Cooking as you once knew it, from cabinets bulging with a variety of packaged
items, store bread and cookies, or a quick trips to the store for box cereal
and meat in a neat packages, with an armful of deli tubs and rotisserie chicken – just
ended. Think about this statement for a minute. If you have never learned
to cook with simple ingredients and don’t have the right kinds of cookbooks
you’re not only going to have trouble using that stored grocery staple
food, it’s going to mean a steep learning curve at a time when you
need it the least. You’ll have a houseful of kids usually in school,
perhaps people sick; sporadic or no electricity and few of the conveniences
modern kitchens run on, but the ‘three squares’ will be marching
on every day and need to be nutritious enough to keep everyone healthy and
keep a breath of normalcy in life.
The family that has allowed everyone to ‘do their own thing’, eat whatever and wherever they like with no care for anyone else in the family, will have a far worse time than the family that has learned to cook, wash and dry dishes together, help each other, compliment good cooking and pitch in as things get hard. These traits are made, not born, and can be worked on now, before the need is critical. The scariest thing about life after TSHTF for me is not home invasions, it’s the homes already invaded by selfish, unskilled individuals used to having someone else stock the larder, who are allergic to work and worst, have no loyalty to the family or its well being.
My first recommendation: start cooking now and learn to make breadstuffs especially. Then set a date with your family for a home-cooked meal at least once a week and stick to it. Solemnly determine that these will be good times, with no arguments, ‘tudes and volatile subjects – make a separate time for family ‘meetings’. Make it old fashioned – get out the kerosene lanterns and wash the dishes by hand. After the Disaster, especially if it means being stuck at home (as in a quarantine or bad storm scenario) this will be one of the hubs of normalcy for family life if you’ve made it that way before you needed to.
Recipes included in this article are mine, come from the cookbooks recommended at the end of the article, or (in the case of simple breads, muffins and dumplings) can be found in any practical, pre-1970 cookbook. I have used all the techniques and recipes listed.
If you’ve been awake to issues in modern America, you’ve stored what your family can and will eat, thought through simple family recipes and have the ingredients on hand. Rotation of old to new goes without saying.
Know about your ingredients: what they can do and how to use them.
Although we have long-term grain storage, I have a year’s worth of flour
stored in large, air-tight, screw top containers for convenience and because
one family member is on a low-fiber diet. I wrap each bag of flour separately
to segregate any infected with grocery store meal moths from rest (although
this has never actually happened), marked each one with the date bought, and
NEVER stored any other item (especially ones with a strong smell) in the containers,
as the entire batch will absorb the smell over time. We learned this by storing
soap with other items. FYI, the best plastic bags are the oxygen-impermeable
ones that cereal comes in. Although it’s hard to find ones big enough
for a 5 lb bag of flour, other items keep well in them if your budget doesn’t
extend to a machine for extended storage. Wash these, discard any that still
smell of fruit, etc., after a washing, and use the rest.
We have several 1940 era cookbooks, Mennonite/Amish cookbooks and a thin book of ingredient substitutions as well as good, basic ones at least 30 years old. They’re priceless for simplicity, economy and few ingredients. This will mean going to the used bookstore or surfing Amazon. Avoid modern cookbooks that assume access to lots of ingredients and avoid cookbooks from the 1800s because they do not have standard measurements and assume things you might not about how to assemble ingredients, cooking times, pans and temperatures.
We’ve stored sugar for years in airtight containers, buying it when
it is on sale. But don’t store white and brown sugar together, since
brown sugar tends to begin to smell as if it’s fermenting after a while
and will make the whole lot smell the same. Instead store molasses and make
about 1/8 C molasses per cup of white sugar. Molasses is useful in many other
ways, too, for syrups, for flavor and for pies. Sugar is also a preservative – fruitcakes
made and glazed properly will keep a very, very long time – I used to
make them for two years storage when the family was larger and keep them in
an old fridge in the cellar, tightly wrapped. That last cup of canned fruit,
mixed with an equal amount of sugar and simmered, will make a quick jelly.
Simple candy is easy to make and good therapy for bored and frightened kids.
Soured milk products are easy to make from starters and will last a very long time if kept cool or made often – this is why they were originally invented. The ‘good bugs’ keep ‘bad bugs’ at bay as long as conditions are kept constant. A cup of buttermilk put into a quart of fresh milk will thicken, in a day or so at room temperature, depending on how hot/cool the ambient temp is. A new starter is made with the last of the old and put into a jar newly sterilized with boiling water and then allowed to cool a bit so as not to fry the starter. This is where you get buttermilk for pancakes and myriad recipes from your old cookbooks that call for ‘sour milk’, and the bonus is that all ‘sour milk’ recipes use baking soda. Heating homemade ‘sour milk’ makes it ‘clabber’ like starting the process of cheese making and it can be drained to make a simple cheese very like ricotta. Yogurt is a bit trickier, requiring more careful temperatures to make it thick like the commercial product, so I no longer make it.
When everything has to be made from scratch, get used to less variety. You’ll be baking bread for sandwiches, for example. To conserve fuel, plan your baking with the items that need the hottest temperatures to be cooked first, and multitask, i.e., start the yeast dough that needs to rise before beginning quick breads. Cook in the cool of the day in summer; use the stove to augment heat in the winter. Consider dual bread recipes, i.e., those usually sweeter sandwich bread doughs that can be made into sweet rolls, sticky buns, coffee cakes, etc., to get two birds with one culinary stone.
With no refrigeration and no preservatives, your baking should be used up before the next batch. The leftovers are never wasted: crumbs from the end of bread become the topping for a casserole, (grate the bread like a lemon on your hand grater) or can be used to thicken a dish, made into croutons or added to stewed tomatoes.
Some items last well in air-tight containers: biscotti and springerle for example, or bagels, and can be made less often. The same dough will make French bread or bagels; the difference in texture and shelf life is in the boiling bagels get before baking. Careful rotation of your recipes will help keep the sense of deep deprivation at bay.
Let’s say, that in your store you have Crisco, flour, sugar, baking power, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, yeast, and powdered milk, potato flakes and eggs. Beginning with those things that use the simplest ingredients here are some suggested products: from flour, salt, yeast, water and a small amount of sugar, you make French style bread to bake for bread and rolls. Add a boiling to formed ‘donut’ shapes and you have bagels. Same dough: roll out flat, top with whatever you have to make pizza or focaccia – these can be baked on a covered grill, by the way. Keep them small and bake on the highest rack, remembering that these types of breads don’t have to be round. Don’t forget doughboys, fried in oil, for quick energy if you have hungry people working the land or keeping the perimeter of your homestead safe, especially in cold weather.
Flour, yeast and water in a different ratio gives you soft pretzels. The addition of potato flakes, milk and an adjustment of proportions gives you English Muffins. Adding more sugar and milk gives a silkier, sweeter dough for sandwiches, coffeecakes, etc., as previously mentioned.
. So far we’ve used no shortening, except perhaps to grease the pans
or fry bread we needed in a hurry. So, now, with Crisco, flour and salt you
piecrust, which can also be dusted with sugar and cinnamon and baked or rolled
up, slashed and baked to make a delicious, primitive cookie. Add milk and you
have biscuits or dumplings. Add sugar, eggs and cinnamon, and you have the
basics for quick breads, muffins, donuts and simple (one egg) cakes, plus non-fruit
fillings for pies. (Lancaster Crumb, Chess). Add potato flakes (or leftover,
sieved potato) and you have English Muffins and can also make light, sweet
breads. Some of these doughs will keep in a cool place for a few days. Check
out ‘refrigerator dough’ in your old cookbooks. Since boiling and
baking are major cooking techniques, be prepared for several ways to do these.
I have an old tin oven that belonged to my grandmother. It
looks like a big black box with a thermometer in the front, (similar to those
round ones people have on their wood stoves), and some grates inside. Special
small pans were made to go in it. The box sits over the burner on a stove and
creates an environment one can bake in. Very handy if your gas stove has an
electric glow-plug and you don’t have electricity, or you have only the
cook top on your wood stove.
English muffins are made on a grill, like the one used for pancakes, or in a large fry pan. I’ve done this when it was too hot to bake. A big, cast-iron pot with a grate in the bottom and a small pan that fits inside will also serve as a makeshift oven. We college kids made Bisquick coffee cake in small quantities using the old style popcorn popper, with the ‘popper’ as the ‘oven’, a piece of wadded up tin foil to keep a small pan off the bottom and a careful eye through the glass lid as it baked. (This was a fire hazard, but it shows what can be done in a pinch.) If you have to resort to this, you will have to bake in small quantities or the item won’t be done in the center before it starts to burn.
If you want to boil food at various heat levels on a wood or coal heating stove, you’ll need a set of graduated trivets to move the pot closer or farther from the heat source. Just before Y2K I suggested this in a ‘back to basics’ magazine and created a run on trivets. Now, I see that a couple of the main suppliers stock them in more than one height.
People have lived through disasters before, have eaten tough meat, have gotten along without eggs or milk. Your 1940s-era cookbook will have wartime recipes for these circumstances, and your substitutions pamphlet will tell you how much water or applesauce to substitute for an egg if you don’t have one and what recipes will take this and which ones won’t.
Old time recipes make food go a long way, deliciously. Example, you have a chicken that you’ve decided to sacrifice for a dinner for 6, or some tinny chicken in cans you bought during a stock up phase. Impossible? Try croquettes. Simmer the old girl slowly until somewhat tender about two hours. Use the broth for soup. Pull off the meat and grind, chop or otherwise process until very fine, the texture of tuna. Add fresh breadcrumbs (your bread, grated on an old-fashioned flat grater, the kind used for cheese) in a ratio of 1 to 2 of meat (you can go up to almost 1 to 1) and chopped, cooked leftover or canned vegetables, hold all together with your basic white sauce, season carefully. Form into balls or patties; fry. Make enough extra white sauce for a ‘gravy’ to go over (don’t forget that broth can substitute for milk). Rolling the balls in egg and more crumbs is nice if you have them. It’s incredible how far that bird will go, and it tastes good because the old chicken makes up in flavor for what she lacks in tenderness.
Venison cookery is an art I don’t pretend to, but we make a simple tasty stew here by browning the meat in oil, deglazing with wine or broth, then covering the pot tightly and cooking at the lowest possible setting until tender. (Think trivet here.) Since most lids don’t fit tightly, I use a folded strip of aluminum foil around the edge of the pan, then press the lid down tight. I find this an essential cooking technique for tough meats. Add veggies later.
Don’t forget you have the ingredients for pickling, if fresh things become available, and it only takes minutes to get a batch going. Green Beans, for example, in a solution of vinegar and sugar, will last six months in a cool place. (The ‘Three Bean’ salad. It can be made from just green beans, green and wax, or add cans of drained shell beans and a small amount of onion.) Not only are such recipes big time-savers when you have to cook everything from scratch; they are a quick way to preserve items if you have storage of 40 degrees. On our little homestead, pickling cucumbers, beans and fish have become valuable additions to canning and freezing because they are quick to prepare at a time when we have a glut of the food, but then keep until the following summer if not eaten, first.
I will include here the recipe for pickling fresh fish, because we could not find one and developed it here with the help of some elderly Swedish ladies in our church. We used herring until our state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said you couldn’t take them, now we use small bluefish. The result is like Vita herring you get in a jar. The main problem with the Swedish recipe was that it called for salted fish, and we had fresh. We had to find a way to safely salt our fish and did it by borrowing from the techniques for making corned beef.
Read the whole recipe before starting. Obtain 14 –15 fish 8” to 12” long. Clean fish very well, fillet and scale them. Bones don’t need to be removed from the fillets. Salt them liberally with Kosher salt in a large glass container, alternating fillets and salt. Let stand overnight, weighed down with a plate. Liquid will form. Mix: 1 gallon water, 2 Cups Sugar, 1 Tablespoon baking soda. Pour this mixture over the fish and weight down again. Let stand 7 days at 38 degrees. Turn the fillets every day or so. Some salt will just lie on the bottom, this is okay. Remove fillets, rinse. Fish will now be translucent on the edges like gummy candy and skin easily, and the side bones should come off with the skin. Skin fillets and cut into pieces on the slant. Mix: 1-/1/2 Cups White Vinegar, 1 Cup Water, 1-1/2 Cups thinly sliced Onion, 1 Cup Sugar and stir until sugar dissolves. You will also need: 7 whole allspice, 6 bay leaves [remove after cooking], 8 peppercorns, and 1-/1/2 teaspoons mustard seed. Place herring and spices divided between large jars and pour the solution over them. Place one clove at the top of each jar (this makes a big difference in the final flavor, adding sweetness.) Make sure no fish or onions are above the liquid level – I use cut up plain (clear) plastic lids for this and weigh them down. Let stand at 38 degrees for at least two weeks. Fish will become softer and more flavorful with time. After 6 months, fish will become soggy, so use it up. Don’t use any plastic container for brining or storage you don’t want ruined, and do not use metal lids unless you put plastic over to protect the lids from the brine or they will rust.
My favorite picks for cookbooks: