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Whether you want to store your own garden-grown produce or whether you want to take advantage of a bulk discount for fresh vegetables from a local farm stand or farmer’s market, one of the most important things to know is how to properly store those vegetables to keep for the winter.
Storing produce for the winter is something we don’t always think about today since we have the option of running out to the grocery store anytime we want, but our ancestors had to plan carefully for winter storage to make sure they would have a well-preserved food supply to last through the winter without spoiling.
Even though it might not be a life-or-death necessity to know how to store your own food for winter, knowing about some basic food storage guidelines is a good old-fashioned skill to learn if you want to be able to save money by buying in bulk or by growing your own food or even if you don’t want to waste the produce you buy.
Old-Fashioned Food Storage Methods
Though some vegetables were either preserved by being canned or dried, many vegetables were kept fresh for months in old-fashioned root cellars. The root cellar was the ideal temperature and moisture level for most vegetables that grew below the ground.
Root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, and turnips were usually stored in bins filled with river sand. (Beach sand has too high of a salt content and could dry the vegetables out.) The vegetables were laid out so that they weren’t touching one another, and then they were covered with a layer of sand, and then the rest of the bin would be filled with alternating layers of vegetables and sand.
Potatoes were usually stored in separate barrels or bins without any sand, and every couple of weeks someone would sort through the potatoes to separate out any that were starting to form eyes, and those would be used up first for eating. The bins for the root vegetables would also be sorted through to make sure that none of the vegetables were starting to spoil.
Winter squash and pumpkins were typically kept inside the house because the root cellar was usually too cold and too humid of an environment for them. It was actually common for squashes to be stored underneath the bed or tucked away in any empty corner that could be found, and during the harvest season, families might have been tripping over the abundance of squash they had grown in their gardens. I wonder if our modern trend of decorating with squash and pumpkins started from the practical storage practice of keeping squash inside for the winter months?
If you live in the New England area and you want to see old-fashioned food storage first hand, I highly recommend checking out Old Sturbridge Village. I’ve learned a lot about historic methods of food preservation by vising them and talking with the knowledgeable interpreters.
Modern Vegetable Storage
If you happen to live in an old farmhouse that has a root cellar, (I wish I did!) than you can channel your inner homesteader and store your produce the old-fashioned way, but for the rest of us, here are some tips for how to store vegetables for winter:
Cold, Moist Storage:
Most root vegetables keep best when they are cold (about 32-40 degrees) and quite moist (90-95% humidity). The refrigerator is a good temperature for them, but if you harvest them straight from the ground and keep them in the fridge, they will wither and turn rubbery quickly because the air inside the fridge is too dry. (I’ve made that mistake before, and I was wondering if something was wrong with the the vegetables I had grown, but now I know the problem was with the way I was storing them.)
If you have a cellar in your home, it might be cold and damp enough that you can store them there, but if not, you can create a root cellar-like environment by storing the root vegetables in the fridge in a plastic bag after rinsing the dirt off of them (It’s usually a good idea to poke a couple of holes in the plastic bag to keep the from getting too damp and turning moldy, though.)
Note: Even though plastic bags may not be ideal from an eco-friendly standpoint, and even though they don’t exactly have an old-fashioned homesteading asthetic to them, they’re an effective way to preserve the vegetables, and you only need to use one bag to keep the vegetables fresh for months.
Vegetables that store best in this type of environment are:
Cool, Dry Storage:
Cool, dry conditions (between 32-55 degrees and about 50-60% humidity) can usually be found either in a cellar or possibly out in a garage, or even an unheated room or porch might be a good environment as long as the temperature doesn’t ever drop below freezing . You don’t want these vegetables to have too much moisture, so plastic bags aren’t the best for storing them. Mesh bags are a good option, or, if you are growing your own onions and softneck garlic, you can braid them for convenient storage that looks really neat and old-fashioned too. Potatoes can be stored in boxes or bins that have some air circulation.
Vegetables that store well under these conditions are:
Warm, Dry Storage
Warm, dry storage conditions (about 55-60 degrees and 60-70% humidity) can usually be found in most homes at room temperature. You would want to keep these vegetables in the main part of the house (rather than in a cold cellar or garage or porch) so that they won’t be too cold during the winter months.
Any out-of-the way place will work. You can even do it the authentically old-fashioned way and keep them under your bed if you want!
Vegetables that store well in these conditions are:
- Winter squash
A Note About Storing Apples
Apples keep well in a place that is both cold and moist, but they should be stored away from other vegetables if at all possible. The ethylene gas they give off can make other vegetables start to spoil much more quickly, so it’s best to keep apples in a separate place from vegetables. (This isn’t always possible, but it’s ideal if you are able to store them separately. If you have to store apples near vegetables because of lack of space, you just have to be prepared that it might lessen the amount of time that your vegetables will stay fresh in storage.)
You can find more tips about how to store apples to last through the winter here. I’ve actually had some apples last all the way through the winter and well into spring and even early summer!
Not that long ago, I knew absolutely nothing about how to store vegetables, and it was fun for me to learn more about something that used to be common knowledge in earlier centuries. These are a few resources that have some great information about vegetable storage:
What other tips do you have for storing vegetables for winter? Let us know in the comments!
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.