Going Back to the Root Cellar
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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