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I am unplugging my refrigerator for the winter months, I live in the northern United States so the temperature is sub freezing most of the time during winter. I have a semi-insulated garage that is about 40 degrees F and am placing refrigerator items in a box there. For freezer items I have started with a cooler placed in the snow outside. My concern is, is there a risk of bacterial contamination with food placed outside? I am also worried about animals visiting, any suggestions?

  • Some foods store better than others. Get used to eating foods in-season. Storing less makes storing easier. – OCDtech Feb 22 '13 at 18:32
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A few things to keep in mind.

Food safety for unrefridgerated food is a very complex thing and the answer very much is "it depends." Factors include temperature, time in the so-called danger zone (40-140F), pH, other bacterial activity, salt content, and much, much more.

In general a few guidelines:

  1. If your food stays between 32F and 40F you can treat it as refridgerated.

  2. Frozen food itself is not in significant danger but you may need to watch for thaws.

  3. Between 40F and about 60F there are a significant number of things you can do to keep food edible and safe. First and foremost, uncooked food can be subject to moderate salting and then lactic fermentation (sauerkraut, salami, yogurt, cheese, traditional pickles, etc). Note that these are all live, cultured foods and the combination of the pH and living culture are important. Additionally many have added salt which aids preservation too. Finally I would note that if you make traditional butter, you ferment the cream first and then salt it, and this way the butter will keep more than a few days. (Edit to clarify: Many, though not all, of these foods become shelf-stable at higher temperatures after fermentation too. Examples include cheese, where well-aged cheese can be left out at room temperature without food borne illness risk.)

Chances are you aren't going to be above those temperatures so that should suffice. If you are above those temperatures, alcoholic fermentation of fruit is possible and lactic fermentation, while possible, requires a great deal more salt.

Other concerns: Yes, you do need to protect from animals and some animals are pretty crafty. Ravens and racoons, for example, can easily get into all kinds of things. Both these have been known to get into closed coolers.

In general you should assume low-grade contamination for food to be reheated. The question is preventing it from being a problem (cold storage and refridgeration). I don't see additional risk in being in a closed container well below freezing, but when it thaws, that could change fast. You need to keep an eye on things.

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    Controlling the humidity has a significant effect on both bacteria replication and spore germination (correct term?) as well. Yeoman farmers have stored root vegetables in boxes of sand or straw for centuries. It works by reducing temperature and humidity fluctuation. A good book on root cellaring will tell you the right humidity level for foods you want to store. – OCDtech Feb 21 '13 at 16:26
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    Humidity is important regarding root vegetables for a large number of other reasons too. Keep in mind these are living organisms and so the goal is to keep them alive and dormant. Temperature and humidity changes can cause issues there in terms of dehydration and some roots and rhyzomes will die with too much or too little humidity or at the wrong temperatures (ginger comes to mind as requiring relatively high temperatures and humidity). – Chris Travers Feb 22 '13 at 1:02
  • Thanks Chris, anything you might do differently? I have fresh foods in the garage which is 30-40 degrees and frozen meat and other stuff in a large cooler in the snow. I actually discovered some tampering with the cooler, it was flipped over and there were animal tracks. I think I am not going to store food in the snow anymore because a larger animal (i.e. bear) would destroy my operation. I guess I would still save some energy but can't go as far as unplugging the refrigerator. – grayQuant Feb 22 '13 at 2:16
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    The big thing though is that living without freezing and refridgeration means living very differently than if one has these. You aren't going to have fresh veggies in the winter, for example but instead will eat fermented ones. If I were trying to eliminate one of these, I would do so by adopting at least in part a lifestyle which didn't need them. – Chris Travers Feb 22 '13 at 2:43
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    Regarding the storage of food at varying levels of humidity/temperature: I received a whole suitcase of persimmons once. I didn't have space to store them all in the fridge, so some of them went into a cardboard box onto the balcony, where the box was exposed to sunlight every day. I was astonished to find that the persimmons in the box outside actually kept much longer than the ones in the fridge. So, depending on the food stuff, varying temperature may not be as much a problem as one might think... – Earthliŋ Feb 25 '13 at 15:29
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When you use a refrigerator, very nearly all the energy used by your refrigerator ends up as heat in your home. During winter, that means that the real cost of using your refrigerator is the difference between heating through electricity and heating through your normal heating system for that amount of energy.

If you store food outside, you'll lose a lot heat from your home every time you open the door to retrieve it, which all has to be replaced. Minimaly, you'll also lose the heat stored inside the food. More importantly, you are at a much greater risk of losing food due to predation and thawing. These are in addition to any resources spent on preserving food.

My suggestion is to not do it. If you want to reduce your energy costs or your footprint, reduce heating in your home and/or improve insulation.

  • That's actually a very good point, the heat from the refrigerator helps and retrieving my food leaks the heat. I go outside through my garage so it's not like I'm opening the door to the direct elements every time but still important to note. – grayQuant Feb 24 '13 at 20:58
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The normal no refrigeration ways work just as good in winter too. Can, salt, and dehydrate. I still dry garden veggies and can with a water bath just like grandma taught me 20 years ago.

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