Root cellars and me (tips for cold storage)

Written by Danny.

When I grew up, almost everyone had a basement in their house.  Where Aimee grew up, basements were anomalies.  Our current house doesn’t have one, and so I pine from time to time and wax poetic about the virtues and benefits of having a basement.  Aimee disagrees (strongly), and sees them primarily as “dank caves” or glorified storage rooms. Most of the time, we agree to disagree.

What we both agree on, though, is that having a cool, dank storage room underneath your house can be particularly useful come harvest time when you want to be storing and preserving much of the season’s bounty.  Of course in this case, I’m not talking about a basement room with pool tables and dart boards, or ones with mini-bar, karaoke stage complete with disco ball and orange shag carpet on the floor, walls and ceiling (yes, we did see one of these when house hunting!) – I’m talking about root cellars.

When I think of “root cellar”, my thoughts immediately go to the first one I ever remember (first impressions…).  It was the quintessential setting for a horror movie: creaky door that didn’t quite sit on its hinges; no light; moldy smell; roots (fingers?) sticking out of the earthen ceiling and grabbing at my hair; the back part was condemned because it had caved in and we were warned to not go in too deep… in case another section of roof were to give way. *Shudder*.  Our family was visiting a farm, and I was asked to go get some carrots or something.  I just remember standing outside, about 20-30 feet away from the entrance and trying to drum up the nerve to go and pry open the door.  Mercifully, one of the farmers came to give me a hand with the door, so I didn’t have to enter alone.

Aside from the bravery and character-building that root cellars bring to small children, there are many other useful reasons to have a root cellar, whether as a separate structure to your house, or part of a cool room in your basement.  Because our garden is small, I haven’t had to dredge up those old memories and start digging a hole in the ground for a DIY on building our root cellar. However, given that it is time to be storing some of the amazing deals on produce that we’ve been getting from our local farms at the market, I’ll let you in on where we are storing our goods, and some of what you should be considering if you are looking for a cellaring solution.

Cool

Before people had refrigerators, they had root cellars and basement storage.  Or if you lived at Downton Abbey, maybe the “cellars” were for wine only, and they stored their food in the “larder”.  Whatever. You want your root cellar/cold storage area to be cool enough to slow the chemical processes that age food. This has to do with slowing the release rate of xylene gases (Ok, this is from what I read – it’s not like I discovered this or measure the xylene release rate of my fruit at different temperatures), which accelerates ripening and turns it into spoiling. You don’t want stuff to freeze, though. Between 34F and 50F (1 to 10C) is best.

Humid

If you keep a carrot or potato unwrapped in your fridge, what happens?  It goes limp and dries up. This is because cool air has much less total humidity in it, and your cheese, or any other food containing moisture, will lose its moisture to the ambient conditions inside your fridge by transpiration.  If the relative humidity level is around 85-90%, it will keep those vegetables crisper for much longer.  You do have to watch out, though, as high relative humidity can contribute to mold growth on walls and food, although keeping the temperature low should help mitigate that potential problem. (This part I am good at – or much better than xylene gas analysis anyways).

Ventilated

Those xylene gases that are emitted need to be kept away from your food.  Diluting them with outdoor ventilation is an excellent way to do this.  If you have some recirculation from your house, this could do, but you risk bringing air in to your cold room that is too warm or humid and this could cause problems.  In these seasons, it’s supposed to be colder out anyways, so if you can manage to bring some cold air directly from outside, this would work well.  If you live in Texas or Columbia – this ain’t going to work for you, regardless of season.

What we are doing

Our house has no basement.  It has a concrete slab poured over a perimeter foundation wall with a bunch of insulation underneath.  So a basement storage room is pretty much out of the question, unless I get simultaneously really rich and really bored, and decide to dig down and punch a hole in either our foundation wall or floor to store a couple of hundred dollars of vegetables each year.  But I can assure you that it would be amazing.

Our house has a wrap-around porch that had a vestibule added to it.  That floor gets crazy cold in the winter, because no insulation was added when the vestibule was added, so it is essentially bare concrete sitting on the ground.  We do have a space heater that keeps the air moving around and prevents snow and ice from staying on your boots, but it’s decidedly cooler than the rest of the house in the winter. Our coat closet is even colder, so… we have a root closet, which will have to do until I get rich and bored.  Through the winter, it will stay cool and well ventilated anytime someone opens the door.  The humidity may be an issue, but we’ll update you on that in due time.

Editor’s note: this makeshift cold storage works for more than just roots, as you can see from the photo above. Cabbage, onions, and assorted squash live here too. Just keep the apples elsewhere – they emit a special gas (I never said I was the scientific one!) that rots other vegetables.

What you can do

Research. Our climate is such that you can usually find a corner of a basement or closet that will be cold enough in winter (when you want to be storing your veggies). As I said above, your climate may not permit such a solution, or if you live in a condo, you don’t have space to make a passively-cooled room.

Read up on it. Find out what others in your area are doing. With a surging interest in farmer’s markets and CSAs, many people are realizing that they have to do something with all their produce or it will go bad, so there is lots of new literature being published on it – you don’t need to find a Farmer’s Almanac from 1902 for tips or guidelines .

I’ve even read of people digging a small hole and putting in a metal garbage can. I wonder if community gardens would permit such an installation.

Do you have a root cellar or cold room project in the works?

About Danny

Danny Bourque is a mechanical engineer who is known at both home and work as either “the geek” or “the numbers guy”. He is very methodical and genuinely loves to analyze almost anything that piques his interest – including food.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for the education! I tend to store root vegetables on some shelving in the garage – seemed to me like the closest thing to a root cellar (I, too, live in a place where basements are very uncommon). I might want to re-think this.
    Kare @ Kitchen Treaty’s last post: White Autumn Spice Sangria

  2. I grew up with a basement…and all the houses I have lived in have had basements. Of course, our current basement is in a house built in the late 1800’s, which means it has a bit of a stream running through it in the spring. I would love to be able to get it dry enough to store veggies down there, but for now it is just scary :-) But, if we ever build a house on the land that we own, I definitely want to incorporate a root cellar into the project. We eat an awful lot of squash/potatoes/carrots other root veggies in the winter due to living in Maine, and having a place to put them would be helpful!
    Heather’s last post: {31 Days} Intentional Living – Day 12

  3. Great post. I love the posts that marry up food and geekdom.

    You had me at “Orange Shag Carpet.”

    Great post (we linked to it on our social media)!

  4. Thanks, this was a great read. I live in a condo rental but I’d like to do more cold storage later. Good to know what to look for when we move (“ok, enough about the number of bedrooms and bathrooms – is there a room that stays between 34 and 50 degrees over the winter?”)

  5. I miss my basement. We stored our root vegetables in the old coal shoot. Now in Texas, it is somewhat impossible to find anywhere “cool” in the house (other than the frig.)
    Melissa @ Baking For The Boys’s last post: Grown Up Grilled Cheese

  6. What timely post. This is something I’ve been considering for the past few weeks. We live in a rental, so no basement, but we do have a garage and mysteriously cold cabinet under the kitchen sink (I think that part of the wall isn’t insulated well). Those are probably my two best options. A question for Aimee: where did you get those sweet hanging baskets from? There’s a hook on our garage ceiling that we could hang similar baskets.

  7. Thanks for your tips, Danny. We used to have cold storage when we lived in Colorado, but I have yet to see good information about how this can be accomplished in the deep South (where we live now). Is there such a thing? I’m sure that long ago, people here in AL stored onions and potatoes…I just don’t know how. Do you have any resources for people in slightly warmer places?
    Jeni’s last post: (What to Do) When Another Blogger Steals Your Photos

  8. heidi defaut says:

    we wrap our apples in newspaper [ each separately] and put them in a cardboard box out in the shop. it seems to work well to keep apples for the entire winter.I would love to have a basement but, alas…

  9. We just bought a house and it does come with a dank turn of the century basement. However, I am finding the guest bedroom (formerly a summer kitchen that got attached) which we do not heat is going to double as a root cellar! I need some of those hanging baskets or perhaps some wire shelves. Right now I have delicata squash, radishes, bell pepper and half ripe tomatoes in there. My biggest concern is the carpet on the floor! I have several layers of card board underneath the produce to catch any drips or rotting, but I think a layer of plastic under the cardboard would be a worthy investment.

    I’d love to see your posts over at the Eat Make Grow blog hop: http://foyupdate.blogspot.com/search?q=eat+make+grow&max-results=20&by-date=true
    Foy Update’s last post: Eat Make Grow Thursday Blog Hop #11

  10. We live in an apartment and every part of our house has veggies and fruit in it (not to mention all the jars of food!) We store our butternut squash under our bed (it’s what they used to do in old farm houses) Apples are in newspaper in cardboard boxes. For potatoes; beets; and carrots I make mini “root cellars” out of 5 gallon paint buckets. I put a plastic garbage bag into the bucket; fill it 2/3 of the way up with the root and then the rest with peet moss (or sand) Then I pull the garbage bag around leaving it open at the top (about the size of a baseball opening) The sand/moss pulls moisture from the roots and gives it back as needed- dealing with the humidity, and keeps it at a relatively cool temperature. We keep the buckets in our front closet which is the coolest place in our house. Last year everything stayed good through March/ April

    • I forgot to mention that I keep the veggies dirty- it helps them keep longer. My CSA will send me dirty bulk roots if I ask them in advance.

  11. John and Zoe Wimbush says:

    Good work Danny! It’s good to give these things some thought. As for us, we wash our root crops, dry them and fill our refridgerator drawers loosely with them. Then we use the shelf above but we put them in plastic bags loosely. And garlic, onions, squashes and pumpkins are stored in the small room where the dogs sleep which has an open window. Everything keeps until March.

  12. Outerwear should also provide protection against outside elements such as rain, sleet and snow, because many areas of the country experience freezing temperatures in the late fall and winter. Ensure your jacket or coat has thick, woolen collars to provide additional warmth for your face and large pockets that allow you to store tools and paperwork needed for your work.
    Francesca’s last post: Tinnitus Retraining Devices

  13. Great post! We just purchased a home that has a cold storage room in the basement and we weren’t sure exactly what to use it for. I wasn’t sure if storing produce there would be good or not (it’s not terribly cold like a refrigerator). I’m glad that we will have a place to store that extra produce to prolong it’s life!
    Cassie’s last post: Amazon.ca: Pink Hammer Only $3.11 (78% off)

  14. How ‘safe’ from mice, etc, would it be to keep produce say in a garage or outhouse? Thanks.

  15. I am just doing some basement renovations. The basement is heated but I have a room in the center with no heating. If I insulate this room well (on 5 sides) and have the concrete floor left bare, I figure I should be able to have a room that stays about 55 – 60 deg depending on the season. I might find ventilation a bit of an issue, but don’t plan to keep unpreserved foods in there for any long periods. Do you have any thoughts about plans working or not?

    • Danny Bourque says:

      Your best bet is to use an outside wall in your basement, as the ground temperature stays pretty much constant and will both cool the space in summer and keep it from overheating when you are heating in winter. Because you are insulating, it is better, but not best, I think, as you only have one surface to exchange heat with (floor) rather than at least 2 if you had an outer wall.

      • I agree, but the unfortunately an outside wall is not easily accomplished. It would required a total renovation of an already finished, and well used, basement. The concrete floor space is about 60 square feet. Do you feel this will be adequate to do any good?

      • Fruits and vegetables release Ethylene gas, not Xylene which is a powerful liquid organic solvent at room temperature

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