How to Store Food Long Term

Updated on April 18, 2020
Cynthia Hoover profile image

Cynthia is a homesteader who grows and harvests food for her family. She preserves her harvests and stores foods for the winter.

With the current economic situation for most of the world right now, my thoughts are drifting to those who are new to growing, harvesting, and storing foods. It is something I have been doing for a very long time. My social media channels are all a bustle with people talking about gardening—many of whom are choosing to garden now, since they are having trouble amid the COVID-19 pandemic getting regular supplies. I have ran into trouble myself with finding fresh vegetables, fruit, and even meat products.

Whatever the reason, if you are considering growing a garden large or small this season, you need to think ahead to harvesting as well. How much space do you have to store foods? Are you aware of proper storage for different types of foods?

There is so much more than just digging the dirt and dropping in a seed. Caring for crops involves much more than just watering. You should be considering the big picture, not just planting and growing. How will you store the harvests?

Growing up, my grandmother had a smokehouse and several storage cellars for her harvests and meat. I know in today's busy society it is not mainstream for most to have these, nor do most know what they are for, how to use them, and so on.

I have written many articles on long-term food storage and what foods store the best. For this article, I will focus on many of the varying types of food storage buildings, along with some common misinformation surrounding them. Hopefully, you find one that will fit your needs this harvest season.

This article will break down some of your options for storing food long term.
This article will break down some of your options for storing food long term.

Spring Houses

I am a little more familiar with spring houses than most, as I enjoy preparedness and survival blogs. Just because you see it on the internet does not mean it is the best option, however. There is some misguided information in some articles on the web, including in many of them that suggest people toss up a spring house for food storage. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of a spring house. But alas, a spring house is not without its flaws or potential issues.

Spring houses have been around for a long time. Way back before we had refrigerators, spring houses were used for cold food storage. A spring house was one of the first methods of cold food storage. This means there were no appliances then.

Are you scratching your head and wondering what a spring house is? Well, here you go. A spring house is a well-insulated building placed directly over a natural spring, with a small retention pond in the center being optimal. I have seen them with the retention pond area off to one side or near one of the walls though. If you have no way to place the building so a retention area is in the middle, then putting it off to the side will be fine as well.

Let's address some misinformation. You really cannot divert any stream or creek water to a spring house. A stream or creek is not the same as a natural spring. Creeks and streams generally flow above ground. A natural spring is water that comes from within the earth, a mountain, or hillside that leads to the surface. Spring water is cooler and creek waters will be warmer, as they are in sunlight and exposed to the temperature around them.

The temperature of the creek or the water from a stream is based on the ambient temperature of the outside air. A little common sense will tell you that if it is 90°F outside, then the creeks and streams will likely be far too warm to be of use for cooling your spring house.

Wondering what you can store in a spring house? It may surprise you that you can store:

  • milk,
  • butter,
  • cream,
  • eggs, and
  • cheese.

And that's just outside of any fruits and vegetables you would want to store.

Spring houses are great for dairy products as well. This type of food storage all boils down to the temperature. Every food product has a specific temperature that it can be held at for storage. Knowing the proper storage temperatures should be your first concern. This way, you will know what the lowest temperature you need in your building, as it will be based on the foods you intend to store.

So, check the situation before committing to building any type of food storage buildings. You may not need to waste your precious time and hard work on such a large project.

Root Cellars

Root cellars are a common form of food storage built partially or completely underground. Cellars are used for storing root vegetables, nuts, fruits, dry goods, and often canned foods if it is large enough.

A root cellar remains cooler than the ambient outside temperature, due to the insulation of the earth surrounding it. This allows a steady humidity inside, keeping foods cool to maintain freshness while stored. A root cellar does not have light coming in, since in order to preserve freshness foods they will need to stored in cool, dark places.

Outside of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, you can also store:

  • bread,
  • butter,
  • milk,
  • cream,
  • wine,
  • pies, and
  • salad greens.

Bread, butter, milk, cream, and water are all stored not only in the spring house we discussed, but also a root cellar. Fresh meat can even get stored in the cellar during the morning until ready to prepare for supper that evening. It is not uncommon to store salad greens, wine, and even pies in a root cellar.

During the winter months, preserved harvests are usually stored in a root cellar. Canned veggies, jams, fruits, and meats all enjoy storage in cool places. A root cellar keeps the food from freezing in the winter months and will keep the food cool in the summer months to maintain freshness.

A root cellar is my personal favorite option for storing foods. Under the right conditions, anything can be stored for long-term stability inside a cellar—providing the temperature remains at the appropriate guidelines. You will need to account for varied temperatures between items you are storing. Some can be held at higher temperatures than others.

If storing dairy in your cellar is new to you, track the temperature in your cellar first. Place a thermometer in your cellar and track it during the hottest months of the year in your area. What works for me here in West Virginia may likely not work if you. I mean, you could be in a desert location, and that is completely different.

Potatoes are an easy-to-grow crop. How will you store a bountiful harvest long term?
Potatoes are an easy-to-grow crop. How will you store a bountiful harvest long term?

Potato Houses

Your family may not have ever had a potato house, but they were once fairly common when sweet potato production hit its peak in the early 20th century. Though most have been demolished today, this may likely get your wheels turning a bit.

The potato house is built to allow the free circulation of air among the stored crop to ensure a maintained 50°F throughout. Normally, a potato house is a two-story wood frame structure of tall and narrow proportions, with gable roofs aligned with the long axis. The downside is that these need to be heated in the winter. So a potato house would have you investing in a wood stove too.

How does it work? Gaps between the bins and the exterior wall or at the floor level allow for air flow around the stored crops. The gable ends offer entry points, and doors at the first and second floors in front with attic windows provide ventilation.
Although these are not a common structure today, we could really enjoy them in the long run. Especially since sweet potatoes are really good for you and filling too, making them a good source of nutrition and a good item to store.

I would think that with a few alterations to the way it was heated, it could possibly make these a bit safer for use today. I find myself pondering ways to dual-purpose the heat needed. Since this structure is tall and narrow, it is also a space saving option.

Smoke Houses

Many of you may be familiar with a smoke house, or "smokery" as they have been called as well. A smoke house is a building that is used for curing meat and fish. Folks would often also use the top layer for storage after their meat was cured completely.

Usually, a smoke house will have a brick pit in the middle of a dirt floor. This is to contain the embers that create the smoke and in turn cure the meat. The walls of a smoke house are generally shorter than that of other buildings. This helps to limit the amount of time, effort, and wood you will need to maintain the heat, since you need to cure your meat.

Cured meats can be hung long term. Meats can continue to hang and retain viability for more than a year, when smoked properly.

A smoke house does not have to be large. These can be built on a small scale, and do not need to be a large structure. A small-scale smoke house can be fabricated at low cost.

I can remember my grandmother would also store flour and other grains in the smoke house. Mind you, this was after she had already smoked whatever meats she was storing for winter that year.

Smoking meats like the ham shown here is an excellent storage option.
Smoking meats like the ham shown here is an excellent storage option.

Meat Houses

Once upon a time in a land almost forgotten, the technology for refrigeration did not exist. So finding ways to preserve a slaughter for long-term consumption was crucial. Maybe some of you were already familiar with the basics of a smoke house. So, let's see if you are aware of what a meat house is as well.

A meat house sounds like what it is: a house or small, house-like structure where you store meat. There are only slight differences between a smoke house and a meat house. Instead of a dirt floor with a pit for burning, a meat house generally has a solid floor such as wood.

A meat house dates back to when people would slaughter hogs in early winter to last them through to summer. Hams and other pork cuts would be salted and hung, sometimes placed on shelves within the meat house as well. This would allow a family to survive even harsh winters with plenty of protein to go around.

Since I added in the meat house, you may wonder if you should salt meat prior to smoking it. That is all about personal taste. Figure out what is best for you and your taste buds by smoking small batches—one small batch salted and another without. Then have a taste test with the family and decide the preferred method for you.

Shipping Containers

I bet you wonder why this is even here. Well, shipping containers can provide excellent long-term food storage. They can usually be obtained fairly cheap in comparison to their size. This method is not without labor though.

A shipping container placed in the ground can provide ample food storage for any harvest. The problem? You need to bury it first. Thick-walled and rust-resistant, a buried shipping container will maintain a cool temperature year round.

They can be large too and come in varied sizes. But in comparison to my pantry, they are huge, making them an excellent option for those with large families. A shipping container allows storage of huge harvests. You can line them with shelves to allow airflow for any root vegetables. Or if you are canning your harvests, store your preserved foods on shelves.

While this won't be the most cost-effective storage solution, in a pinch, it also doubles as a good storm cellar, if you live in an area with frequent tornadoes.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Cynthia Hoover

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