Refrigerator-less

Two-plus weeks after unplugging the refrigerator, we have learned a few things.

Our new "fridge" and regained kitchen space around it. (Look at that - two more wall sockets now accessible! Um, but don't look at the nasty paint job.)

Peas do not keep well past a few days. The peas I mentioned in the last post (shelling peas, fresh in the pod), were sort of, um, forgotten about, and a week later it was a mysterious odor that brought them to our memory. The beets and the kohlrabi, however, kept well for a week in the pantry. I cut them into chunks and roasted them with onions, potatoes, and carrots plus a bit of olive oil, sauteed firm tofu chunks, salt and pepper. Delicious.

The kohlrabi I bought at last week’s farmer’s market and tried to keep longer than a week went bad. Probably keeping it in the dark pantry encouraged the corruption. Next time, a plate on the counter, I think, or a breathable bag in a hanging basket.

Other losses – a ripe cantaloupe went south fast in two (hot, humid summer) days. A box of raspberries purchased Saturday morning at the farmer’s market, left on the counter but probably covered too much by carrot greens (see picture below), were moldy by Sunday morning. Nathan rinsed them, boiled them with sugar and made syrup for our pancakes, so the loss was not great. But next time, raspberries must go to the cooler.

Using a cooler has worked very well. We filled both an ice cream bucket and a gallon jug with water (but left headspace for expansion – important!), then froze them both. We rotate them, one at a time, from chest freezer to cooler – when one has melted in the cooler, it goes to the freezer, and the other one comes out of the freezer and goes to the cooler.

In the cooler we keep maple syrup, almond/soy/rice milk, jam, leftovers, and cut produce. Probably items like berries and peas (produce without stems to draw water – see next paragraph) will need to go in the cooler if not used or preserved immediately.

Produce stored in hanging baskets and pots of water

Vegetables such as lettuce, carrots, herbs – anything with a stem or root that can suck up water – can be kept in a pot of water, just like cut flowers. So far, we have had moderate success with this method. Herbs seem to stay fresher this way than they did when I stored them in the fridge. Lettuce – well, some of the lettuce I bought Saturday morning was wilty by Sunday morning. But we made a big salad with the rest of it and it was great! Carrots seemed to get a bit limp faster than I would have expected – but we cooked the limp ones and cut up the rest and stored in the cooler.

So, a bit of waste during our learning process, but with chickens and a compost pile, no food is really ever wasted.

We are learning to buy and prepare what we can use or preserve within a week or less. Rotating ice in the cooler keeps us aware of its inventory, which helps us to not waste that food.

Grains and legumes have become an even more attractive staple since we’ve ditched the fridge. They store so easily, and with a few herbs and a fresh vegetable or two, make a cheap, nutritious, simple meal.

Leftovers can be kept unchilled in the pot in which they were cooked, with a tight lid, and recooked (to boiling temperature) within 24 hours without any problem. Though in our germ-fearing culture, I promise not to serve leftovers kept like this to guests.

Without a towering space-hogging refrigerator, the kitchen feels lighter and more spacious. Other than what we store in the cooler, the fresh food we have on hand is kept on the counter or in hanging baskets, where we see it throughout the day. We get to enjoy it visually before we enjoy it digestively! And we don’t lose track of what food needs to be used soon.

Oh, and have I mentioned I will never need to clean the refrigerator again?! Woohoo!

So far, we have not missed having a refrigerator, especially since we do still use a cooler and a chest freezer. But if we did ever want one, we’re pretty sure we would get a smaller one (under-the-counter size), or retrofit a chest freezer into a chest refrigerator – which is WAY more efficient than any other refrigerator option. (A chest appliance rather than a stand-up one keeps the cold inside when you open the door, which makes a huge difference in efficiency.) See here for more about that.

Now, what do you think? Have you ever tried living without a fridge? Any tips to add? Any food items you want me to experiment with and report back about? Any other questions, comments, thoughts, other ideas about food storage alternatives?

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About Julia Bloom

singer of songs, lover of words, asker of questions, runner of miles, mother of younguns, darlin' of Nathan
This entry was posted in food, lifestyle and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Refrigerator-less

  1. juliabloom says:

    Just found this very interesting post with some fun photos and art too – http://www.ediblegeography.com/the-anti-fridge/

  2. Drew says:

    Julia –

    The chest fridge idea is very simple, very easy to make happen…and in fact, we have one. It just happens to be our kegerator for our beers and fresh soda.

    In all, it doesn’t seem like much of a change. While you are removing a major appliance from your life, you’re also doing something with the ice blocks and cooler that is essentially the same thing; you’re just using elbow grease instead of grid-electricity. Perhaps what really need is an old-style icebox. They’re smaller than a modern fridge (what isn’t, really…) and were pretty efficient. My mom owned one for many years; sort of sad that she let go of it…

    Glad this experiment is creating an opportunity for you to think about how you interact with the world.

    -Drew

    • juliabloom says:

      Hey Drew, thanks for writing. Did you convert a chest freezer for your chest kegerator? Cool! (Really 🙂

      True, we still keep some food cold, but the one change you mention is the one that is important to me – replacing coal-powered electricity with my own muscle-powered elbow grease. That’s my goal in projects like this. However, it isn’t a complete trade. Since we freeze jugs of water, we are demanding more electricity usage of our chest freezer to freeze those jugs (which we rotate about every two or three days right now). Still, I think our overall electricity usage will be less now without running the large refrigerator.

      Re: iceboxes – someone recently told me that Will Steger uses an ice box with ice chunks cut from the lake in winter then stored underground – and he has enough ice to keep it going all through the warm season. Nathan’s grandfather used to talk about the ice truck coming in the summer, with ice chunks that had been cut from the lake in winter and stored – maybe a little “regress” (as opposed to progress) would be good for us! Sounds like it was a good system, especially for a place like Minnesota!

      We are talking now about how to better insulate the cooler we use. In the winter, we can just freeze our jugs of water outside, and even find a cold spot in the house to stash some things to keep cool. But when it’s hot out, those jugs thaw fast! We thought of two ideas – one, build a big well-insulated box into which we could put the cooler. The box would be designed to look more permanent and aesthetically pleasing, maybe covered with stainless steel so we could even put magnets on it 🙂 Two, find a used five-cubic-foot chest freezer and just use that for our cooler (not plugged in) – it would be much better insulated.

      But, as I said in a comment on a previous post, none of this would be nearly as good for the planet as ditching my car! Baby steps for all of us . . .

      • Drew says:

        …but while ditching the car has its pleasures and advantages, the question of being able to leave for places outside of your little berg gets much more interesting.

        But that’s neither here nor there. I believe you might benefit far more from a classic 10 gallon cylindrical igloo cooler…the type that people pour over coaches at moments of celebration.

        I use such a cooler for brewing. It keeps temperature very well, the outside surface area is at a minimum, and the volume would allow you to store more…or at least rotate ice jugs so that you can keep the radiant cold in there at something of a constant rather better. If you continue to walk down this particular form of low-tech w/elbow grease, you might want to consider it.

        Indeed, we have a chest kegerator. We also have a proper freezer in the basement that holds hops, meat, and frozen fruit and veg from our CSA. The next brewing big-project is to extend the top lip of the kegerator so that we can run taps through it without worrying about hitting cooling lines.

      • Drew says:

        I certainly agree that the water jug method is probably rather more efficient overall, but I wonder how much running a chest fridge like that which we use for the afore-mentioned kegerator would cost. The average annual cost of running a proper chest freezer is in the 30s of dollars over a year, I think. I believe the price might be even rather lower for hooking it to a temp circuit.

        Of course, you do begin to approach a point of diminishing returns. (this is the engineer in me approaching the min-max of the situation instead of the spirit of the experiment, understand)

  3. Jodi says:

    First of all, I hope no one ever, ever comes to my house to take a picture of what’s in my fridge. 🙂 Those fridge alternatives are like artwork!

    I also wanted to say that I’m glad you started back up with this blog–the feed’s been sitting there in my Google Reader patiently hoping for the day you would return. Sustainable living has long been a heavy topic on my mind; it feels so impossible to be able to turn around and swim upstream, yet at the same time I have an urgent instinct I need to do *something*. Baby steps for me right now. Thanks for the ideas.

    • juliabloom says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Jodi. This gives me a good reminder that I want to do more posts with practical tips and ideas. Soon, patient feed, soon.

  4. Keith says:

    Julia,
    Can you update us on your experience of being refrigerator-less?

    • juliabloom says:

      Hi Keith! Thanks for asking. We are still refrigerator-less. It’s been easy over the winter! We have a non-insulated mud room which we close off from the kitchen, so we put anything that needed chilling out there, anywhere, and it stayed cold! In the coldest part of the winter, we used the cooler (without ice inside) to keep things from freezing.

      As spring is coming, we’ve had to start using a jug of ice in the cooler again, but it doesn’t need to be changed very often.

      All in all, this has proven to be a good choice for our household. We did notice a drop in our electric bill the month after we unplugged the fridge, even with our increased use of an electric food dehydrator to preserve more of our food.

      So, with our continued use of a chest freezer and our increased use of a food dehydrator, I’m not sure how much coal usage we have actually cut. I’ve started to wonder about installing a woodstove, which could be used for drying food as well. But I don’t foresee that project happening anytime soon.

      The largest benefits I have found with ditching our fridge are that we waste less money on food, we eat our food sooner and therefore when it is more fresh and nutritious, and we have more space in the kitchen. And we have no smelly refrigerator to clean or maintain or replace. I suppose there is some sustainable good in that – we are not demanding the production of another appliance.

      Btw, thanks for the root cellar link above. That is something I’d like to tackle someday. I tried storing food in the basement one year without any special preparation, and even that was better than nothing.

      • Keith says:

        Awesome. Glad to hear that it has turned out to be more than an experiment. The root cellar is also on my “someday” list.

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