Photo by Unsplash/Ella Olsson
Shelf-stable meals have been gaining popularity lately. The reason doesn’t really matter, whether it be a pandemic, a power outage, unexpected guests, or husbands (or wives) that can’t cook, or for days you just don’t feel like cooking, “meals in a jar” are quick, easy and have long shelf lives.
Shelf-stable meals are more than just convenient though. Made with freeze-dried meats and vegetables, they are healthy alternatives that are real food, and have real calories and real nutrients. On top of that, they are your familiar meals, comfort foods, like spaghetti and chicken and noodles that can be ready in minutes.
What really makes them suitable is their long-term storage life. They are kept in pantries or on shelves in food cellars rather than in the freezer. Frozen meals are great, but they do depend on having power.
Many of these foods can be eaten as is, right from the jar without having to re-heat or cook, which is the primary reason for having them in the first place. However, some do require powerless cooking options. I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, the freeze-dried food. Many folks think freeze-dried and dehydrated are one and the same. These processes are distinctly different. Almost anything can be freeze-dried and this process maintains the original flavor. Dehydrating often changes the texture, flavor and appearance of foods. One method is not necessarily better than the other, it all depends on how you want to use the product and how you prefer the flavor. For example, jerky and fruit jerky is much better dehydrated.
Freeze-dried foods have shelf lives up to 25 years because they are sealed in packaging with nitrogen. The process, though it requires a lot of energy to complete, is fairly simple. It is a three-step process that begins with freezing. The food is placed in a vacuum chamber under low heat where the frozen water crystals evaporate directly from ice to water vapor. Then the food goes through its second drying in which any water molecules that are left are removed using slightly higher temperatures. The food is nitrogen sealed to prevent contamination from water or oxygen.
To buy freeze-dried food can be expensive. Cottage cheese can be stored this way for up to 25 years but can sell for $65. A can of dried beef goes for roughly $53 a can while bacon and eggs are about $32 per can.
There is an alternative; you can do it at home. Home-based freeze dryers are still pricey, likely starting out at about $2000. Instead, you can flash freeze meat at home. It is a lot like drying meat on racks and adding the freezing process. Simply, cut food in small pieces and place on a cookie sheet in the freezer. The food will freeze in a couple hours but the drying process takes weeks.
This is known as sublimination and is what separates freeze drying from simply freezing. To check when it is done, remove a piece. If it turns dark or black, it is not done. Frozen food that is done will not change color. This will take a little trial and error. Once it is done, place in air-tight mylar bags (best choice) or Ziploc bags, making sure all air and moisture is out. Then store anywhere it is under 75 degrees F.
The other way to freeze dry at home is to use dry ice, which is much quicker. Find a day when the humidity is zero and place your food in a container that is twice as large as your food. With gloves, place dry ice over it in a ratio of one pound of dry ice for each pound of food. Do not seal the container as it will explode with the expanding gases. When there is no more dry ice, remove the food and place in bags immediately, making sure there is NO moisture inside. A vacuum sealer works best.
To rehydrate freeze-dried foods, place the foods in a container filled with water and allow the food to absorb the water. It will not absorb more than it needs. Then use the food as you normally would.
Freeze-dried meats, fruits and vegetables can be combined with spices and other ingredients to make your meals in a jar. However, you will need an oxygen absorber to help remove oxygen in the jars while leaving nitrogen in. Dried foods are protected against spoilage and bacteria growth in a nitrogen environment.
Basically, they consist of iron powder mixed with polymer grains to allow air circulation through the powder. The rusting of the iron powder depletes the container’s contents of oxygen.
You can easily make your own. All you need is super fine steel wool (0000), salt, paper towels and staples. Place a wad of steel wool on a paper towel, sprinkle it with table salt, working it into the fibers. Then fold the towel over and staple. The salt’s acidity activates the corrosion of the steel and the rusting absorbs the oxygen. You can make these ahead and keep them in airtight freezer bags in the freezer until you need them.
OK, so you have your meals in a jar and you want one, but have no power. All you need is a fuel source, which can be sun, propane, butane or charcoal. Your choice depends on personal preference, price and availability. A single butane burner is popular since it is safe to use indoors, can be shipped and is safer than propane. It works like a gas stove top. However, it is sometimes harder to find than propane and can be more expensive.
Another option is a tea light oven. Just like its name suggests, it uses tea lights as a fuel source. It can be used indoors and bakes and cooks. One gallon of tea lights will give you roughly 300 to 400 cooking hours and is relatively inexpensive at 30 cents per hour. It will cook at 300-350* and will accommodate three 9 X 5 bread pans or an 11 X 15 pan. It folds flat, takes little space, can be used as a second oven for holidays and also doubles as a dehydrator by using only half the lights.
Shelf ready meals are good to have for any situation that may arise. They are perfect companions to other methods of food preservation such as canning and freezing. They say that variety is the spice of life. Well, it may also be the best way to sustain life in difficult times.
Photo by Mae Mu
Spaghetti in a Jar
Add all ingredients in order listed
- 1/2 cup tomato powder
- 1-1/2 tsp. parsley
- 1-1/2 tsp. basil
- 1-1/2 tsp. oregano
- 1-1/2 tsp. Italian seasoning
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 T. freeze-dried onion
- 1-1/2 – 2 tsp. salt
- 1-1/2 T. garlic powder
- 1 cup freeze-dried sausage crumbles or ground beef crumbles
- 1 cup freeze-dried mushrooms
- 1 cup freeze-dried tomatoes, diced
Place oxygen absorber in jar and seal tightly.
Add note to jar: Add 4 cups water, simmer until meat is hydrated. Serve over spaghetti. Store box of spaghetti with sauce jar.
Chicken Noodle Soup
Add ingredients in order listed
- 1 T chicken boullion
- 1/2 cup bechamel sauce powder (a white sauce made with butter, flour, milk base)
- 1/4 cup dehydrated carrots,
- 1-1/2 cups freeze-dried vegetables
- 1/3 cup freeze-dried onion
- 1 cup freeze-dried chicken
Place oxygen absorber in jar, seal lid.
Add note: Add 8 cups water, simmer 5 minutes. Add noodles, 1 cup water and simmer until noodles are tender.
Add ingredients in order, does not require heat
- 1/4 cup freeze-dried celery
- 2 cups freeze-dried chicken
- 2 T freeze-dried onion
- 1/4 cup freeze-dried grapes and/or freeze-dried cranberries(optional)
- 1/2 cup freeze-dried apples(optional)
Place oxygen absorber in jar.
Add note: Add 3/4 cup plus 1 T cold water, let stand 10 min
Add 1/2 cup mayo and mix well