Thursday, September 20, 2012

Food Storage: Packing pails for long term storage

As I've written many times before - I am a firm believer in food storage.  It's an insurance policy that covers one of life's most basic necessities - our daily food.

There have been many times in the past were we have had more-month-than-money and having food storage made life much easier.  It also allows for a quick meal when company comes unexpectedly or a helping hand when a friend is in need.

We have close friends who are going through a traumatic situation right now.  It has effected 
their finances and one of the biggest issues was money for food.  Even a small amount of food storage would have amounted to one less thing to worry about in the midst of crisis.

I see food storage as a multi-faceted or layered system.

I've written about having a large pantry - just extra of what you normally eat in the way of canned or boxed food right in your kitchen cupboards.  That's layer one.  

In my mind the next step or layer two is begin purchasing items on sale and keeping a supply of those items that exceeds what would fit into your kitchen cupboards by developing a secondary pantry - in our house it's called "Mom's Grocery Store".  These stores also include store bought products, frozen items and all the items I have been canning over the year.  Most shelf stable items have a 1 to 3 year best-before date and include things like peanut butter, canned soup and cereal. These are items that need to be rotated regularly and be things you eat on a regular basis.  Grocery stores have a FIFO system - it stands for First In - First Out.  In other words you need to put the new items at the back of the shelf and eat the older ones first.  More on that in a later post!

The third layer is long term storage.  There are some items that if properly packaged (and some not even properly packaged) have incredibly long storage lives.

Indefinite Storage Life Items:

Raw Honey
White Sugar

30 Year Items:

Hard Grains (Whole)
Flax Seeds
Kamut kernels
Wheat kernels
Spelt kernels
Oats (whole or rolled)
Beans and Lentils

and many more with differing storage life spans!

Maybe the first question is WHY you would want to store food for 30+ years.  This goes back to food insurance.  Any item you store should be something you already eat on a regular basis or something that should be introduced to your diet because you KNOW it's good for you.  If you can't eat wheat because you are allergic to gluten you will need to store something else of course and that's why lists of what to store are not always helpful - it will depend on your families needs.  

By preparing to store some of these foods you can essentially pack them and forget about them for a long time - kind of like the insurance policy on the house that you don't think about until you need it.  It could be used next year or 20 years from now with next to no nutrition lost.

The next question is HOW to store these items long term.  I took advantage of a great sale on rice and red lentils this summer and bought several bags of each so I could store them away for  the long term.  Rice and lentils will store for a very long time on the shelf or in your kitchen cupboard so this method just extends the life span by protecting it from three things.  Bugs, Oxygen and Moisture.

If you've ever had pantry moths - OH MY - you will know that some food items come from the store with bugs included. You don't actually see the bugs because they are more likely eggs at the point of purchase and flourish into armies of creepy crawlies in your cupboards.  To prevent or rather circumvent the bugs life - freeze everything.  This is a good idea for small bags of dried goods that you use on a daily basis too.  Freeze for three days and allow to come to room temperature before continuing.  

The next step is to accumulate some food grade buckets.  There are many articles written on which buckets are food grade and why this is important. I am using Home Depot buckets in the pictures above and there is some controversy about the food graded-ness (my word!) of the buckets so I wouldn't store food straight in the bucket.  Recycled buckets from a restaurant or bakery are usually a safe bet and sometimes you can get them for free.  The buckets main purpose is to protect the mylar bag from puncture and keep the product dry.  The pail on it's own is not enough to prevent oxygen from slowly degrading the food so a pail liner made of mylar is required.  The mylar bag used for this purpose is a thicker version of the mylar that those shiny birthday balloons are made of.  The most commonly available thickness is 5 mil.  They come in different sizes - a 5 gallon size that fits a 5 gallon pail is the most common but smaller sizes are available too which allows you to store multiple items in one bucket while keeping them separate.

The mylar bags are available from several online sources such as Briden Solutions.

While filling the pail shake the bucket or bang it gently on the floor to make sure all the nooks and crannies get filled.  Lentils don't bother me but some grains like wheat are dusty and aggravate my allergies so be sure to do it in a well ventilated place and if you are especially sensitive you might consider wearing a mask or at least taking an allergy pill before you begin!

Once the pail is filled close to the top - leave some room for the rest of the bag to fill the pail - you need to add oxygen absorbers.  These are also available online from the Briden Solutions. A 5 gallon pail generally requires approximately 1000cc. Something like rice has less air space while pasta would obviously have more so more O2 absorbers are needed. They are sold in different cc's but 500cc is common - so 2 per bucket or three if you're like me and want a little extra insurance.  I also use the shop vac to suck out as much air in the bag as I can before I close it up.  I forgot to take a picture of that step.

I usually do several pails at one time so I fill them all with the grains or beans or lentils and iron them  (using a board to press the iron against) most of the way shut - leaving a 4 inch gap.  Once all the buckets are at that point I go back and add oxygen absorbers as quickly as I can - this is where my kids come in handy.  The O2 absorbers begin to work as soon as you have them out of the package so you want them to be in the mylar bag and sealed up as quickly as possible - in about 20 minutes.  If you have extra absorbers and aren't going to use them all at once place them in a canning jar with a tight fitting lid or in a small mylar bag that has been sealed in the same manner as the large bags.  This will stop the absorbers from absorbing more oxygen than is in the jar.   A friend gave me a great idea - using a hair straightener to seal the pails.  I haven't been able to find one at a thrift store yet but it's on my list!

When I'm finished sealing the bags I let them sit for a day before I put the lids on the buckets just to be sure the O2 absorbers have pulled a good vacuum.  Don't forget to label the pails - before you close them up - or you may end up with mystery buckets that you'll have to open to figure out what's in them - ask me how I know :)  The great thing about mylar is you can carefully cut the sealed portion and reseal if necessary.

Now you just need a place to store them. An area with a fairly stable temperature like a basement or spare bedroom is ideal.  Keeping them in a garage or other outdoor area where the pails are exposed to high heat in the summer and then cold in the winter is not as good and will result in the contents not lasting the maximum amount of time and degrading the nutrient content.  The pails should also NOT be stored on a concrete floor where they could wick up moisture - even through the plastic pail.  Care should also be taken NOT to store them near chemicals that could eventually filter through the pail and compromise the air quality possibly (over a very long period of time) crossing the mylar barrier.  Those are pretty common sense tips - I wouldn't store my cereal beside a gasoline can either!

Although food stored this way can last for a very long time it is far better to store foods that you eat on a regular basis.  If you're going to store wheat then use wheat in your every day cooking and baking.  Learn to bake bread from scratch so if/when you DO need to use it you won't have the added stress of trying to figure out what to do with it. 

This is just one way to add to your families personal food insurance.  What did you do to add to your food storage insurance today?


  1. Excellent article. You brought up a point I've been wondering about.

    Many people say to freeze stuff for 3 days to make sure any bugs are killed. (My freezer is full so I never do that step, unfortunately.) But I always wonder what's supposed to be done next...once something has been frozen isn't it likely to become soggy from the condensation? Then how you go about storing it for a long shelf-life? Wouldn't you have to use it right out of the freezer immediately? In other words, you freeze the stuff for 3 days and then place it into mylar bags with oxygen absorbers and they don't go bad? Please unconfuse me :)

  2. Hi Connie! Yes, freeze the items for three days and let it come to room temperature before you pack it as outlined above. It will "dry out" as it comes to room temp so you don't need to worry about it getting moldy. I hope that answers the question!

  3. Okay, then let me ask this: do you have to remove the item from the bag to open-air dry? Or could it be left in the bag to "dry"? It looks from the pictures that you opened all the bags and put them into one Mylar bag and bucket, so presumeably yours dried in the air.

    Second question: is there a reason why you opened up the bags and combined them together? Wouldn't it be more logical to leave them in their bags so you only remove one bag from the bucket at a time? I ask because I have a big (20 kg?) bag of rice that I want to divide between several small Mylar bags and store in a bucket. Would it be smarter to just dump the bag into a bucket with a gamma lid, probably inside a big Mylar bag? I've even been considering putting the rice into canning jars and vacuum sealing them with a Food Saver to make sure they're properly sealed, because my son mentioned that when rice gets damp it becomes poisonous...

  4. Yes - I leave the item in the bag to air dry. I wouldn't put the plastic bag into a pail or mylar bag because the plastic will degrade and get sticky after a time. You may have noticed that sticky feeling if you found an old bag of beans in your pantry. Putting the items into smaller mylar bags is a fine idea. When filling the smaller bags put them into the pail before you fill and seal them so they will fit around each other - otherwise you end up with square bricks in a round pail!

    I am prepping for a large family so a while pail of something is not a problem for us. We routinely use rice and beans that have been in glass jars for a year or more in our upstairs pantry so even if you HAD to open a whole pail I know eating it in that amount of time would not be a problem for us.

    I am unsure of the reference to damp rice being poisonous - if it remained damp it could grow mold which could become a toxin but that will not happen with freezing and thawing as long as you do not package it until it comes to room temperature.

    Vacuum sealing in glass jars - or dry canning - is a good idea for shorter term storage. I personally feel more comfortable with pails and mylar for long term. I AM a hug fan of dry canning regardless and have some things like coconut stored that way in my regular pantry because the storage life is in the 4-5 year range. Eve if you decide to dry can the items it would still be best to freeze it first.

  5. This is great here way to storage problem of eating products.


Join the family - join the conversation - share your own adventures - I LOVE comments!