Features March 2003 Issue

Helpful Refrigeration-Free Food Ideas for Your Next Sailboat Outing

A lot of people can't imagine cruising without refrigeration, but in fact it was done successfully from the beginning of boats until about 20 years ago—and we're much better equipped to manage it today. Here are some guidelines to help, if you're of a mind to give it a try.

The campaign, started by the marketers of the sailing industry in the late '70s or so, to make life onboard cruising boats indistinguishable from life ashore has always been arduous, because no matter how many fruit baskets a builder exhibits at a boatshow, once the proud new owner leaves the dock, things tilt and slam, and they get wet, and break, and cost a lot of money and aggravation, and then the people get miserable and take up other pursuits. Even golf. That's how bad it gets. 

Potatos, yams, rice, and onions will last a long time, as will any type of dried bean (shown here in soup-mix combinations). With water and canned chicken or beef stock, these can form the heart of good burgoos. Check pre-packaged foods for MSG, if you have a sensitivity to it.

While we're not in the business of promoting hair shirts, we still think that a main reason for cruising in the first place is to get away from your onshore life. How far away, of course, is an individual matter. Many cruising sailors depend upon an onboard refrigerator for food storage. There's no doubt that a refrigerator/freezer offers the greatest number of options on an extended cruise, and our recent refrigeration survey (October 1, 2002) showed that the systems available today are remarkably robust and trustworthy.

A refrigerator, though, commits you to a hefty (and bulky and expensive) set of batteries and/or operation of your engine's charging system or your genset for more hours per day than you might wish to put up with. It's certainly not an absolute necessity. Sailors made extended voyages for several thousand years without electricity-powered refrigerators, and many still do. This contingent shouldn't be seen as a lunatic fringe, and if you've ever harbored the sneaking suspicion that refrigeration may have a few too many strings attached for your liking, then read on.

Before reading on, however, please bear in mind that what follows (mostly in the photos and captions) is in no way intended to be a culinary treatise. If you have any question about the ability of this editorial staff, such as it is, to provide advice about either cooking food or eating it, refer to the editorial on page 2, "Not Your Mom's Kitchen." That about sums up our qualifications as chefs and fine diners. However, in our ongoing commitment to remind readers of the virtues of simplicity on board, we feel qualified to offer a bit of advice about food up to the "not bad" or even "pretty good" level. More to the point, these are foods you can keep aboard for long periods of time in any temperature. They're easy to stow. They will sustain you, and enable you to cook to your palate's content (up to the semi-civilized level we're dealing with here). They'll let you hop aboard for a long weekend without stopping at the supermarket first, or head offshore for weeks at a time, and eat pretty well without having to hassle with a reefer and all its attached strings.

Now, let's go ahead and discuss what we could call "the elements of food preservation."

Refrigeration and Freezing. Storing food for more than a couple of days is, essentially, a matter of checking the growth of harmful bacteria. There are many ways of doing this. Refrigeration—keeping the temperature down to approximately 40° F—drastically reduces the rate at which bacterial growth occurs. The effect of lowering temperature on the rate of bacterial growth can be dramatic. The bacteria naturally occurring in milk, for example, can cause it to go sour in two to three hours at a room temperature of 70-80° F. The same milk at a refrigerator temperature of 40° F can easily last a week or two.

Enzymes that occur naturally in foods can also cause a food to discolor or spoil quickly—but don't normally provide a health hazard.

Refrigeration works well to extend the storage life of almost any food or drink, and has a minimal effect on food flavor or texture.

Cooling below the freezing point of 32° F stops bacterial action completely, for all practical purposes. Freezing works well for most meats and vegetables, and some fruits, but unless you can speed up the freezing process well beyond the capabilities of home or marine-style equipment, you can't avoid the formation of large ice crystals. These crystals puncture the cell walls in the food, tending to produce a mushy texture. The versatility and effectiveness of refrigeration and freezing, together with the wide availability of refrigeration equipment have made these the most popular means of food preservation in the world.

If your boat doesn't have a refrigerator, you're back to the old-fashioned icebox. This can either be a built-in insulated box or a cooler. Insulation of iceboxes and coolers has been improved considerably over the past 50 years. Even the most effective insulation, though, can't maintain a temperature lower than that of what you put into the box-—32° F if you're using ice, and minus 65 degrees if you're using the harder-to-find and more hazardous dry ice. With some common-sense restraints —don't open the icebox more often than necessary, keep the cooler out of direct sunlight, start out with pre-cooled or pre-frozen food rather that putting warm food or beverages in the icebox—a good icebox or cooler chest can keep its contents adequately cold for roughly five days. If you're not using dry ice, forget about storing frozen foods.

Canning. About 200 years ago, a method of food preservation was introduced that consisted of boiling the food (with added water, if required) in a container that can be sealed. The boiling kills the bacteria present in the food, and the container is sealed before the food boils or when the food is boiling. The food in the sealed container is effectively sterilized and free of bacteria, and can be stored indefinitely without refrigeration—until the container is opened or its seal is broken. At that point, the contents are exposed to airborne bacteria, and must be refrigerated if bacterial growth is to be limited.

When someone mentions "canning," we generally think of the familiar "tin can" (generally aluminum or plated steel). Actually, any sealable container that will withstand cooking temperatures will do—you can "can" in a glass jar, a plastic pouch, or even a box made of plastic-coated cardboard.

Milk that has been made sterile by being heated to a higher-than-normal pasteurization temperature—Ultra High Temperature or UHT pasteurization—and sealed in a cardboard box is canned milk. It can be stored at room temperature for months on end without refrigeration, until it's opened. Canning works well on a variety of foods, but the cooking process changes the taste, and texture of foods, and generally has a deleterious effect on nutritional values. Onboard, canned foods present the problem of dealing with the emptied can.

Dehydration. Dehydrating or drying foods is a method of food preservation that's been used for centuries. It works because bacteria require moisture to multiply, even at room temperature. A wide variety of foods can be dehydrated: powdered milk, powdered eggs, and powdered potatoes are familiar grocery items. Dried meats—jerky—and dried fruit/nut mixes are old standbys for hikers and campers. While they're not usually thought of as dehydrated foods, pasta and instant rice are good examples of what can be done in terms of storage life and reduced bulk by removing water. Dried fruits—raisins, apples, apricots and prunes—are a time-tested means of storing fruit in tropical countries without the need for refrigeration. Dried soup mixes and sauces have become increasingly available on supermarket shelves, as have rice or pasta-based entrees. Dried beans, in a dazzling variety, are also popular.

Dehydrated foods are usually reconstituted by adding water and boiling, although some dried fruits and meats can be eaten as is. Dehydration generally changes the taste, texture and appearance of foods, though often a new food is created, which people like just as much as the original.

Freeze-Drying. Freeze-drying is a relatively new technique for preserving food. It consists of quick-freezing the food, and then placing the frozen food into a vacuum chamber. The water in the food sublimes—a process in which the water is converted directly from ice to water vapor, which is then removed. What remains is a stable solid mass that can be stored indefinitely at room temperature, but can be readily reconstituted by adding water and heating, Probably the most popular freeze-dried food is coffee, which retains much more of its flavor than does the older dehydrated powdered coffee.

Freeze-drying is one of the more expensive means of preserving foods, but it has much less of an effect on flavor and texture than does dehydration.

Complete freeze-dried entrees are available from camping supply sources and some marine chandleries and catalog stores. They offer the maximum convenience in storage and preparation. Typically an entrée for two to three servings comes in a sealed plastic envelope weighing a half-pound or so. Preparation consists of opening the packet, adding boiling water, allowing the contents to sit for 10 minutes or so, and serving. No pot to clean, and only a foil or plastic envelope to dispose of.

Salting and Pickling. Bacterial growth, as we've pointed out, requires water to be present in the food—but water containing high levels of salt won't support bacterial growth. Up until the advent of mechanical refrigeration, salt pork, packed in barrels, was a staple on board ship. Fish was similarly preserved. Today, salting remains as a food preservation method primarily in salt-cured hams and delicatessen meats such as pastrami and corned beef. In many of these products the salt level has been reduced to a point that refrigeration is required for extended storage.

Pickling works in much the same way, except that the acid characteristics of vinegar are used in combination with salt. In the past, pickling was widely used for meats, fruits and vegetables; today it's mainly used for preparing pickled cucumbers.

Irradiation. If you seal food in plastic, and then subject the entire package to ionizing radiation (gamma rays), the bacteria in the food are largely destroyed, with a minimum of effect on the food itself. Irradiation alone, though, doesn't eliminate the need for refrigerated storage. That's because of the word "largely." It's difficult to be sure that all the bacteria in the food are destroyed, and some studies indicate that there's a higher probability of mutation in the irradiated bacteria that remain alive. Still, the benefit of increased storage life of food has caused irradiation to be declared safe by the Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organization, and has caused irradiation to be accepted as a food preservation technique in some 40 countries.

Radiation is a word that has a good deal of scare value, particularly in the US, where an image of glowing in the dark after eating is prevalent. This isn't a real problem, though other problems may well exist. Regardless of the merits of irradiation, it's not a practical solution to extended food storage for your cruise, simply because it's very difficult to find irradiated foods in US markets.

The Icebox and The Plan
You can eat well without a refrigerator, but you might as well make use of your icebox. These things did a pretty good job back before mechanical refrigeration came upon the scene, as long as they were well-insulated and used wisely. And if you don't have, or choose not to use, a refrigerator or Peltier-effect cooler (examples of which we've reviewed before and will review again), the icebox is your only option. Step one is to make sure it's in top condition. Are there any spots with dented, leaky or crushed insulation? Is their room inside for some additional insulation? Is the door gasket worn or dried out? If your icebox or cooler is located where direct sunlight strikes it, a reflective space blanket drape over the box can reduce heat gain enough to provide some extra hours of effective cooling.

An additional cooler chest can help extend the time that you can keep food cold, if you use it wisely, At the very least, it can provide more room for ice.

With your cooling spaces figured out, all that's left is planning. The choices you make in provisioning your boat depend upon how you plan your voyage. An extended passage without the possibility of restocking when you make intermediate ports presents a different set of problems than a weekend cruise, or one where you stop at marinas frequently.

The size of your galley, and the amount of time you wish to spend on cooking are also considerations, as are considerations of storage and trash disposal. You're best off planning your menu in some detail, and fitting to the needs of your upcoming voyage.

A useful strategy is to cook meals back on shore, and freeze them—the frozen food acts as extra ice, and one icebox can be reserved for frozen food while the other can store refrigerated food. This last approach works best if you can add dry ice to the frozen-food chest.

On a long cruise, it's a safe bet that you'll run out of ice before you reach your destination. Plan your menus so that perishable food will be used at the beginning of the cruise. And remember, of course, that the more frequently you open your icebox or chest, the more rapidly your ice (dry or otherwise) will be exhausted. Every once in a while, we hear a recommendation that you wrap your ice in some form of insulation to keep it longer. Don't. The object is to preserve the food, and not the ice. Insulating the ice will only provide poorer cooling.

There are many alternatives to foods that require refrigeration for safe storage. Milk, for instance, can be purchased as UHT pasteurized milk, like Parmalat. It can be stored in closed containers for at least six months at room temperature. Once you open the container, though, the milk will sour almost as rapidly as conventionally pasteurized milk. If you go this route, buy a variety of container sizes, favoring the small ones, and don't plan on storing partially full ones.

Powdered nonfat milk is readily available, economically priced, and can be stored indefinitely (as a powder). If you don't like the taste of skim milk, mixing in a bit of any of the powdered coffee creamers definitely helps. (See the "recipe" in the caption on page 35 for more on that.) The creamers, of course, don't require refrigeration and can be a blessing for folks who don't like black coffee.

Vegetable oil or olive oil makes a perfectly adequate replacement for butter in most cases; both survive nicely unrefrigerated.

Breakfasts are usually no problem. Cold or hot cereals store well—granola is filling and nutritious—as do items like pancake mix. You can buy orange juice—almost any kind of juice, for that matter—in sealed boxes or bags that require no cooling. Coffee, tea and cocoa present no storage problems.

Uncooked eggs store quite well if they're bought fresh (right out from under the hen, some people say). Contributing editor Scott Rosenthal says he has pretty good luck with regular store-bought eggs. They last him a couple of weeks unrefrigerated, but he always float-tests them before cracking them open. (Sinkers are good; floaters, cracked open, are really unpleasant.)

Lunches—usually sandwiches—are fairly easy to deal with. Bread stores well at room temperature if it's in its original packaging. Buy bread in small loaves, if possible, or try pita bread or tortilla-type flat bread. Or try baking some yourself. Keeping opened bread in a plastic bag will minimize the growth of mold.

Many hard cheeses can be stored with minimal refrigeration (you may have to cut off some surface mold, but the rest of the cheese remains good for several weeks. Some processed cheese is available in individually wrapped slices that keep well.

Canned or vacuum-sealed meats and fish will last indefinitely without refrigeration, but of course will spoil quickly once opened. Buy meat in cans or packages small enough that you can use all of it in one meal. Salted and smoked meats as sold today don't usually have enough salt to permit them to be stored at room temperatures.

Jams, jellies, preserves, honey, and peanut butter can be kept on an uncooled shelf indefinitely. Condiments such as mustard and ketchup also store well after being opened. Mayonnaise definitely doesn't. (Some studies recently have indicated that commercial mayonnaise has a high enough acid content to discourage bacterial growth, but you wouldn't want to test that far from shore.) Again, buy mayonnaise in small containers that can be used up right away. Individual servings of mayo in foil packs, as featured in your upscale roadside diners, would be ideal.

The variety available in non-refrigerated main dishes is huge, depending on how much work the cook is willing to do. Ramen meals—those pre-packaged Asian noodle soup dishes—are easy to prepare, inexpensive, and quite palatable, particularly if you add some shredded vegetable or meat left-overs. You can get canned meats, vegetables and prepared dinners, or you can use a canned or bottled sauce with freshly cooked pasta or rice. Keep a variety of your favorite spices on board to dress things up.

Dehydrated meals, ranging from the old standby macaroni-and-cheese to some fairly exotic Thai and Cajun dishes are available on supermarket shelves. Root vegetables—potatoes, onions, and carrots—store well, and go nicely with fresh fish.

Freeze-dried meals, available from camping stores and websites, and from some chandleries (including West Marine) are very convenient and somewhat pricey (typically $10 to serve two.) But they can be stored indefinitely, take up little space, and offer the minimum water usage and clean-up time. Several of us tried West Marine's fare in preparing this article and found the entrees pretty good. You have to follow the directions closely—don't stint on the water amount or the water temperature (boiling) or try to eat the stuff before it's steeped long enough. And stir it all carefully before eating—the spices can clump together.

There's no question that you can eat and drink quite well without onboard refrigeration. You do have to plan things out, as you would in any galley and with any meal schedule. You have to deal with a somewhat reduced variety of foods, and when the ice runs out you'll have to learn to drink your liquor the British way—neat. As for cooling your beer, try the Lowenbrau Solution, proposed in a PS Advisor in the May 1, 2002 issue: put it in a net bag with an old galvanized cleat and dangle it overboard, under the nearest thermocline.

Bon Appetit!

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