Follow Wranglerstar on Facebook for exclusive videos, pictures, & updates. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wranglerstar/453208754723615
The basis of all root cellars is their ability to keep food cool. They were, essentially, the first refrigerators. 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. Temperatures inside the home, even in basements, are noticeably warmer, so food stored inside the house has a tendency to spoil much more rapidly than food stored in a cooler root cellar. Temperatures above 45 degrees F cause toughness in most stored vegetables, and encourage undesirable sprouting and considerably more rapid spoilage.
The temperature in a root cellar is never uniform. The temperature near the ceiling is usually 10 degrees warmer than elsewhere in the cellar, so the ceiling area is therefore appropriate for placement of produce that tolerates warmer temperatures well, such as onions, garlic and shallots.
What can you plan on storing in your root cellar once you build it? Certainly, many of us probably have visions of root cellars in the 19th century, packed with bushels of apples and sacks full of potatoes. Today’s root cellars are really not much different, and potatoes and apples are two eminently storable farm products. But the problem with that pair is that they don’t really go well together. Apples have a tendency to emit ethylene gas, which causes problems for potatoes stored nearby, and will also make any exposed carrots or other root crops bitter. As a matter of fact, many fruits, including plums, pears and peaches, and some vegetables, such as tomatoes, cabbage and Chinese cabbage, are also notorious ethylene producers.
So, what is a dedicated food saver to do? Luckily, there are ways around this problem. A good root cellar has a variety of shelves, some higher than others, and some closer to the air vents. Placing the ethylene producers up high and nearer the exit vents has a tendency to move harmful gases away from produce stored on the floor below. Many root crops are also regularly stored in boxes of loose soil or sawdust, further insulating them from their neighbors’ emissions. Some produce, like cabbages and onions, often emit odors that can taint the flavors of other vegetables, as well as fruits, so finding high, remote corners for these pungent items is a good idea too.
In addition to raw produce, root cellars are excellent locations for a number of other foodstuffs as well. The previously mentioned beverages, like wine, cider and beer, all enjoy the cool, dark environment of a root cellar. Cured meats, like ham, bacon and other smoked meats store very well in temperatures below 40 degrees F. Milk, cream, butter and cheese all appreciate the environment of root cellars. Grains and nuts store very well in root cellars, but require extra precautions against insects, and must be sealed tightly to be secure. Dried and canned foods also keep well, provided they are kept either in less humid cellars, or in separate, drier compartments.
Fresh vegetables and fruits last different lengths of time when stored in a root cellar, but potatoes probably last the longest among vegetables; apples among fruit. Other good keepers include cabbage, beets, kohlrabi, onions, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, pumpkins and turnips. Beans, nuts and dried peppers are very long keepers.
After temperature, humidity is the next most important feature of a typical root cellar. It is a good idea to equip your root cellar with a humidity gauge called a hygrometer. Most fresh fruits and vegetables require high humidity to avoid shriveling. A typical underground root cellar will naturally maintain a high humidity if it has an earthen floor, but depending on your particular environment and intended cellar use, you may wish to adjust the humidity level up or down by your management practices. Coolness is generally a desirable characteristic regardless of what you’re storing, but if you are storing a lot of canned goods, nuts or dried fruit, humidity can be your enemy because dried fruit can easily rot and metal canning lids can rust in humid environments. Once you make a list of the products you would like to store, the value of a root cellar with one humid chamber and another dry chamber might become more evident.
Humidity can be increased with an exposed dirt floor, sprinkling water on gravel floors and packing vegetables in wet sawdust. Humidity can be lowered by using concrete floors, barrels of rock salt or by allowing for more ventilation entering from drier air outside.