Mastering Food Preservation: Winter Storage Techniques

An important part of eating locally year-round in Maine is learning to store food for the winter. To further knowledge about this, the Master Food Preserver Program includes a section on Winter Storage Techniques. Kathy Hopkins, the Somerset County Extension Educator, was the evening’s guest and spoke about creating a root cellar of our own.

Root cellars are a way to store produce over winter, or until you have more time to can or freeze it. Storage conditions are dependent on three factors: temperature, moisture and ventilation. To help you navigate what can be a confusing range of storage requirements, here’s a general overview. Suggestions for indoor home storage are included, especially for when building a separate root cellar may not be an option:

1. Cold & very moist (32° – 36°F)
– Thin skin: Beets, kohlrabi, turnips, carrots, parnips, radishes, cucumbers.
– Leafy: Celery, cabbage, endive, kale, cauliflower, leeks.
– Cabbage and turnips should be individually wrapped in newspaper to prevent them from drying out and to reduce their strong odor from getting into vegetables stored nearby.
– Leave 1/2 inch of the stem attached to help retain moisture.
– Store in unheated cellar, basement storage room, or bulkhead.

2. Cold & moist (36° – 50°F)
– Potatoes: Cure in warm and dark environment for 10 days before storing
– Tomatoes: Leave short stem attached, store in single layer with newspaper on top to keep from drying out
– Apples: Store separately from potatoes and carrots.
– Store in unheated cellar, basement storage room, or bulkhead.

3. Cool & dry (36° – 50°F)
– Onions, garlic, hot peppers.
– Store in cool and dry attic, or unheated room.

4. Warm & dry (50° – 60°F)
– Pumpkins and winter squash (darkness not as critical), dry beans, ripening tomatoes.
– Store in house, or basement room with furnace.

In general, store fruits separately from vegetables. The image above shows areas in a house that could be used for storage (from Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home). To control humidity, make sure it’s a space that can be ventilated, with access to fresh air.

In-Garden Storage
Storing food directly in the ground where they’re grown is another choice for saving food for the winter:
– Root Crops are good candidates: Carrots, turnips, parsnips.
– Do not mulch until soil is cool; trapped warmth can aid in decay.
– Carrots are damaged below 25°F.
– Light freezing improves flavor of parsnips, horseradish, and turnips.
– Can tolerate early light frost: beets, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, endive, kale, leeks, onions.
– Also consider storing in trenches, mounds, pits, or buried containers.

Harvesting Produce for Storage
– Select late-maturing varieties bred for long term storage.
– Harvest when ripe, not over or underripe; harvest as late in the season as possible, but before damaging frost.
– Harvest in the morning and/or in cool weather, after the dew is dry but before the afternoon’s heat; avoid harvesting when ground is muddy.
– Remove field heat by cooling down as quickly as possible.
– Cull out damaged produce and handle gently; nicks and bruises will cause decay and invite bacteria.
– Leave root crops in ground as long as possible before harvesting.
– Some crops require curing before storage, such as onions, garlic, potatoes, and winter squash.

Storing Canned Foods
From the National Center for Home Preservation:
Check jar lids for tight vacuum seal, remove screw bands, wash the lid and jar to remove food residue; then rinse and dry jars. Label and date the jars and store them in a clean, cool, dark, dry place. For best quality, store between 50 and 70°F. Can no more food than you will use within a year.

Do not store jars above 95° F or near hot pipes, a range, a furnace, in an uninsulated attic, or in direct sunlight. Under these conditions, food will lose quality in a few weeks or months and may spoil. Dampness may corrode metal lids, break seals, and allow recontamination and spoilage.

Accidental freezing of canned foods will not cause spoilage unless jars become unsealed and recontaminated. However, freezing and thawing may soften food. If jars must be stored where they may freeze, wrap them in newspapers, place them in heavy cartons, and cover with more newspapers and blankets.

Suggested Quantities (for family of four)
From Root Cellars: Safe and Secure from the Corporate Food Train:
– Apples: 5 bushels
– Carrots: 40 to 60 pounds
– Cabbage: green, 20 heads; red, 10 heads
– Beets: 20 pounds
– Celeriac (celery root, use instead of celery): 10 to 20 heads
– Leeks: 40 plants
– Potatoes: 100 pounds or more
– Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke): 10 pounds
– Onions: 40 pounds
– Garlic: 10 to 20 pounds
– Winter radish: 10
– Parsnip: 20 pounds
– Squash: 40 ‘Delicata’ and 30 pounds butternut
– Pumpkin: 5 to 10
– Turnip and rutabaga: 10 or more

Lastly, check your stores frequently!

Vegetable Storage in Root Cellars (University of Alaska Cooperative Extension)
Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home (Washington State University Cooperative Extension)
• Commercial Storage of Fruits, Vegetables, and Florist and Nursery Stocks (USDA Agriculture Handbook #66)
Storing Garden Vegetables  (MOFGA) – overview of individual vegetables
Root Cellars: Safe and Secure from the Corporate Food Train (MOFGA)
Using a Bulkhead as a Root Cellar (MOFGA)

Recommended Reading
• The Complete Root Cellar Book: Building Plans, Uses and 100 Recipes by Steve Maxwell
• How to Store Your Garden Produce: The Key to Self-Sufficiency by Piers Warren
• Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning by the Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante
• Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables by Mike Bubel

This series of posts follows the Master Food Preserver Program being offered through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

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5 Responses to Mastering Food Preservation: Winter Storage Techniques

  1. Lou Murray's Green World says:

    Great post. Very informative, and I love that old poster. Looks like it was from the WWII era with their Victory Gardens.

  2. Liz says:

    Fascinating post, its interesting how architecture plays a role in food storage. Most of the houses here wouldn’t work in this respect being built without cellars, even those built before 1900 were pretty much all built above ground with occasional exceptions. I imagine because our climate allows us to grow things year round food storage was less of an imperative.

  3. Seasonsgirl says:

    Lots of good info :)

  4. Mark Willis says:

    Wow, such detailed information! Most people these days have no idea at all about how to save / store food. They just expect it to be available all the time at the supermarket. I think I’ll just go and re-design my house!!

  5. Jan says:

    Your blog is my favorite. Very, very impressive, generous and informative. And I love your excellent photos. I continue to feel inspired and grateful for your sharing with us. My Maine seaside garden (windy, mind you!) produces a bounty and I am always learning new methods of storage as well as my cropping rotations and timing. I love following your gardening year! Thank you!!!

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