The final benefit to a chest freezer is the ability to easily preserve meals. Extra soups and other leftovers can easily be frozen in containers or bags, then thawed out over the winter. I tend to put up a fair amount of prepared meals, including pasta sauce, during the summer and fall, making life that much easier over the winter and spring. It’s a good way to keep flavors that you’ll otherwise lose because the ingredients don’t store well.
With regards to energy use, we have a modern Energy-Star rated freezer that, when well-packed with ice blocks filling any empty spaces, uses negligible amounts of power. We track our energy use very carefully, and haven’t noticed any meaningful impact from having the freezer. Our highest electric bill ever was $80, back in March ’07 when we were running lots of grow lights for seedlings. We average around $50, slowly rising as we add more electric fence. Energy use and efficiency is another topic for another time, but the point here is that the chest freezer is a negligible energy drain for the benefit provided.
Dried tomatoes, mustard greens, and apples
Drying: This is something we’re just starting to do this year, having invested in an electric food dryer. I think it’s paid itself off already considering the market value of the dried tomatoes, apples, and herbs we’ve run through it. Food dryers are our new best friend. They use electricity, though I haven’t noticed an impact on the bill, and once the food is dry it keeps forever. And there’s no safety or spoilage issues as for canning. Drying seems to concentrate the flavors in many items; even half-ripe, over-rained tomatoes that taste like crap raw end up with a sharp, strong tomato flavor when dried. Perfect for pizzas, soups, and more. Apples, too, taste darn good this way. Our favorite surprise so far is mustard greens, which when dried become a flaky, spicy, flavorful item that will be a really nice addition to soups and stews all winter. The dryer has also been key to saving our not-fully-dried corn and beans, which were threatening to mold in the overly wet summer.
Last but not least is an old European method called lacto-fermentation. Most familiar to Americans as sauerkraut, the method can be used on all sorts of vegetables. It’s easier than canning, less energy-reliant than freezing, and just plain interesting. We learned of it from a fascinating book titled Keeping Food Fresh, which collects ideas, recipes, and experiences from rural Europeans about their traditional family methods for preserving food that worked long before electricity, modern canning jars, and other conveniences. The book is an interesting read, and we’ve had pretty good success with the recipes we’ve tried. One warning: it’s more a collection of folklore and transcribed recipes than a real, tested cookbook. Beware misleading information, forgotten ingredients and steps, and other quirks related to the method of compilation. That said, we quite enjoy it as a complement to our other methods. Look for a blog post soon on making and storing sauerkraut this way.