A General Guide To Root Cellaring


This concluding chapter completes our look at time-honored methods of food preservation. Root cellaring is about as simple and as inexpensive a way to keep your food out of harm’s way as you could imagine. It doesn’t require electricity. You don’t need to purchase jars, rings, and lids, freezer packaging materials, or major appliances, such as smokers. It doesn’t take up room in your pantry. It’s just what the name implies: storing root crops and other fruits and vegetables in the cellar, although it’s a bit more involved than hurling your turnips under the house. Apples are prime candidates for root cellaring, along with root crops, such as carrots, potatoes, beets, and turnips, among others. They store quite nicely under conditions of controlled temperature and humidity. Other crops also fit this category, especially winter squash, including those giant-sized Hubbards!

The Science Behind Root Cellaring

Fresh vegetables on a wooden table near a window

From the moment a fruit or vegetable seed is planted in the ground, it’s programmed to sprout, grow, ripen, and eventually—if not consumed or preserved in some way—rot, thus returning nutrients to the earth so the cycle might begin again. The home food preserver’s goal is to delay the onset of that final step as long as possible.

Root cellaring operates on a simple premise that walks a fine line: Keep foods cold enough so they don’t deteriorate but not so cold they freeze. This discovery, as with the rest of the methods described in this section of the book, was probably an accidental one. Just as someone thousands of years ago discovered that the sun could be used to dry foods and thus preserve them, someone else undoubtedly noticed that cold temperatures helped keep food edible for long periods of time.

Home food preservers, even the earliest ones, are keen observers of nature.

Observing that a certain process works usually comes before understanding how that process works. Early on, it’s enough to know that it just does—most of the time. Until we understand the why, it can be a hit-or-miss affair. Eventually, scientists discover the whys and the wherefores, and this allows some refinements and adjustments to be made to help us become more successful at preserving food.

As with other methods of preserving food, root cellaring works to slow down the enzymes that are responsible for ripening and eventually over ripening and rotting foods. It also keeps in check other microorganisms responsible for food spoilage. In the case of root cellaring, that means holding fruits and vegetables at temperatures generally between freezing and 40°F (0°C and 4°C).

This is essentially how your refrigerator operates. Harnessing the principles of refrigeration and putting them to use in an environment that’s not dependent on electricity is the theory behind root cellaring.

Generally speaking, in the Northern Hemisphere, winter temperatures are colder than summer temperatures. They’re also widely variable depending on what part of the country you call home. Elevation plays a role, as does latitude. At the heart of the issue, however, is the capricious temperament of Mother Nature. Even if your temperatures in winter average in the high 40s (8°C), that average is just that: an average. You can have days in the teens (-10°C) and days in the 50s (13°C). Consistency isn’t one of nature’s prime descriptive terms. That means you can’t just consign your vegetables to the outdoors if you live in a cold climate and be confident they’ll be kept safely until you’re ready to use them. They have specific requirements.

Ripening fruits and vegetables respire (breathe) and transpire (give off moisture and a certain amount of heat), so controlling the temperature and humidity of their storage environment is important. Nutrients can be lost during transpiration, so it’s important to have a means of controlling the airflow to optimize your storage conditions. This is why in most refrigerators you’ll see different storage options for fruits and vegetables in the hydrator compartments. Fruit compartments will have a means of allowing air and the gasses given off by ripening fruits to escape. Vegetable compartments are designed to keep moisture in to prevent shriveling. They’re usually ventless. Learn about boiling water bath canning.

General Principles & Procedures

Freshly harvested carrots laid on soil

If you’ve grown a garden that’s blessed you with a good harvest or if you’ve taken advantage of fresh produce from a local farmers’ market, root cellaring can be an economical way to hold that produce until you’re ready to use it. Location is the first consideration, determining the dimensions and type of root cellar is next, and deciding what you’ll store is third.

You don’t need to have a cellar to preserve food by root cellaring. A shed, a pit dug into the ground on a sheltered side of the house, an unheated breezeway between the house and garage, or a section of the garage that’s free from fumes can work.

All types of food-preservation techniques require some effort. That’s a given. With root cellaring, the time and effort revolves around preparing an area that will give you the right amount of air circulation so you can control the humidity. You also want the cellar to be dark and free from insects and rodents. Mice are notorious for their ability to slip through a hole the size of a quarter. You don’t need to create a fortress, but a snug bunker is definitely the way to go.

Where do you live? More specifically, what’s the winter weather like where you live? If winters are relatively mild, you have more options than folks who live in areas that receive the brunt of winter storms and subzero temperatures. It’s not fun struggling to uncover your produce when the temperature is –35°F (-37°C) and the wind is whipping the snow into stinging nettles that burn your cheeks.

The USDA has an excellent resource for home food preservers interested in root cellaring fruits and vegetables: naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/CAT87213861/PDF.

Storage Options

You have two basic options when deciding where to locate your root cellar: outdoors or indoors. Outdoor storage generally entails some type of pit dug into the side of an earthen bank or barrels sunk into the earth. If you enjoy the digging and your climate allows you to retrieve your produce during the winter, this could be feasible. However, outdoor storage is more than just digging a minor hole or two. You’ll need to provide for drainage, remove any rocks around the barrels (they could be frost conductors), lay in a bed of straw, and create some type of door that will allow you to get at the produce while at the same time being rodent-proof. If you enjoy a challenge, you’ve got one here.

Indoor storage is the other option and there are several ways to go about creating a root cellar that will serve your needs. The essential components for an indoor root cellar are the following:

  • Accessibility: You won’t use the foods if it’s a pain to get to them.
  • Room: Plan a cellar big enough to keep your vegetables and fruits separated.
  • Air: You’ll need a way to circulate the air, such as a window.
  • Coolness: A storage area with an exterior north-facing wall can help here.
  • Thermometer: This is helpful to keep track of the coolness.
  • Heat source: A heat source, such as a 100-watt lightbulb, will prevent the cellar from getting too cold.
  • Humidity: You’ll need an area with between 80 to 95% humidity in general (the actual water composition of most vegetables) and a way to control that humidity.
  • This can mean either increasing it or decreasing it. A dirt floor is a plus. However, onions and squash don’t like humidity (they’ll mold) and they’ll need a dry environment.
  • Darkness: When it comes to root cellaring, light is the enemy.

Just as with your freezer, a full root cellar operates better than one that isn’t full. You’ll also need to keep tabs on it. You can’t just fill it and neglect it. There’s maintenance required. If you’re handy with home improvement projects and have a basement, you’re already halfway there. Select a corner away from heating ducts and water pipes, preferably one with a window. You’ll need a source for air circulation and this is where a window comes in handy. Without a window, you’ll be forced to create a system of vents and this can get tiresome. You’ll build two more walls to complete the storeroom. This is the time to decide how big to make the room because fruits and vegetables should be separated.

Finishing the storeroom involves insulating the inner walls, installing a door (insulated on the inside), and building an air duct box for the window. This box helps with air circulation—getting the cooler air down at ground level and allowing the warmer air a way to vent out. Having one vent down low will allow cool air to enter. Another vent higher up will allow warmer air an exit. If you remember your science, warm air rises and cold air sinks.

Organic Gardening (www.groworganic.com/blogs/articles/root-cellar-basics) is another good source for excellent directions for constructing a basement root cellar. You can find a wealth of information from this publication.

Even if you don’t have a basement, a breezeway between the garage and the house can work well for storage. The main factor here is keeping the temperature cool and providing a means for air circulation. New shelving available at home supply stores is made of vinyl-coated metal slats and works well, as does wooden shelving with slats. The objective here is to keep your fruits and vegetables from sitting on solid wood or metal and rotting. Think air circulation.

Lower shelves will be cooler and higher shelves will be warmer. Situate your foods accordingly. Different foods have different temperature requirements.

For best results in root cellaring, select fruits and vegetables that mature late in the season and have been allowed to fully ripen on the tree, on the plant, or in the ground. Earlier maturing produce doesn’t hold up as well.

If you’ve just bought a new refrigerator and still have the old one, move it to the garage, plug it in, and set the temperature gauge for 40°F (4°C). It’s the perfect temperature for holding potatoes. You can keep potatoes in the refrigerator throughout the winter and they won’t spoil. Toward spring, you’ll notice some sprouting, but old folk wisdom says that if you remove the sprouts three times, they won’t trouble you anymore. Whether or not this happens to be true, keep your spuds free of sprouts. These draw nourishment from the potatoes and can eventually cause them to shrivel up.

Root Cellaring Fruits

Hazelnuts in a basket over a drying rack

Apples and pears are the most commonly root-cellared fruits. You’ll need to keep an eye on them and remove any fruit that’s showing signs of spoiling. As with all the other types of preserving, have a plan to use your food. Nothing lasts forever!

Boxes work well for keeping apples and pears from rolling around the shelves in the root cellar. You’ll need some nesting material, such as dried leaves, straw, or newspaper.

1. Apples:

Apples are far and away the most commonly root-cellared fruit and those that ripen latest in the season are the best choices. These include Jonathan, Delicious, Cortland, Winesap, and McIntosh.

Check apples carefully before storing and be sure they’re cool going into storage. Trapping any warmth will accelerate enzyme activity and shorten their storage life. Select only unblemished, firm apples and bed them down on a layer of straw or dried leaves. You can layer them as apples, straw, apples, straw, etc.

The adage “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel” is very true. The same goes for potatoes.

2. Pears:

Rustic pantry with hanging meats and preserved food

Late-season pears, such as Anjou, are the best choice for root cellaring. Comice and Bosc have shorter shelf lives. You want these pears to be ready to pick but still hard and green. If they’ve begun the ripening process before you pop them into storage, you’ll be disappointed. They’ll rot from the inside out. Store them just like apples.

3. Citrus:

Around holiday time, you’ll generally find good deals on oranges and grapefruit. These can also go into the root cellar in their boxes. Keep an eye on them, and if any get moldy, toss them. Clean off any stray mold that’s come in contact with the good fruit.

4. Tomatoes:

Tomatoes are good candidates for the root cellar. They need high moisture. Harvest them before a killing frost because once they’ve frosted, they’ll rot. They can be dark, dark green and will still ripen nicely. You’ll be eating delicious, red, ripe tomatoes in December and they’ll be far superior to anything available at the grocery store.

Leave the stem on—at least enough to make a handle to carry. Spread newspaper on a shelf and arrange the tomatoes so there’s a bit of space between. They’ll ripen gradually, so be sure to check on them frequently and remove the ones that are ready for eating. If you have an overabundance of ripe ones at any time, cover them with newspaper to help keep in the moisture.

Root Cellaring Vegetables

Keep it simple: Potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, and winter squash root cellar very well, provided you house them in the right conditions. Some prefer cool conditions and some like it warmer. Some want their environment really wet and others want just a touch of moisture.

Vegetables with thin skins, such as beets, carrots, turnips, radishes, kohlrabi, parsnips, and cucumbers, need storage conditions that are cold and moist. Leave enough of a stem on these vegetables to keep moisture from seeping out. Store each variety separately. See specific directions a little later in this chapter.

Potato sacks, wooden crates, and cardboard boxes are good containers for these vegetables. If you’re using cardboard boxes, line them with plastic garbage bags and cut some ventilation holes. You can alternate a layer of moist sawdust or sand with a layer of vegetables. Don’t stack vegetables too high in boxes or bins or else you’ll upset your neat arrangement as you dig through the container searching for your produce. The sand or sawdust doesn’t need to be sopping—just damp. Check it every week or so and add some water if it appears to be drying out. Sand and sawdust are available at hardware stores, garden outlets, building supply stores, or even at the sawmill if you live close to one. Firstly you may know about the science of canning.

1. Potatoes:

Potatoes need high moisture. They share moisture by huddling together in sacks or bins. You don’t need to add any cushioning material, such as sawdust or sand, to potatoes. Whether you’ve grown your own potatoes or stocked up on grocery store specials, you’ll need to be aware of the difference between new potatoes and those that have set their skins. All potatoes go through the same maturing process. As soon as the plants have finished blossoming, new potatoes can be harvested. New potatoes aren’t suitable for wintering over in the root cellar. You can tell it’s a new potato because the skin will rub off easily, exposing the white flesh underneath. They’re delicious and much prized, but they need to be eaten quickly.

The potatoes that root cellar well are those that have been harvested after the potato plants die off. It’s best to allow these potatoes to harden off in the ground for a couple of weeks before digging them. This ensures the skins have set. You can tell a hardened-off potato because the skins won’t easily rub off. You’ll need a potato peeler. These potatoes are good candidates for root cellaring.

Don’t let potatoes see the light of day! Sunlight causes chemical changes in potatoes, turning them green. This green color indicates the presence of solanine—and it’s not good for you. You can cut out a small amount of green, but if the potato is green clear through, toss it.

Potatoes for storing should be firm and without cracks or black spots. You don’t have to leave space between them and can store them in cardboard boxes, wooden boxes, or burlap bags. It’s easier if you do some sorting for size before you pile them into containers. Keep one box for bakers (big and smooth), another one for medium-sized and irregular shapes, and one box for the little ones, which are excellent creamed or added to soups and stews. Check them from time to time and remove any potatoes that are soft or show signs of spoiling.

2. Beets:

Leave the tails on, trim any leaves, and leave ½ inch (1.25cm) of the crown. Pack in boxes. Lay down a layer of damp sand, then a layer of beets, then more sand, more beets, etc.

3. Turnips:

These vegetables have a strong odor that can wreak havoc with other produce. Store them by themselves in layers of moist sand.

4. Carrots:

Select firm carrots without blemishes. Remove the leaves, leaving ½ inch (1.25cm) of the crown. Store in layers of moist sand.

5. Cabbage:

Cabbage has a stronger odor than turnips by far and can insinuate itself into other produce if you’re not careful, so it needs its own place. Remove the roots and any browned leaves. Store in boxes and cover with moist sand. If you only have a few heads, wrap each head in newspaper and store away from other produce.

6. Cauliflower:

Cauliflower likes it cold and moist. If you’re harvesting your own, keep the roots on and nestle them back into the damp sawdust or sand in the root cellar. This will extend their storage life.

7. Onions:

You can braid onions just as you braid garlic and they’ll store nicely hanging from a peg in a cool, airy location. Otherwise, they need to be dried first before storing them on racks or in baskets. They prefer dry conditions.

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