Stocking the Root Cellar: How to Store Vegetables Over the Winter

Keep winter vegetables fresh underground, including guidelines for preparation, curing, and storage.

  • Sweet Potatoes

    Photo by Adobestock/Viesturs Kalvans
  • Sweet Potatoes
    Sweet potatoes should be cured in a warm, damp place to toughen their skins and heal scratches, then wrapped individually in newspaper and kept in a cool room. 

  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes

Many of the most reliable winter-keeping vegetables are biennials (plants that flower and set seed during their second growing season), which means they're naturally programmed for long storage.When we try to keep beets, cabbage and turnips, for example, to eat over the cold months, we're not breaking the rules of nature, but rather, cooperating with what you might call the vegetables' intentions—to live to see another spring so they can reproduce.

In addition to the sturdy root and cole vegetables that are obvious candidates for the root cellar, you can also store celery, leeks, brussels sprouts, peppers, grapes, escarole and citrus fruits in your cold room for periods ranging from two to eight weeks, depending on the type of vegetable and the conditions. Onions, garlic, squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and green tomatoes will last until spring if you keep them dry and cool. The place for these foods is in an unheated bedroom or a cool closet rather than in the kind of damp, cold place where apples and root vegetables keep best.

Rules for Storing Winter Vegetables

Whatever produce you stash in your keeping room, there are several rules of thumb that will help the food stay sound and healthy until you're ready to eat it.

1. Treat all winter-keeping vegetables gently at all stages of harvest, preparation and storage. Bruised produce spoils sooner.
2. Store only your best fruits and vegetables. Cut, bruised or diseased vegetables not only spoil more quickly but also encourage spoilage in neighboring foods.
3. Pick produce at maturity—neither unripe nor overripe.
4. Harvest fruits and vegetables during a dry spell if possible.
5. Leave vegetables in the garden as long as possible, but keep an eye on the cooler fall weather and rescue them before black frost hits. Beets, for example, can stay out well past the first light frosts, but they should be dug before night temperatures dip to 24°F unless their exposed shoulders are well protected by mulch. Low temperatures in the autumn encourage vegetables to store more sugars and starches and less water, making them better keepers.
6. Choose varieties of vegetables that are well-adapted to storage: Long Season beets, Penn State Ballhead cabbage and Kennebec potatoes, for instance.
7. After digging root vegetables, chill them as promptly as possible. Don't leave them out in the sun.

Preparing Vegetables for Root Cellar Storage

To prepare root vegetables for winter storage, simply trim the green tops, leaving a one-inch stub (if left untrimmed, the top growth will decay and encourage the deterioration of adjacent roots. Take care not to cut the root flesh, and don't cut off root tips, either—any skin break invites spoilage.

Having done all this digging, selecting and trimming, you'll be glad to hear that you needn't wash vegetables before packing them away; in fact, it's better not to clean them. Just gently brush off any large clumps of soil that may cling to them.

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