Winter Food Storage Without a Root Cellar

Dec 10, 2019 | Homesteading

There is a great satisfaction that comes with picking vegetables straight from your garden and cooking up a heathy homegrown meal for your family. But for many of us who live in a cool climate, eating farm fresh food only lasts for a season.  Finding a winter food storage solution that works for you creates a way to eat garden veggies all year long.

If you are anything like me, when considering storing produce I think of how great it would be to have a root cellar. But I don’t have one.

Root cellars are a traditional and popular method of storing food for the winter, however they are not the only option. We do hope to build one on our property eventually, but not this year.

Since I wanted to store vegetables this year, I explored alternative food storage methods. I want to share with you some winter food storage options that may work for you, what option we choose to do this year, and some things to consider when starting to store your own food.  

Right Conditions

Temperature

The ideal temperature for storing root vegetables is between 0°C and 4.5°C (32°F – 40 °F) which is just above freezing.  To check if a space is the right temperature you can put a thermometer in the room to see how warm and cold it is getting.

I knew that the room we are storing food in this year was the right temperature because it stayed cold last winter. However, the jars of pickles I kept in their last year did not freeze, so I knew it was staying above 0°C.

Not all vegetables need to stay this cold, however root vegetables do.  Some vegetables like squash can be kept at a slightly warmer temperature, but they will still keep at temperatures just above freezing with the other vegetables.

 

Humidity

Humidity is important for storing produce so that it does not dry out and shrivel up.

Since vegetables and fruits have a high water content, if the air around them is too dry their moisture will evaporate into the surrounding air.  When produce is stored in a humid environment the air is already full of water, therefore the water within the food will not evaporate out. 

If you want to have crisp vegetables and fruit, try to find a space that has mid to high humidity. Underground spaces, like root cellars, are usually humid which makes them ideal for food storage.  However, I am storing our vegetables this year in a ground level room that has a mid-humidity level and the food is storing just fine.

Darkness

Another thing to consider when choosing a location to store your food is how much light the space gets. It is important to choose a dark location for your vegetables so that they will keep longer. 

If root vegetables are stored in the light they will sprout, which means the plant is beginning to grow. When the root vegetable sprouts some of its sugars and nutrients are used to produce the sprout, therefore the vegetable will not have as good of a flavor. As well, sprouting will cause the vegetable to go bad sooner.  Warm temperatures can also contribute to sprouting.

Storing all of your crops in a dark, humid and cool location will help them to last, so you can eat from your stores throughout the winter months.

If you are not confident that your space is going to work, start with just a few crops.  Starting small can be a good idea so that you do not invest a lot into your food just to have it spoil.

Storage Options

Any space that is dark, cool and not too dry could work for storing food. Here are some types of spaces that you may have available:

  • Cold room or space
  • Garage
  • Shed
  • Basement
  • Porch
  • Barrel buried in the ground

 We choose to use a room in our barn to store our food. This room is not hearted, but the rooms around it are so it stays above freezing. This room is also our animal feed room and at times our four-wheeler workshop. So, if you have something like an out building, attached garage or unheated basement that stays cool for the winter months you can start storing food too.

Wherever you choose to store your food keep in mind that there may be animals also interested in eating your vegetables and fruit. Last year I had a pumpkin in my food storage room that was nibbled on by a mouse or squirrel. This year to keep my vegetables from becoming some else’s snack we added doors to our shelves.

What to Store

If you want to try storing food but have not grown enough of your own crops check out your local farmers markets for vendors who will sell in bulk. 

Although I would love to be able to grow all of our food and store enough to feed us for the winter, our garden was not that large. Therefore, I went to a local farm stand and bought my vegetables in bulk.

When choosing vegetable varieties to grow or buy try and find ones that store well. For example, when I bought my squash I asked the farmer what variety would store best and she told me to get the Sweet Mama Squash since it has thick skin and will last longer.

Here are some vegetables that can be stored for winter:

  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Turnip
  • Parsnip
  • Squash (Sweet Mama, Buttercup, Butternut, Sugar Pie Pumpkin, etc.)
  • Cabbage
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Tomatoes
  • Fruit (apples, pears)
  • Canned food (vegetables, fruits, jams, pickles, meats, etc.)

 

How to Store

Curing

Some crops need to be cured before long term storage. Curing vegetables is simply setting them out in a room with the proper temperatures and humidity and letting their skin harden up. This process helps some vegetables be more resistant to rot and can also improve their flavor.

I recommend doing some research on the vegetables you are going to store and see if they need to be curried first. Personally, I made the mistake this year of just assuming all root vegetables should be cured, but I now know that was wrong.

Some vegetables that should be cured are onions, garlic, potatoes, and squash.   

Root Vegetables

To help keep root vegetables crisp they can be stored in a bin with sand.  This is the method I used this year to store my potatoes, beets and carrots, and so far they have stayed firm.

For this method you will need a container and some sand. I used a Rubbermaid tote and some 5-gallon buckets, but any large bin will work. It is important that there is airflow in the bins, therefore you can leave off the covers or drill holes in them. Also, if the sand is dry dampen it before packing in the vegetables.

First put a layer of sand in the bucket, then a layer of potatoes for example. Space out the potatoes so they are not touching to prevent rot. Next cover the potatoes in another layer of sand and carry on this layering pattern. Try to avoid touching the potatoes to the bucket wall. Finish off the bucket with an inch or so of sand. 

Over time the sand may dry out, when this happens mist the sand down to keep the bin moist, but not wet.

I have heard of some people using wood shavings instead of sand but doing the same layering method. I have not personally tried it but may next year since the buckets would be a lot lighter to move around.   

Other Vegetables and Fruit

Produce such as squash, cabbage, pumpkins, onions, garlic, tomatoes and fruit can be stored on shelves or in bins.  It is important that there is air flow around the vegetables and fruit, so do not store them in airtight containers. 

If you have space to spread out your produce so they are not touching this can help avoid rot.

Some vegetables and fruit produce ethylene gas, which causes produce to ripen faster. This is another reason why airflow is important, so that ethylene gas is not trapped in with the food.

Be sure to store fruits and vegetables that produce ethylene gas separate from other produce to avoid food spoiling. Some common winter storage crops that produce ethylene gas are apples, pears and tomatoes.   

Checking Stored Food

Different crops will keep in a cold storage space for different lengths of time. Be sure to keep an eye on your stored produce so you know when things are starting to go bad and what should be eaten first. 

It is also important to check on you stored food so you can remove any spoiled crops. If one vegetable has gone bad it can cause the others around it to spoil too.   

Why Store Food?

It is true that most people can go to a grocery store any day of the year and buy food to eat, so why would anyone want to store their own?

  • If you are beginning a homestead, storing food from your garden is a great step to take in becoming more self-sufficient.

  • Food is cheaper when it is in season, therefore if you buy your vegetables during harvest it will be less money than if you bought it later in the year.

  • By growing your own food, or buying it from a trusted farmer, you know what has gone into producing it and can be confident that it is healthy for you and your family.

  • Buying produce locally and in season helps to support local farmers. It is also better for the environment because the emissions produced from shipping food from far away are avoided.

 

I hope this has helped you realize it is possible to store your own food for the winter, even if you do not have a proper root cellar or cold room.

If you are storing food for the winter let us know what methods work for you and what are your favourite crops to store!

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1 Comment

  1. Sheryl

    Very good article. Very informative. My squash didnt keep this year..bad choice of space..however my onions are keeping well. Cool..dark space and hanging in a bag.

    Reply

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Hey, I’m Maggie. I hope you will join me and my family in getting back to the land.  Here you will learn about making things yourself, cooking homegrown food, and beginning a homesteading journey.

 

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