Pioneer Food Preservation With a Root Cellar, Part 1 of 3

Root Cellar

 

Read the entire series! Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

One problem that frequently pops up to the modern prepared person is what to do with refrigerated products. When the power goes out, how do you keep milk, cheese, meat, and other valuable foodstuffs from molding or rotting in the heat? If all else fails you could binge on these foods and eat them quickly, but what if you would like to save those valuable nutrients or if you have a source for fresh milk or meat? In that case, you would need to go back to the olden days before refrigeration, when every home had a root cellar.

What is a root cellar?

Essentially, it’s an underground room that uses the fact that the temperature underground is kept at a stable 30-45 degrees (depending on location and season) year ’round to help preserve foods. It can be built into the house and accessible via a staircase, in your current basement, or you can construct a separate structure outside. Although a hill or incline can greatly reduce the work, you can build a root cellar on a perfectly level plot of ground. It can be as long as you need, or as short as you’re able to build it. In short, it’s a highly customizable structure that can ease the pain of loss when your refrigerator ceases to function.

A root cellar doesn't even need to be an actual "cellar", if you can find a suitable container for smaller amounts of food.

A root cellar doesn’t even need to be an actual “cellar”, if you can find a suitable container for smaller amounts of food.

What can you put into a root cellar?

There are a variety of goods that can be stored in a root cellar, though space will probably be limited in there much more quickly than you would guess. These are some of the top candidates for your precious preservation space:

  • Fresh fruits and veggies. This is a no-brainer, as the cool, humid environment keeps wrinkling to a minimum, slows rotting and molding, and preserves a crop that usually arrives all at once in a short space of time.
  • Stored grains like wheat and rice. Generally speaking this is not for grains already safe in a 5 gallon bucket and mylar bag, but rather for the fresh stuff that you can barter for or harvest.
  • Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt  These are still not long-lived products generally speaking but they will last longer in a root cellar than they will sitting on your kitchen counter. If you do put these in your cellar be sure to check for mold or curdling each day, since you don’t want mold spores to start spreading throughout the cellar.

    Canned goods benefit from being in a root cellar, but the cellar also benefits from the heat slowly released by the canned liquids!

    Canned goods benefit from being in a root cellar, but the cellar also benefits from the heat slowly released by the canned liquids!

  • Canned goods. Light and heat are destructive to canned food, so keeping them in the root cellar is a great way to extend their life. Furthermore, the liquid in those jars will tend to help maintain stable temperatures, since the glass will slowly leak absorbed heat in the cold.
  • Meats, both fresh and preserved through salting. Again, you’ll have to keep an eye out for rot even in the optimal conditions of the root cellar, but it will help extend the life of freshly caught fish, hunted game, or slaughtered animals. Preserved meats benefit from the environment as well, as it adds additional preservation to both the meat and the improved flavor.
  • Wines and alcohol. Now, a root cellar can never replace a properly designed wine cellar with all of the accouterments those require, but generally speaking it can’t hurt to keep your alcoholic beverages underground.
Potatoes are among the most popular foods to be stored in a root cellar.

Potatoes are among the most popular foods to be stored in a root cellar.

 

Different ways to build one, but common requirements for all designs

We will get into the major designs (one very small and simple, others larger and more complex) in the next few posts, but there are some general guidelines you’ll want to keep in mind regardless of which kind of cellar you ultimately decide to build.

Ventilation shafts have been build in dozens of different ways. This old-timey cellar uses one protected from outside vermin and debris by a wooden tower.

Ventilation shafts have been build in dozens of different ways. This old-timey cellar uses one protected from outside vermin and debris by a wooden tower.

  • All root cellars must be ventilated. There are a variety of reasons for this, including removing heat, regulating humidity, and especially getting rid of ethylene gas that comes from fruits as a result of decomposition. Ventilation doesn’t mean that you need to setup a fan to move air, but you will need at least two vents (for pulling air in and pushing air out) of some kind that can use the natural flow of hot and cold air to properly regulate temperature and humidity. In winter, you’ll also want to be able to quickly and easily seal one or both of these vents in order to maintain temperatures above freezing.
  • Humidity is also very important. To some people a root cellar should be a dry, chilly environment but you’re actually looking to create and environment similar to a large “crisper” drawer in your fridge. Dry air causes veggies to wrinkle and dry out, but a humidity level of 80-90 percent keeps them fresh for much longer.
  • Air circulation is key to freshness. Ethylene gas from decomposition is intended to cause other nearby substances to rot more quickly, as this gets those nutrients back into the soil faster in nature. Here, it destroys your food before you have the chance to eat it, so be sure that you build shelving and storage so that air can circulate properly. Furthermore, proper circulation also keeps molds and other growths to a minimum.
  • Wood is generally preferred to metal for any surface. Odd as it may seem, metal actually hinders the ability to regulate proper temperature in your root cellar.
    Wooden shelves are much better than metal ones, as they keep temperatures more stable.

    Wooden shelves are much better than metal ones, as they keep temperatures more stable.

    You see, wood slowly gains or looses heat which keeps things more stable as things change over the course of a day. Metal on the other hand changes temperatures rapidly and can make it much more difficult to keep temperatures stable as a result. Keep doors, shelves, storage bins etc wooden rather than metal.

  • Floors should be made of dirt or concrete. Both types help preserve the proper humidity, though dirt floor will have higher overall humidity than a concrete floor will. Some larger cellars will actually have two rooms, one of dirt for products that take advantage of the highest humidity, and the other of concrete for those goods that benefit from less humid environments.
  • Always be aware of the soil and water conditions around your cellar. Whether you build one inside your house or outside, you’ll need to construct your cellar so that it has good drainage so that your goods aren’t flooded or rotted in excessive humidity among other concerns.
  • All root cellars need an accurate thermometer and hygrometer so that you can measure temperature and humidity on a daily basis and make adjustments as needed. This is one aspect of modern knowledge and technology that is a definite improvement here, as you will be able to keep optimum conditions for food preservation consistently even when circumstances are less than optimal.

    Make sure you're ready in case mice start invading your root cellar.

    Make sure you’re ready in case mice start invading your root cellar.

  • Vermin control is vital, because there is a lot of food in a small, dark space. Mouse traps, poisoned bait, whatever means are necessary should be used to keep your cellar free from pests. I do strongly advise against any airborne preventative treatments, however, as the vents may be insufficient to properly remove the poisons, leaving you with food covered in pesticides.
  • Always be sure to check with your local code and building permit authorities before building, to ensure that there are no regulations concerning root cellars. Although many rural areas basically class them as unregulated sheds, there are plenty of places that would charge a hefty fine if you tried to avoid purchasing a permit.

 

In the next few articles we’ll discuss some specific designs for particular situations, ranging from the simple and easy to build to a large and well-appointed room full of every feature you could want. For those of you who like to customize and fit things to your specific needs, just keep these design features in mind when building your own root cellars.

 

What’s your take?

Do you have any additional features or considerations to mention? Let us know in the comments below.

 

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Comments

  1. Marquita Martin says:

    I don’t think my great-grandparents used a root cellar. They used a spring house. It was a little house built over the spring or branch (as they called it). They lowered their milk down into the water to keep it cool. I’ll have to check with my mom and see what other things they kept there.

    • Spring houses are great if you can build one, since the water keeps everything very well chilled even in the depths of summer. Please be sure to let us know what your mom says about the old family spring house: it would be very interesting to get a firsthand account!

  2. Great article! When can we look forward to the next parts of it?

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