People who stock their pantries against a rainy day are not crack-pots. They’re not all doomsday survivalists or pessimistic hermits who live off the grid in a cabin in the wilderness, although some of may aspire to do so. For the most part pantry stockers are regular everyday people like you and me. People who realize that a well stocked larder is simply a prudent use of resources in today’s unsteady world.
Those of us who live a feast and famine lifestyle, where we sometimes have great abundance and other times find ourselves scraping to make ends meet, have found that stocking our pantries against times of need gives us a steadier and more pleasant way of life. Practicing food storage allows us to take advantage of sales on goods we find ourselves using week in and week out. One can make the best use of financial resources by purchasing items in bulk when prices are at their lowest. This is simply good money management. We all have to eat, so we might as well have some extra around in case we need it.
Our hearty ancestors kept their cellars stocked with dry goods, smoked hams, and home canned produce. We modern folks can learn a lot from their example. There is very little in this uncertain world that gives one as solid a sense of security as knowing we have enough to eat, enough to feed a hungry family, no matter what the future holds. And that is what this section of my website is about. Providing for the family—filling, familiar, even comforting meals, no matter what the circumstances.
The Frugal Food Storage section of this website makes a few assumptions. First that whatever emergency you are planning for is one that doesn’t include access to electricity. Priority is given to foods which do not require refrigeration. Dried vegetables, grains, beans and textured vegetable protein are given precedence over mixes and processed foods. A few processed items are included for the sake of variety. Whipped Topping Mix, Stuffing and Instant Pudding are not the most wholesome items to include on one’s shopping list. However, they serve specific purposes and save much time over preparing similar items from scratch, especially without the assistance of electrical gadgets to simplify their preparation.
Furthermore it assumes that saving money, while important, is not necessarily your highest priority. Most of the recipes are quite inexpensive to prepare, but there are a few that—once again for the sake of variety—include items such as canned shrimp, asparagus, and roasted red peppers. While not obscenely expensive, these items do cost more than for instance tuna, peas and carrots. Sometimes variety is worth a little extra cost, and a few of the recipes reflect this sentiment.
Frugal Food Storage focuses on food exclusively. There are no tips on how to store water or which medicines and hygiene supplies you need for your emergency shelf. This information is available on many other websites which do not cover cooking as completely as this one.
Most of the foods used in these recipes are available locally. Grocery stores, warehouse stores, ethnic and health food stores all have good options for an emergency pantry. Other items like dehydrated vegetables and powdered eggs may have to be mail ordered.
A few of the items called for may be unfamiliar. Whenever possible I have explained what a food is and where to find it.
The last thing I’ve assumed is that you have access to enough water and fuel to allow for cooking dried beans, whole grains and dried vegetables. Wood stoves, campfires, fireplaces and charcoal grills provide the perfect long-simmering environment for these items.
A 2-burner propane stove, with collapsible oven or free-standing propane oven, will give you greater flexibility, especially when it’s too hot for an inside fire.
Stoves & Fuel
Most of the recipes in this section can be cooked with a 2-burner propane camp stove and a camping oven. There are a variety of other ways to cook and bake foods without electricity but I feel that these are the most reliable and user-friendly. While a wood burning cook stove is ideal, it’s not an item to which everyone has access. Besides it takes a lot of space to store it, and time to learn how to use it. Even owners of tiny apartments can find room for a camp stove, oven and needed fuel, plus they’re affordable and portable. A new wood burning cook stove costs at least $1000. A camp stove and oven cost less than a tenth of that.
I use an 25 year old 2-burner propane camp stove produced by Hillary brand. I don’t know where it came from, or if it’s still available. I do know it’s reliable and I’ve been very pleased with it over the years. Coleman camp stoves are the most widely available and work the same way. If you don’t have one yet, then this is the first thing you should purchase. Before you go out and buy one though, ask around and see if anyone in your circle of friends and family has one they want to give away or sell. This could save you some cash. If you can’t find one for free, or very cheap, then have a look at your local discount department store. They can be priced anywhere from $40 to $100 depending on where you buy them and the brand name you choose. Coleman camp stoves are reliable, relatively inexpensive and have a reputation for good service. If I were in the market for a new stove, that’s is the kind I’d buy.
After you get your stove you need fuel, propane specifically. Propane can be purchased in large refillable tanks, or smaller pound-sized tanks that are portable. I like the smaller tanks because they are easier for me to use. I find them lighter, more user friendly and for the most part unintimidating. My husband likes the big 20-pound refillable tanks because they are more economical and easier to store. The size you choose depends on your available storage area and the length of time you plan to be cooking with propane exclusively.
When I do all of our normal cooking, including baking all of our bread and a few longer cooking stews made from lentils or split peas, I use about 3 pounds of fuel a week. If you do not plan on doing any baking and choose only the most quickly cooking dishes, then you can probably squeak by on 1-pound of propane a week. I hate bending over backwards to ration my fuel, so for me, having plenty of propane available is a higher priority than trying to save money on fuel. Two 20-pound tanks will last me for about 3 months, 13-weeks, or 1/4 of a year to be more specific. I would need 39 smaller 1-pound canisters to last as long, which would cost much more and take up a lot more storage space as well. As much as I personally dislike 20-pound storage tanks, I find that for our circumstances they are the best use of resources.
After the stove itself and the fuel to keep it going, you need a way to bake. If you never plan on baking your own bread or a pan of brownies, then don’t bother with an oven. If you have a family with children you’ll find that an oven opens up a lot of territory for you that you wouldn’t have with a stove alone. I find an oven saves me money by allowing me to prepare our own baked goods. This costs less than using prepared goods which also require more storage space and usually don’t keep as long as basic ingredients. Additionally, we find we’re able to keep our diet closer to “normal”, which is especially important for children.
Coleman collapsible ovens or camping ovens, fit over the burner of a camp stove. They can also go on a grate over a fire. The heat from the flame rises up into the oven, through a diffuser in the bottom of the oven. Inside the oven is an adjustable rack. In the center front of the oven door is a temperature gauge. It will tell you what temperature the interior of the oven has reached. It will not allow you adjust the temperature however. You must do that by adjusting the flame below the oven. It takes a little practice to get the hang of it. I burned the bottoms of several loaves of bread before I learned how to use this type of oven with any skill. Since the heat emanates from the bottom of the oven, the tops of most foods will not become as brown as they do in your oven at home. The bottoms will have a tendency to brown quickly so keep an eye on them, and adjust the temperature downward as necessary.
I usually use my oven in an enclosed area, well protected from wind. If you use your oven under windy conditions, it will be more difficult to maintain a steady temperature. This can make many baked goods take much longer to cook. Keep this in mind when setting up your oven. If you cook out in the open, then you may want to save your baking for calm days.
Contrary to most recommendations, I don’t preheat my camp oven. I think it wastes fuel, and I haven’t found any real difference in the resulting cooking or browning of the baked goods. First I prepare the bread, or bar cookies, or pie, or whatever. When the preparation is completely finished, I put the pan into the oven and latch the door. Then I light the stove eye, and carefully place the oven, with the food inside, on top of the flame. I adjust the flame up to high. Then I watch the temperature dial. When the desired temperature is reached, (like 350° for instance), then I turn the flame down very low. Usually the oven will maintain the temperature for the next 20 minutes or so, often long enough to finish baking the bread or bar cookies. When the temperature begins to drop some, by about 50 degrees, then I turn up the flame again, until the temperature inside the oven has reached my desired goal. Then I turn the flame down to low again, and let the food continue baking. For hotter temperatures, or for longer baking, I usually have to repeat this process a few times. I have found that using this procedure produces fewer burnt bottoms on my bar cookies and bread loaves. Camp ovens require a lot more babysitting than home ovens, and using this technique has given me my best results.
If your camp oven is not retaining heat as efficiently as you like, you may place a folded towel over top of the oven, to work as extra insulation, keeping more heat inside the oven. You must be very careful if you do this. The towel could drop into the open flame of your stove or camp fire and burn you, or the food, very quickly. Be careful not to let the edges of your towel dangle down into the flame. Keep it on top of the oven, not on the sides. Only do this if you are sitting with your oven and watching it the entire time you are baking. It’s a very handy technique, and with the proper amount of caution, works quite well, especially when cooking items that require more than 30-minutes baking time.
Camp ovens have smaller interiors than home ovens do. This takes some adjustment to become accustomed to. Standard 9 by 13-inch rectangular pans will not fit inside a camp oven. You must use smaller dishes and this requires recipes which produce smaller quantities. I recommend the following baking pans for use in a camp oven:
- 9-inch square pan
- 8-inch square pan
- 9-inch round cake pan
- 8 by 4-inch bread pan (2)
- 9-inch pie plate
When not in use camp ovens may be collapsed so they take up very little storage space. The best time to learn to use your stove and oven is before you need them. During vacation, or on a long weekend you might consider using your propane stove and oven for several days straight. This would help you familiarize yourself with the basic techniques needed for your equipment. It would also help you determine the amount of fuel you’ll need to store and the type of cooking you can expect to be facing when the time comes and you need to use it.
When you find yourself cooking without electricity you’ll notice that some preparation techniques may be different than those which you are accustomed to using Care must be taken to avoid wasting fuel, which is a limited resource. Methods like soaking foods overnight, doing all of your prep-work before lighting the stove, and using heat-conservation to cook some foods are just as important as more glamorous aspects of cooking and should not be overlooked.
Additionally propane stoves take a bit of practice to regulate with accuracy. Some stoves can maintain a very low flame, which is necessary for some dishes. Others just won’t let a flame go very low before it goes out all together. It’s important to determine the lowest flame your oven will maintain for an extended period of time. Rice for instance, must sit over very low heat while it cooks. Stews, especially those containing dried lentils or split peas, will use less fuel if they are allowed to simmer over a low flame with their lids firmly in place. For some of us this means using a heat diffuser. This is a round, plate-shaped, piece of metal with holes in it that sits between the flame and the pot of food. This will prevent the bottom of pans from scorching and allow delicate foods to cook in the gentle heat they require. Some sporting goods stores carry heat diffusers, but probably the easiest way to find one is to Google it and then order one through the mail. I found mine at a yard sale 25 years ago, and it’s been working fine ever since. The one pictured is a bit fancier than most, but it illustrates the purpose.
The next method to master is Soaking. If you’re using any amount of dried foods you’ll find that soaking them overnight or for a few hours during the day will reduce cooking time and fuel consumption significantly.
For instance, if you’re having scalloped potatoes from a boxed mix for lunch then place the potatoes in the required amount of water after breakfast. Allow them to soak until you’re ready to prepare lunch. When you cook the potatoes at lunch time, they will take less time to become tender because they are already partially rehydrated. This works for many foods—rice, split peas, lentils, barley, wheat, steel-cut oats, bulgur, and any dried fruit or vegetable. If you know you’ll be serving a specific food at a future meal then plan your soaking time accordingly.
I was slow to understand the next tip, but once I figured it out I saved a lot of fuel. At home I often pre-heat a burner or skillet before I actually use it. Sometimes I’ll preheat it for a minute or two, or if I want it very hot, up to 5 minutes. When cooking with a propane stove this is never a good idea. It wastes fuel. Whenever the burner is on, there should be a pan of food or water over it.
Cooking isn’t just heating food until it’s hot. There is prep-work that must be done before the food can be cooked. When one’s fuel is limited all of the prep-work should be done first, before one starts a propane stove. For instance, all cans should be opened and mixed in the pot before lighting the stove. Skillet bread batter should be prepared, and if the bread must be rolled out or otherwise shaped, this should be done to all of the dough before lighting the stove. If you’re making grilled cheese sandwiches then assemble the sandwiches completely first. All ingredients, including water and seasonings, should be pre-measured and waiting. Trying to juggle these things while your precious fuel is going up in smoke is just too hard and too wasteful. Do all prep-work first, then, at the last possible moment, when everything else is ready, do the actual cooking. This may seem like more work at first, I know it did to me. But after a little time in the trenches I realized that it must be done this way because it’s the most practical. I say practical because in the long run it saves time, fuel and wear and tear on the chef.
Finally we come to Heat-Conservation. This can be as simple as pouring leftover boiling water into a thermos after heating water for a meal. The water can be used throughout the day as needed for beverages, instant soups and cereals As long as everyone is careful to seal the thermos tightly the water will remain quite hot for most of the day.
Thermoses can be used for other foods too. If you make soup for lunch and one of the family members isn’t home yet, you can keep their serving warm in a thermos so you won’t have to waste fuel reheating it when they get home.
Many grains can actually be cooked in a thermos. Measure 1-cup of grain like wheat, rice, barley or oats and place it in a thermos. Boil 3-cups of water and add to the thermos. Seal the thermos and allow the food to sit for several hours or overnight. When you’re ready to eat simply drain off the extra water and spoon the grain into a bowl. It will be deliciously tender and just the right temperature for eating, not too hot and not too cold. This is an easy way to have a hot grain for breakfast without having to do any difficult work in the morning, when you’re still half asleep.
Another type of heat-conservation makes use of a pile of towels or an old blanket or comforter. Arrange the towels or blanket in a cardboard box or clean, empty cooler. Make a little nest in the center, being certain there is enough extra insulation leftover to cover the top.
Now, prepare a batch of rice. When it’s time to allow the rice to sit over very low heat for 20 minutes until cooked, place the pan in your blanket nest instead of leaving it on the stove. Adjust the blankets so plenty of the “stuffing” covers the top of the pan. If you’re using a cooler, then place the lid over the nest, to keep in as much warmth as possible. Allow the rice to snuggle in it’s nest and continue cooking for 20 to 30 minutes. This requires zero additional fuel and eliminates the possibility of burning.
A hundred years ago this method was called hay-box cooking, or a fireless cooker. It was the precursor to our modern slow-cooker.
When the stove and fuel situation is covered it’s time to look over your kitchen to see which tools you already have that will translate well to a non-electric kitchen. The following list is not exhaustive. I put the items I feel are most important in the first list and optional items in the second list. I think each family should make their own lists of vital and optional equipment. If you have a baby in the house then a manual baby-food mill, the kind sold at most health food stores, will be a necessity while families with older children will be able to overlook such an item.
- 2 can openers (or more)
- Lots of Matches
- Heat Diffuser
- Various Pots, Skillets & Kettles, cast iron when possible, with lids when possible
- 9-inch square baking pan
- Two 8 by 4-inch bread pans
- Wire Whisk
- Hand Held Egg-Beater
- Pancake Turner or metal Spatula
- Big Spoon
- Big Knife
- Small Knife
- Cutting Board
- Measuring Cups & Spoons
- Medium-Sized Mixing Bowl
- Very Big Bowl for Mixing Bread; doubles for dish washing
- Very Big Pot for Soups & Stews & Pasta; doubles for dish washing
- Colander or Strainer
- 1 or 2 Thermoses
- 2 or more 2-quart pitchers or gallon pitchers
- Dish soap
Handy to Have
- Old-Fashioned Percolator Coffee Pot
- Bread Knife with long serrated edge
- Griddle to fit over both burners of the camp stove
- Slotted Spoon
- 8-inch square baking pan
- 9-inch round baking pan
- 9-inch pie plate
- Pressure Cooker
- Food Chopper like a Mouli
- Non-Electric Hand Crank Blender (woo hoo! I wish)
- Waxed Paper
- Plastic Bags
- Several plastic storage containers or clean glass jars with good lids