Cold storage is a traditional method of storing fruits and vegetables for eating throughout the winter months. It is arguably one of the oldest methods of storing food for the winter. And arguably the easiest.
Not only is cold storage easy, it’s also inexpensive—read, cheap! This is because cold storage does not require any refrigeration or processing. Cold storage for this purpose refers to the tried-and-true older method of storing certain fruits and vegetables in a space with relatively consistent temperature and humidity. You don’t need to do a lot to control this; you just need to choose the right space.
- Cold Storage by Another Name
- How to Prepare Produce for Cold Storage
- The One Rule of Cold Storage
- What is an Average Temperature Goal for Cold Storage?
- Managing Ideal Cold Storage Humidity
- What Can Be Kept in Cold Storage?
- Modern Cold Storage Options: What to Use If You Don’t Have an Old-Fashioned Root Cellar
- Tips for a Well-managed Cold Storage Area or Root Cellar
Cold Storage by Another Name
You probably know this method, “cold storage” by another name—or you have probably at least heard of it. You might have heard of “root cellaring” or storing in a “root cellar” or “cold room”. This is the same thing.
Now, if you think this method is not for you because you do not have grandma’s gorgeous old root cellar, don’t worry. Most of us have an area of our home—yes, even in modern homes—that can work for cold storage (we’ll chat a bit about this later). Again, this is less about building a place to store your food without electricity than it is about picking a good place where these hardy-storing foods can stay for a while.
How to Prepare Produce for Cold Storage
For the most part, prepping produce for cold storage is a matter of initial cleaning*, drying and/or curing, and packing to preserve moisture and quality. (*Note that when we say “cleaning” we do not mean a scrubbing or peeling like you will do when you use your food or when you go to cook it—just an initial cleaning to get the worst of the dirt, mud, and outside elements off).
While this may sound like a lot of work, it’s really not. The cleaning process is not as thorough as what you would do for canning, freezing, or preserving. The curing and packing part of the process doesn’t amount to much more than stacking in a box, laying on a pallet, floor, or shelf, or storing together by type.
Some foods, like root vegetables, will benefit from some extra packing material to control moisture (which can be as simple as a layer of absorbent cloth on the top). Others (like winter squash and pumpkins) don’t need anything at all.
How you should prep and pack your produce for optimal cold storage varies depending on what you are storing. You will find a few quick tips for different types of produce in the list below.
The One Rule of Cold Storage
There are several tips and recommendations for successfully storing food via the cold storage method. It’s smart to heed these tips and follow this advice. The following recommendations will make sure that you get the best quality and longest life out of your fruits and vegetables.
But there is one critical—essential—rule: Never let your cold storage space freeze. Do not let cold-stored produce get frozen!
Freezing and thawing will cause your cold-stored vegetables to break down and to rot. While you might get lucky, and a few might still be salvageable, by and large, you will have nothing but a rotting, sopping, seeping mess on your hands. Save the freezing temps for frozen foods or those left in the ground outside. Once your produce comes into your cold storage or root cellar area, don’t let it freeze.
What is an Average Temperature Goal for Cold Storage?
Cold storage is less exact than storage in an electric unit like a refrigerator, because it relies more on natural ambient conditions. These will vary from root cellar to root cellar or from cold storage area to cold storage area. It can be hard to nail down a single set of conditions, and it can be hard to get your home’s area to exactly “ideal” specifications.
Instead, shoot for as close to good conditions as you can get without going too warm (which would make your efforts futile). A good mid-range, the reasonable target is 40 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can go a little colder than this range as long as you do not break that golden rule of no freezing. You can get away with temperatures a little warmer than this range, too, up to 60 degrees. The closer you can get to the ideal of 40 to 50F, the happier your vegetables will be.
Managing Ideal Cold Storage Humidity
Humidity is also a factor. Depending on your vegetables, some like high humidity in the range of 85 to 90 percent humidity, and some prefer drier conditions in the range of 50 to 60 percent humidity. While this is important, it’s not as important as temperature and is easier to deal with.
For vegetables that prefer higher humidity, pack them in a closed, minimally-ventilated container or bin, buckets, or perforated plastic bags. They will recycle and use their own humidity (given off through a process of respiration) to increase humidity to ideal levels.
For produce that needs low humidity, like garlic and onions, hang them higher in mesh bags or open baskets. This will allow excess humidity to escape.
What Can Be Kept in Cold Storage?
Not all fruits and vegetables can or should be kept in cold storage. But there are many types of fruit and vegetables that are known to be hardy and to store really well without refrigeration. They’re just naturally designed to hold up well without breaking down and without the need to be processed, preserved, or refrigerated. Here are 28 (along with a few tips for storing them):
- Carrots: prefer temps in the lower range and humidity in the higher range. Be sure to prep by trimming tops to about one inch of the root.
- Beets: similar to carrots
- Turnips: clean, then store in a container to increase humidity
- Rutabaga: treat as turnips
- Parsnips: can stay in the ground as long as they can be dug; inside, should be stored as other root vegetables are.
- Radishes: trim and store in cool, damp conditions, such as in a pail or perforated bags.
- Horseradish: similar to radishes
- Pumpkins: prefer warmer storage temperatures and well-ventilated or open air.
- Winter squash: store the same as pumpkins; pumpkins and winter squash should be cured before storing to seal skins and stems.
- Tomatoes: prefer both temperature and humidity in the higher ranges (around 50+ F); consider keeping in a box or bin. Check regularly and remove any that are spoiling. You can also store green tomatoes, which will ripen slowly over time.
- Tomatillos: similar to tomatoes, will usually keep for an impressively long time.
- Grapes: one of the harder fruits to keep in cold storage; need low temperatures and high humidity in the 95% range and are more susceptible to injury from bumping and bruising. Expect about one month of storage time.
- Apples: like lower-end temperatures and higher humidity. Apples store well when wrapped in newspaper and kept in a box or crate. If you have the patience and the supplies, it’s best to wrap apples individually. Tart varieties store better than sweet.
- Pears: similar to apples, but more sensitive to higher temperatures. Store as close to 32 F as possible. It is wise to line their box or crate with a perforated plastic bag in addition to individually wrapping.
- Citrus fruit: (oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes—lemons and limes have significantly shorter storage lives) store at a lower temperature range, around 40 F or as close as possible. Maintain good humidity by boxing.
- Garlic: prefer warmer, drier storage such as in a pantry or higher in a storage room. It should be cured, then trimmed, and wiped of excess dirt. You can even make a lovely decorative garlic bundle and hang it in your kitchen or pantry.
- Onions: see garlic.
- Shallots: same as onions.
- Leeks: should be wrapped or covered to keep moisture in. One good method is to stand the root end down in a bucket of moist sand.
- Cabbages: can pull entire plant and hang upside-down from the root. Leave outer leaves intact. Alternatively, cut from the root, wrap each head in a newspaper, and store on a shelf. Can be stored in a covered trash barrel if the odor is an issue. Red cabbage stores better than green and late varieties store better than early.
- Brussels sprouts: similar to cabbage, best to remove the leaves from the stalks, trim the ends of the stalks (leaving the sprouts on the stalks), and wrap in paper, then store in a box or on a shelf.
- Kohlrabi: trim side leaves and roots, wrap bulbs, or store in a perforated plastic bag.
- Cauliflower: keep outer leaves intact to maintain Trim the root end (or leave on and hang like cabbage). Should be wrapped in paper and stored at lower-end temperatures. Use within about a month.
- Potatoes: like slightly higher humidity and can be stored at the warmer end of the temperature range. Best if stored in a box, paper bag, or crate—remove if in plastic.
- Sweet Potatoes: similar to potatoes but can take an even higher range of temperature.
- Jerusalem artichokes: these are tubers, similar to root crops. They last well in the ground, too. In the root cellar, pack in the sand to simulate ground living and to preserve moisture.
- Dried Beans: harvest when completely dry. Shell the beans. Blow off the chaff with a hair dryer or low fan. Store in an airtight container.
- Dried Peas: same as dry beans.
Modern Cold Storage Options: What to Use If You Don’t Have an Old-Fashioned Root Cellar
Walk around your house or property and look for a place where you can achieve the closest possible temperature range; remember, close enough is good enough, too. Don’t let less-than-perfect keep you from cold-storing your produce.
Just know that if your temperatures are a little higher than ideal, your produce may not last quite as long. You’ll still get a long storage life, but you may need to use some things sooner than others. You’ll figure this out the more cold storing you do.
With some creativity, anyone can cold-store fruit and vegetables. Even city apartment-dwellers!
Some spaces that can stand in for root cellars include:
- A cold attic
- An unheated or barely heated garage (if it won’t freeze)
- A cool closet or shelf in a closet
- A room that you keep the thermostat off or down low most of the time—for example, a guest room that isn’t used often or under beds or furniture in cool rooms
- A cool mudroom
- Along an outside wall in a cool room
- In a pantry
- A heated workshop, shed, or outbuilding
- A cool basement
- A crawl space
- Space behind a stairwell
- A cool cupboard space
We all have those areas of our homes that are just a little too cool for our comfort. Look for those spaces. They will probably make good cool storage spaces for your food.
Tips for a Well-managed Cold Storage Area or Root Cellar
- Use up blemished or imperfect fruit and vegetables first.
- Visit and use produce from your cold storage at least once a week.
- Use produce with shorter storage lives first.
- When you see a type of fruit or vegetable starting to lose its quality, use it up, cook it, or prep and freeze or dehydrate it. (It is not a waste of time or storage if you end up doing this—this is maximizing your fresh vegetable consumption and also buying you some valuable time to preserve your harvest that you might not have had in the summer or fall.)
- Use perforated plastic bags, plastic pails, boxes, or bins to store produce that requires higher humidity. This way, you can keep them in the same room but keep a higher relative humidity via its lower airspace.
- Space fruit away from vegetables—the ethylene gas given off by ripe fruit can cause vegetables to over-ripen and decrease their shelf life.
- Arrange your produce according to its ideal temperature. Some fruit and vegetables like to be stored a little warmer than others. Put those in the warmer areas of your storage space.
- Heat rises, so floors and low areas will always be cooler. Store cold to warm from the bottom up.
- Outside walls will be cooler than interior walls and spaces.
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