I’ll admit, I have a lot of romantic notions about a root cellar. I’d love to build one, a real one, dug deep into a hillside here on the homestead.
Unfortunately, our land has a very high water table, and an underground root cellar isn’t an option. The truth is though, “root cellaring” has very little to do with whether or not you have an actual root cellar.
Reading Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage for Fruits and Vegetables really opened my eyes to all sorts of spare places that could be used to keep food fresh all winter, even if my dream of a dug root cellar never materialized. Not only does the book take you through the requirements for each type of food you’re storing, it also provides plans and ideas for root cellaring just about anywhere, even in an apartment.
Most homes have an area that stays cooler than the rest. A nook where the heat of the woodstove doesn’t quite penetrate. Maybe it’s a room along the north wall, the back of a closet or pantry, or just a spare nook in the basement.
In the far back corner of our basement, we’ve screened off a section and installed a bit of shelving. Without any work, just by virtue of being underground, that section of the basement stays around 55 degrees all year long. That’s not quite cold enough to be considered a proper “root cellar” but it’s cool enough for some impromptu root cellaring.
For root cellaring apples, they keep best if they’re in a single layer and not touching each other. A good way to do that is with shallow boxes that keep them all in one layer. We wrap each apple in a newspaper, which is extra added protection and helps keep any apples that do start to spoil from contaminating the whole batch.
I dream of one day having one of these orchard racks from Gardeners Supply, but for now, we’re using plain old cardboard boxes.
I figured that we might be able to keep apples fresh for a few months at most, maybe just long enough to have a fresh homemade pie for Christmas. The first year we stored them, they were perfect as the day they went in the box on Christmas, so we made our pie and left the rest to see how long they’d last.
They lasted and lasted, and by Christmas the following year, a full 14 months later they were starting to show some signs of serious deterioration. They were still good enough for a second Christmas pie though, more than a year in storage.
How did that happen? What kind of magical apples are these?
The tree was here when we moved to our homestead, but it’s a grafted variety. A bit of research and we found an apple variety that described ours perfectly: Newton Pippin.
The slow food arc of taste describes it as “late-harvested, medium-large, flattish round, green-skinned, yellow-tinged, slightly russeted apple with a remarkably balanced tart/sweet flavor and an aroma described as “piney” by some.” More importantly, according to Stocking Up, they are hands down the best storage apple variety.
Numerous sources say they’ll keep for 8 months without issue, and that they, in fact, need at least a few months in storage to fully develop flavor. Trying them month to month, I’d agree with that. Just after harvest, they’re nothing to write home about. Months later, they’re spectacular.
Though sources say they keep about 8 months, ours kept much longer. Perhaps it’s in the definition of keeping. They looked good as the day we picked them for 8 months, after that they began to lose a bit of moisture, and got a little wrinkly on the outside.
Likely this is from lack of humidity. A basement is humid, true, but to truly store apples in ideal conditions they want very high humidity and temperatures close to freezing.
So in haphazard basement storage, they lost their crispness, that’s true, but they didn’t spoil. They made a perfect pie at 14 months old.
Keep in mind, you should only use totally perfect, bruise-free apples for storage. Anything that gets bruised or dinged goes straight into our cider press, and most of that is preserved as canned cider.
Since this original experiment, we’ve tried other apple varieties noted for good keeping with great success using the simple cardboard box and newspaper method. We’ve successfully stored Ashmead’s Kernel, Honeycrisp and Northern Spy for 8 months each, and they may have in fact lasted longer but we simply had eaten them all at that point.
Honeycrisp is popular these days as a great eating apple, but it’s actually one of the very best storage apples. According to a plant breeder at the University of Minnesota, “[Honeycrisp] has the capacity to store like none I have ever seen.”
Honeycrisp is one of my favorite apples, and when we learned that they store so well, we planted two full-sized trees. They should be bearing age in around 2020, so I’m crossing my fingers that after that we’ll never buy another apple in the winter.
Stocking Up also suggests storing Stayman-Winesap, York Imperial, Arkansas Black Twig, Baldwin, Ben Davis and Rome Beauty and that each of those varieties will keep for at least 6 months.
Update: After 6 months in the root cellar, they’re better than the day they went in. We still have 2 feet of snow on the ground in late March, but we’re eating our home harvested apples. The skin color yellowed, but the texture is still crisp and the flavor has matured to delicious.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep a few squirreled away and take a picture of last year’s fall apples next to this summer’s earliest apples. Our Yellow Transparent apples ripen in July…stay tuned.
What do you think? Are you ready to try storing apples in your own improvised root cellar? Leave a note in the comments below.
Related: Resources for Building a Homestead Root Cellar
Do you ever have problems with mice eating them?
Surprisingly, no. Though we have rodents in the house somewhat often, they’re never here long. I’ve never seen evidence of them getting into anything in the pantry, and they’re almost always in the kitchen, and that’s where we set our traps. This could be a problem though, if you have a different setup or a more persistent rodent problem.
I had a thought go to the grocery store and get the apple separators and a few boxes they fit
I am pretty sure that apples at the store are from the previous year that were kept in ideal conditions.
Root cellar at dark is that a requirement?
It is for potatoes, but I’m honestly not totally sure for apples. I’ve never had a space that was cool enough for apples that wasn’t also pretty dark. Our basement isn’t completely dark, there is a half window that lets in quite a bit of light.
I’ve heard it’s not good to store apples with other things. Have you had any experience with that, or does the newspaper protect the other produce, too?
Apples put off a lot of ethylene gas, which is something that causes other things to spoil. It’s best to keep them away from other things you’re storing if at all possible. Ethylene sinks I’ve read, so if you store apples below other things that’s supposed to be fine. One other thing I read a time back is that ethylene prevents potatoes from sprouting, so you’re supposed to store your apples above your potatoes and then everything else above that.
Kinda complicated, and in reality, it only matters if you’re trying to store them for the whole winter (ie. extended periods).
I’m guessing this won’t work in south Texas where it’s hot and humid most of the time? Or will wrapping them in newspaper help extend their life no matter the temperature?
Winter heat isn’t a problem we have here…ever. Honestly, I couldn’t say.
I’m so glad I happened upon your website! We bought an overgrown vineyard with old fruit trees about 10 years ago, and the two apples you’ve featured are quite possibly two of the varieties of trees we have as well! The root cellar tips are wonderful as well. Our house has a creepy crawly space with a dirt floor off the basement. I’ve never used it and never have even ventured into it. I do know it has small air vents at ground level because I can see light coming into it from time to time. Maybe it’s a root cellar and what the farm used for produce storage!
I wish we could do that in our trailer in sunny central Florida. I do want to say that my grandparents had a yellow transparent apple tree. She used to slice them up and dry them over the wood stove and put them up marked YT4P, meaning that they were for pies. I used to like eating them just as they were. A dear friend had said she tried every type of apple she could find, but couldn’t match dried YT flavor. Thanks for the great ideas.
We live in Washington state, and have an unheated pump house. We bought a plastic toter because of mice that for sure live there.
Do you think if we drill some holes in the sides of the plastic toter it would give enough ventilation and wrap the apples in newspaper and that this approach would work? The temperature is perfect and it’s humid.
I think that sounds about perfect to me!
I live in humid hot Louisiana in a brick house on a slab. The winter heat is gas. We keep the heat at 68 during the day and 63 at night. I have an extra closet for ‘in case of emergency’
I wonder if apples would stay ok in the bottom of that closet thru winter…?
Does your closet have heat in it? Do you have an idea of what the temperature is in there?
I was very interested to read this about Newton Pippins. We live in Victoria, BC, Canada, which has the same climate at Washington State (seattle). Our Newton Pippins, on a large very old tree, start to fall in droves in mid to late August, so many get bruised. Do yours fall early like this, long before they are ripe? We tend to pick a lot early in Septmeber because of this. They are great when they go yellow and ripen, but it takes time.
The fruit should not be dropping before it has had a chance to ripen. Other than the fruit dropping prematurely, have you noticed anything else about the health of the tree?
Hello! I am curious if anyone has tried this with store bought (organic) apples? We don’t have a tree yet but my husband really like the idea, assuming we can get a long-storage variety to grow for Central Texas? Someone else mentioned in the comments that store ones are already a year old so looks like I have some research to do! Thank you for
this information and the book recommendation. I know I want to store things but don’t always know what questions I should be asking. I love that you also shared info with someone else about the ethane gas because I tried finding answers on that before but came up short. I look forward to researching the chemistry behind all of this. Could be a game changer. I’ve been measuring the temperature in our home’s middle closet and I know it’s too hot for summer storage so I have been toying with how to make that better without destroying our house lol…the winter gets our master closet plenty cold though.
You can definitely use store-bought apples, provided they’re recently harvested and good storage varieties. That’s tricky though, as wholesalers often save the storage varieties for sale in the off-season, and only offer the quick spoilage ones in the fall. The other ones then later in the season, as you mention…have already been stored for quite a while. Some of the farm markets (not farmer’s markets, but like actual storefronts) around here sell a huge variety of local produce in season and you can often get fresh apples from the farm that way. That’s your best bet.
Awesome, thank you for your experience and reply! I will definitely be keeping that mind when shopping for them. Not that I want to sacrifice our food for experiments, but I could probably test it and keep an eye out for spoilage as the months progress.
Our mum and nan did this when we were growing up in the sixties. She kept the in the cupboard under the stairs. The apples lasted perfectly and never spoilt.
Great idea and very helpful. I used to buy end rolls of paper from a newspaper that printed on site. It wasn’t printed in so no ink as I hated using it w/ink when I did paper mache. This would be a great other use of that paper.
Yes, it definitely would be.
Question: you wash the apple before you store?
I wouldn’t wash them before storing. They are coming right off the tree and should be pretty clean already.
Would wrapping them in small brown paperbags do the same trick? Do they need to be in a closed or opened box? Does it need to be a cardboard box or is a plastic tote safe?
Yes, that would work as well.
Wow, that’s amazing! THanks for the great advice. I am excited to try this. Storing apples long term has been a problem for us.
You’re quite welcome!
Thank you for your insights! Did you stack the boxes on the shelves or keep them in a single layer. If you stacked, how many boxes did you stack comfortably?
You should be able to stack the boxes on top of one another with no problem. I would just stack as many as you can without damaging the boxes.