Moisture in inappropriate amounts and places is very damaging to the useful life of food. Because of this, much effort is put into reducing the water content of dry foods in order to prolong their shelf lives. Once it is reduced to the desired level the product can then be packaged for storage. Unfortunately, merely reducing moisture content is not always sufficient. Environmental conditions can play a role as well.
There are four mechanisms by which environmental conditions may cause a moisture problem in your food storage:
1. - The air trapped in the container with the food may have held sufficient humidity to raise the moisture content of the food to undesirable levels.
2. - Even if the water vapor content wasn't too high, a falling temperature level may cause the trapped humidity to reach its dew point causing water to be squeezed out of the air to condense on your food much the same way as dew forms on your lawn on cool mornings after a warm, humid night.
3. - The seal of the container may not be sufficiently tight enough to prevent moisture laden air from leaking in.
4. - The packaging material itself may be porous to water vapor to one degree or another. All paper, wood and cardboard has this fault. Depending upon their particular physical properties some plastics do as well. Metal and glass containers have excellent barrier properties though their seals may not.
The solution for moisture problems is multi-faceted.
1 - Make sure the product to be stored is at an appropriate water content for that particular foodstuff. Beans and grains store well at a 10% moisture level, but milk powders, dried eggs and dehydrated or freeze dried foods should be lower for best results. As a general rule, nearly any dry food will store well at moisture contents between 3%-10% with the lower the better. Don't get carried away with this though. Extreme low moisture levels (below 3%) can make some foods difficult or impossible to reconstitute and damage the viability of seeds.
Ideally, the dry foodstuffs you have on hand will have no more than a 10% moisture content. If they do not then you will need to reduce moisture to a level appropriate for the kind of food you are storing.
One of the following methods might be of use in lowering moisture content.
A - The least involved is to wait until the driest time of year for your location making sure there is plenty of free air circulation around the food product. If this doesn't suit, then turn your air conditioning on a little high. Bring in your buckets, lids, and the storage food. Let everything sit in a well-ventilated place where it's going to get plenty of cool, dry air from the A/C (avoid anywhere near the kitchen or bathroom areas, as they put out a lot of moisture). Stir the food frequently to maximize moisture loss. About three days of cool, constant air flow and low humidity ought to dry things out a bit. Due to its odor absorptive nature, I would not do this with any dried milk products or other powdered foods, flours or meals . This method works best with coarse particles such as grain, legumes and dried foods.
B - Warm, dry air can also be used to lower moisture content and works well if you have large quantities of grains and legumes. This is similar to what is used on farms for drying harvested grain. You'll need a source of forced, warm, not hot, air. Place the grain in a drum or barrel and blow the heat from the bottom so that the warm and the moisture it will carry can exit from the top. It's important to not let the bottom product get too hot. You should also monitor the top, center of the drum to be certain the product there is not getting damp from the moisture escaping other areas. Stirring occasionally may be necessary. I've seen this done with an old, drum style vacuum cleaner that put off fairly warm exhaust air and it worked pretty well. Do be sure to clean the vacuum thoroughly so you don't blow the grain full of dust.
C - If the above methods won't do or you have powdery foods to dry, you can put the food and a large quantity of desiccant (see below) in a storage container. The desiccant should be in its own container placed on top of the food and the container lid sealed on. After about a week, unseal and check the desiccant. If it's saturated, change it out with dry desiccant and reseal. Continue to do this until the contents are sufficiently dry. If it doesn't become saturated the first time, change it anyway before sealing the bucket permanently to deter saturation in storage.
If your food products are sufficiently dry you can pack them in storage containers using the packaging method of your choice and have a reasonable expectation of your food staying in good condition. Whether you will need to use a desiccant will be dependent upon the conditions discussed below.
2 - Try to package your goods in a dry atmosphere and do not allow extreme temperature swings in storage areas. Warm temperatures and a high relative humidity when a container is sealed means the air trapped inside the container will have a high dew point. This will lead to condensation should storage temperatures fall below that dew point. An example of this would be a container sealed on a day that was 70° F and 40% relative humidity. At that temperature the relative humidity would be quite reasonable for all but the most moisture sensitive food. However, should the temperature fall to 44° F the capacity of the air to hold water vapor would have dropped to the point that it could not contain what was sealed in at 77° F and the excess would be squeezed out to condense on the food, i.e. - it will get wet. Possibly the food will be able to adsorb this moisture without harm and then again, it may not.
3 - Use appropriate packaging materials and make certain it is sealed correctly. If you are going to consume them in four to five years, storing grains, beans and peas in unlined HDPE buckets at normal humidities is fine. If you want to keep them at their best for many years beyond that, the plastic the pail is made of is too porous to water vapor for best results and should have an interior liner of a material with better barrier properties. Dry milk powders should not be kept for more than a year in unlined HDPE, but can be kept for much longer in #10 metal cans, glass jars or Mylar bags. Naturally, even the most highly resistant packaging material is useless if its seal isn't good so be sure you use good technique when making closures.
Lastly, you may wish to consider using a desiccant if good humidity control at the time of packing is difficult or if the storage area is in a high humidity environment or if the packaging material does not have sufficiently high barrier properties.
Misc.Survivalism FAQs maintained by Alan T. Hagan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright ©1996, 1997, 1998, 1999. Alan T. Hagan. All rights reserved.
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