With winter over, I’ve long finished the organic potatoes and apples my father sent me from his massive garden in Eastern Canada. I grew up in a farmhouse with a delightfully creepy root cellar. It was perfect for packing away bushels of Yukon Golds, Cortland apples, bunches of fat carrots, and low-hanging bags of onions. But even if you don’t have a cold-floor basement with dirt walls, you can still store fresh produce over the winter.
Your makeshift cellar needs to have three key features:
1. It has to be cool (or preferably, cold).
2. It has to be dry.
3. It must be dark.
Heat, moisture, and light are the enemies of proper food storage. Always keep your stuff cold, dry, and in the dark.
I live in an apartment on the fifth floor of a low-rise. My first instinct for storing vegetables in the city has been to keep them in my basement storage locker. It is not heated and it’s fairly easy to access. Not every building has storage though. So look around for a suitable space under a stairwell, or in a cool corner of the laundry room, basement, or garage. Similarly, if you live in a house, try an unheated garage, furnace room, basement, or shed.
You want the temperature in the space to be above freezing, but it doesn’t need to be much colder than a refrigerator. Some moisture in the room where you’re storing your produce is fine, and it is probably inevitable since cool places tend to be a little damp. Basically, you want to be sure to keep the goods from getting wet.
Certain foods store better than others. When in doubt, fill your root cellar with root vegetables. Anything that grows underground will store well underground (or in a cold place).
Potatoes need plenty of air circulation. Keep them loosely packed in a wooden or cardboard box. If the box is airtight, poke or drill a couple holes in the side or top. They also should be almost completely in the dark. Cover them with a few layers of newspaper before closing the box. You’ll need to move them around probably once a week to once a month, depending on your storage conditions. Just stir them up a little, turn a couple over, shake the dirt out of the box, and replace the newspaper with fresh sheets. You’ll soon be able to tell how often you need to tend to them by monitoring their rate of decay (i.e., softening, puckering, sprouting, bad spots, and funky smells).
Carrots also store very well, but there is a bit of a trick that will help them from drying out. Again, get a large wooden or cardboard box, but this time, fill it part way up with sand. Make sure the box is sealed on all sides (except the top), so the sand doesn’t leak. You can line the box with a paper bag, but avoid plastic, as this will hold moisture. Then, just poke your carrots into the sand, one by one (but some can be touching) and cover them up. Like the potatoes, you should check them out every so often, but they’re less likely to rot or sprout.
Turnips will store a fairly long time – either in a dark box or in your carrot sand. Try different methods and see what works best because every root cellar is different. Beets last a little less time because of their higher sugar content. If you cut off the stems, you can keep them for a week or two in a dark place. You can even store cabbage heads for a week or maybe two.
Onions store best off the ground. That means you want somewhere to hang them. Put them in a loose mesh bag. Hang it from a nail in your root cellar or even in your pantry. They’ll keep longer in the dark. Whole garlic bulbs also last a really long time if you stick them in a paper bag and keep them dry and in the dark.
Apples break down relatively easy if they are not properly stored. If you’re just beginning or don’t have access to the best storage, you might want to stick to McIntosh, Granny Smith, or other firm, sour varieties, which are less susceptible to decay. With the right conditions you can store even varieties with soft, sugary flesh. They should be loosely packed in a box (cardboard or wooden) that has a lot of air circulation. They should be dry and clean. Dirt on the surface of the skin promotes rot.
The very easiest way to make a rough-and-ready root cellar is just to toss your potatoes, onions, or apples in a paper bag or cardboard box before putting them in the pantry. This keeps them dry and away from light. They’ll keep longer and be fresher, crisper and juicer when you use them. Always, always get rid of rotten produce immediately. You know what they say about bad apples…
Riva Soucie is wrestling with an addiction to processed foods even though she feeds her cat an all-organic diet.