This fall I began reading up on storing fruits and vegetables without refrigeration in a root cellar. Books from the library provided the information.
I had originally thought the basement stairs coming down from outside would be a good place to make a root cellar, but that turned out to be unworkable. As soon as outdoor temperatures dropped below freezing, so did the temps in the stairwell, making it unusable for fresh food storage without some major modifications.
The rest of our unheated basement turned out to be ideal. The old section, where the furnace is, stays about 45-55 F in the winter. The newer section is cooler; it never rises above the low 40s. I took temperature and humidity readings to verify all this. The books recommended slightly lower temperatures for some things, to prolong storage, but I've had no problems.
Since October, here are a few of the fruits and veggies I've stored successfully without refrigeration.
In th new section of basement 40F storage:
- 20 lbs of winesap apples: wrapped individually in waxed paper to prevent moisture loss. I layered these in a ventilated box that had once been used to ship citrus fruit, a sheet of cardboard between each layer with space around the edges to allow air circulation inside the box. A pan of water was kept nearby to boost humidity. We picked the apples in early October from a pick-your-own orchard. After 5 months of fresh eating and cooking, 8 apples remain, all in very good shape.
- 40 lbs of grapefruit and 20 lbs of naval oranges, kept in the ventilated cardboard boxes they came in. These were from a school fundraiser. We picked up our fruit from the school at the beginning of December, and just finished the last grapefruit about 2 weeks ago. That's about 2 1/2 months of storage with none lost to spoilage or drying out. There are about 10 oranges remaining, all in good condition except one that had begun to shrivel. The citrus was stored on the same table as the apples.
When all the citrus fruit and apples have been eaten, the boxes will be saved for storing next year's winter fruits and veggies.
In the old section of basement 45-55F storage
(temps depend on distance from the furnace):
- 4 large butternut squash: One of the books I read suggested that the winter squash stored in the basement near the furnace lasted longer because of slightly warmer and dryer conditions. I bought these butternut squash from a farmer's field in early October at a good per pound price. We have eaten two so far, prepared in a variety of dishes: steamed, roasted, cooked with black beans and onion, and made into soup. The flavor seems to be sweetening with storage. The remaining two are just as sound as when they were brought home, 5 months ago. This coming summer I plan to grow my own winter squash, knowing that I can keep them and use them until the following spring.
- 10 lbs russet potatoes: purchased on sale from the grocery store in November. These have been stored near the furnace, on the inside basement stairs descending from the kitchen. They've held up reasonably well. Some are starting to grow shoots and roots and others are not as firm as they were 3 months ago, but they're still usable. I've only lost one due to spoilage with only a handful remaining. The warm dry conditions near the top of the inner stairs by the furnace are not ideal for potatoes. The books recommended similar storage conditions to apples, but said not to store them near each other because flavors may muddle. I've moved those remaining to the table in the other part of the basement, with the apple and orange boxes but not too close, to see if I can keep them all happy until they're used up.
- 5 lbs brown onions: purchased on sale from the grocery store in November. Again, kept on the inner basement stairs near where the potatoes were stored. About a third of the original number remain, all in good condition, though one or two have sent up tentative, pale green shoots. Keeping as well if not better than in the refrigerator.
- 6 bunches of garlic: same as onions. Doing fine.
I count this experiment as a success--storing our winter fruits and veggies without refrigeration and without spoilage.
I'm emboldened to grow more this summer and store more for next year.