Thursday, September 27, 2012

Winter food storage the Living Low way

I promised you a post on storing food at no or low cost or use of fossil fuels so you can take advantage of the fall harvest and keep some of it into winter and even into next spring. There is plenty of information on this topic available in books and on the Web, and I will be referring to a few of these sources. However, while adapting some of the information to our situation, I have found that some foods seem to be able to last for longer, and/or at higher temperatures, than the official sources claim. Whether foods stored at these higher temperatures or longer periods of time are as nutritious as more conventionally-stored foods is an open question. If you want to push the food storage boundaries, you must consider your own situation carefully and gather as much information as you can on potential benefits and possible harms. Consider this post as one information source and be sure to consult others.

Since this post is specifically on working with the fall harvest, I’ll limit it to what you could expect to be harvesting from a fall garden or from local farmers markets in the greater St. Louis region, or what you may have on hand from summer harvests or market trips. This could include the last flush of warm-weather vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and squash as well as the cool-weather vegetables and fruits that are coming into season from now through sometime in November, when short day lengths and cold weather put an end to plant growth in an unprotected garden until next spring. I’ll also limit it to foods you can store without having to can, dry, or blanch them first. You may be storing foods in your refrigerator, freezer, or in various locations in your residence or an outbuilding depending on the food and how long you want to keep it.

Some vegetables can be stored at cool room temperatures for many weeks. We heat our house to around 60F most of the time during heating season (50F when we are sleeping), occasionally as warm as 68F when we have visitors. The two rooms on the north end of the house are always a few degrees cooler than the thermostat reading. The resulting temperature range of 50-60F in those two rooms is perfect for long term storage of squashes. However, the storage life of squash is strongly dependent on the species and to a lesser extent on the variety, so if you want to store squashes through winter, you need to choose the right squashes. Carol Deppe, in the squash chapter of her book The Resilient Gardener, discusses the general pattern of storage life among the three common squash species: Cucurbita maxima, C. pepo, and C. moschata. C. pepo varieties include acorn and delicata squashes and most of the pumpkins as well as all of the zucchinis and most of the other summer squashes. Of these, she says that only the delicatas are good storage squash, and even these cannot be stored longer than about two or three months before deteriorating in quality. For storage through winter and into early spring, she says that you want C. maxima squashes like the buttercups, bananas, and hubbards or C. moschata squashes like the butternuts. Carol’s favorite storage squashes are mostly from the C. maxima group because she lives and gardens in Oregon, which has a cool summer season more suitable to the maximas than the moschatas. With our long, hot growing season, we can grow C. moschata varieties easily. I grow and like ‘Waltham Butternut’, a long-storing and very high quality squash that is deep orange and quite sweet after curing (allowing it to sit for a few weeks after harvest before eating it). I have had them last into March! If you want to stock up on squashes available at local farmers markets (most if not all of them will continue through the last week of October), you may want to look for the squashes mentioned above. You could buy some of each species and eat the delicatas first, then the longer-storing squash.

If you keep your residence warmer than we keep ours, you may have a small area that stays in the range of 50-60F from late fall through early spring; a likely candidate is a closet on an outside wall or, if you have an unheated basement, a spot in the basement. Or you may have a room that stays cooler than the rest of your residence, perhaps because of lack of insulation or being farthest from the furnace. These would be good places to consider for storing squash or the other vegetables that keep best in the 50-60F range.

A few other vegetables can be stored in the same temperature range as the squashes. Of these, sweet potatoes keep the longest, even longer than squash in my experience. I’ve had sweet potatoes last until May. Dried hot peppers will also keep for a long time, a year or more, and at even warmer temperatures; we have kept dried peppers in our kitchen pantry for multiple years. Finally, mature green tomatoes can be kept at room temperature until they ripen and are ready for use.

I have had success with storing garlic and onions from the time they are harvested through fall and winter (the onions are varieties which are known to store well, unlike some onions that are not long keepers). Mike and Nancy Bubel, in their book Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables, claim that onions are best stored cool (32-50F) and rather dry. Our unheated basement is not that cool except in January of cold winters, when it has dropped under 50F. But it is dry and I think that may be a more critical factor than cold in preserving onions and garlic. I store onions in wooden baskets in the basement and garlic in open cardboard boxes in our kitchen pantry. Another good storage option is net bags hung from the ceiling in a basement or another cool, dry area. Some people braid onions and garlic and hang them from one end of the braid. Our stored garlic and onions begin to sprout by late winter or early spring, but they are still good food at that point (we eat the greens as well as the bulbs). Onions and garlic stored in the recommended temperature range probably last longer without sprouting than do those that we store at our less than optimal conditions. The recommended temperature range for storing dry beans and popcorn is also 32-50F; we also store these in our pantry or the basement, and they last for multiple years.

Every vegetable or fruit other than those above should be kept cooler than 50F and most should be kept cooler than 40F, according to the Bubels and also according to the Missouri Extension guide on root cellar storage. In my experience, however, some vegetables survive for long periods at considerably higher storage temperatures. I have kept potatoes from harvest in July through the following March in nothing more elaborate than a 5 gallon bucket sitting on our unheated basement floor, even though the Bubels and the MU Extension claim they should be stored at 32-40F. Right now we have sugar beets in another 5 gallon bucket that were harvested last November, ten months ago, and stored either in our improvised cold storage area or on the basement floor, and they are still firm and tasty despite supposedly requiring the same temperature range for storage as potatoes. On the other hand, the leafy crops I have harvested and kept in our cold storage area, primarily leeks, bok choy, and turnip and radish greens, don’t seem to last as long as the Bubels and the Extension suggest they should. This may be because our storage area doesn’t get as cool as the 32-40F that is supposed to be ideal. Root crops like radishes, turnips, beets, and potatoes last longer under a wider range of conditions for us, as might be expected since their purpose is to store energy while the plant is dormant. Leafy crops need colder conditions to stop their attempts to grow.

The Bubels’ book includes descriptions and plans of root cellars constructed as such and also some improvised cold storage areas devised and used by their interviewees. Our improvised cold storage area is underneath the porch leading to our kitchen door. In the photo below you can see the slanted door over a short stairway that leads into the anteroom under the porch.
This anteroom, in turn, has a door to the south that leads into the basement and an opening to the north leading to the crawl space underneath the north two rooms of our house. The photo below is of the anteroom. You can see the door leading to the basement on the left edge. The area is also used as storage space for some of our garden equipment until we build a garden shed.

The opening to the outside allows some cold air to filter into the anteroom since the outside door does not seal tightly. The room is mostly underground so produce set on and near the floor does not freeze, using the more constant soil temperature to good advantage. I do not store anything in the room until the final fall harvest of the year, usually in mid to late November, because the temperature in the room does not cool down sufficiently earlier in the fall. The room does not have a ventilation system to allow the entry of cold air and the exit of warmer air or the insulation that are included in a properly designed root cellar. However, outside temperatures are cool enough by December to drop the temperature in the room to around 40F, cool enough for storage of root crops. By March the temperature goes above 40F again so I move any remaining produce into the basement or into the refrigerator. The space works well enough for storage of root crops, leeks, and greens. It does not cool off quickly enough to store apples, since most of the apple harvest happens in September and October around here. However, I might be able to store some apples in the ice chest you see in the photo if I were to obtain a number of cool packs, chill them in the refrigerator, and rotate them through the ice chest until the room cools off enough to not need the cool packs. I can keep apples in our refrigerator, but it is quite small so it does not have the capacity to store as many apples as I would like to purchase from local growers or what I hope to obtain from our trees as they mature.

The Bubels say that produce, being alive, breathes during its storage and thus should be stored in containers that allow it to breathe. These could be bins open at the top, baskets, or crates with slatted sides. Root crops like carrots need a very humid atmosphere, so the Bubels and their interviewees pack these into closed-sided bins in layers with dampened sawdust, sand, or leaves. Most of what we store are root crops. I didn’t want to go to the trouble of using sawdust, sand, or leaves, so I decided to put my roots into 4 and 5 gallon plastic buckets with the tops on loosely (not fully sealed). To my surprise, these work very well. None of the roots I store have softened, a sign that they are losing too much water to their surroundings. Neither have they molded or rotted, a sign of being too wet. I wash out the buckets and let them dry in the sun before I put in the vegetables for storage. I use buckets or ice chests for the leeks and greens as well. Leeks have lasted a month and may have gone longer but we ate them up by then. Bok choy and kale only last a few weeks, but that has been long enough to allow us to eat most of them. I haven’t tried storing heads of cabbage yet, which are reputed to store for as long as two months in the range of 32-40F. The Bubels suggest that cabbages for storage should be pulled from the ground with their roots intact and laid on a shelf or hung upside down from the roots. If I had fall-grown cabbage (so far I haven’t succeeded at growing it in fall), I would pull it and then store it in an ice chest or plastic bucket, perhaps with cool packs included to extend storage life as I described for storing apples. But I don’t know that leaving on the root is necessary. If I can purchase locally grown cabbage at farmers markets at the end of October, I plan to see if I can store it in our space. If so, that will add incentive to learn how to grow good fall cabbage.

Sweet and hot peppers freeze very well without prior blanching. I wash small whole hot peppers and freeze them without any further preparation. I wash sweet peppers, cut them into strips, and freeze the strips. Frozen peppers do not have a good texture for eating raw, but for cooked dishes they work fine. In a good pepper-growing year I can harvest quite a few immature peppers off my plants just before the first frost. I store the largest in the refrigerator, where they keep for a month or more, and freeze the rest as described.

If you like the idea of stocking up on fresh produce, your own or that of local growers, in order to eat fresh food into the winter, I recommend reading the Bubels’ book and considering what spots you may already have that could be used as is or modified slightly for food storage. Use what you’ve learned here and from the sources mentioned, and experiment with a little food if you want to see if you can get away with storing things warmer than the guidelines, as I did. It's worth a little effort to have fresh produce available at home during the cold months.

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