How to Live Without a Refrigerator

One of the things that seemed like a big challenge was getting by with a reasonably nutritious diet without a refrigerator. I grieved that I would have to miss out not only stuff like chilled drinks and icecreams, but also not have access to storing vegetables and meats and dairy products. Further, leftovers would be a liability and likely go waste. However, as I went on, I discovered ways of getting around this, and now, several months down, I have a diet where I am not impacted in any way by not using a refrigerator. As I set about trying to put my discoveries down, I came across another wonderful post on this same topic over here. Here are some of the things I personally discovered along with some of the wisdom already shared in that post.

My challenges were butter, milk, cheese, eggs, stocking up on vegetables for a week or more, green leafy vegetables, stuff like mayo and other dressings, toppings, and other processed pastes, and of course, leftovers.

As I struggled initially with a rice, lentil, and omlet plan, I started out by by adding clarified butter (ghee) to my diet. Ghee does not need refrigeration. Later, I added butter which stays perfectly fine in a covered bowl of water, the water needing to be changed every couple of days. Also, it saves cooking time in most recipes as you dont have to wait for it to reach room temperature. For those not comfortable with the water on the butter (it really is just a drop or two), you can put it in a small wide mouthed jar, and slip the jar into a ziploc bag and put the bag in water.

I am not a big consumer of milk, so the only use for it is with tea or coffee and for recipes that call for milk. I keep an emergency pack of UHT milk that you can buy in a tetrapak. For cooking, you cannot make out much of a difference between this and fresh milk. I tried making yoghurt with UHT milk, and contrary to what they claim, it doesnt taste the same as fresh milk. For yoghurt, I have switched to buying packaged fresh yoghurt. I do make it a point to check the dates on the packages, and it works fine. For any other use, I usually buy fresh milk from a dairy or use a dairy whitener for tea and coffee (since I dont take milk in my tea, this too is only for emergencies).

Cheese, I started out by learning to do without. Later (when the withdrawals were too severe), I settled for single helping cubes of processed cheese. Usually smaller stores (the neighborhood kirana stores and the mom & pop outlets) will sell you these singly whereas the supermarkets will not. These stay good for up to a week if packed and ziploc'ed and placed in water. Most firm cheeses stay fine for weeks on end. If you are a cheese fanatic, and need to get by in warmer climate without a refrigerator, pick up the likes of parmesan, mimolette, pecorino tuscano, romano, and most cheeses that have grana in their name (grating cheese). One good thing I found was the practice of frugality and moderation that comes with fridge-free living. I was forced to buy only as much as I could consume within a timeframe. Earlier, a visit to the supermarket meant stocking up (usually bad fats and carbohydrates) for the month or months. Now, I pick up one wedge of cheese, enjoy it till it is over, and only then go for the next, and this time, I usually pick up a different variety.

Eggs stay perfectly fine for up to a week. I usually buy no more than two half dozen packs, and they stay good up to 10 days. A word of caution, a spoiled egg can give you a real bad case of loosies, so here is a simple test. Being paranoid, I do this even with freshly bought eggs, since I am never convinced about how long they have been in the store before I bought them, but you can do this with eggs that are more than 5 days old after you have bought them. Fill a pot with water, place the egg in it. If it floats, or if it stands on the smaller end and the larger end bobs up, trash it and buy yourself a fresh supply, if it sinks to the bottom, or if it stands on the larger end and the smaller end bobs up, it is fine.

For green leafy veggies, the main items that I struggled with were cilantro, green chili, spinach and curry leaves.

Small bunches of cilantro (with the roots) stays fresh for up to one day if kept standing with the roots in glass with some water. Another way is to wrap a large bunch of cilantro with the roots in newspaper and fold the ends so that it is kind of airtight, store in a cool dark place, this too will stay for up to one day. When using, sort through and trash the ones that are starting to spoil. Letting cilantro soak in cool water for up to 30 minutes before use will restore them to their original crispness even if they seem to have wilted a little. For green chili, the trick is to de-stalk them, taking care not to injure the flesh while doing so. I usually buy a large handful each time, that lasts me for up to 10 days. After washing, drying and de-stalking, sort the ones that have started showing signs of ripening (a tinge of yellow or orange, or sometimes just a hint of lightening of the green towards yellow) and the ones that have blemishes or injuries on them. These go into a jar that will be kept on the shelf with other spices to be used for immediate cooking. The rest (fresh, bright green, intact flesh) gets packed air tight but loosely in newspaper, and the nespaper packet placed in a ziploc bag, and then kept in a cool dark place. This will stay for up to two weeks, but take care to change the paper packing once every three four days as it will sweat up and if not changed will cuse the chili to spoil. Once my at hand chili is exhausted, I pull out the packet, sort and pick the ones that are closest to ripening, and replenish, at the same time changing the paper packing. Being a chili fiend, I usually have two or three types of chilis at hand, and this helps me not to have to waste just because it spoiled.

Spinach is not too tolerant of heat or time, and will not stay beyond three days even with greatest care. Sort them as soon as you get them home, removing all the leaves that are bruised or mutilated. Leave the stalks on, they seem to keep better that way. Making sure they are dry (they sometimes comes with moisture and even water from the shop), loosely pack them into a large ziploc bag, and wrap the bag with a wet napkin, making sure that the napkin is kept moist at all times. While they stay green and alive for more than three days, the flavor seems to disappear when cooked if kept more than that. Curry leave are good for up to five days if kept on their stalks and dry in a ziploc with the air squeezed out. I also turn curry leaves into a powder which stays good for up to a month in an airtight jar. See the recipes here. This works great for livening up a dal or a khichdi or even a curry, just throw a spoonful in and the taste changes.

For stuff like mayo and dressings, I have not found a fix better than making it fresh each time you want to use. I keep all my dry spices (pepper, clove, cinnamon, etc.) and dry herbs whole, and lightly roast them before use, letting them cool before grinding them. For fresh herbs, miniature versions of square foot gardening helps with basil, sorrel, thyme. I end up eating more fresh food and foods without preservatives, and they taste oodles better than the canned stuff.

I have searched and found multiple fresh vegetable outlets near my place of work and near my home, so that at the end of the work day, I go across and pick up fresh vegetables, making sure to get a fair spread of colors, fiber, nutrients in my bag. Potato, onions, garlic, ginger have a long shelf life and can be bought in larger quantity. Vegetables like Beans, Carrots, Cabbage, Ladies finger, etc., stay good for up to three days if stored in a cool, dark and dry container. Hybrid tomatoes can stay good for up to seven days, while the wilder variety keeps for lesser time. Cauliflower stays good and crisp for up to two days, but can be used for up to three or four days. Once you have a hang on how long freshly bought veggies will keep before they start losing on texture and taste, you can plan your purchases accordingly.

With meat, fowl and fish, one has to choose between fresh and frozen. If buying frozen, for meat and fowl, up to 12 hours ahead of cooking is okay, keep in a covered container in a cool place. For frozen fish, 8 hours is good. For fresh meat, fowl or fish, cook within four to six hours of buying. It is challenging to plan meals like this, but it is also rewarding to cook and have the food fresh.

Leftovers need to go within 12 hours if you are in a hot but not humid climate, whereas in more humid places, even if cooler, food tends to spoil faster. One of the easier ways to preserve leftovers is to initially serve when just finished cooking and then to cover the container air tight and not touch it till it is to be eaten again. For pressure cooked items, try to do the final cooking in the pressure cooker itself, and after serving, immediately put the lid on, put the pressure weight on and bring the leftover to a whistle, and then let it cool, only opening it when ready to reheat and serve the next time. Rice that is left over can be soaked liberally in water, and left covered. The next day, drain the water and warm either over a flame, in a microwave or in a pressure cooker, and it tastes just like freshly cooked rice. If soaked for more than 12 hours, there is a slight fermented taste and smell which is easily removed by washing the cooked rice in a few changes of water before reheating it. Food preparations that are high in oil and salt keep longer than water based preparations. One trick that I use for watery stuff is to cook them till the water dries out, toss a little oil and cook it, and then reconstitute when using the next time. Stuff that has semi cooked or fried tomatoes or other such fleshy vegetables in them tends to spoil faster than you would estimate.

Another good living food habit that doesnt need a refrigerator is sprouting. Most beans, grains and nuts can be sprouted easily and simply at home and the yield is not only delicious, but has a shelf life of two to three days in addition to a lead time of one to two days, and is very, very healthy. Ann Wigmores wonderful book The Sprouting Book is a great storehouse of information. Whole Moong, Lobia (both red and white), Whole Masoor (brown), peas, groundnuts, horsegram, etc., make excellent basic sprouts. For spicing them up, you can try sprouting almonds, mustard, radish seeds, fenugrek, sunflower seeds and mix them in small quantities with the basic sprouts. You can add salt and pepper, lime, red chili powder, finely chopped raw onions, and a dash of mustard oil to make your sprout mix more spicy. Or you can have them straight and savour the enzymes and the sugars as they share their being with you. Sometimes you can saute them lightly and throw in some spices to make a crunchy healthy snack. More often than not, I end up with more sprout than I planned for, and this goes excellently into the next dal or khichdi or even vegetable curry you are making, enriching it with taste and nutrition.

Overall, living without a refrigerator has taught me to plan ahead, to purchase, prepare, and consume food in moderation, to have a healthier choice of food, and to have a slimmer power bill and at the same time feel good about not contributing to pollution. Do share your discoveries, tips, tricks and thoughts in the comments.

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