How To Give Food A Longer Shelf Life
Stretch the Longest Life From Your Most Precious Cargo: Food
Don’t worry, keep reading—we’re not going to suggest you base your overland travel diet around salt pork and hardtack, as if you were a 17th century British seaman. (Although, on the bright side, they also got a ration of a gallon of beer. Daily.) Instead, we’re referring to modern long-distance sailors. Those who might be completely isolated for a month at a time or longer on extended offshore passages, but have nevertheless figured out how to stay much healthier and eat a lot better than their predecessors in His Majesty’s Navy. After all, gliding across the Pacific on the trade winds is much more pleasant if you’re not ridden with scurvy and picking lost teeth off the pillow each morning.
On long journeys away from re-supply options—whether powered by foresail or four-wheel drive—having fresh food available is the key to both healthy and satisfying meals. Like some sailboats, your vehicle might have a fridge/freezer; like others, it might have an ice chest—or you might have no cold storage at all. Even given a 60-quart dual-zone Engel, the more food you can bring that needs no refrigeration, the more space you’ll have for luxuries such as steak, ice cream, and that daily beer ration. You could accomplish, or augment, this using only canned and freeze-dried victuals, but there are better, tastier ways.
Get the Most From Produce
Vegetables and their attendant vitamins are irreplaceable, both for maintaining health and facilitating varied and delicious menus. Those known for having a long shelf life include potatoes, yams, turnips, onions, zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, and red and yellow peppers. Store potatoes and onions in the dark (and not together) so they don’t sprout. Store carrots wrapped not-quite tightly in aluminum foil, so a slight bit of moisture can escape. Green beans and snap peas last longer if you don’t wash them or cut off the ends before storing them loosely in a mesh bag in the dark.
Cabbage stays fresh much longer than lettuce, especially if you remember not to cut it open for use but instead peel off the outer leaves one at a time. Roll a few of these peeled leaves tightly and slice them crosswise into a bowl. Shred in a carrot, add olive oil and red-wine vinegar, stir in a bit of mayonnaise, and you’ve got a nutritious salad/slaw you can replicate for weeks, or augment with canned tuna for a complete lunch.
You can even make tomatoes last a couple of weeks or more by buying them in various stages of greenness. Keep them in the dark, cushioned as best as possible, and wrapped in paper towels. Once ripe they should be used within a few days. Monitor them for spots of spoilage, which will spread quickly.
You’ll find a very useful product in the Oxo Greensaver Produce Keeper. Inside a clear tub, a basket holds the vegetables clear of the sides and allows circulation, while a charcoal filter traps ethylene gas, slowing aging and delaying spoilage. Rinsing just-purchased vegetables in a 1:10 mixture of vinegar and water before storing them also seems to slow aging and mold growth.
Long-shelf-life vegetables are handy, but you can also tend your own garden while traveling. Alfalfa, radish, mung bean, and many other sprouts are easy to grow in jars on the road and are packed with nutrients. You can also sprout other vegetables in mini-tubs if you have a place to secure them. Then add them to salads or sandwiches.
Many fruits travel well durably. Citrus, in particular, if wrapped individually (completely dry) in aluminum foil, can last several weeks. Apples also do well, but don’t store them near the citrus or they’ll quickly rot. Pineapples are bulky for their actual edible content, but remain fresh for at least two weeks. And if you find a bit of mold on your fruit or vegetables when retrieved, you can wash it off with a mild vinegar solution.
Dairy Doesn’t Always Need Refrigeration
What about dairy products? American consumers are used to thinking milk, butter, and cheese can only be stored refrigerated. Not necessarily. Everywhere else I’ve traveled, UHT (for Ultra High Temperature Pasteurized) milk, which needs no refrigeration until opened, is available in grocery stores. Who knew milk could be a long shelf life food? Here it’s available through Amazon. Maple Hill, for example, sells it in 8-ounce packs, perfect single-serving size for drinking or cereal. Amazon also carries Peak whole milk powder, a much-better tasting alternative to the usual insipid low-fat stuff if you prefer powdered milk. Likewise, Amazon shoppers can find Red Feather, Wijsman, or Bretel tinned butter—real butter that, again, needs no refrigeration until opened. The best thing about all these is that if you have a fridge or cooler with limited space, you don’t have to load your entire trip’s supply at once; you can chill one or two packs of milk at a time, for example.
Some cheeses—generally, the harder the better—store well without cooling. If you need more longevity from your cheese, look up Bega tinned cheese from Australia, real cheese with a two-year shelf life. It is way better than Cheez Whiz.
Eggs can last weeks at room temperature if lightly coated with Vaseline. They also seem to do better if they’ve never been refrigerated, so sourcing them from a local farm or farmer’s market will get you both fresher as well as un-chilled eggs. Pro tip: When frying or scrambling a bunch of them, crack each one into a cup before adding it to the pan. If one has gone bad it will be immediately obvious, and you won’t have ruined the rest of the eggs.
Make Meat Last Longer
Meat can be a bit more challenging than growing your own sprouts, but there are options. Most dried salamis need no refrigeration, and if you’ve never tried Iberico ham, we urge you to do so. Also, try using different tinned meat products such as oysters, minced clams, salmon, chicken breast, or sausage to jazz up what could otherwise be repetitious pasta or noodle dinners. For a great snack look up Tanka Bars, genuine pemmican made from bison meat and cranberries on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation.
If you do have a freezer in your rig, look for a butcher who will vacuum pack and deep-freeze cuts for you. That surely makes it a long shelf life food. We found a butcher in Sydney who did so (Springbok Delights, if you’re there), and the stash kept us in braai meat all the way across the Australian Outback.
Regarding condiments, there are many that are long shelf life foods. Most people know ketchup and mustard don’t need to be refrigerated. Contrary to tradition, neither does store-bought mayonnaise, especially if it’s in a squeeze bottle that keeps air out and prevents it from being contaminated by other foods. Don’t overlook the classic PB&J for lunches. Jarred jams last a long time without refrigerating, as does peanut butter—chunky, of course. Creamy is for people who drive on pavement.
Ah, then, you’ll need bread for those sandwiches, right? If you like fresh bread with very little fuss, do a web search for “skillet flat bread” or “skillet biscuit bread,” both of which require no more than four ingredients, plus a frying pan. Still too much trouble? How about canned bread? We’re not kidding. B&M Brown Bread has been baked—and canned—in Portland, Maine, for decades. You can buy it plain or with raisins, and it makes perfect little round sandwiches or excellent campfire toast. And once again it’s available on everyone’s favorite COVID shopping network—that’s right, Amazon.
Of course, all these long shelf life foods do make excellent pandemic backup supplies. If you’re tempted to dip into them now and then while isolating at home, at least pitch a tent in the backyard and tune into a David Attenborough segment to lend some overlanding authenticity.