Monday, February 9, 2015

Cheap Food Storage Solutions: Upcycle Your Plastic Containers

So I always thought mom was a bit nuts when it came to our pantry. The goal was to have a year's supply of food stored in our house, and in the early years, that meant freshly canned peaches from our backyard (delicious) and not-so-fresh powdered milk in our fridge (yucky. I didn't like milk for years. Go figure...)

Then, as a teenager, mom began to put ingredients into plastic juice bottles. Who does that? I remember many a raised eyebrow when my friends came over, and I was pouring pasta or sugar out of an apple juice container.

If we flash forward ten years, now we find grown-up Laurel trying to establish a few months supply of food in our own little apartment. I was feeling pretty well stocked until one day I found a creepy-crawly in the sugar. *gasp!* The thing to do was clear; throw it out before my hubby noticed, check for more bugs, and then pretend like nothing else happened. I didn't see any other minute bugs in the rest of our pantry, so I assumed we were safe.

Not so. A few days later, we had to throw everything out. The flours, sugars, cereal, pasta, and any opened package filled a giant trash bag. It was depressing and expensive, and I could not even console myself with the banana pancakes I had intended to make for dinner that night.

So I decided that this time, my supply was going to last longer, stay fresher, and avoid all future infestations. So I researched what others do to keep up a rotation food supply of the essentials, browsing the top google pages I found and also looking at the LDS food storage site. Imagine my shock to see the following on that page:

What on earth?? Apparently mom didn't make up this crazy plastic bottle storage nonsense. Apparently it's not even nonsense and, actually, is an economical way to store items, both long and short term. Here's what the website states:

PETE Bottles For Longer-Term Storage

Bottles made of PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic can be used with oxygen absorbers to store products such as wheat, corn, and dry beans. PETE bottles are identified on the container with the letters PETE or PET under the recycle symbol.
Other types of plastic bottles typically do not provide an adequate moisture or oxygen barrier for use with oxygen absorbers. Do not use containers that were previously used to store nonfood items.
PETE bottles can also be used for shorter-term storage (up to 5 years) of other shelf-stable dry foods such as white rice.

Great news. So instead of buying a whole lot of new containers to stash my 3 month supply of dry goods, I can instead just rescue our plastic bottles from the recycling bin. Good for the earth and for my wallet. So I bought these oxygen absorbers at the LDS store online (similar products can also be found on amazon) and began saving our PETE bottles. Before storing our dry goods, it seemed prudent to review the rules:

The Rules

  1. Foodstuffs must be DRY (10% or less moisture content... but let's be honest; who knows the moisture content of food?). The reasoning is two-fold: One, moist products don't store well long-term and will eventually spoil. However, even if you intend on using the storage in the shorter term, low oxygen environments + moisture = risk of botulism toxin. So, use this system for things like pasta, dry beans, rice, white sugar, and wheat.
  2. Store at 75 degrees Fahrenheit or lower when possible. 
  3. Keep bottles off the floor and in a dry spot
That's the gist! So my first project to tackle was pasta and a giant bag of sugar (with rice soon to follow; we already finished our 20 lbs bag. That's no joke; we eat a lot of rice.)

The Steps

  • Step one! Save your bottles! Again, the kinds of bottles to use will have PETE located under the recycling symbol; it needs to be a durable plastic. I stocked up on juice bottles and apple sauce containers.

  • Step two! Wash em out! I rinsed the bottles with warm water and soap, ran them through the dishwasher, and filled them with boiling water. Okay, that was possibly overkill on the cleaning, but I really wanted them sanitized! If you are adverse to leaving on the old labels, pouring hot water in them not only has a cleansing affect but also loosens up the labels so they'll peel right off. If there's still a sticky residue, use a scrubby and olive oil to remove the rest of the glue. 
  • Step three? Dry, dry, dry. Once finished cleaning your bottles, lay them on their side and wait for a couple of days. Yeah, it takes a while for them to completely air out.
    • Hint: If they're totally dry and you aren't ready to fill them yet, do not put back on the caps! If you do, the bottle will return to smelling of whatever food it held. However, if you wait until you fill them with your dry food and add the oxygen absorber, the juicy scent won't return. (Again, another bonus of filling the bottles with hot water is that it seems to help leech out any aromas that cling to the plastic.)
  • Step four: Fill! I used wide mouth containers for my pasta and the skinnier juice bottles for sugar.

It's also possible we bought Guittard chocolate chips in bulk. Don't judge! However, since chocolate chips aren't "dry" food, we won't add O2 absorbers to those bottles.
  • Step four: add an oxygen absorber to each container and screw on the lid tightly.

Voila! Now you can have long-term storage for your wheat or dry beans (30 years) or "shorter" storage (<5 years) for your pasta and rice. Your goods will be fresher and free from the creepy-crawlies that might try to take over your pantry.

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