November has been gorgeous in Montana, but the ground will soon be frozen solid. So we spent the weekend putting the garden to bed: digging the final potatoes, carrots, and beets; pulling the last green tomatoes and peppers from the greenhouse; and stuffing overlooked garlic cloves deeply into the soil. If it weren’t for the 50 pounds of tomatoes ripening on the living room floor, we’d be boxing up the canning equipment too.
We are packing food away, though: much of this last garden haul can be stored in boxes, hung in mesh bags or baskets, or otherwise kept whole for months. No canner, dehydrator, or freezer space is required. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve grown your own, have fall CSA crops, or are simply buying what’s in season over the next few weeks: Box it up to eat well all winter long.
Late-season vegetables and fruit are often staples of filling breakfasts, hearty winter soups and chowders, and rich desserts. Even if you’re buying potatoes, onions, squash, and other vegetables throughout winter, proper storage makes them last longer. If you have a root cellar, you have a ready-made place to hold your winter bounty. Few of us are so lucky these days, but you don’t have to miss out: a corner of a cool garage or mudroom, a cupboard under stairs, or even an unused coat closet can be a modern substitute. If I can find room in my 500-square-foot cabin, so can you. Here are a few of the best foods to store—and how.
Beets and Carrots
Mass-produced beets and carrots shipped cross-country taste nothing like the crisp, sweet varieties pulled fresh from local soil. Harvest beets before the first frost likely to kill their greens, but wait to dig storage carrots until after a frost. Cut off the green tops 1 inch above the root, but leave any root tip on the beets.
Store beets and carrots that are unblemished and the ideal size for the variety. Eat any last baby ones straight away, and store broken or nicked ones unwashed in your fridge to eat within a couple of weeks. Overgrown, woody ones are best as compost—or dog treats.
Beets and carrots keep well in slightly damp sand that’s 32°F–40°F with 85%–95% humidity. Mine live in an unheated mudroom, so I use small ice chests to keep them protected from the coldest winter nights. If your storage space is not prone to freezing, boxes or 5-gallon buckets also work.
- Place each storage container in its final location. It will be heavy when full of sand and produce.
- Dampen the sand slightly, using enough water that it clings lightly to your fingers but isn’t clumped or soggy.
- Start with a layer of sand, and then press a layer of beets or carrots gently into it. They can be close together, but try to keep them from touching. Cover them completely with another layer of sand.
- Continue to layer sand and beets or carrots until the container is full, leaving enough room for a somewhat thicker layer of sand at the top. Cover with a lid.
Garlic and Onions
Some members of the onion family are also traditional storage vegetables. Scallions and chives won’t keep unless frozen or dehydrated, and sweet onions are best eaten by early fall. But yellow onions, garlic, and even shallots are ideal for storage.
An onion’s shelf life relies on harvesting when mature and proper drying. To store, remove the dry tops, keeping the onion skins as intact as possible, and put them in a mesh bag or basket. Onions prefer a cold space just above freezing but can handle temperatures up to 50°F. More importantly, they prefer a dry space with only 60%–70% humidity. Hanging them ensures they don’t pick up damp from sitting on a cold floor; hooks in an unused coat closet or under an interior staircase are perfect hanging places. But if your house, like mine, lacks consistently dry areas, limit your hanging storage to what you’ll use in the first month or so and grill and freeze the rest.
My dad loves growing, harvesting, and eating potatoes. When I was a kid, metal buckets of potatoes lined the garage floor, hiding under burlap bags from both cold and light. Because they are so commonly stored, varieties are often identified first by color and second by storability.
Potatoes like to be kept humid (80%–90%) around 40°F but hang on at temps up to 60°F; a colder space turns their starch to sugar and encourages spoilage. They like to breathe but don’t want light, so follow my dad’s method of a breathable bag instead of a sealed plastic lid. Like carrots, I keep potatoes in my unheated mudroom, so I pile them in an ice chest and keep its lid cracked open with a piece of wood.
Pumpkins and Winter Squash
Just the name tells you winter squash are staples through the coldest months. Almost any variety keeps well if fully mature, with thick, undamaged skin, when harvested. Be sure to leave the stem on the pumpkin or squash.
Squash keep longest—practically all winter—if they can cure in the hot sun for up to 2 weeks. This can be a challenge in my climate, so I plan to keep them whole only a couple of months and then roast and puree the rest when I free up space in my freezer. While you are storing them whole, keep them in a fairly warm, dry space that’s 50°F–60°F with 60%–70% humidity, like an unheated bedroom or the floor of a coat closet.
Most fruits are too delicate to last past their peak, but apples are an excellent exception. The best apples to store ripen late and stay tart and crisp. Leave stems on ripe apples when you pick them, preferably on a cool day. Save only best, without worm holes or bruises, for long-term storage; process damaged ones into apple butter or applesauce or dehydrate them down to apple slices or fruit leather.
Store apples in a moist area (80%–90% humidity) at temperatures just above freezing (32°F–40°F); warmth makes them soften quickly. Mine again go in my mudroom, this time in shallow boxes that only hold a couple of layers. They seem to last the longest when I wrap them in individually in newspaper, but they still need to be checked occasionally for spoilage. Keep them as far from your storage vegetables as possible; their ethylene off-gassing ripens and then spoils other produce.
Tips & Tricks
- You can store most of the produce described here for a few weeks or even months, but certain cultivars store better than others. If you want to keep produce into and even through spring, choose long-storage cultivars as you plan next season’s garden or let your CSA farmer or local produce manager know you are looking for varieties to stockpile.
- When you plant also affects storage quality. Often the later the planting, the better the storage—as long as the vegetable or fruit has had time to mature.
- Storage produce should be dry, which is easiest to achieve by harvesting on a dry, cool day. In most cases, grab vegetables and apples before a hard frost and certainly before you have to chisel them from frozen ground. But harvesting some vegetables, such as carrots, after a light frost makes them longer lasting—and twice as tasty.
- Keep only the best of your vegetables and fruit long term. Don’t wash the produce before you store it, but do gently brush excessive dirt from vegetables that came out of the ground. Clip off tips straightaway so that they don’t continue to pull moisture from the part you want to store.
- A few other late-season vegetables also store well, including cabbages and winter root vegetables like celeriac, Daikon radishes, and rutabagas. Treat these other winter root vegetables like carrots. If you have more success than I do at growing cabbages (mine are always plagued by cabbage loopers), do some research before you pack them away: they can be challenging to store outside the fridge and can release unpleasant fumes.
Twice as Tasty
Once you’ve stashed vegetables in every corner you can think of, reward yourself by putting them to use. Start in the morning with Braised Breakfast Potatoes, or use your potatoes later in the day for a potato salad variation or Boozy Potato Chowder. Between meals, snack on Grilled Onion Dip; it can be made with dry-stored onions if you enjoy a snowy grilling session or want to cheat and slow-roast in the oven.
For dessert, baked apple or a warm, fresh batch of Grandma Tiny’s Chunky Applesauce is unexpectedly sweet, but you’d also be surprised by how little sugar is in Pumpkin–Chocolate Cookies. And who can forget winter pies? Check in next week for a couple of pumpkin and apple pie recipes that are sure to be the hit of the Thanksgiving spread.