How to Make Your Food Last Longer, According to Yacht Chefs
Yacht chefs have been inadvertently prepping for the COVID-19 pandemic throughout their entire careers at sea.
My newfound obsession with the fridge started with rotating my bag of fresh spinach multiple times per day. Then I started feeling the liquids and meat to make sure the temperature was right. My bulldog instincts eventually kicked in and I began guarding the fridge from my partner. “We have to eat salad for the next two or three days,” I snapped. “Those leftovers are for later in the week.”
He backed out of the kitchen with a look of fear and confusion in his eyes.
That’s when I realized I had reverted back to my yachting days, when I ran my galley like it was my own ship within a ship. I was the captain of the fridge, my small domain in a place in which I had literally no other personal space (aside from a bunk, I guess). My menu was my itinerary and I had drawn up a complex plan as how to manage my provisions to make sure I had enough food to feed my guests and crew while we sailed around the Exumas or other remote Bahamian island chains.
After much trial-and-error with thawing freezers, freezing fridges, or finding brown, wilted basil for the pesto I had intended to make that evening, I had learned how to carefully manage my provisions for multiple weeks at a time without restocking.
Those skills have become crucial in trying to avoid the supermarket, a place that has now become a potential vector of disease.
Yacht chefs have been inadvertently prepping for the COVID-19 pandemic throughout their entire careers at sea. “I keep telling people I've been doing this for years,” says Below Deck Mediterranean and Below Deck Sailing Yacht chef Adam Glick. “This is just like another day in the galley, like I’m quarantined on a boat with a lack of new food and supplies.”
Read more: How to Cook at Home Under Coronavirus
To help you make the most of the food you have while staying at home, I talked to well known yacht chefs about how to make your provisions last.
Meal Planning Is a Must
“Working on a yacht definitely has its ups and downs,” says former yacht chef Julien Gremaud, who now runs Avocado Grill in West Palm Beach Florida. “The views are always amazing and you get to explore incredible places. It takes a lot of planning, troubleshooting and creativity to cook on a yacht though.”
Planning out what you’re going to cook, and when, is the most important aspect to ensuring your provisions will last. That means using up ingredients that go off quickly first and repurposing them into subsequent meals. Items that you wouldn’t normally use for breakfast can be incorporated in fun, unexpected ways, like the remnants of last night’s seafood, steaks, or vegetable side dishes can be transformed into omelets, burritos, or hash. But make sure to consider how much food you’re making every day. “It is also important to be conscious of portions you are using so that what you have purchased lasts the entire journey,” he says.
Buy Produce That’s Going to Last
Root vegetables, like beets, turnips, and carrots, and winter squash can last outside the fridge longer than most ingredients from the produce shelves. If you have space inside, though, they can last for a whole month. Below Deck chef Matt Burns, who recently took a land-based position at Nordik Spa-Nature in Ottawa, Canada, recently peeled, gutted, and cut up some butternut squash, then cryovaced the chunks (as well as some whole carrots), which he expects to consume in four weeks or so at his home.
Swap Out Mixed Greens for Heads of Lettuce
We’ve all been there. You’re excited to prep your salad for dinner when you discover your bag of mixed greens has turned into a brown, wilted mess—which is why they’re basically persona non grata on boats. Loose leaf lettuce is fine if you want to consume it in a couple of days, but most yacht chefs stock up on heads of lettuce for longer trips.
Before garnering a fan base on several seasons of Below Deck and Below Deck Mediterranean, chef Ben Robinson worked as head chef on S/Y Athena, the biggest sailing yacht on the planet. During one month-and-a-half-long trip through the Panama Canal, Robinson had to cook for 28 crew members three times per day for six weeks straight with no ability to restock. “Toward the end of my six week stint, I was leaning on whole cabbage,” he says. “Depending on where you are in the world, you can probably leave it at room temperature and it would stay in good shape.”
Stock Up on Pantry Staples
Buying a giant bag of rice or dried lentils might sound like prepper stuff, but as many Americans have recently discovered, dried beans and other long-lasting pantry staples are incredibly useful when you’re trying to avoid the grocery store for long periods. “As long as you put them in tupperware, wrapped in plastic and make sure moisture can’t get it, it won’t go bad even on a boat,” says Glick. “Buy vegetables as you need them.”
And if you run out of fresh stuff, there’s no need to stress about having nice meals to cook if you have a pantry full of condiments and other jarred ingredients. With just a bit of Arborio rice, chicken stock, olives, capers and maybe some dried mushrooms (if you’re fancy enough to have them), you can make a really nice risotto. “And you literally didn’t go into your refrigerator aside from maybe some parmesan at the end,” says Robinson, who has been hosting Chef Ben’s Pandemic Pizza Party on Instagram.
Save (Most of) the Canned Vegetables for When You’re Desperate
Canned corn is fine. Canned artichokes, sure. Canned garbanzos and black beans certainly serve a purpose. Canned tuna and other types of fish and seafood can be great, but those tins of green beans are really just “sloppy and gross,” says Robinson. “There’s a fine line between being a great pandemic chef and a doomsday chef.”
Disinfect Everything That Comes Through the Door
There’s no telling what has happened to a food item during the time it left the field to when it reaches the supermarket shelf—and with all the empty shelves and produce bins these days, chances are someone probably touched whatever is there fairly recently. Do as yacht chefs do and start sanitizing everything before it comes in the door.
With all his provision deliveries, Robinson would process everything as soon as it arrived. Delivery boxes wouldn’t make it past the dock. Instead, he and most yacht chefs start unloading the individual items piece-by-piece to ensure the cardboard never hits the deck. “Boxes have to stay on the dock because cockroaches can lay eggs in cardboard and the last thing you need is a bug epidemic aboard your yacht,” he says.
Right now at his home in Ottawa, Burns is disinfecting all his boxes and bags outside with peroxide before bringing them inside.
Packaging get wiped down and thrown into the bin. Herbs and vegetables get washed, placed on a disinfected surface, then prepped for storage. For example, the herbs get rolled up in damp paper towels and placed inside in zip-top bags. Asparagus is placed standing upright in containers like plants. “It can extend life by like three times,” says Robinson.
Individually Wrap All of Your Vegetables
“If I was going out to sea for three weeks, each individual tomato, each pepper, every bunch of chives would be wrapped up separately in newspaper or paper towel,” says Glick. “Anytime a vegetable is touching another vegetable, that’s what’s going to spoil first.”
It may sound like a lot of work, but if you want to make your provisions last as long as possible, it’s imperative to prevent moisture from rotting away the contents of your fridge. Doing so can give you an extra week or two on the shelf life.
There Are Savvy Ways to Save Fridge Space
Chances are, if you’re stocking up on greens for the next couple of weeks, there’s not a whole lot of space left in your fridge. Yacht chefs often have to get creative with allocating space. An old sailors technique is to coat eggs in a thin layer of Vaseline to keep them fresh at room temperature. Glick has tried it himself and claims it works. “I sailed across the Pacific with a bathtub full of eggs and no one got hurt,” he says. “It’s a testament for what you can do in a pinch.”
Mind Your Fridge Temperatures
Most refrigerators are coldest toward the back and warmer towards the door. The more stuff that gets packed in, the less the air flows, and the more likely some parts are going to get significantly colder than others. This gets exacerbated every time you open the door because you’re bored and want to find something else to stuff in your face.
First, figure out where the cooling unit is—most likely somewhere in the back—and place liquids like orange juice, milk, and other things that could freeze closest to it. This will help decrease the temperature of the fridge and prevent your (individually-wrapped) heads of lettuce from turning into a slushy mess. “If you buy six bags of romaine, you have to make sure it’s not freezing,” says Burns, who recommends regularly checking on fridge contents to be safe. “You’ve got to rotate.”
Burns also suggests turning the temperature dial down, so the fridge gets a bit warmer at night and up during the day, when you’re more likely to be opening and closing the door looking scouring for snacks.
Eat What’s Going to Go Bad First
As tempting as it may be to grab that delicious soup you stuck in the freezer last week, now is the time to make sure everything else in the fridge is getting consumed before it rots. “My girlfriend and I have the urge to go into the freezer to get the pizza or chili we froze,” says Burns. “I’m like, ‘I don’t want another salad,’ but we have to eat the produce first.”
Smell It Before You Chuck It
Expiration dates still aren’t regulated, so there’s a lot of confusion as to when food products actually go bad. And that uncertainty leads to about 20% of 76 billion pounds of household food per year.
These days, many food producers are including the phrases “Best if Used By” and “Use By” on packaging. The former indicates quality. The latter, potential safety issues. However, yacht chefs, like Glick, rely on their senses more than those (somewhat) arbitrary dates. “The biggest thing I can impart on someone, you need to smell it,” says Glick. “99% of germs stink. When it comes time and it’s gone bad, it will smell bad.”
If you’re not quite sure about the smell, Glick recommends touching whatever the item is, if it feels slimy or stickier than it should, throw it out.
You Can Basically Freeze Anything
Beef, chicken, veal, tuna, Chilean sea bass and any sort of meat or seafood with hardy fibers stands up well to freezing. But many oilier or more delicate ingredients, like salmon or red snapper, don’t—unless they were cryovaced and flash-frozen fresh.
Other items require a bit more work if you want them to freeze well. Vegetables can be frozen, but to stop the decaying process, most need to be blanched first. For instance, an ear of corn should be blanched and the kernels should be removed from the cob before hitting the freezer. Eggs can even be frozen if the white is separated from the yolk. And milk can be frozen, but it might have to pass through the blender to whirl it back together when it defrosts.
Cheese, however, doesn’t work out well after freezing. “It takes on a granular, powdery form,” says Robinson. “It doesn’t help it.”
What do you do with those browning apples that are about to go off? Turn them into a crumble or peel, core and freeze them into smoothie ingredients. The mango that’s looking a bit past it’s prime can make a nice chutney. And the avocado that’s not going to be quite as delicious as it was yesterday can be combined with cocoa powder, honey and a little bit of vanilla and whipped into a vegan-ish chocolate ganache in the food processor. These are just some of the tricks Burns has employed to use up produce that in normal times would have gone straight to compost. “I am paying attention to everything,” he says, about his current efforts to social distance. “It’s been two-and-a-half weeks since we did any type of shopping. This is definitely like a charter.”