Homesteading: How to Prepare Foods for Cold Storage
A thriving vegetable garden is essential for most backyard homesteads. Like more traditional homesteaders, you need food storage that doesn’t rely on preservatives and electricity. Cold storage is the answer, but not all foods are suitable for root cellars and other storage options.
Foods that store well are generally the less juicy and delicate things, such as root vegetables and firm fruits. The following discussion lists several fruits and vegetables that keep very well in cold storage. They are foods that many families enjoy; they provide a fresh taste when bland winter fare abounds; and they extend your food pantry to include fresh, tasty choices.
(Note: You may be able to extend the life of more tender foods, such as eggplant or broccoli, but don’t count on them lasting for months as the other foods will. You can keep these treats in storage about two weeks, but no longer.)
As a general rule, harvest root crops as late as you can in the season and don’t wash the dirt from the roots. Simply use your hand or a rag to remove some of the loose soil.
How to store apples
Storing apples works very well. Choose a variety that is known for storage. Kept well, apples can last throughout the entire winter — four to six months! Toward the end of that time, a perfectly good apple may become slightly shriveled. This is simply from the loss of moisture, not nutrition.
Choose apples that are unblemished and firm (they shouldn’t give at all when pressed). Check in bright light for dents and soft spots.
To store, layer the apples carefully in very cold temperatures (between 30 and 35 degrees), with a high humidity between 80 and 90 percent. (Place a pan of water in the area where they’re stored.)
Try covering your bin of apples with a damp (not dripping) cloth, which remains damp for at least a day. And make it a habit to replace the cloth every couple of days when you check other stored produce.
How to store beets
Beets are prolific and inexpensive to grow, meaning you’ll end up with plenty for storage if you plant a few rows in your homestead garden. Harvest beets late in the season, after the nights become freezing cold. If you’re buying beets at a farmer’s market, look for fresh, crisp tops. This is the best indication that the beets are just picked.
To prepare the beets for storage, cut off the tops, leaving the beet itself intact (don’t wash them). Then place the beets in your coldest storage, temperatures just above freezing, 32 to 40 degrees, with 90 to 95 percent humidity. To increase humidity naturally, place the beets on moist sand.
Some gardeners recommend leaving beets in the ground, covered with a thick layer of straw. They say beets and other root crops can be harvested directly from the ground into the coldest part of the winter. Be aware, though, that rodents may destroy root crops before you get a chance to harvest them. So, before you follow the advice of the “leave ’em in the ground” crowd, make sure you — and not rodents — will be the benefactors.
How to store cabbage
Cabbage adds bulk and crunch to many winter dishes and is a great crop for homesteading. Keeping cabbage in storage requires a few extra precautions, however, to ensure that it remains useable throughout the winter and doesn’t ruin other food nearby.
First, cabbage gives off a strong odor while in storage, which is normal (don’t confuse this smell with spoilage). The problem with the smell is that apples and other fruits can absorb the flavor of cabbage. The key is to make sure you don’t store cabbage too closely to these other types of foods. If you must store cabbage close to other foods, wrap individual heads with newspaper to contain the odor.
The longer cabbage remains in storage, the stronger the taste when it’s cooked. If your family does not like the stronger taste, plan on using up cabbage early in the storage season.
Second, cabbage needs to be stored in a damp area. If you store cabbage in a place that’s too dry, the heads dry out, and the dry, wilted leaves are wasted. Fortunately, you can take care of this tendency with a simple pan of water.
To prepare cabbage for storage, choose unblemished cabbage that has not been picked for long. Remove the tough outer leaves. Wrap each head in newspaper and store it where temperatures are just above freezing, 32 to 40 degrees, and the humidity levels are between 80 to 90 percent. Place a pan of water near the cabbage to provide enough moisture during storage.
How to store carrots
Carrots are another root vegetable that stores well and tastes sweet and crisp throughout the winter months. Just as you do with beets, pick carrots as late as possible in the season. Avoid any that have grown too large and pithy, however, because these carrots have used up their natural sweetness and will taste bitter.
To prepare carrots for storage, trim off the tops, leaving the carrot itself intact. Don’t wash them; simply brush off excess soil if you want to. Place carrots with beets in coldest storage of 32 to 40 degrees with high humidity of 90 to 95 percent. Carrots do especially well in moist sand.
How to store garlic
You can never have enough garlic, especially since garlic is so easy to store. If you’re growing your own garlic, simply pull the bulbs after the tops have dried and fallen over. Allow the garlic bulbs to dry thoroughly out of direct sunlight until the outside of the bulbs has become dry and papery. Purchased garlic bulbs have already been dried. Look for the papery outer layer that you always see on a store-bought bulb.
Dry bulbs on newspaper outside during the warm summer days but bring them in during the cool nights to prevent condensation. Repeat this process for a few days, until the garlic is completely dry.
When the garlic is thoroughly dry, tie bunches of tops together, braid in attractive garlic braids. Alternatively, you can trim tops from bulbs and place them in women’s stockings, tying a knot between bulbs. You can hang this long chain of bulbs on a nail in a cool and slightly damp area. You may have luck placing garlic in a cool coat room, instead of an actual root cellar. They are in a convenient location for cooking, and let’s face it, they make quite a conversation piece! If you do keep them in cold storage, place them in 30 to 45 degrees with a humidity level of 60 to 70 percent.
How to store onions
Most onions keep very well in cold storage. Some varieties, such as the extra sweet onions, however, don’t last long. When planting, choose varieties that say they work well for storage (you’ll see the term good keeper). These onions last throughout the storage season.
Harvest onions the same as garlic. Pull them when the tops turn brown and fall over. They must then be cured, like garlic: Place them on newspaper to dry during the warm days, bringing them in during the cool night hours to avoid condensation buildup. When storing purchased onions, you don’t have to worry about this step. They are already dried for you.
To store, gently place onions in a crate, loose mesh bag, or ladies’ stockings, tying a knot between each onion. To prevent mildew on onion skins, air circulation is vital, so make sure your cold storage has adequate ventilation (see the earlier section “Finding the Perfect Place for Cold Storage”). The ideal storage conditions are temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees and humidity of 60 to 70 percent. If, throughout the season, you find onions with some mildew on them, simply use those onions first. Generally, the mildew is on the outer layers, leaving the inside onions fresh.
How to store pears
Pears store very well and make a nice change from apples. In years when apples are affected by blight or scald and are too expensive, pears can be more available.
Pick pears you plan to store when they’re just ripened. (Don’t choose pears that are too ripe, or soft; simply leaning against each other can cause them to bruise.) To help protect the fruit, wrap each pear in a sheet of newspaper before storing. Keep temperatures cold, 30 to 35 degrees, with high humidity (80 to 90 percent). Pears can keep for several months in this manner.
How to store potatoes
Potatoes are the easiest of all fruits and vegetables to store. To prepare for storage, harvest late in the season. Don’t wash the potatoes; instead remove excess soil with your hand or a soft rag. Inspect them carefully for bruising or nicks in the skin (fresh potatoes have a more delicate skin than those that have been harvested for a few days). If you find any bruising or nicks, keep these potatoes out of storage and use them within a few days.
Store potatoes in complete darkness at 32 to 40 degrees and 80 to 90 percent humidity. Every week, check them for damage. At least once a month, turn and rearrange them. Finally, don’t let them freeze. A frozen potato is a ruined potato; it can’t be saved.
The most important rule for storing potatoes is to store them in complete darkness. First, the darkness signals dormancy for the potato, and it won’t sprout. Second, potatoes subjected to light become bitter over time. Other than perfect darkness, potatoes really do well in almost all storage conditions.
How to store turnips
Turnips are an underappreciated root crop. They are easy to grow: You simply plant them early in the season, weed them a few times, and harvest them late in the season, after the nights become freezing cold, sometime in November.
To prepare turnips for storage, don’t wash them. Simply brush off any excess soil with your hand or a rag, and trim off the turnip tops.
Store them in your coldest storage area; just above freezing is ideal (temperatures of 30 to 40 degrees). The humidity should be high; between 90 to 95 percent is optimal. Turnips are another food that stores well in damp sand.
Consider turnips a crop that provides two separate foods: the greens and the root. So, after you trim the tops to prepare the root for cold storage, don’t throw away the greens. You can dry them for use later.
How to store tomatoes
You may be surprised to see tomatoes, which are both fragile and juicy, in this list of good cold-storage vegetables. Tomatoes can, however, be kept for a limited period of time in cold storage.
When you store tomatoes, you store the whole plant, not just the individual tomatoes. So, at the end of the growing season, select any tomato plants that have fruit with the slightest hint of ripening (any color change, from slight yellow to orange) and follow these steps:
- Remove any fruits from the plant that are still fully green or too small to ever ripen.
- Pull the entire plant out of the ground and hang it upside down in temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees, with moderate humidity of 60 to 70 percent.
An unheated garage or cellar stairwell works great for this.
The tomatoes will ripen slowly over time, right on the vine. You will be amazed at the vine-fresh flavor.