While root cellaring may conjure up images of pioneer days, it remains a wonderfully modern way to keep vegetables and fruit fresh and edible throughout the winter. Traditionally, root cellars were built into the ground, often into the side of a hill. But root cellaring can also be done in a basement, a storm shelter, or even a buried container in your backyard!
Root cellaring enables you to store food for a long period of time, without the work, expense, and effort of canning, freezing, or dehydrating. And imagine the joy of being able to walk into your root cellar in January or February and “harvest” a meal of delicious foods such as carrots, cabbage, beets, potatoes, or apples. For those wanting to prepare for emergencies, root cellars are a great way to store nutrient-dense food for months.
Five steps to get started root cellaring:
1) Choose your Location
A root cellar does not have to be dug into the ground, although if you have the desire to complete a large excavation project, then by all means, go for it! Root cellaring can be done successfully in many locations, including:
- Your basement
- An underground storm shelter
- A buried bucket or metal trash can
- And, as a last resort, the coolest, most humid place in your home
Our neighbors successfully keep hundreds of pounds of food in their basement, including large heads of Chinese cabbage, carrots, turnips, leeks, and beets. Last year we were able to make use of another neighbor’s abandoned tornado shelter. We put about 50 lbs of Arkansas Black apples into clear plastic storage containers – the kind that you slide under a bed. The containers were loosely covered, so ethylene gas could still escape. Every month we’d check on our bounty, removing any apples that seemed to be getting soft, or had rotten spots. We enjoyed apples fresh, cooked, and in desserts all the way through the month of March!
2) Create the Right Environment
Root cellars are designed to provide cool, moist environments in which vegetables and other foods can be stored without electricity. But to store food for a long period of time, very specific conditions are required. Let’s look at the requirements of a root cellar in more detail:
A very high (90-95%) humidity environment will provide the best storage environment for most leafy vegetables and root crops. You may need to add moisture to bring the humidity up to the appropriate level. Some ways of doing this are:
- Building on an earthen floor
- Placing dishes of water in your root cellar
- Packing vegetables in moist sawdust
We recently purchased a small digital thermometer that also gives a humidity reading; this would be a great tool to have on hand for your root cellaring.
Good ventilation is important in your root cellar, as it helps prevent mold growth and moves ethylene gas out of the cellar. At least two vents should be installed, including one near the highest point of your root cellar. Be sure to cover the vents with mesh so rodents cannot enter your root cellar and eat your carefully stored produce!
The ideal root cellaring temperature is between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, although you can keep foods for shorter periods at longer temperatures. My family’s “root cellar” for the past two winters has been in a small, low storage area near the entrance of our house. It is the furthest spot from our woodstove, and the temperature hovers around 52 degrees. We found that were able to keep beets, carrots, and turnips for about a month at that temperature. On the other hand, it was an ideal place to store sweet potatoes, potatoes, and winter squash.
3) Choose Foods that Store Well
Different foods like to be stored at different temperature and humidity. The foods that are best suited for root cellaring are (you guessed it) root vegetables and other foods that prefer cool temperatures and very high humidity. Some foods that root cellar well include:
- Chinese cabbage
- Brussel Sprouts
- Jerusalem Artichokes
Sweet potatoes and winter squash are great storage crops that last for months; however, these should not be stored in a root cellar, but rather in a dry and cool location.
4) Stock up!
If you do not have a large garden, consider hitting the farmer’s market to stock up on vegetables and fruit for your root cellar. Many farmers will be willing to give you a bulk discount, especially if you travel to the farm to pick up! In recent years, my family has purchased beets, carrots, turnips, and Asian pears from a local farmer and stored them in our makeshift root cellar. We also purchase 100 pounds of winter squash and plenty of sweet potatoes! We got a substantial discount because I was willing to take vegetables that were perfectly edible and not bruised or damaged, yet were not attractive enough to sell at market.
You might also consider visiting a nearby orchard and picking apples or pears for root cellaring. In our area, Arkansas Black is grown as a superior keeper. Ask your orchardist what he or she would recommend as good storage fruit.
If you grow a garden, plan ahead for your fall garden and grow extra vegetables for root cellaring. Many seed companies will designate good storage crops, so be sure to purchase a few varieties especially for keeping. In our zone 5b climate, I have to start my fall garden in July. It takes a little extra planning, but growing some extra food for the fall and winter is so worth the effort!
5) Prepare to Store
Successfully keeping food in a root cellar requires a bit of extra care to ensure that the food will remain fresh for months. Here are some guidelines for preparing to store food in a root cellar:
- Handle food very gently to avoid bruising
- Pick at the peak of freshness
- Store only the best fruit and vegetables; if you see any signs of rot or bruising, eat them fresh or can them instead
- Harvest as late in the season as possible, but before the first hard frost
Save yourself work by not washing the fruits and vegetables that you plan to cellar. Instead, simply brush off extra dirt and store the produce in crates or baskets. Carrots, beets and other root vegetables may benefit from being stored in buckets with layers of sawdust sandwiching layers of vegetables.
Root cellaring is an ideal way to stock up on food for winter, or for emergency preparation. By following these five easy steps, you’ll be on your way to enjoying delicious meals from your root cellared produce in mid-winter.