Cooking Classes


Root Cellars Revisited

Extending summer by enjoying the flavours of fresh vegetables should be considered magic. I cannot think of anything that keeps the memory of those hot days alive in my mind more than enjoying the garden.

This picture is from Elliston, Newfoundland, Canada. These cellars have been name the Upstairs/Downstairs Cellar. 

Of course we love our frozen vegetables. Some dry herbs. We preserve fruits and jams. But one of the original methods of food preservation is the root cellar. This is making a revival as people want to eat more locally grown food. To work properly, a root cellar must hold a temperature of 32 to 40 F (0 – 5 C) and a humidity level of 85 to 95 percent. This higher humidity prevents vegetables from drying. Beets, Brussels sprouts pulled with the root and hung upside down, cabbage, carrots and potatoes with no sprouts keep best in a root cellar. They will keep better if clean and soil removed.

In my research for this week’s article I came across the town of Elliston on Bonavista Peninsula, Newfoundland. It is the self-declared “Root Cellar Capital of the World.” After the cod moratorium in 1992, many families left. Now with its documented 135 root cellars for 300 souls, Elliston is capitalizing on this unique feature. Some of these cellars are 200 years old and still in use. The town hosts Roots, Rants & Roars, an annual festival showcasing the province’s culinary heritage. This is an admirable feat for such a small community. There is still time to attend this year’s festival from September 21 – 23 with an impressive line up of top chefs from across the country. As a lover of food and all things Canadian, this is feast is on my bucket list.

How to Create a Root Cellar

This, at its simplest, is a hole in the ground. I can remember as a child visiting neighbours who had a root cellar. It was accessed by an exterior hatchway or more commonly called, trap door. It had concrete walls and a dirt floor. Cellars were often under the house, porch or under a mound of soil to maintain a constant temperature both summer and winter.

To create one in your home, determine the dampest section of your basement. If possible, select a corner as this offers the maximum coolness and requires minimum construction. Create ventilation that allows cold outside air to enter. An existing window would be ideal. Remove the glass from the window and replace with plywood so a vent can be installed.

Use a plastic composite material for the floor since basement floors are damp. Insulate the ceiling and interior walls to keep the cool air in and warm air out.  An exterior insulated door is ideal or insulate an interior door for access.

Add shelving for storage with space for air circulation. Lower shelves will be the coolest and upper shelves will be the warmest. Wire baskets are a good way to organize items stored in the cellar.

Cold Rooms

A cold room on the other hand needs dry air. The construction is the same but the air is drier. Keep preserves and canned goods in a cold room. Dry beans and lentils, garlic and onions, squash, tomatoes and apples are best in a cold room.  In both cold rooms and root cellars ventilation is required. It allows the gases that are produced from ripening foods to escape and prevents spoilage.

Oven Roasted Squash

Squash keeps so nicely over the winter in a cold room. You can pull it out and enjoy garden freshness any time. Oven roast to make a delicious healthy soup that everyone will enjoy. It can be tossed with vegetable oil or butter to serve with your supper. High in Vitamin A and C, traces of calcium and iron make it a nutritious side dish. Roasting carmelizes the natural sugars and adds a depth of flavour not obtained through simply boiling.
Cut squash in half and scoop out seeds. Spray inside with oil and place cut side down on a baking sheet. Place in a 375 F (190 C) oven for approximately 45 minutes or until fork tender. Cool, peel skin and discard. Cut into 2-inch cubes.

At this point you can quickly reheat in a pan with a little butter or vegetable oil, season with salt and pepper and serve. Or you can make a squash soup.

Squash Soup with Ginger
Serves 6
This is a heart warming soup with lots of flavour. Make it vegetarian by using milk or water instead of chicken broth. Or use vegetable stock.  If fresh ginger is not readily available, herbs such as thyme and oregano add a nice hit of flavour.
    Approx 4 lbs squash, roasted 2 kg
    2 T. vegetable oil 30 mL
    2 c. thinly sliced onion 500 mL
    1 T. golden brown sugar 15 mL
    2 t. minced fresh ginger 10 mL
    2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
    1/2 cinnamon stick
    4 c. chicken stock 1 L
Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion, brown sugar, ginger, garlic and cinnamon. Cover and cook until onion is tender, about 15 minutes. Add squash and 5 cups chicken broth. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Discard cinnamon stick.

Working in batches, purée soup in blender. Return soup to pot. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer, thinning with more broth, if necessary. Serve immediately.  Garnish with chopped parsley, toasted pumpkin seeds, croutons or sour cream.

Onion Strings  
The Pioneer Woman is one of my favourite blogs. She is a big city girl who married and moved to a ranch. The recipes are simple and always please. This is one I make every chance I get. 
    1 whole large onion (sweet like a Vidalia or Walla Walla)
    2 c. buttermilk 500 mL
    2 c. all purpose flour 500 mL
    1 T. salt 15 mL
    1/4 t. cayenne pepper 2 mL
    5 – 10 c. canola oil 1-2 L
    black pepper, to taste
Slice onion very thinly. Place in a baking dish and cover with buttermilk. Soak for at least an hour.
Combine dry ingredients and set aside.
Choose a deep pot and fill at least 4 inches (10 cm) deep with oil.  Heat to 375 F (190 C) degrees.
Using kitchen tongs, grab some of the onions and shake off excess buttermilk. Toss into the flour mixture.  Toss around to coat thoroughly and tap to shake off excess flour. Plunge into hot oil. Fry for a few minutes and remove as soon as golden brown.  Drain on paper towels and serve.
Repeat until onions are gone.

Root Cellar Storage Chart
Beets                                    1-3 months                           cut tops down to 1 inch
Brussels Sprouts                  3 months                              hang plant upside down
Cabbage                               3-4 months                           wrap in newsprint
Carrots                                 until summer                        cut tops down to 1 inch
Horseradish                         10-12 months                       remove soil
Parsnips                               2-6 months                           remove soil
Potatoes                               5-8 months                           remove sprouts and soil
Turnips                                4-5 months                           remove soil

Cold Room Storage Chart
Dried beans and lentils         indefinite                 
Garlic                                    6-7 months                           hang in mesh bag
Onions                                  5-8 months                           hang in mesh bag
Pumpkin                               2-3 months
Squash                                  2-3 months
Tomatoes                              until ripened                         pull entire plant & hang
Watermelon                          2-4 weeks


  1. Many of the oder houses have cold storage. I lived in a house in Ontario that had a cold storage room with an earthen floor.

  2. Love the look of those old cellars:) We have a cold room and I appreciate your chart:)

  3. It's the soil in the cellar that is so cool and not easy for us city-folk to muster. I've seen pictures of beautiful root cellars with lovely ancient wooden slates and straw covered earth bins that make food last forever. Those are wonderful looking onions!!!

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