Cooked food has several important advantages: it kills pathogens, makes some foods easier to digest, and deactivates certain anti-nutritional factors. Cooked food also keeps longer in the refrigerator, since it has less bacteria than raw food. Why is soup one of the favored foods for someone who is ill? This custom probably developed because boiling (simmering) the soup pasteurizes the food, making it safer than other food choices for someone who is weakened by illness.
Sidebar: An anti-nutritional factor is any compound in food that interferes with the digestion or absorption of nutrients, or has an adverse effect on health. Certain foods (beans, legumes, potatoes) contain protease inhibitors, that inhibit the absorption of proteins. Amylase inhibitors prevent dietary starches from being absorbed by the body. A list of other anti-nutritional factors is here. Cooking food deactivates many anti-nutritional factors. Sometimes dry heat is sufficient to deactivate these factors. Other times boiling or steaming (damp heat) is more effective.
Hurray for cooked food. But suppose that you temporarily lack a way to cook your food. Some disaster might knock out the power. Sure, you could fire up the grill, but not three times a day, every day. The same is true for cooking over an open fire. It is not practical to do so every meal, or for an extended period of time.
So what are your options for uncooked meals? I’m assuming here that you have no power, and hence no working freezer or refrigerator. So you’ll be making a meal from stored food. Canned fruits and vegetables are not a problem. So the issue becomes staple foods: grains, potatoes, etc. For this article, I tested several food options: instant oatmeal, quick barley, instant mashed potatoes, instant rice, ramen, tabouli, couscous, and “cheese powder” (if it can be called food).
Note Well: Use only clean safe drinking water, such as bottled or purified water. Preparation of stored food without cooking can contain bacteria. Do not allow this food to sit for more than an hour or two without being eaten or thrown away, as bacteria can grow and make the food unsafe to eat. You will have to use your own judgment as to whether or not your stored food and your water is safe to eat without cooking.
I added the recommended amount of water (1/2 cup), stirred well, and then waited 15 minutes. When preparing food without heat, I find that you need to wait a longer time for the food to absorb the water. For oatmeal, instead of about 5 minutes, its 15.
The ‘fruit and cream’ flavors did not work well, and are not recommended for preparation without cooking. The simpler flavors, like ‘maple & brown sugar’, were much more palatable. However, instant oatmeal prepared without cooking is watery. It is edible and not bad tasting, but the texture leaves something to be desired.
To improve on the texture, I added one tablespoon of powdered skim milk per packet of instant oatmeal. The milk powder adds 1.5 g of protein per tablespoon, increasing the protein by about 50%. It also made the oatmeal creamier and less watery. You could use 2 tablespoons of dry milk, doubling the protein and perhaps, depending on your tastes, improving palatability further.
Instant oatmeal with non-fat dry milk, prepared without heat, is not quite as good as when it is cooked. But it is one of the better options for preparing food when you don’t have power to cook. A good breakfast option.
This product is supposed to cook for about 10 minutes. I used room temperature bottled water, and let it sit for 30 minutes, and another batch for 60 minutes. I found it was best to add an excess of water, and then pour it into a fine metal strainer to remove any water that is not absorbed. When I tried to use the exact correct amount of water, absorption was incomplete.
The 60 minute batch was too soft, but it absorbed plenty of water. The barley was bland, so I flavored it with salt, spices, vinegar and oil. The 30 minute batch was firmer, and less watery tasting. I suggest a 30 minute time. The bland nature of this food means that it will accept any flavors that you throw at it. Some vinaigrette salad dressing would work well, I think.
Barley is a good staple food, which is high in protein and carbs. Quick barley will store well long-term if kept cool, sealed, and dry. This is definitively a good food for storage.
Instant Mashed Potatoes
Since we are assuming that you have no power for cooking or refrigeration, you won’t be making your mashed potatoes with milk and butter. Sorry. But on the plus side, instant mashed potatoes take up room temperature bottled water quickly and well. The taste seems unaffected by the lack of cooking. Of course, you probably prefer your mashed potatoes hot. But I tried them with some mayo and chopped veggies for a kind of mashed potato salad. Not bad.
If the power is out, you can’t keep opened jars of mayo around without refrigeration. It is one of the quickest spoiling foods of all time. But if you have small jars of mayo, you can open one and use it all in one meal: tuna salad, instant mashed potato salad, ketchup & mayo French dressing on a salad, etc.
I’ve tried various flavored instant mashed potatoes, but I always prefer the absolutely plain version. You can flavor it however you want. The pre-flavored varieties are best if you can add milk and butter. Otherwise the flavor is a little off.
Another flavoring approach I’ve tried, that works well, is to add some vegetable oil and sugar to the instant mashed potatoes. This almost makes up for not using butter and milk. Some celery salt or red pepper flakes rounds out the flavor palate.
If you are cooking couscous with hot water, it takes only 5 minutes to absorb the water. But with room temperature bottled water, it takes 15 minutes or more. If the couscous turns out crunchy, you just did not add enough water. Add some more and let it sit for another 10 minutes.
Taste-wise, couscous prepared in this manner is almost indistinguishable from cooked couscous, except that it is not hot. I add oil and vinegar, with some spices and salt to taste. Chopped veggies also improve this dish.
Couscous is make with wheat, just like regular pasta, and it is just as nutritious. But regular pasta will not absorb water, even if it is thin spaghetti or angel hair. I have plenty of regular pasta with my stored food. But I also have several pounds of couscous because it can be prepared without heat.
I must admit I thought this would not work. I had some high-quality ramen (Nongshim brand Shim Ramyun Noodle Soup). So I soaked the noodles, spices, and vegetable packet in water (just enough to cover all of the ingredients, and I let it soak. Again, I used room temperature bottled water. At 30 minutes, the noodles were firm and a little crunchy in places. At 45 minutes, the noodles were soft and ready to eat. The results were excellent. The only difference from cooked noodles is that cooking seems to keep the noodles more firm, whereas soaking gives you soft (seemingly overcooked) noodles. However, don’t let the noodles sit for much longer than 45 minutes to an hour, as they become increasingly soft and eventually unpalatable.
This would be one of my top choices for uncooked food prep. I recommend avoiding the cheap bargain ramen, and go full-tilt with the top of the line gourmet version, which costs all of a dollar or two per 4 oz. packet.
I raided a box of blue-box mac and cheese for the cheese-like powder it contains. I added the called for 1/4 cup of water (it actually calls for milk), and mixed it in a plastic container by putting the lid on and shaking vigorously. Then I made the couscous, using this cheese-water, plus 1/2 cup couscous and 1/2 cup water. The cheese adds excellent flavor to the otherwise bland couscous. The result was very palatable.
Other boxed products also have cheese powder that keeps well without refrigeration. You can reconstitute it with just room temperature bottled water, even though it would be better with milk. I suppose you could also add a tablespoon of powdered milk to the cheese sauce. The resultant cheese-like-liquid can be added to your instant mashed potato flakes, ramen, barley, etc. The cheese (or cheese and milk) powder adds protein and improves the flavor.
The directions on the box tell you to use one cup of boiling hot water and wait 30 minutes. I used one and one third cups of room temperature bottled water, and a tablespoon of vinegar. Stir well, and press down, so that the water reaches the top later of the wheat and spices mixture. After 30 minutes, the tabouli was still crunchy; after 45 minutes it was still too firm. It took over an hour for the tabouli to absorb the water and be palatable. The result was actually a little better than with the boiling water; the texture was better and the taste was cleaner. After an additional hour of chilling in the refrigerator, the remainder of the tabouli only improved in taste.
I used the ‘boil in bag’ type instant rice, without the bag, for this food experiment. The resultant rice was edible, but not nearly as good as cooked rice. I soaked the rice in an excess of room temp. bottled water, for one hour and 15 minutes. The rice was firm, but soft enough to eat. Even though I strained the rice, it was a little watery. The rice was bland, and needed some spices. I tried it with a little of that powered-cheese sauce, and it was an improvement. But instant rice would not be one of my top choices.
In order of my preference:
1. tabouli — excellent, better than cooked
2. couscous — excellent; almost as good as cooked; even better with cheese powder
3. ramen — good, but a big step down from cooked
4. mashed potatoes — good if you can add butter or milk, or at least some mayo; otherwise, fair
5. instant oatmeal — fair, but a little better with powdered milk
6. quick barley — fair, needs some seasoning
7. instant rice — acceptable in a pinch; fair if you add cheese powder