Root Cellaring

This guide to root cellaring will teach you everything you need to know about building and using your own root cellar to enjoy a year-round harvest.

| September/October 1985

Of all the satisfactions to be had from growing and keeping vegetables and fruits, surely none is sweeter than that of selecting from crates of your own stored produce to feed your family in the dead of winter. It's February as we write this, and the ground is ringing-hard. Ice glazes the lane, and the trees bend to the howling of the wind. We'll have fresh vegetables for dinner today, though — not from the store, but from our root cellar. We've just brought up a bowl of potatoes, a pocketful of carrots, a head of Chinese cabbage, a few apples and a big beet — the makings of a nourishing stew, a crisp salad and a baked apple dessert. 

All this — and more — can be yours without boiling jars or filling freezer bags. No slicing, no sweetening, no packaging or processing. That's the beauty of root cellaring: You can use natural cold to chill and preserve storage vegetables. We still can tomatoes and peaches, and we freeze peas, because these methods seem to be the most effective for those foods, but for most root vegetables, some members of the cabbage family and several fruits — especially apples — you can't beat good old cold storage.

Stashing foods in the root cellar is simple once you've done the work of enclosing the space. Most people think of the classic root cellar as an underground or hillside cave, but we'll tell you here about several other practical keeping rooms, as well, along with a bunch of improvised storage options for those of you who prefer to start (or stay) small.

To understand why root cellars work, consider first that vegetables are still alive after they've been harvested. They even breathe — not as actively as you and we do, of course, but chemically their respiration is like that of humans: They take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, water vapor and heat, and they'll continue to do so until we cook or eat them or until they decay. At low temperatures, vegetables use up less of their storage reserves because the cold slows their respiration. Cold air also helps to counteract the deteriorating effect of the "body heat," which is a by-product of respiration. (At 32 degrees, 1 pound of broccoli produces 2 Btu of heat a day, according to USDA reports.) Chilling is important for yet another reason: Because cold air absorbs less moisture than warm air, vegetables dry out more slowly, and thus stay in better condition, when they're kept cold.

How cold and damp should your cellar be? Most root vegetables will keep longest at temperatures between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit with 90 to 95 percent humidity. We've visited root cellars, though, where the temperature stayed closer to 45 degrees, and the stored food kept well until late winter. So use the ideal figures as something to aim for, but don't worry too much about small variations. As long as the food doesn't freeze, it will keep better in cold storage than on your kitchen shelf. True, if you can keep the stored crops only moderately cool, they won't last the winter, but extending your garden-vegetable-eating season by as little as two months rates as a real achievement. And if you build a room-size food hideaway, you should be able to keep at least some fruits and vegetables from fall harvest clear through until spring and sometimes longer. We've even had a few beets and sweet potatoes remain in usable shape until the following fall — a year from when they were dug!

Planning Your Root Cellar

If you have a dirt-floored cellar room in your house, you've got a good start for root storage right there; all you need to do is enclose and insulate the space. Or perhaps there's a north- or east-facing hill on your property where you could dig into the slope and line the space with stone or concrete block. On flat land, you could go straight underground and dig a cavern, insulate and roof it and then top it with a shed. Many midwestern gardeners build mound-topped underground food closets which double as storm shelters. You can even buy a prefabricated fiberglass shelter/storage room, have it delivered to a bulldozed hole and then call the dozer back to pile a soil bank over it — an almost-instant root cellar!

Wanda Ballentine
10/12/2010 10:11:27 PM

What if you live in an apt.?

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