In The Long Winter, a book in the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the family ends up in dire straits, trapped in a tiny new town with very few food stores, and no trains until spring. There’s a terrible blizzard about every 2-3 days that lasts 3 days, and no one can go anywhere to get food. They run out of everything except a bag of wheat.
Using a hand coffee grinder a half cup at a time, the girls grind wheat all day long to make a loaf of bread twice a day, and that sustains the six Ingalls for months. Months. Wheat may be hybridized differently now and demonized as a gluten attacker of the gut – my husband may be one of the millions affected by gluten intolerance – but you can’t argue with the fact that grain is the perfect long-term storage option.
- Whole wheat and other uncracked grain kernels store for years without losing much nutrition and without too much fancy preparation
- Grains have carbs for energy, some protein and some healthy fat
- The downside: you do need water and heat in order to be able to eat them, and a grain mill would be helpful for recognizable foods (bread, crackers, biscuits, etc.) But – you don’t need too many other ingredients to make bread, especially if you know how to keep a sourdough starter (like Ma did in the Little House books! Have you ever noticed how much traditional food you can learn about in that series?).
- Although you do need heat, an oven wouldn’t be absolutely necessary. If you had a gas grill and a pan, you could easily make pancakes, tortillas, pitas, or English muffins. Yum!
My brother is kind of an impulsive guy. A few years back when gas was projected to skyrocket one summer, he bought a 50-gallon drum of gasoline to store up. Recently he got worried about some food-related disaster and ran out to GFS to buy a 25-pound bag of rice. He’s pretty sure he and his wife-to-be and dog could live on it for a few months if they had to. It’s white rice.
He and I are pretty different, in case you didn’t guess.
I tell you that story, honestly, to praise him for doing something while I just sit here and write about it. Then again, I have 100 pounds of whole grains and probably 25-40 of legumes in my basement, so I’m not feeling a fearful pressure to visit GFS. I also tell you about his choice because I want you to be more informed. White rice is missing the fats and proteins that brown rice would have going for it. And you’d still need water to cook it. UPDATE: A reader put me in my place – brown rice isn’t quite as shelf-stable as other grains. She says about 6 months; I’d guess a bit longer when UNopened. I used to keep my open bags in the fridge, but now that I buy in 5-pound bags, I just don’t have space. Here’s hoping we’re not eating rancid rice!
It does take a little more thought and effort to make sure you’re ready for a disaster, but even the smallest step counts for something!
How Much Do You Need?
The LDS church, experts in preparedness, recommend 5 pounds of rice or legumes (preferably both) per person per month. Here’s a food storage calculator if you’re interested in figuring out other amounts. Don’t forget you’d need to store water as well, and salt would be awfully nice!
How to Store
Whole grains don’t really need any special storage – I’ve heard of people getting wheat to sprout after it’s been tucked in a bag in the basement for 1-2 decades. However, you do want to keep the insects and critters away, so it’s wise to consider storage in plastic buckets. Some would say to also use mylar bags and even oxygen absorbers, but if you’re eating what you store and rotating it through, I don’t know that those would be necessary. Here’s my creative (and free) solution.
For example, I think my strategy for storing wheat is to simply make sure that I order backup bags when I crack into a new bag, instead of ordering more when I’m getting down to the end. That way I should always have at least a few months or more worth of wheat, rice, etc. on hand, but I’m always going through it, so no particular batch should have to be “stored” for more than a year.
I also have rolled oats on hand, but it’s important to remember that those aren’t exactly “whole” and have a shorter shelf life, technically. I wouldn’t keep them around more than a year, but I haven’t looked it up officially.
Here are some storage resources for you if you want to get serious though:
- How to Store Bulk Foods (all)
- Good Containers for Long-term Storage
- Super Long-Term – How to store in mylar bags with oxygen absorbers
- Super duper long-term – How to store long-term in plastic buckets, with dry ice
- The LDS church requires members to have a year’s worth of food stored, a factoid I learned while reading the marvelous 11th Heaven blog. They are experts on food storage.
I have no idea the safety of dry ice, nor do I expect to ever get this dedicated to preparedness. But maybe I’d like to live next to a Mormon…
Milling the Grains
I have a Nutrimill grain mill, but if my electricity is out, I’m out of luck. There are grain mills that work without electricity (Wondermill is the brand I always hear about), and I’m strongly considering having one of those on hand, both because it would work when the power doesn’t and also because it can grind almonds into flour and flax seeds, which are too oily for the mechanisms in the fancy electric mill.
What About Storing Flour?
Storing bulk flour would negate the need for a new large appliance, but it’s a trickier situation. While white refined flour has an incredible shelf life, there’s a reason for that. Most of the nutritional goodness has been stripped away with the bran and germ. However, the bran and germ, once cracked (ground into flour) are going to cause whole wheat flour to go rancid rather quickly. That’s why it’s recommended to store whole wheat flour in the freezer.
The cash it would take to run a freezer to keep a substantial amount of whole wheat flour on hand would probably pay for a grain mill in a few years, so I kind of think it’s a wash. Doesn’t hurt to keep an extra 5-pound bag on hand for a brief emergency, but if you want to be ready to hunker down and wait out a month-long problem (or longer), you’re going to need to rely on whole, uncracked grains.
Bonus: you can also sprout whole grain for living nutrition if you don’t have any fresh produce available.
Other Things to Store
To make your bread recipes, often you’ll need salt, baking soda, and even eggs. Storing extra salt is easy – just buy it in bulk and it will last forever. Be sure to get healthy, unrefined salt! Baking soda and powder only has about a year’s shelf life before it starts losing potency, soda is so cheap that you can let a box expire and not break the bank. Just use old stuff for cleaning and keep fresh on hand.
If you do have a manual grain mill, keeping a large bag of whole flax seeds would be a wonderful idea. You can grind them and use 1 Tbs. flax meal with 3 Tbs. warm water as a substitute for an egg in baking recipes. Pancake problem solved! Here are more detailed instructions for the flax egg substitute.
What did I miss? How do you store and use grains? Are there any prepared grains that one can just “eat” without water or heat?
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