No, my food storage wasn’t directly set on fire. It was my parents’ food storage. The food never did actually burn, but the fire was close enough to cause heat-related damage. After the fire event, they gave all the food to me – and most of it wasn’t edible any more. Here’s my story of how fire affects food storage.
If you have been accumulating food storage for any amount of time, I’m sure you have heard repeated warnings against exposure to high heat: heat will damage food, heat can and will negatively affect the taste and nutritional content of stored food, thus greatly reducing its shelf-life, etc.
Despite these warnings, I have known people to store their buckets of wheat and #10 cans of white flour in garages without air conditioning, in attics, in storage sheds, etc. With very few exceptions, I had never known anyone to complain of any negative effects, and I actually wondered if “bad food storage” was a myth.
Guess what? It’s not.
My parents are in the process of moving from the suburbs of muggy Houston to chilly Idaho. The first thing they moved was their food storage. What had once been under beds and stashed in their garage is now in their new basement, lining the shelves in rows upon rows of #10 cans, buckets, and Rubbermaid bins.
“We have a ton of wheat!” my parents said when I recently visited their new home. “You should go shopping in our food storage!”
“Whee!” I exclaimed with all the giddiness of a true prepper. “I love shopping,” I said, completely forgetting one very small, but very significant, detail about what a lot of that food had been through.
I didn’t even remember the fire event until I got home with a batch of my free food and opened a mylar pouch of instant mashed potatoes. Usually these are a gentle cream color, no? Ha. These were more of a dark, macaroni-and-cheese color. You could even say that they were brown. This package had “2007” written on it. How could things go so horribly wrong in only seven years? In spite of their odd color, I reconstituted them with water. They had a distinctly roasted, or burnt, taste.
What had happened?
It was then, and only then, that I remembered. A little over a year ago, an arsonist torched the storage facility where my parents kept most of their #10 cans. My parents’ specific unit and its contents survived the fire, but not everything escaped wholly unscathed. The insurance company declared the food a loss, but figured my parents were capable of tossing it themselves, as they saw fit. Not wanting that indecent amount of granola, freeze dried fruit, and instant mashed potatoes to go to waste, my parents kept it.
Still hopeful, I tried to serve the iffy potatoes to my five-year-old, who wrinkled up his nose and said, “I don’t like this food. Please don’t make this again, Mom.”
It almost goes without saying that I didn’t make him eat it.
In the spirit of curiosity, I made it a mission to go through a selection of food items that had survived the fire in order to ascertain the extent of the damage. I recruited my family to help and we had a lot of fun.
Here’s the rundown of how fire affects food storage
Granola: My kids ate it, but kids also eat a lot of stuff that isn’t good for you. My husband said, “It was okay for the first couple of bites, but then had this weird aftertaste.” There’s a word for that, rancid. Verdict: Toss it.
Freeze-Dried Blueberries: These seem to have more or less escaped damage. Our hypothesis is that these particular cans were located farther away from the flames. It might be interesting to run some kind of chemical analysis to see if they still have any actual nutrition in them, but we were unable to tell based on taste alone. My kids had a wonderful time – a little too wonderful, in fact. Verdict: Blueberries stain but we couldn’t tell if they had been damaged by the fire. Their appearance and flavor hadn’t changed.
Freeze-Dried Strawberries: One can of these were fine, but a different can looked and smelled distinctly crispy. Verdict: proceed with caution.
Instant Mashed Potatoes: I personally checked at least 15 pounds of these to see if there was at least one mylar pouch that was still good. There were no survivors. Verdict: Toss it.
White Flour: How can one describe the taste of rancid white flour? I’m willing to bet the fire was only part of its problem. It’s never a very good idea to store white flour for longer than 18 months, anyway. We made some cookies out of it, which were suitable only to give to one’s enemies. It would probably still be okay for making play-dough, but I don’t know anyone who needs that much play-dough. Verdict: Toss it.
I also made three batches of bread made from wheat from my parent’s storage. It hadn’t been in the fire with everything else, but it was still old-ish and had been sitting in a hot Houston garage for the better part of a decade. I could not get that blasted dough to rise. It wasn’t a yeast issue. I had proofed it and even tried a different brand of yeast for the last loaf. The dough had a crumbly texture, almost like it had been soft white wheat – good for pastry – instead of hard white wheat, which is how this was labeled. It is a mystery that definitely deserves closer investigation. Whatever the official cause, I’m willing to bet the wheat’s tenure in the hot garage did it no favors.
1) Garages and storage units are not the best places to put your food storage. Even if an arsonist passes you by, inadequate temperature controls will work their inescapable black magic. For the longest possible shelf life, store food in the coolest place possible. A basement or root cellar is ideal. As well, the temperature should be kept as stable as possible.
2) Some things should not be stored long-term. Specifically, white flour.
3) Investigative culinary reporting can be very fun but also very messy. Luckily, magic erasers can get blueberry-colored handprints off of white paint.
Anyone else have some food storage horror stories to share? Tell us all about it in the comments!
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