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Cold Storage For Food Preservation

An abundant supply of food preserved in cold storage.

Most of the time when we think of cold storage, we think of that creepy dungeon in your great grandparent’s basement that held potatoes with weird knobbly growths and onions twisted in an old pair of pantyhose. Cold storage as a form of food preservation is perceived as being a little bit old-fashioned, and it is the way that it’s been around for a long time.

A rustic and old kitchen with pans and cookware mounted on walls.

In reality, cold storage is a method of food preservation that can be accomplished in almost any household, and it should be! Today we’re going to look into how cold storage works, who started it, and how to make it successful.

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In the Beginning…

Using cold storage and root cellars were more than just a convenient way to keep food from going bad. It first began because of necessity, due to the fact that nothing grows under two feet of snow. If a person was unprepared for the winter months they simply wouldn’t survive. Cold storage began as keeping meat cold on a block of ice and cooking it to order. This method of food preservation has been around for thousands of years and has developed in different ways.

A root cellar pantry with preserved cheese, meat and wine.

Nowadays, cold storage is oftentimes used by folks who are looking to be more self-sufficient, people who are homesteaders and farmers, and others who are simply passionate about heirloom food.

How Cold Storage Works

This is a short term way of preserving food. Keeping fresh produce in an environment completely out of direct sunlight and with cool, damp, temperatures, extends the harvest season. A portion of food that is harvested in autumn (or stockpiled from the supermarket) can be placed in cold storage, and potentially last up until mid-late winter.

Vegetables and fruits on display at a market.

A clever way to think about food sitting in a root cellar is likening it to flowers kept in a vase. The flowers take some time to die. They are not technically alive since they aren’t connected to a root system, but they are still respiring. This combats decomposition for a short time. This is the same concept with cold storage.

Cold storage can happen anywhere from a root cellar, to a shaded porch, a pantry, stairwells, to attics (root cellars started out as rooms dug into hillsides). To keep produce fresh, it is essential that the environment is cool and well ventilated. If there is no airflow, food will rot. When these areas cannot be temperature controlled, the hot air will rise. If it has no place to vent out, it will sit as stale air in the room and lessen the lifespan of the produce.

This is an exterior look at the entrance of the underground cellar.

This is what a root cellar looked like back in the day!

It’s basically a refrigerator but requires absolutely no energy to function. It’s completely passive food preservation.

The specific conditions are temperatures of between 50-60 degrees-Fahrenheit and humidity levels of 90-95%.

Things to Consider

  • Cold storage works best in places with particularly cold climates. Cold nights are a requirement, as the soil can hold in that cool air and keep the interior cold during the day.
  • Apples produce great amounts of something called ethylene. This is the chemical that causes fruit to ripen. Ensure to keep apples separate from other produce as it will quicken the decay of produce close by.
  • Make sure to sort through the harvest. If one slightly rotting potato is accidentally kept in the bunch, it will very quickly transfer to the entire sack and ruin its entirety.
  • There is no need to wash the soil off of produce before storing it. This leaves protective exudates on the product and will lengthen its shelf life.
  • It’s possible to transplant certain plants from the garden into a pot in the cellar once it gets too cold outside. It can survive for a good period of time without sunlight, but with access to nutrients from the soil.

A close look at freshly-harvested vegetables.

Most Compatible Fruits & Vegetables

  • apple
  • beans
  • beets
  • cabbage
  • carrots
  • dry corn
  • garlic
  • onions
  • potatoes
  • pumpkin
  • turnips
  • squash


Why is cold storage necessary?

It was necessary before the invention of supermarkets and refrigerators as a method of survival. Nowadays, cold storage can be deemed as necessary if you’d like to reduce your carbon footprint and extend the shelf life of produce. This results in saving money with bills, and with throwing away rotten food.

Who started cold storage food preservation?

It is difficult to say who exactly as is this a very simple way of keeping food edible, which is employed by every culture on the planet. It started out thousands of years ago by keeping a hunted animal cold on a block of ice or snow.

How does cold storage work?

Produce is kept fresh for longer but keeping it in a cool, earthen room. If properly ventilated the room will remain at a cool temperature, acting as a refrigerator for whatever is inside.

Does keeping food in a root cellar reduce its nutrients?

As a vegetable or fruit decays, its chemical composition changes. This is present in every way of food preservation. (Except for fermentation! It can even make food better for you). The chemical composition includes different nutrients, which will reduce as the product ages. However, keeping food in a root cellar will actually preserve the nutrients for longer than freezing it or keeping it in the fridge.

What do I need for cold storage preservation?

All you need is an area that can be kept cool and well ventilated. This can be a hole in a hillside, a pantry with a fan in it, a cardboard box on a shaded porch, or even in a stairwell (lots of airflows).