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.