How To Use A Root Cellar

Enjoy the fruits of your labor without canning or freezing.

October 13, 2016
root cellar
O.C Ritz/Shutterstock

As the saying goes, everything old is new again, and that certainly applies to the ancient technique of root cellaring. In its most basic form, a root cellar is a cool, dark, usually humid area designed to favor storage conditions suited to root crops. Today, it can be as complicated as a custom-built basement cold room, an elaborate underground cellar with a ventilation system, a corner of a closet with electronic cooling system, or simply a section of a crawl space with shelving.

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)

Advertisement
Advertisement

Wherever it is, the space for a cellar needs to be in an area that doesn't get too warm and stays free of frost—a consistent temperature year-round is best. If you live in a very warm climate, you may need to put your cellaring on hiatus for the summer months; if you're in an area with very cold temperatures in winter, keep the cellar away from an outside wall. Good ventilation is also important to allow for air movement, so choose an area with an adjustable vent or where you can install one.

Cellaring produce is a terrific way to preserve food in its most natural form. Other preserving methods have their advantages—pickles are delicious, jams are scrumptious, frozen and dried food is wonderful in its own way—but cellaring allows you to store raw produce with minimal preparation.

Related: How To Make Your Own Root Cellar

Temperature And Humidity

Different produce items have different skin types, so the optimal temperatures and humidity levels for maximum storage life will vary (here's a primer on what to store in a root cellar). Controlling the temperature and humidity in the cellar and keeping tabs with thermometers and hygrometers optimizes produce life.

Vegetables such as beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, and turnips all do best in low temperature—33 to 40 degrees—and very high—90 to 95 percent—relative humidity. Some are better in the same low temperature but with 80 to 85 percent humidity; these include apples, citrus fruits, leeks, pears, potatoes, and quinces. Others, such as onions and garlic, are better in relatively higher—40 to 50 degrees in temperature but with 60 to 70 percent humidity. The temperature in a cellar will vary, with cooler temperature near the floor and warmer at the ceiling, but that variance may not be enough. Explore different venting and cooling techniques to make the cellar temperature fit your needs. Keeping it more humid is usually trickier than keeping drier conditions. For simplicity, store produce items that favor similar conditions when you're starting out.

wooden crate holding potatoes
Ortodox/Shutterstock

Exploring Storage Containers

Appropriate storage containers can also go a long way toward preserving produce. Wooden crates are simple and good for many types of produce when the cellar is at the correct humidity. Portable ones allow you to rearrange the cellar easily, while permanent ones can be built into the cellar for large amounts of a single food.

"Sand buckets" can be created from any bucket, can, or sealed wooden box. As you layer beets, carrots, or other root crops, fill the container with sand. This method makes it easy to keep the humidity level high for roots, since you can sprinkle water on the sand without increasing the overall humidity in the cellar.

Open racks work well for squash and cabbage that are bulky and awkward to pack in crates. While some varieties of produce won't affect others and can be stored side-by-side, that doesn't apply to everything. Apples, for example, release ethylene gas, which can cause potatoes to sprout; therefore they shouldn't be stored close to each other. The flavor of onions can transfer to more mild foods.

Begin with the best keepers, and as you get to know the ins and outs of the cellar and the science of storage, branch out into more delicate foods that need specialized care. Good starter foods include apples, beets, cabbages, carrots, ginger, onions, parsnips, potatoes, and pumpkins. Master cellaring and you'll enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your harvest until the next season rolls around.

Related: How To Turn An Old Fridge Into A Root Cellar

carrots covered in soil
yuris/Shutterstock

5 Steps To Good Storing

Only The Best
Damaged produce doesn't store well. Store only perfect produce in your cellar.

Keep It Dirty
Store produce as close to its state at harvest as possible (clinging soil, roots and stems intact). Gently rub off big clumps of dirt, but avoid scrubbing or washing. Remove the leaves of roots such as beets and carrots.

Sort It Out
Sort produce by size and quality before storage; use the smallest and any slightly marked produce first and work to the largest as you use up your stores.

Pumpkins in frost
Stefanie Mohr Photography/Shutterstock

Frost Is Your Friend—Sometimes
Vegetables such as beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnips, rutabagas, pumpkins, and horseradish benefit from a touch of frost before harvesting for better storage and flavor.

Shock It First
Harvested onions continue to grow unless they're shocked into dormancy. About one month before harvest, break each green stalk by snapping or bending to stop the root from feeding the plant. Shocked onions in a cool, dry cellar will keep for four to six months.

Comments