The only scientifically proven way to store a surplus of fresh eggs over long periods is by freezing or pickling. Methods used by people decades or centuries ago are quite risky to human health. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

For as long as humans have been eating food, they have been looking for ways to extend its shelf life.

More than 12,000 years ago, people in the Middle East preserved food by drying it in the hot sun. About 7,000 years later the Babylonians pickled dates with wine and vinegar. Then in 1810 along came Nicolas Appert, who developed the method of using corked glass containers, sealing wax and boiling water to preserve fruits, soups, vegetables and dairy.

Maine’s homesteaders and gardeners carry on these food preservation traditions, often swearing by methods used centuries ago — despite modern science coming up with processes experts say are far more reliable and safer.

“With more research we are seeing a lot of these [older] methods are not safe practices,” said Beth Calder, University of Maine Cooperative Extension food safety specialist. “In both the short and long term they can actually make people quite sick.”

Here are some of the techniques that homesteaders are still practicing today, and why experts suggest finding alternative practices.

Water glassing eggs

Water glassing refers to the practice of storing fresh eggs in a solution of pickling lime and water. Turns out, it’s a process that can promote the growth of a bacteria so deadly that only a handful of laboratories in this country even possess the protocols to research it.

“This was a common practice a long time ago,” Calder said. “That was because there was no refrigeration so people used the lime to preserve eggs.”

Calder referred to information from the University of Arkansas Division of Agricultural Research and Extension that warns soaking shelled eggs in any form of water solution is risky due to the potential of airborne or waterborne contaminants making their way inside the egg.

Those contaminants can easily get through the shells, which are porous. They have to be for developing chicks to get oxygen.

Among those contaminants is Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria responsible for the deadly disease botulism. It’s found in soil where chickens live, feed and lay their eggs. Botulism bacteria grow best in high pH environments — just like those created using lime-based water glassing.

Working with botulism bacteria is so dangerous that there are very few labs who possess the necessary certification to research the highly toxic bacteria, Calder said.

Fresh eggs can also carry the bacteria that causes salmonella on their shells. Salmonella can cause serious symptoms including fever, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting or headaches. Water glassing eggs, according to Calder, provides a perfect environment for salmonella to thrive.

In addition, research has shown lime can cause a variety of human health issues including changing blood chemistry, breathing difficulties, skin irritation and abdominal pain.

“We now know this is not a safe practice,” Calder said.

According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, the only safe ways to extend the life of fresh eggs are freezing them or pickling them and then storing them in the refrigerator.

Canning butter

There are a lot of foods that can be safely preserved by canning. Butter is not one of them, according to Calder.

Research out of the University of California-Davis has shown it is virtually impossible to safely can butter or milk. It’s the reason it is not recommended to add cream, milk or butter to soups you are intending to can.

Once again, the risk is botulism. The fats in butter actually protect the botulism spores from the heat generated during the canning process.

“Butter is also a low acid food,” Calder said. “So botulism is a real risk.”

Improperly stored butter can also spoil and turn rancid, rendering it inedible.

Calder has seen an increasing number of people interested in clarifying butter to produce ghee by removing all of its water content. Ghee has a slightly nuttier taste than plain butter and is a key ingredient in many Indian dishes.

There is nothing wrong with making ghee, Calder said. The problems come when people think they can do it for longterm shelf storage.

“There is just no reliable testing that has been done that shows it is safe to can butter or butter products,” she said. “There is also no testing that has shown pressure canning is a safe method to preserve butter.”

Instead, Calder said freezing butter is the only safe way of preservation.

Animal feed fermentation

Instead of feeding the 84 critters on her Lighthouse Farm commercial packaged animal feed, Andrea Holmes’ chickens, ducks, geese and pigs are served a steady diet of fermented grains on her Leeds farm. It’s a menu she said is better for the animals — and her wallet.

Fermentation is a process that uses naturally occuring bacteria to partially break down food. Those who do it say it increases the amount of usable protein, vitamins and enzymes in the products you are fermenting, kills off harmful bacteria and makes the food easier to digest. Purposely fermenting animal feed takes a bit of time and effort, but the result is something so robust that it’s possible to feed half as much fermented grain as unfermented.

Fermentation has been used since at least 4,000 B.C. to make alcohol and to preserve foods. According to Colt Knight, state livestock specialist with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, just because it’s been around for a long time, does not mean it’s a viable option now.

“The issue with fermenting grains becomes the mycotoxins and the aflatoxins,” Knight said. “They are a concern because they can be deadly.”

Mycotoxins and aflatoxins are produced by fungi or mold, which can form on grain if it gets damp.

To ferment the grain safely and prevent those toxins from developing, Holmes starts by running it through a grain mill she purchased that can process around 240 pounds an hour.

All the different grains need to be thoroughly mixed together before they are fermented. Holmes used to do that by hand with a shovel.

“Now I have a brand new cement mixer I got at Lowe’s to mix the grains,” she said. “Using the shovel took too long and when you are on a farm, you find easier ways to do what you have to do.”

Knight is not discounting fermentation entirely when it comes to animal feed, but stressed it must be done safely and properly. But even then, he does not see the point of doing it.

“Fermented grains to give to chickens is not worth the economic benefit in terms of what you get in digestibility,” Knight said. “They quit [fermenting grains] hundreds of years ago for a reason.”

Likewise, Calder is all for homesteaders preserving their garden bounty. She stresses that preservation must be done safely with scientifically supported methods, not the latest trend being shared on social media.

She recommends looking at information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Center for Food Preservation or a state university extension office.

“It does not make you any less of a homesteader to follow these safe food preservation practices,” Calder said. “It just means you are being your own advocate for safe food production.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.