Now that the farming season is winding down along with my energy levels, I find that I’m really grateful that the food preservation method I lean on most for the produce harvested at this time of year is the simple task of root cellaring. Not that I have a root cellar: I keep my living space temperatures on par with some root storage recommendations (read: chilly) and have managed to keep potatoes, onion, sweet potatoes, and squash very well through the past few winters.
As more people turn to food preservation as a means to save money or to enjoy local foods throughout the year, it’s no surprise that root cellaring is gaining more attention as an easy, low-energy, and cost-effective method of storing certain crops. For years, the ultimate resource on the topic was the book Root Cellaringby Mike and Nancy Bubel, but a new book arrived earlier this year with updated information on building root cellars and with more contemporary recipes. The Complete Root Cellar Book by Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie emphasizes the traditional rationales for this storage method but shows how modern construction techniques and materials can improve existing spaces as well as create new ones.
The authors begin by exploring the reasons for food preservation in general: beyond the practical reasons of saving money and extending the use of the harvest, more people now look at preservation as “an opportunity for the deepest kind of food craftsmanship and a way to contribute to effective environmental stewardship.” Root cellaring in particular allows for the illusion of shopping for produce while conveniently not even having to leave home.
The first section of the book reviews the building options, from adapting an existing “cold room” (apparently becoming a regular feature in new house construction) to building walk-in basement rooms or separate structures. In addition, the authors cover options for people living in small rental units or in warmer climates. The key elements for effective root cellar storage are pointed out repeatedly: good insulation to keep temperatures at the optimal level of 32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, good waterproofing, good humidity control (80-90% relative humidity being the ideal), good air flow (two vents, preferably), and complete darkness with task lighting that can be turned off easily.
I’m not skilled in construction methods or terminology (save for the term SIPs – structural insulated panels – used here as an easy method for building a well-insulated space), so the first portion of the book boggled my mind. Maxwell, a home improvement author, goes into considerable detail with plans for building the various root cellars, far more than I wanted to try to grasp: I had a local architect review this section of the book from his perspective. We agreed that these designs and details are not aimed for beginners and might even frustrate more experienced DIY-ers; both of us would have preferred shorter and more straightforward instructions in this section. We also both found some of the suggested add-ons – such as a work sink and more decorative elements – to be unnecessary, but I readily confess that we both tend more toward a minimalist, utilitarian approach.
The salient points of root cellar construction remain, though, and those came through fairly clearly. Maxwell also makes an excellent point about planning ahead:
Whatever cellar design you’re pursuing, make it bigger than seems necessary. You’ll probably appreciate having more space than you thought you needed, but you’ll also have enough room to invite a friend or neighbor to store food in your cellar. The pursuit of food has brought people together since the dawn of time, and it’s still a powerful way to build connections.
The second section, on storing produce in general and specific terms, really shines. Mackenzie points out that grading produce as it goes into storage – making sure that the blemished produce is used first so as not to degrade the rest – and regular checks of the remaining items will help minimize loss. Clear, handy charts list the optimal temperature and humidity for storage every kind of produce suitable for root cellaring, along with any special instructions and the average storage life of each crop. Even before these storage issues, though, Mackenzie explains when it’s best to harvest food for the root cellar and why: crops such as celery root, horseradish, and salsify require frost to develop their flavors, and Brussels sprouts call for “two solid frosts” for the best taste. And if your root cellar space is limited, side notes indicate what crops will store well in the garden.
The third section, encompassing the entire second half of the book, offers a variety of recipes that use cellared produce. Arranged by category (soups, side dishes, etc.), the recipes are clear and concise, using both standard and metric measurements and including tips and variations. While some classics are included, most recipes offer creative, delicious new ways to use some lesser-known vegetables, such as the spice-roasted turnips and beets (shown here, top of plate) I sampled earlier in the summer with new crops. (I’ve bookmarked several others to try this winter.)
If you’ve read the classic root cellaring book by the Bubels, you might wonder how this book compares. (That was certainly my initial thought.) To my mind, the Bubels have organized their book better: exploring the details of storing produce first before getting into the potential designs and construction methods of root cellars. After all, if I can store potatoes in a cooler in my living room or a cold room, I can wait a while before I decide to scale up and expand my root cellaring space. But others may adhere to the idea that “if you build it, the produce will come” and find that the building plans in the new book take priority. I also appreciate some of the simpler, older recipes in the Bubels’ book: sometimes you want something that just showcases the produce, not jazzes it up.
My final verdict? Each of these root cellaring books have something worthwhile to offer, and if you’re serious about building your own, you probably want to look at both. And if you like to experiment in your cooking, he Complete Root Cellar Book” will open up new possibilities for you.
While this stands alone very well as a salad, I found that it also made a good sandwich filling with creamy chevre and fresh chard.
Makes 4 to 6 servings as a salad.
1/4 c cider vinegar
1 T honey
1 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/3 c vegetable oil
4 beets, peeled and shredded or julienned
4 carrots, peeled and shredded or julienned
1 T chopped fresh mint (optional)
In a large bowl, whisk together vinegar, honey, mustard, salt, and pepper. Gradually whisk in oil until blended.
Add beets and carrots to vinaigrette and toss to coat. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes at room temperature or refrigerate for up to one day. Season with salt and pepper to taste; stir in mint, if using.