizza and cooked meat or poultry should last three to four days, while lunch meats and egg, tuna, or macaroni salads may last three to five days.

Containers: Store the food in the best-fitting, shallow containers. Glass storage containers have the benefit of being easy to check the contents, may be microwavable, and are more eco-friendly. If you have plastic containers already, just check to make sure they’re labeled BPA-free; as dealnews mentions in “6 Best Choices for Food Storage Containers,” if the number on the recycling icon on the container has a “7” on it, it likely has BPA in it, which may be hazardous. If your kitchen is drowning in food containers, it may be time to trim your stash to include only the most essential types of containers.

Food Storage Containers Guidelines for Small (and Big) Kitchens

Your food storage containers can make a big difference in the amount of kitchen storage space you…

One trick for making sure your leftovers actually get eaten, not just stored prettily, is to put the most recently cooked food behind earlier leftovers. If you have trouble remembering when you put the food in the fridge, try using a dry erase marker to note the date on the cover.

Storing Fruits and Vegetables

Produce can be tricky to store because some fruits and vegetables are incompatible when stored together. Some fruits emit ethylene gas which can cause vegetables to spoil prematurely. Vegetarian Times recommends keeping these “gas releasers” out of the fridge: avocados, bananas, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, and tomatoes.

You can refrigerate apples, apricots, canteloupes, figs, and honeydew, but keep them out of the vegetable bin/crisper where you may be storing ethelyne-sensitive vegetables (check the Vegetarian Times article for the list of these vulnerable veggies; VT also recommends which fruits and vegetables to eat first based on how rapidly they spoil).

Speaking of the vegetable bin, most standard fridges have a vegetable crisper designed to keep produce firm and fresher for longer, and sometimes come with moisture and temperature controls. This may be a good place to keep your gas-sensitive vegetables, as the area is sealed off from the rest of the fridge.

Don’t store fruits and vegetables in their own airtight bags or containers, however, because that might speed up decay. Produce preserving products like Debbie Meyer Green Bags, on the other hand, might help extend the life of your produce (but we can’t personally vouch for them).

Storing Eggs

Because there are so many types of egg products and eggs require special care to avoid food poisoning, has a chart on how to store different egg products, whether in the fridge or freezer. Basically, raw eggs in the shell can last a long time (three to five weeks), while liquid egg substitutes only last a few days.

Freezing Foods

Keep your food in air tight packages in the freezer to prevent freezer burn, which degrades the quality of your food. If you’re not ready to invest in something like the FoodSaver vacuum sealer, an inexpensive alternative is the Reynolds Handi-Vac vacuum-sealing kit, which works on the same principle of removing air from the accompanying freezer bags. It’s a bit noisy, but saves counter space and works (for the most part).

Tinkernut says to wrap meat like a pro for freezing, use good quality freezer paper. Fold the paper over the meat and crease, then continue folding and pressing the air out. After folding and turning under the ends, seal with freezer tape. You could double up the paper or layer with aluminum foil or plastic for more security.

Real Simple advises you to let breads and other baked goods cool off before freezing in freezer bags so the moisture doesn’t form ice crystals inside. This may also apply to other just-cooked items.

Label your frozen foods with the date and name of the food, and try to separate foods into portion sizes for easy reheating.

Finally, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has a long list of freezing information by specific food, as well as general advice like foods that don’t freeze well (e.g., milk sauces), how much headspace to allow between packed food (0.5 inch to 1.5 inch), and freezer management tips like making sure you keep your freezer full for best efficiency.

See the USDA’s cold storage chart for safe time limits for storing food in the fridge or freezer (there are many others available like this one from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and this one from the Colorado State University).

Here is a brief description of the food preservation methods detailed in the book The Home Preserving Bible. Canning, freezing, and drying food are the most common methods for preserving foods at home today. However, there are many other methods, and some are easier and less expensive. Listed below is an overview of 10 methods for preserving foods, including today’s popular methods, as well as other old-fashioned and ancient techniques that are worth re-visiting.

  1. Canning is the process of heating the product at a specified temperature for a specific length of time (pasteurizing), and then vacuum sealing the pasteurized food in special glass jars designed for this purpose. It can be used with most foods, including fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, and some prepared foods. Canning requires the purchase of reusable canning jars and rings, one-time use sealing lids, and some practice to learn the necessary and detailed steps. For more information, read: How to get started with the canning preservation method.
  2. Freezing is the process of chilling foods to at least 0°F. It can be used with all foods, including fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, grains, nuts, dairy, eggs, and prepared foods. True freezing is not possible in the freezer compartment of your refrigerator where the temperature is typically much warmer, between 10°F to 32°F. Freezing is easy to do, if you can afford to buy and operate the relatively expensive appliance. For more information, read: A short primer on freezing food.
  3. Drying is the process of dehydrating foods until there is not enough moisture to support microbial activity. It can be used with most foods, including fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, grains, legumes, and nuts. There are several different techniques, some are relatively easy to do and require no special equipment. For more information, read: An Introduction to the Drying Food Preservation Method.
  4. Fermenting is the process of encouraging the growth of “good bugs” to inhibit the “bad bugs” that can spoil food. It can be used with many types of foods, including fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, grains, legumes, dairy, and eggs to produce a wide range of products such as wine (from grapes), sauerkraut (cabbage), cured sausage (meat), and yogurt (milk). Many fermented products can be produced without any special equipment. The method for each type of product is relatively easy, but requires attention to detail. For information on some of these methods, read: more articles about Fermenting Foods on this website.
  5. Pickling is the process of soaking food in a solution containing salt, acid, or alcohol. It can be used with most foods, including fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, legumes, and eggs. Most methods require no special equipment. However, pickled foods can be unsafe if prepared carelessly or stored at room temperature. Pickling is often combined with another method, such as fermenting, canning, or just refrigerating. Here are some simple techniques to get you started: 10 refreshing, easy pickling recipes.
  6. Dry salting is either a fermenting or pickling technique used for meat, fish, and vegetables. A low salt concentration (2½% to 5% weight of the salt per weight of the food), promotes fermentation, while a high salt concentration (20% to 25% salt), prevents microbial growth and preserves the food in a more or less fresh, although salty state. Many people familiar with the technique consider salted vegetables such as green beans to be far superior in taste and texture than canned or frozen beans. This old-fashioned method was promoted in the early twentieth century as an alternative to canning, in order to conserve glass, tin, and fuel in time of war. Here is a recipe for salted cauliflower that you can adapt to other vegetables: Salted cauliflower, peas, or green beans in brine without fermenting.
  7. Curing is similar to pickling, and uses salt, acid, and/or nitrites. It is used for meat and fish. Simple, modern curing methods often reduce the amount of salt and nitrites, which may require that you refrigerate or freeze the final product. Shelf-stable products require the use of adequate amounts of nitrites and a complex drying process using special equipment and exacting technique. Some curing methods also employ a secondary process such as fermenting, smoking, or sealing. For more information, read: All about brining and curing corned beef and game meat.
  8. Smoking is a complementary process to curing that improves flavor and appearance, and can also act as a drying agent. Smoking in the home environment contributes more flavor and appearance benefits than food preservation. However, smoked meats are less likely to turn rancid or grow mold than unsmoked meats.
  9. Sealing is a process of covering food to keep out air, which delays (but does not stop) the activity of spoilage organisms. It is used primarily as a complementary process to other methods such as drying or freezing. Both fat sealing and vacuum sealing methods are relatively easy. Vacuum sealing a relatively inexpensive small appliance.
  10. Cellaring is the process of storing foods in a temperature-, humidity-, and light-controlled environment. It can be used with many foods, especially vegetables, grains, and nuts, as well as fermented foods and dry-cured meats. There are many different methods for cellaring food, all of which are relatively easy to do. Some require simple, inexpensive equipment you may already own. No matter where you live, whether in an apartment or on a farm, you can use the concept of cellaring to some degree. For more information, read: Winter food storage guide in a root cellar or other cellaring methods.