Most of us go without a fridge on occasion, such as when we're camping out. But it's a bit trickier to live day-to-day without a fridge. I gave it a shot when my worldly goods were delayed in transit.
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Earlier this year, while I was waiting for all my possessions to arrive from New Zealand, I had to go without a fridge for several weeks. Fortunately, I have a degree in microbiology, so I was willing to take a few judicious risks and I have a good idea of how to keep bacteria and mould at bay. I could have bought an Esky to make things easier, but I decided that I would try doing without. It worked pretty well, so I thought I'd pass along a few tips while I'm here at Lifehacker.
It's worth keeping in mind that I was doing this during winter. Even a small increase in temperature can make a huge difference to how long things last, which comes down to basic chemistry and enzymatic reactions that cause decomposition. If you're planning to go without a fridge, you can almost certainly do better than my unplanned attempt, too.
This is basically common sense, so hopefully there's nothing too surprising here, but maybe you'll get some ideas.
1. Perishables aren't so perishable after all
Most of us put our fruit and vegetables straight into the fridge. But even with ripe vegetables you can keep them for days and up to two weeks without refrigeration.
I found that the vegetables I bought at my local farmers market lasted longer than those I got at the supermarket - and it didn't seem to matter what I was buying, whether it was beetroot, tomatoes or onions. This may be because farmers market produce is rarely frozen before sale. Refrigeration damages the cells of vegetables and makes them rot faster.
I kept everything in the shade, with space between items for ventilation, and made sure everything was dry. For herbs, I cut off the stems and put them in water, which I changed every few days.
As a bonus, many things I'd normally have refrigerated taste much better at room temperature, such as strawberries and tomatoes.
Don't try to keep berries without a fridge though. Just eat those straight away.
2. Oil and salt are your friend
When I went shopping, I looked for food stored in oil or brine. Pickles, semi-dried tomatoes, you name it. The good thing about brine is that you can also replace it - I ended up buying 1kg of feta in brine and changing the brine every three days to keep it fresh. This makes the feta a little softer, but it works. I used a teaspoon of salt per 250ml of water, boiled and cooled, and that seemed fine.
Harder cheeses, such as cheddar, are fine as long as you keep them cool. I can't decide whether waxed paper or plastic works better - I think I'd need more experimentation to find out. In either case you end up having to cut off any bits that have dried out, before you use it. I preferred to stick to brined cheeses because I'd rather make fresh brine than toss out good (but dry) cheese.
3. Things you think will keep? They don't always.
I bought some olives in brine, thinking they would be okay. But many of the things we buy in supermarkets these days aren't always designed to sit on a shelf.
What food manufacturers want is food that tastes great, and that lasts until the best before date. They manage the pH, salt and sugar levels to keep bacteria and fungus at bay. But almost everyone has a fridge, so if manufacturers can make your food taste better by asking you to stick it in the fridge, they often will. You might be surprised by some of the things that won't keep, including many jams (look for higher sugar content, and those without apple juice concentrate) and my aforementioned olives.
4. Buy whole
A whole lettuce is going to last longer than pre-bagged lettuce leaves, which should be pretty obvious. The same also goes for salami and dried meats. They'll last better whole than in slices (not to mention that they won't dry out). Whole loaves are better than slices; just cut as you go.
If you want juice, your best bet is to make it yourself from the whole fruit - unless you grab UHT juice, it's just not going to last more than a couple of days without a fridge before it goes frothy and fermented.
The basic principle is the same as the reason you keep space between vegetables - it's about reducing the surface area and the type of environment that bacteria or mould can latch onto.
5. Things you might not expect to keep
Peanut butter is fine, no matter how long you leave it out, and so is that old standby Vegemite. Mayonnaise, more surprisingly, is also fine. Just remember to use a clean knife or spoon each time.
6. Meat and milk
I ended up buying my meat each evening on the way home, and then cooking it within a couple of hours. I also ended up eating a lot more vegetarian food including vacuum packed and resealable falafel, which lasted a week easily.
UHT milk keeps for a few days happily unrefrigerated, and I used the little packets of Devondale full-cream UHT because it tastes good and 200mls is just enough for two days worth of coffee. I'm not a big milk drinker, though.