Simple Food Cooling in the Desert

(Updated 5/14/2016)

For additional information, see our other web page on food preservation and storage:

Food Preservation and Storage in the Desert


For the past 19 years we have lived without a refrigerator.  We eat delicious, healthy food and we don’t get sick because of spoiled food.  Before describing the low-tech food-cooling methods we use, a disclosure is necessary.  We usually spend November through May of each year in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.  During much of that time, nights are cool, although in late spring days are often hot.  Although we haven't spent summers in the desert for many years, we have done so in the past, utilizing these methods.    

When we show people around our homestead, we are frequently asked about refrigeration.  We usually answer in a couple sentences that we use an ice chest located outdoors, in the shade on the north side of our cottage.  At night the lid is open to cool the food, and during the day the lid is closed to keep it that way.  (We do not put ice in the ice chest, but just use it as an insulated box.)  These are the basics of what we do, but the actual practice varies somewhat over the course of the year depending on the season.  Here we’d like to share more about our methods of refrigerator-free living in case there are others who might wish to try it.

General Principles:

Fresh produce is one of the more challenging foods to keep without a refrigerator, so we try to have our own garden produce available as much of the year as possible.  Vegetables that are still rooted in the garden don’t need to be kept fresh.  (See our garden pages.)  That said, some veggies keep better than others.  In general what are traditionally considered the winter vegetables like root vegetables and cabbage keep much better than, for example, salad greens or broccoli.  So we often have cabbage and carrots in the ice chest, but broccoli is a treat that needs to be used within a few days of purchase or picking.

Another thing that has made refrigerator-free living a lot easier for us is that we limit our use of animal products.  In general, animal products that are going bad are much more likely to carry pathogens that can make you sick than plant foods.  This is especially true of meat.  So for this (and other health reasons) we only cook meat on the rarest of occasions, and get it frozen from a local conservation ranch.  We do use some milk and cheese.  We've discovered that commercially available organic milk is often ultra-pasteurized, and that it will stay fresh for about a week, even with somewhat spotty cooling, which is ample for our level of use.  Cheese is even easier to keep. During the cold months we will buy 5 pounds at a time from a wholesaler and it lasts a month without molding, but in warmer months, we buy smaller amounts.  Eggs are readily available from backyard flocks in the area, so they are more frequently on the menu.  If the shells are intact, they'll keep for weeks or even months in a moderately cool location.  We generally keep them on the floor under our kitchen counter.  

Sweets tend to last well, even if cooling is less than optimal.  So if we have leftover home-canned fruit with even light syrup we have several days to a week to finish it.  The process that happens to fruits is fermentation, so even if we eat canned fruit that’s turning fizzy, it wouldn’t make us sick, although we usually compost it instead because of the off taste.  And baked sweets, even with fruit in them, can last for at least a week.  Jams with the usual amount of sugar can be kept in a moderately cool place for a couple weeks without forming mold.

Acid has long been used as a preservative, and really sour foods may not even need to be kept cool—think dill pickles in jars on convenience store counters.  But even foods that have a modest amount of acid tend to hold better.  We don’t usually keep ketchup on hand, but when we have, it stayed fresh for a couple months with minimal cooling.  Even mayonnaise, that unholy grail of foods to be careful of at picnics, has enough vinegar in it to keep for a lot longer than most people would think.  We’ve had it in our ice chest for at least a month with no problem.  It’s more likely that the food mayonnaise is added to at picnics, usually meat or eggs, is what causes illness.

Cooling cooked leftovers down as quickly as is practical helps to keep them longer.  If this seems particularly urgent we sometimes place the pot containing food into a larger container of water to cool the food.  Usually though, we just leave the pot out with the lid off for an hour or 2 after a meal.  Leaving the food open to air and drifting bacteria may seem counter intuitive, but our experience is that the cooling effect is more significant for preservation than exposure to additional bacteria.  We also tend to cook larger quantities of food later in the day, so that we can make use of cold nights to cool them.

Re-boiling cooked food kills the bacteria that have started to colonize it.  Normally this happens for us in the course of reheating to eat the food, but if the weather is warm and we won’t be using the beans or grain or whatever immediately, we also sometimes bring it to a boil and immediately cool it as much as we can to extend its life a bit.

Our current cooling system, described below.

The Ice Chest

We've discovered that the quality of the ice chest used to keep food cool makes a big difference.  For our first 17 years in Arizona we used a hand-me-down ice chest and during the warmer months we'd resort to evaporative cooling.  In 2014 we purchased a new ice chest, one of those they claim can keep ice in 90 temps for 5 days.  David built a shield around it so that it would never be exposed to direct sunlight, even during the months when the sun does hit the north side of the house in the morning and the evening.  Since then we have not used evaporative cooling, but have made use of night-time cooling of the ice chest contents exclusively.  There is still some variation in how we do that depending on time of year and temperatures.

During the fall and spring months, nights are generally cool to cold, but not freezing, and days are warm to hot.  During those months, we open the ice chest before going to bed. Inside the ice chest are jars of food, a couple gallons of plain water that serve as cold resevoirs, and a plastic box with a lid in which are cheese, tortillas, and other foods that raccoons would be interested in.  We have never had problems with animals in this new set-up, which is on a platform about 3 feet off the ground, but we try to keep it in such a way that they wouldn't be rewarded if they did discover it.  Thus, those heavier items like the gallons of water will go on top of the lidded plastic box. If we want maximal coolness, we'll take the time to separate items and set some things out on nearby surfaces so that they will chill more under radiational cooling from the night sky. 

In the winter months (December-February) our nights are often below freezing, often down in the 20's, and then we will need to pay attention to freezing.  We want the cooked perishables to be cold, but we don’t want the fresh vegetables to freeze.  So, we take most of the jars of leftovers (those that won’t be damaged if they freeze a bit) out each night, along with the jugs of water, and leave the bags of fresh veggies in the ice chest with the lid closed.  This is the easiest time of year for keeping food, in that the temps inside the ice chest are virtually identical to a refrigerator.  During these winter months we make large batches of beans or soup in the afternoon so that they will cool rapidly at night, and we can keep them for at least a week.  

We spend the summer months in Oregon, where our cooling methods are somewhat less developed.  This is largely because we live in a community setting and almost always have lunch and dinner next door with our friends who have refrigerators.  We still use an ice chest that we open at night and close during the day to keep a few items cooler than ambient temperature, but the temperature differential in Oregon is much less pronounced in Oregon than in Arizona, so the benefit is much less pronounced.

A couple stories:

When I (Pearl) was getting know David he often invited me over for dinner, which was invariably a pot of pinto beans, with bread and salad.  He was just starting his experiments with alternative technologies at that time, but he did have one of those tiny dorm room-size refrigerators.  It must not have been working very well, and more than once he served me beans that were definitely off-tasting.  I ate them dutifully, caring more about the conversation than the food.  Neither one of us ever got sick on those beans, perhaps because they had just been reheated and the bacteria causing the spoilage were now dead.

And now for full disclosure.  I (Pearl) did get sick once from food stored without refrigeration.  I had brought home leftovers from a chicken casserole someone had brought to a potluck at the local community center.  I put it in the ice chest, and there it sat for several days.  It was spring, so the cooling effect was not optimal.  David was off on a camping trip with friends, and the chicken casserole seemed about right for a single serving for me.  I put it in a pan and heated it, but was reading meanwhile and paid little attention to whether it actually simmered.  A couple hours after supper I paid royally for my lack of attention to this detail as my stomach started to roil.  I got off easy in that it was a very quick illness—after vomiting violently seven times I fell asleep and that was the end of it, but it was a good reminder of when care needs to be taken (i.e. making sure that animal products are heated sufficiently to kill bacteria).

Continuing in full disclosure, since moving to our new location closer to neighbors we also have access to a small amount of space in a freezer located several hundred feet from our cottage.  We don’t use this for leftovers, but do use it to stock up on a couple items.  These are corn tortillas and most especially those delectable New Mexico green chiles that  we have become addicted to.  We consider this one of the benefits of community living.


What We Eat :

For anyone curious about what sorts of food we eat without refrigeration, here’s a brief overview:

We usually each do our own breakfast.  David soaks raw rolled oats or barley in milk and adds nuts and coconut.  Pearl often has eggs in various forms or cooked oatmeal.  One morning a week we have pancakes.

Lunch is usually homemade soup served with quesadillas (corn tortillas with cheese and green chiles heated on a griddle).  For dessert we usually have plain yogurt over fresh fruit, which is apples most of the year, as we can buy them locally in the fall and store them for use over winter. 

Our favorite supper is green chile enchiladas, made with corn tortillas layered with cheese and green chile sauce.  We usually have these at least several times a week, interspersed by pasta with various toppings or a variety of vegetable dishes.  Supper almost always includes a salad, which we grow in all seasons.



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