You know it. You’re wasting money every time you toss an onion, potato or head of garlic that has sprouted leaves and begun to grow right there in your kitchen. You know it means another trip to the grocery to buy more potatoes that you will probably toss in the trash because they went bad before you could eat them. Lather, rinse, repeat.
How wasteful is that cycle? Well. Brace yourself: The average family of four in the United States throws out $1,600 worth of produce a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. People. Come on! You could buy an iPhone X and 20 bottles of Bombay Sapphire for the money you’re wasting every year on rotten vegetables.
Your great-grandmother would yell at you for being such a wastrel. She would also introduce you to her root cellar, an underground storage room that was once a household fixture, in the days before there were supermarkets on every corner and a refrigerator in every home.
A root cellar kept vegetables fresh for months, no electricity needed. Your great-grandma could put potatoes in there at Halloween and they’d still be ready to cook the following Easter. But you can’t keep a sweet potato fresh for two weeks.
Never fear! You can make your veggies last for months, no root cellar required. Here’s how:
Find a cool, dark location in your house. Put your veggies in there.
You can turn any place inside your home, provided that it’s sunlight-free and stays above freezing but below 60 degrees, into a space that will keep food fresh almost as well as a root cellar. An attached garage, a basement, a closet on an exterior wall, an enclosed but unheated porch, an attic, a mudroom or even a spare room where you can close off the heating vents – any of those will work.
Some like it damp.
Not all veggies have the same endurance needs. Some, including beets, carrots, potatoes, rutabagas, radishes, and turnips, do best when stored in cold temps, between 32 and 40 degrees, in 90 to 95 percent humidity. Pack them in peat moss or damp, shredded newspaper and place them in a bucket or plastic storage box with no cover. Mist the packing material damp with a spray bottle of water, so that it stays moist but not dripping wet.
Others like it dry.
Some veggies last longest when stored in a warmer spot, between 50 and 60 degrees, with 60 to 70 percent humidity. Onions, sweet potatoes, garlic, winter squash, pumpkins and shallots prefer dry air and a little more warmth. Store them in baskets or boxes with no cover. You can also hang garlic and onions in loose mesh bags. Store sweet potatoes on a shelf, lined up in a single layer – not stacked. Or, wrap each one in newspaper and stack them in a laundry basket or box with holes cut in the side for ventilation.
How the heck do I know how humid or cold the air is around my vegetables?
Buy a gadget called a hygrometer/thermometer. You can get a digital one from Amazon for $8.95. If you’re concerned about brick and mortar stores disappearing and Amazon being the only retailer left on the planet, you can also find one at any hardware store.
Give them room to breathe.
Store veggies so they aren’t touching, to allow air to circulate around them.
Inspect them once a week.
If you find a veggie that’s starting to go bad, toss it before it spreads the rot to its roommates. If any of them are beginning to grow, pinch off the sprout. You will literally be nipping the problem in the bud.
This sounds like more trouble than it’s worth to make a butternut squash last a week longer.
Ah, but we’re not talking about adding days to the life of your produce. We’re talking about adding months. Months! Garlic you bought in October will still be ready for spaghetti in March. That pumpkin you didn’t make into a Thanksgiving pie? You can use it for Christmas pie instead.
Buy in bulk, save money.
Once you know how to make your veggies last, you can buy the 25-pound bag of onions at Costco and not throw out 24 pounds of them. Store them root-cellar style and you’ll be putting onions into the marinara instead of the trash, and keeping more money in your pocket. Your great-grandma would be proud.