Root Cellars Return: 3 Possible Permutations

Dropping temperatures and incumbent frost pose quite the challenge to would-be locavores. Even the most dedicated farmers' market enthusiasts find themselves cruising to the nearest grocery store come January to pick up a pineapple or two.

One great way to stretch out the local bounty a bit longer - or even through the winter - at minimal cost is to create a root cellar. Not only is this a sound way to support local growers by buying up their bounty, but it's also a fine tactic to reduce the number of trips you make to the store - which is always a good thing, especially if your transportation method of choice is by car.

And unlike canning or freezing, a root cellar doesn't require a large energy input. As nice as it is to discover a cache of mid-summer local berries in the freezer, keeping food frozen is essentially unsustainable as it requires a steady stream of carbon emissions by way of your freezer. (Especially so if you are so dedicated to peak-season produce that you purchase an extra freezer to keep it real.) Preserving similarly requires a large input of energy, as concoctions must be simmered for hours before they are stable enough to store.

The New York Times's Michael Tortorello reported today that the trend of putting up produce for the winter has taken off. Root cellars have long been the winter standby of Midwestern grandmothers, hippies and survivalist-types, but squirreling away squash and potatoes has become increasingly appealing - and widespread. This trend can easily be accounted for by the convergence of the crippled economy and the current craze for local food.

Tortorello stresses, however, that unlike horticulture, home food storage is more an art than a science, and requires careful consideration:

According to the essential 1979 book, "Root Cellaring," by Mike and Nancy Bubel, some items like cabbage and pears do best in a moist environment below 40 degrees (though above freezing). To achieve this, a cellar probably needs to be vented, or have windows that open. Winter squash and sweet potatoes should be kept dry and closer to 50 degrees -- perhaps closer to the furnace.

Other rules of root cellaring sound more like molecular gastronomy. For example, the ethylene gas that apples give off will make carrots bitter. As a general principle, keeping produce in a cool chamber that is beneath the frost line -- the depth, roughly four feet down, below which the soil doesn't freeze -- can slow both the normal process of ripening and the creeping spread of bacterial and fungal rot. These are the forces that will turn a lost tomato in the back of the cupboard into a little lagoon of noxious goo.

If at all wary, start small. Root cellars can take many different shapes and sizes.

1. Old School

In her story, Tortorello described Cynthia Worley, who counsels and teaches adults for the New York City Department of Education, and recently converted the basement of her Harlem brownstone into a root cellar.

The space itself is nothing special: Whitewashed granite walls run the width and depth of the room, 16 feet by 60 feet. A forgotten owner tried to put in a cement floor, but the dirt, which takes a long-term view of things, is stubbornly coming back. "It's basically a sod floor," Ms. Worley said.

What's important is that the shelves are sturdy, because Ms. Worley and her husband, Haja Worley, will soon load them with [all sorts of produce and preserves]. The fresh produce is a huge final delivery from a Community Supported Agriculture farm in Orange County, which they used all summer. Packed in sand and stored at 55 degrees, the potatoes should keep at least until the New Year. The squash could still be palatable on Groundhog Day, and the onions should survive till spring.

2. Down in the Dirt
BBC Home suggests simply

Digging a biggish hole in the ground and build a room inside the hole. Remember that the floor must be left as a dirt floor. Cover the whole thing with the dug up earth and - hey presto - you have a root cellar. If you remembered to put in a door in one end, you can now start using it to store your produce. The dirt floor will make sure the humidity stays high, and the earth insulation will keep the cellar cool, thus preserving the produce.

As an added bonus the root cellar can be used as a convenient guest room for people you're not terribly fond of.

3. Urban Roots
Storing starchy vegetables over the winter may sound impractical if you live in the city, but Kathreen Ricketson of Treehugger recommends converting a garbage can into a root cellar by lining it appropriately and burying it outside. Ricketson points out more year-round benefits:

A well-insulated root cellar can keep the food inside 40 degrees cooler than the summertime temperatures outside. This coolness also has benefits during the winter, as maintaining food at a temperature just slightly above freezing has the effect of slowing
deterioration and rot.

Riva over at Supernatural proposes that a root cellar depends just three features to sucessfully preserve your goods:

A. It has to be cool (or preferably, cold).
B. It has to be dry.
C. It must be dark.

An urban dweller, Riva stashes local vegetables in her storage locker in her apartment building's unheated basement. Other possible cellar spots might be underneath the stairs, in your garage, or in an outdoor shed.

Test Drive
Before dedicating yourself to an intensive construction project, you might want to try out a couple of neat tricks in your basement:

-Suspend pristine squash from the ceiling in pantyhose. Vegetables that are at all bruised rot much quicker, and they can become bruised just by sitting on a hard shelf.

-Pick or buy the last crop of green tomatoes. Invert them on a shelf and wait. You might have ripe tomatoes for Thanksgiving.

-Try setting out a box of apples or potatoes in the open. Watch them decompose rather quickly. Consider digging out a root cellar.