The electric root cellar

We’ve been honing our chops at Seven Trees Farm since June 2005, and love researching all aspects of diversified subsistence farming before jumping into new challenges. It’s still mad harvest time here, with onions, apples and potatoes looking for their winter homes. Most urban/tiny/newb farmstead publications extol the virtues (and necessity) of a root cellar for long term produce storage, and back in the day, we dutifully bought the books and bookmarked the many informational websites.

Welp, like many other ‘perfect homestead’ ideas/tools/livestock breeds, root cellars are not universally applicable. In Cascadia we are lucky to have a lovely climate for food growing, even with gloomy spring rains and ferocious summer droughts. But one thing the climate lacks is consistency. Root cellars generally depend on steady cold outside temperatures to maintain the steady cool in-ground temperatures best suited for keeping produce in good shape for the duration.

But here winter weather runs the gamut from sub-zero blizzard conditions to apocalyptic wind and rain to balmy brilliant 60F sun – sometimes all in the same few weeks. Not exactly the best for tucking crates of garden bounty away for safe-keeping.

So what to do? Much of our research and goals lean in the low-input direction, i.e. off-grid. But chances are pretty good that electricity access is going to be much more stable than access to decent root-cellaring temperatures. So we bought an electric root cellar.

Not just any old shop fridge, but one made especially for the range of temperatures our shop experiences throughout the year. A critical aspect of fridge/freezer combos is that when it is below freezing the compressor usually won’t trigger, meaning frozen food melts, and refrigerated food freezes (This website explains some of the magic involved.)

fridge
Shiny happy new fridge from the Sears website.

But a freezerless fridge doesn’t have that problem since there is only one temperature zone to maintain. (With 2 chest freezers in the shop there’s no need for more freezer space.) Ours has seen some hard service over the years, and keeps on chilling. Right now it’s full of eggs, veggies, garden seeds, greens, rendered lard, and many jars of pickled goodness.

shop-fridge
The electric root cellar always has room for more.

 

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Cool food storage options

It’s that rare window of time at Seven Trees where we’re not planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, digging, and so on. There are still some building projects in the works, and soon we’ll be getting ready for new chicks and garden prep.

Which means it’s a great time to do some sorting and organizing, including our 2 fridges and 2 freezers.

You may be wondering why the heck a 2-human household needs this much electric food storage space, especially given how much we can and dehydrate. After years of experimenting with various methods of food preservation, from lacto-fermenting to pressure canning, we’ve learned there are some foods we just prefer chilled or frozen. Sometimes taste and texture are the issue, and sometimes it’s pure convenience.

Our freezers are often filled with 1/2 a cow, 80lbs of berries, baggies of blanched chard, or loaves of bargain-priced bread. Not things we’d want to preserve in any other way. The shop fridge has proved invaluable for egg storage and for the many jars of raw-pack pickled veggies we love to eat year ’round.

But there are a few things to keep in mind when choosing and using a fridge or freezer as an ‘electric root cellar’…

Not all shop/garage refrigerators are created equal. Most of the time any old craigslist fridge will do for extra beverage chilling (provided you don’t end up with a lemon as happened to us once). But if the location of your fridge experiences temperatures well under freezing for any length of time, you could end up losing the works. Most standard fridge/freezer combos have a thermostat that is controlled by the temperature of the fridge compartment. When the compressor kicks on to re-chill the fridge, it also rechills the freezer. If the outside temperature is too cold, the compressor doesn’t come on, leaving the contents of the fridge to freeze, and the stuff in the freezer to thaw out. Not a huge deal if all you store in it is ‘spare’ food, but a terrible loss if this is your meat supply or a few gallons of milk.

Luckily there are options. Since we already have 2 chest freezers, we didn’t want another mini-freezer built on to our 2nd fridge (more about that later). So after much research we found a freezerless fridge that is specially built for temps down to 10F. Not only is it energy efficient, but it has an additional heating element that starts up when it senses the fridge interior is getting too cold. No more surprise foodsicles! This model came with some slide-out mesh baskets, but no ‘crisper’ drawers. Given the huge piles of veggies we keep in it, using plastic totes with tight seals works just fine. It’s also helpful to keep a cheap thermo-hygrometer in the fridge to make sure the temp and humidity in the totes suit the veggies stored inside.

It’s possible to retrofit an older fridge with a ‘garage kit’, but that requires some handyma’am skill, and ends up with higher electricity usage than a purpose-made model.

It’s gets even cooler from here –

We have 2 chest freezers, one 7 cubic footer and one 14 cu.ft. After starting with the smaller one, we soon realized we’d have to go big fast when we ended up with 1.5 Dexter steers to manage.

It would seem a no-brainer to pick a freezer that has auto-defrost. Why add yet another chore to the endless list? But if you care about quality, and count on frozen foods as an integral part of your menu year ’round. You’ll gladly take on the hassle of periodic manual defrost sessions.

The small freezer that is partnered with the standard house fridge is usally an auto-defrost, and that is why that is why ice cream and other goodies get funky if kept there too long. The way this kind of freezer stays frost-free is by periodically warming up a few degrees, then cooling back down. Not enough to let the food spoil, or thaw completely, but enough to melt the frosty build-up on the interior surfaces. It also warms & thaws the surfaces of frozen foods enough to change taste & texture, eventually becoming inedible. Yuck!

Not such a huge deal for things used up quickly, or unopened, air-tight packages, so we use ours as a convenient holding area. It’s also a good place for a few containers of frozen water. This keeps the freezer working more efficiently since there is less empty space to chill, and it’s handy to grab a frozen jug to pop in a cooler for summer store runs. We keep a few in the big freezers too, when they start to get low on food. A side benefit to this is that when the power goes out, the freezers need less time on the generator to keep cold. We can also use the frozen jugs to keep the house fridge cool between generator recharges.

We thought about condensing our frozen food section into the large freezer, and selling the smaller one. But given the ebb & flow of garden bounty and meat critter production, we like the options of having them both. Now that we’ve processed a lot of the food we stored there this summer while we were too busy to can, brew, dehydrate, etc. we can move food from one freezer to the other and give each one a spa day – defrost and wash down the inside before replacing everything and taking inventory so we know what to use up next.