11 Nov Living with a Small Refrigerator
Barefoot Gal has a small tiny refrigerator. At just 3 cubic feet (and I think that’s a generous measure), it’s smaller than most dorm or bar refrigerators. And while it’s smaller than the refrigerator I had on Que Tal, the lessons I learned there in stocking up for weeks in remote locations have served me well here. Coincidentally, I’ve had a few pleas from readers recently for tips on living with a small refrigerator. I’ve written about some of what I do in other articles, so you’ll see “read more” links below — it’s already a long post.
Small refrigerators – especially front opening, like ours – are subject to more temperature variation than larger ones. Just opening the door lets cold escape, and adding warm food or drinks also raises the temperature. I was surprised to see ups and downs of ten degrees (or more on really hot days) with our wireless thermometer (read more).
With that in mind, meat and seafood are best kept in the freezer. For us, this means no ice for a day or so when I’ve just been to the store – I use every bit of space for meat so that I don’t have to go to the store as often. Once there’s just a tiny bit of space, we can make single ice cubes (read more).
Where possible, I buy boneless meat or bone it myself before putting it in the freezer. I don’t want to waste a bit of that precious space on bones. Read about boning chicken breasts.
I divide the meat into one-meal sized portions (for us, that’s one meal for two people) and put each meal into it’s own Ziploc – a vacuum sealer is good here if you have one. This is helpful both in removing bulky packaging that wastes space, and making it easier to defrost just enough for one meal at a time.
Label each package with a permanent marker – it can be hard to tell different cuts apart when frozen. On Que Tal, our freezer was top loading, and I learned to alternate meats as I put them in the freezer so that all the chicken, say, didn’t end up at the bottom.
I also use canned meats, which don’t have to be refrigerated. Read my tips on making good meals from canned meats and also canned meat meal ideas. By alternating canned and fresh (frozen) meats, we can go several weeks without restocking.
Dave likes lunch meat, and I try to buy it in half-pound vacuum sealed packages. I remove the inner pouch from the plastic container before putting it in the refrigerator, which saves a lot of space. I keep one plastic container that the open package goes in.
The big sacrifice I make (at least in my opinion) is that I don’t use frozen vegetables on the boat unless I buy them and use them immediately. Again, there just isn’t room as we need the space for meat. And there are lots of veggies that I prefer frozen to canned, and which don’t last well out of the refrigerator. Oh well.
Butter and margarine have to be kept cool and so go in the refrigerator. However, I use canola and olive oil in much of my cooking, so we don’t need much “butter.”
While I may buy a carton of fresh “milk” (actually soy milk for us as my husband Dave is allergic to cow’s milk) for immediate use, we use boxed milk most of the time. Boxed milk doesn’t need to be refrigerated until it’s opened, so we only have one quart in there at a time. If you’re even more pressed for space, you can get single serving boxes of milk (and soy and almond milk). Read about boxed milk.
I also use powdered milk (again, soy milk for us now) for cooking – this is really more to save space in lockers as it takes up a lot less space than the boxed milk. I also use powdered milk to make yogurt – while it has to be refrigerated once you’ve made it, you can make small batches every few days instead of taking a large quantity of store-bought. (Read about good powdered milk and making your own yogurt.)
If you want sour cream, it’s easy to make your own from non-refrigerated ingredients (see how). While it’s best if you can put the mixture in the refrig for 15 minutes before using it, you can carry an almost unlimited supply without worrying about refrigerator space . . . or it getting moldy!
We usually don’t have any cheese because of Dave’s milk allergy. But if we want some for happy hour with friends, I manage to find a little room. The harder the cheese, the longer it can go without refrigeration and many other cheeses can be put in a plastic container and covered with olive oil and kept for several months without refrigeration. And cheeses in wax can usually be kept without refrigeration until the wax is cut or removed.
Eggs don’t have to be refrigerated IF they’ve never been refrigerated. In the US, it’s almost impossible to find eggs that aren’t refrigerated so I end up buying a half dozen if we want them for something (in Mexico it was easy to buy them unrefrigerated and I’d keep them a month or more – and no, I didn’t bother to coat them with Vaseline or turn them over every day). I also keep Ova-Easy Eggs (great powdered eggs) on hand for cooking (read more about Ova-Easy).
I keep very little produce in the refrigerator and this is a big key as it can take up a LOT of space. Much produce – both vegetables and fruit – does surprisingly well outside the refrigerator.
A while back, I made a cheat sheet for storing veggies without refrigeration — notes on how to store various things and how long they’ll last. It’s really just the tip of the iceberg as far as storing food without refrigeration goes, but I’m happy to share it.
Americans are used to having large refrigerators and refrigerate lots of things that no one else does. Ketchup, mustard, BBQ sauce, jam, jelly, syrup, A1, Worcestershire and more really don’t have to be refrigerated. Even in summer in the Sea of Cortez, with temps over 100 F., I never refrigerated mine and they were fine for months.
Mayonnaise, Miracle Whip and bottled salad dressings are always the big questions. We’ve all been taught that these are prime suspects for food poisoning. On Que Tal, I had enough refrigerator space that I did refrigerate these.
But with Barefoot Gal’s limited space? No. Instead, we’ll be using the “clean spoon” rule: if you only put a clean spoon into the container and don’t introduce contamination, it won’t develop botulism or other nasties. Actually, we go one step further than the clean spoon rule – we never put any implement into the container, using squeeze bottles instead. Read more. NOTE: This is directly contrary to the FDA and you’re on your own if you decide not to refrigerate these items – that is, I’m not liable if you get sick.
The two condiments that I do refrigerate? Horseradish and wasabi. Both quickly lose their flavor if kept at room temperature, let alone tropical temperatures.
Drinks take up the majority of our refrigerator space. In hot climates, cold drinks – even without ice – are a real treat and one that we treasure. We keep four bottles of water, two small soft drinks, and four beers in the refrigerator. The water bottles we refill as soon as we drink, and keep the bottles in a rotation system so we know which are the coldest and grab them first. Putting warm drinks in the refrig makes the system work harder, so while we have the soft drinks in mid-afternoon and the beer for happy hour, I don’t replace them with warm ones until just before we go to bed. Read more about improving your refrigerator’s efficiency by having it do the most work at the coolest times of day and other tips here.
White or chilled rose can be decanted from large boxes or bottles into plastic water bottles to chill — you can chill just enough for one day at a time. This is a particularly good strategy if you use boxed wine. Read more.
Cold drinks are obviously a priority for us, but we don’t normally have extras for guests. If we plan to have guests for happy hour or dinner, we’ll try to cram a few extras in, possibly by removing a couple of water bottles if the fridge is packed full.
For years, I kept coffee in the refrigerator. Then we visited a coffee plantation in El Salvador and I learned that it’s best not to – taking it in and out subjects it to condensation and moisture is one of the enemies of flavorful coffee. Now I don’t feel guilty about not refrigerating it. Read more about storing coffee.
“Huh?” you’re saying. “Sealants? But I don’t store sealants in the refrigerator.”
You should. If you’re in a warm/hot climate, keeping your sealants in the refrigerator will make them last far longer in the tubes. We’ve had opened tubes last six months to a year – not just a cost savings but also meaning that we have what we need even in remote locations.
Of course, we have other things in the refrigerator. Partial containers of dog food. Leftovers. Dill pickles. A half jar of salsa or spaghetti sauce. Meat thawing for dinner (every evening I move the next night’s dinner from the freezer to the refrig and it’s usually just about thawed by dinner time). Something chilling (salad, gazpacho). I chill lots of things in Ziploc bags as they take up a lot less space than plastic containers (good for marinating, too). Read more.The good thing about a small refrigerator is that you don’t forget about something “lost” in the back. Believe me, nothing can get lost.
While it might be a little effort at first to remember to restock the refrigerator every night with drinks and to put all the meat in the freezer, it’s not nearly as difficult as I had feared. I’m actually surprised at how much I can fit in, and that it’s not necessarily totally crammed whenever I make a provisioning run.