These days potato storage is a hot topic in conversations among vegetable gardeners, coming soon after “What kind of fertiliser do you use?” As with the answer to the fertiliser question, potato storage quickly gets into complicated territory. The ideal conditions for stored potatoes mimic conditions underground – temperatures from 45 to 55°F (7 to 13°C), with high humidity and some circulation of air. These cave-like conditions are not common in comfortable homes.
The refrigerator is out, because temperatures below 40°F (4°C) trigger the conversion of starches to sugars in the stored spuds, which makes them darken when cooked. Even worse, what old timers called “sugared potatoes” form carcinogenic compounds when cooked at high temperatures. Let’s not go there.
Instead, let’s assume that your potatoes have been gently harvested and cured, and now you need a place to put them that’s cool, dark, and safe from critters. After reading through the ideas below, you may find that you have more potato storage options than you think.
Root Cellars and Basements
If you have a root cellar or unheated basement, storing potatoes is easy because earthen walls stabilise temperatures in exactly the range potatoes prefer. Underground spaces also tend to be quite humid, a mixed blessing for stored potatoes. Damp air that doesn’t move can contribute to yucky moulds, but a small fan that keeps the air moving can prevent this problem.
Potato storage containers can range from cardboard boxes to special potato baskets lined with hessian. Containers that permit some air movement are ideal, for example baskets or crates with open slats. For storing small amounts of potatoes in the basement, one of my favorite containers is a small laundry basket lined with newspapers, topped with a heavy towel to exclude light. I also like using an old wood crate lined with straw, with more straw added between layers of potatoes. Mice like it, too so I must be careful.
A small chest of drawers kept in the basement is great for potatoes, too, though the drawers must be kept cracked open to admit fresh air.
Indoor Potato Storage
When I lived in a warm climate where basements were rare, stored potatoes did best indoors, where it was air conditioned, at least until the weather got cold enough to use an unheated garage. I once used the floor of the coat closet, which stayed cool because it was on the house’s shady north side. There I copied a friend’s system, in which she sorted her potatoes into paper bags by type and size, arranged the bags in plastic milk crates, and covered them with a cloth.
In another house, the bedroom was the coolest room, so I started storing potatoes in boxes or bins under the bed. I still do this when summer weather makes the basement stuffy and hot. Instead of closing up the boxes or bins, I cover the potatoes with a thick towel, which provides them with a pleasing air supply. A neighbor is more organised. She places her ‘Yukon Golds’ and other smallish potatoes in egg cartons before hiding them under her bed.
In warm climates without dependable air conditioning like rural Kenya, packing potatoes in damp sawdust has been found to extend their storage life. In Alaska, where the challenges are keeping stored potatoes from freezing or being discovered by bears, enterprising homesteaders might dig a “cold hole” for food storage, a refinement of an older practice of using a deep cave or stone-lined water well to store potatoes and other root crops.
I have often used deep holes dug in the garden for temporary potato storage, but it is not a long-term solution because the potatoes tend to develop skin issues that are rare when potatoes are kept in dry storage. I tried storing potatoes in a buried garbage can, which should have worked but did not. The potatoes inside stayed too damp and went gooey, which could have been due to many factors, including my own mistakes.
The best plug-in device for maintaining the ideal potato storage temperature of 45°F (7°C) is a beverage cooler, of which there are several small models that might be useful if you are critically low on cold storage space. You also can use a wine cooler set at its lowest setting, which is usually around 52°F (11°C).
These speciality coolers can extend the storage life of potatoes, or you can use them for carrots, beets, apples, or pears. With consumption of sugary drinks on the decline, maybe we should start calling them produce coolers.