It’s no surprise that many people do not know what a root cellar is, much less how they work or what they are used for. With the advent of artificial refrigeration, the old ways of keeping things cold are falling by the wayside. My parents were raised in the days where nearly everyone had a root cellar, so I can tell you a lot about them.
What is a root cellar? A root cellar is an underground structure used to store vegetables and sometimes fruit or other food products. They are generally built at a depth where the temperature and humidity are fairly stable, ideally between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 85% to 95% humidity.
Now, let’s take a look at the details of how root cellars are made, how they work, and what they are used for.
How Root Cellars are Designed
While refrigeration has today made root cellars redundant for most individuals, they have the benefit of working without requiring electricity or any other regular input of energy. They are typically chambers dug into the ground, however, they can be as small as a garbage can dug into the ground or as large as potato barns which are industrial structures covered in earth.
Root cellars are insulated by the surrounding earth which is slow to conduct heat. At about 10′ (3m) depth a root cellar will have a stable temperature ranging between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit which is comparable to a commercial fridge, especially at the lower end which is the best temperature for long term storage. This keeps the crops from freezing during the winter, which can damage the produce, as well as from the heat in summer.
Root cellars work in many areas of the country, but most where there are definite seasons. Some regions pose challenges to building underground structures, like the Southern United States. If the water table is too high or the summers too hot, it can be tough to maintain a root cellar.
The name root cellar was given since they traditionally held mostly root vegetables. While they are typically used for storage of these types of vegetables in winter, during summer they can also be used to store goods like preserves, salted meat and beverages to avoid the heat affecting them.
Root cellars are typically sealed with a door or other closing mechanism. While the key aspect of this is to ensure a stable temperature, it also has the benefit that it makes it easier to keep your produce away from animals.
How Do Root Cellars Work?
If you are reliant on fruit and vegetables produced locally, in your own garden or from the local farmers market, you will recognize the problem that seasonal produce needs to be stored which can be tricky without resorting to freezing it. For those who want to store the vegetables in their most natural form, root cellars have long been a way of keeping them fresh for as long as possible. Variations of the root cellar, such as the potato cellars seen in many rural areas, are even used commercially.
Root cellars work for three important reasons.
- Root cellars keep a stable, cool to cold temperature– During winter, the time when it is most important to store vegetables after harvest season, this means that the produce will not be exposed to the freezing-thawing cycle that affects the above-ground environment. When vegetables freeze, the water inside the cells expands, causing some of them to rupture. When thawed, these damaged cells become soft and eventually cause the deterioration of the product. Each freeze-thaw cycle will damage to vegetable further so it is important to avoid these. Damaged cells are more likely to lead to decomposition, rot, and bacteria.
- Root cellars have a high humidity level– This is important for vegetables to retain their shape which is dramatically affected by moisture loss. Wilting will affect the texture and longevity of the vegetables, thereby dramatically reduce their shelf life. To retain a high humidity, the vegetables which are most reliant on this, such as parsnips and potatoes are generally kept towards the ground level of the root cellar where it is cooler and the humidity is higher. They are also often kept in damp sand or moss to help them retain moisture.
- Root cellars have inbuild ventilation systems– Aside from being important to control the temperature by allowing cold air in at night, for example, ventilation is important to reduce mildew and mold through air circulation. For the same reason, it is also advisable to use shallow containers and shelving to avoid produce being stacked in large piles which can lead to mold on the inside. It is important to regularly inspect your produce and remove any that is impacted by mold, mildew or bacterial growth.
What Are Root Cellars Used For?
Root cellars are primarily used to store root vegetables, such as potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips and rutabagas. However, other vegetables and fruit can also be stored in them, however, each will tend to have a different shelf life and specific temperature or humidity requirement.
One of the main factors in successful root cellar storage is reducing the emission of ethylene gas. This is released in particular by fruit, with some producing more than others.
Ethylene gas will cause fruit and vegetables in the vicinity to also further ripen and eventually decompose. This is the reason a banana, a fruit that produces a particularly high amount of ethylene gas, will help other fruits in your fruit bowl ripen. It is also the reason why some fruit, such as bananas are not suitable for root cellar storage. Therefore, if you want to store vegetables other than root vegetables as well as fruit, it is best to look up the specific conditions that are best for the produce you wish to store.
This is also important for root vegetables, as some, like potatoes and sweet potatoes, need to be cured at a higher temperature for several days or weeks before storing in a root cellar. Most root vegetables are stored in damp sand or earth which reduces the loss of moisture, however other vegetables, like onions, are best kept dry and well ventilated. For the most successful root cellar, plan your storage solutions, such as shelving and boxes, according to the produce you expect to store.
Root cellars can also be used to store canned goods, and flower bulbs and rhizomes as well as anything else that is best kept at a stable temperature.
Why are they called root cellars?
Root cellars traditionally held mostly root vegetables.
Depending on where you live, root cellars can be an excellent option for storing produce throughout the year. Not only do you get to extend the shelf life of vegetables you also get to have fresh produce at the ready without having to go to the supermarket. If you are a homesteader or prepper, they can be an invaluable tool for your general survival plan.
Thanks for stopping by!
Root Cellar Maintenence Products
I took the time to some things you might need for a root cellar. Here are a few Amazon products that you may find helpful:
- Hygrometer– For measuring temperature and humidity.
- 5-Gallon Gasket Sealed Plastic Buckets– The perfect size for my long-term storage needs.
- 5-Gallon Mylar Storage Bags– Fill these bags, seal, then put in the bucket for ultra long-term storage.
- Root Cellar Storage Bins– For storing most veggies.
- Airtight Storage Containers– For short or mid-term use.
- Incandescent Light Bulb– To strategically heat certain areas of the cellar.
- Storage Labels– Logging the date and contents is important.
Can I store meat in a root cellar? A root cellar will keep temperatures above freezing in winter but helps produce stay below around 50 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, and so it will not keep meat cold for long term storage, although for short term storage, a root cellar at the lower end of the temperature range is similar to a commercial refrigerator. A root cellar is also useful for storing cured, salted and dried meats and fish. These are often hung from the ceiling where the root cellar will have dryer air.
How long do vegetables last in a root cellar? Vegetables will last longer in a root cellar, however exactly how long depends on the vegetable. Root vegetables, like parsnips, potatoes or rutabagas can last several months if stored correctly. Pumpkins and squash also have a particularly long shelf life. Other vegetables like tomatoes, cabbage or even broccoli can also have their shelf life extended under the correct circumstances, however, these will all have a much shorter shelf life. For the best storage efficiency, make sure you find out exactly how each vegetable should be best stored.