Going Back to the Root Cellar

by Thursday Bram on 13 November 2008 14 comments

My grandmother once told me about her parents' root cellar: it was just a story of something so different from modern day that she thought I would get a kick out of it. But root cellars seem to be experiencing a revival.

Storing food for the winter used to be a big deal. Without a well-stocked root cellar (or a grocery store around the corner), it was impossible to eat well all year around. But with the advent of supermarkets shipping in produce from all over, the root cellar became a historical oddity. Its revival isn't a matter of a lack of produce. Instead, people are turning to root cellars as away to cut costs on produce. Root cellars also offer an opportunity to eat locally-grown produce year round.

What can you store in a root cellar?

Root cellars are officially for roots: potatoes, turnips, beets and carrots are the easiest to store. At the low temperature provided by most root cellars, these foods are unlikely to rot. Squash, onions and garlic can do equally well. Some fruits can also be stored, such as apples, but most must be preserved in some manner. My grandmother's parents kept their preserves and jams in their root cellar, as well as salt meat and fish.

In the summertime — at least before electricity offered other options — many families kept items in need of refrigeration in their root cellars. Milk, butter, fresh meat and more were kept cool by the even temperatures of a root cellar.

What does a root cellar look like?

Creating a root cellar is surprisingly simple. Dig a hole, add some shelves and you effectively have a working root cellar. Most root cellars are underground rooms with minimal insulation and dirt floors. They use the cold of their surroundings to keep food chilled and are ideally constructed below the frost line (four feet in many areas). There are above ground options as well: if you have some sort of shed at ground level, you can pile rock or dirt around it or cover it with sod to help keep temperatures down. Survivalist Ted Wright has published plans for a root cellar that's as simple as digging a whole and swiping a few pallets from a local warehouse.

Don't have an area around your home where you can start digging? The New York Times interviewed a couple last week who turned their basement into a root cellar. In their brownstone, Cynthia and Haja Worley have an unfinished basement lined with shelves. The temperature remains constantly cool, allowing the Worleys to store all sorts of produce.

The Important Details

  • Keep these details in mind if you want to store foods in a root cellar or your basement:
  • The food must be dry before you store it.
  • Some foods require special preparation to ensure they'll last longer. This chart includes information on specific foods.
  • The ideal temperature of a root cellar ranges from 40 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on what you're storing.
  • Humidity of 80 to 90 percent is necessary to preserve fresh vegetables.
  • Soil floors can help increase humidity .

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Guest's picture
dianna

funny, i've just recently been getting into the root cellar idea. i have a basementy sort of room under the kitchen, but it actually stays relatively warm because the furnace is down there, so instead i cleared a cabinet in my unheated detached laundry room and filled it with winter squash. i'll be curious to see how that plays out. i also have some apples in a crate and a paper bag of sweet potatoes. so far so good. it's nice to walk out there and see a small bounty of eatables.

Guest's picture
Guest

How well does this concept work in say the american southwest region?

Guest's picture
dianna

well i'm in colorado, so i guess i'll find out! here we do have the advantage of really cool nights, so even when we're having a streak of warm days, the temps really come down after dark, so despite a mild autumn, my little stash of veggies are still in good shape out there. i would think that, underground, temps remain stable wherever you are, really.

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Guest

I'm not certain I'd consider Colorado part of the sort of southwest I was thinking of! *grin*. (Maybe the southern part?) I was thinking ore like, NM, AZ, southern California, where a frost line is not even dreamed of...

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Guest

For three years now I have been canning, blanching and storing locally grown food (that I have grown myself or bought locally), and not only have I spent less money doing this, but we eat better/healthier. And let's not forget the great sense of satisfaction you get, too!

Guest's picture
Guest

Root cellar sounds dreadfully plebian and old world :)

Rebrand it as a wine cellar! It's the same thing - a room with a constant environment. And a hell of a lot cheaper than those climate controlled cabinets that are sold for storing wine.

A friend converted his basement into a wine cellar and always bought "1 to drink and 1 to cellar", it didn't take long to build up an interesting collection. His wife meantime used it to store her preserves and herbs etc.

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gt0163c

Ahhhh a frost line. I remember that...as well as the little closet in the closet under the stairs in the basement of my grandparents' house which was always called the root cellar. They stored canned fruits and vegetables (both those they canned themselves as well as extras bought at the grocery store) there. When I was little, I thought it was a little odd, but their kitchen was tiny so it worked for them.

Now I live in north Texas. Most houses don't even have basements, let alone anything that might be usable as a root cellar for most of the year. It's a great idea, but not terribly practical where I am.

Guest's picture
Amy

It seems like for people living in more temperate climates year round, a root cellar doesn't really make sense anyway, since storing food for the winter was one of the main reasons to have a root cellar. Theoretically, if you're living somewhere that the ground never gets cold enough, then you should have more/better access to fresh produce year round, right?

I'm posing this as a question because I live in Michigan...not exactly known for its mild winters.

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Guest

It is true in Texas there is fresh produce from mexico and South America coming in, but if you are growing your own food and want to store it. Our 105 degree days will make it go bad in a hurry. Potatos are grown early in the season so they have to make it through the summer.

Guest's picture
Ervin

Hi, we do live in Texas, just south of Dallas. You are parcially right I can grow some geens all through the winter but items like winter squash, potatoes, carrots, beets and others can not be grown in 40 - 60 degree weather. I am preparing an area right now to place a prefbricated cellar into. It is hards to store anything for any lenght of time when its 100 outside. And as you know things don't last long in the frige either. I am looking frorward to getting our root seller in.

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Guest

I could have a root cellar. I live in the San Fran Bay Area and while I have a crawl space under the house, I wouldn't really use it for storing veg and such. Who knows what lives down there? Plus we can't really put jars on shelves what with the earth shaking sometimes.

Guest's picture

Id love to have a root cellar. We used to keep potatoes under the house but I havent done that in years. I do raise a big garden and can and freeze the food. In fact I just wrote about preparing for emergencies today on my own blog.

The idea of a root cellar intrigues me. Wonder if I could talk my husband into it!

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FrugalNYC

I don't think this would be possible with apartment dwellers in the city. Any alternatives for storage other than root cellars?

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Guest

Fill a big bucket with sand, layering your veggies within it. You know how no matter how hot the day at the beach - you can dig 6" down into the sand and it's still cool - it's a great way to keep veggies cool and fresh, even when out of season.
Also, a note...Root cellaring was traditionally used to keep whole veggies of all kinds fresh through the winter. Not so much for canned foods, as they are already preserved. Cellaring is a low-tech, low-energy alternative to canning and freezing.