A startling amount of food gets wasted by households every year; more than restaurants, grocery stores, and farms combined. Many people are doing their best to be more diligent about their own household waste, and that includes finding new, smart ways to store groceries so they don’t spoil. Using sand to preserve food isn’t a new method by any means, but it’s certainly effective, and can be used a few different ways to extend the shelf life of root veggies and certain firm-fleshed fruit.
Here in Quebec, harvest season is in full swing and the farmers’ markets are practically overloaded with produce. Everywhere you turn, there are huge carts of apples, carrots, beets and more, and stores are quickly selling out of canning jars as people spend their weekends turning fresh produce into preserves. Many of these fruits and veg will also go into cold storage for the winter, and one of the oldest methods of preservation is to store in sand.
If your refrigerator has those large crisper drawers at the bottom, the best way to approach the sand-storing method is to get some play sand from the hardware store (the kind used to fill up sandboxes and such), and fill one of those drawers with a few inches of sand. Into this, you can nestle root veggies like beets, turnips, and rutabagas, or firm-fleshed fruit such as apples or Bartlett pears. Cover these with sand until they’re completely submerged, and they should stay fresh for months. Root vegetables can touch one another in storage, but try not to pack them too tightly together: air needs to be able to circulate between them. If you’re storing fruit, try to keep them at least an inch apart. There’s no need to wash the fruits or veg before storing either; doing so can actually help to speed decomposition.
The idea behind this is that because the sand regulates humidity, it’ll keep excess moisture away from the food, thus keeping them from rotting. The veggies are put into a type of stasis, and as long as the temperature remains cool and consistent, they won’t go bad anytime soon.
You don’t actually have to use your refrigerator’s crisper drawers for this, either: if you have a cool basement, pantry, or cold cellar, you can store food just as easily in sturdy cardboard or wooden boxes. Just use the same sand method as listed above and ensure that the boxes are kept in the coldest part of the room. If you have a problem with rodents, it may be best to keep the boxes off the ground, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to burrow through the sand to get to any of your food.
When it comes to long, gangly roots like carrots and parsnips, the best way to store them is to immerse them vertically in the sand. Ginger and cauliflower can also be preserved this way, although they won’t last as long as the root vegetables will. Although squashes can last a really long time just on shelves in your cold cellar/pantry, these can also be kept fresher when immersed in sand. I haven’t been able to find much firm info about Jerusalem artichokes or asparagus, though some sources suggest storing them in layers of straw, while others discuss the sand method. Methinks an experiment might be in order.
If you do plan to store root vegetables, be sure to remove all of their green, leafy bits before doing so. Carrot fronds, beet greens, etc. must all be completely scraped away, or they can rot the roots in no time flat. It’s also a good idea to keep the roots in a dry place for a day or so in order for their skins to dry and toughen a bit, and then place them into sand storage. It should also be noted that carrots should not be stored anywhere near apples or pears, but carrots can nestle close to parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas without worry.
Some websites mention that certain vegetables can also be stored in sand, namely napa cabbage, escarole, leeks, and celery. Apparently the outer leaves might get dry and a bit papery over time, but the inner bits will remain firm, green, and crunchy for a couple of months. I’ve never tried to store any of these myself so I can’t vouch for this personally, but anything’s worth a try!
An avid permaculture gardener, locavore, and novice (but enthusiastic!) canner, Lana Winter-Hébert joins Inhabitat after spending the last decade working as a writer and event guru for non-profit/eco organizations. In addition to her work with this site, she writes features and blog posts for Vegan Cuts, Green Pigeon, and several event planning websites based in London, UK. Currently, Lana divides her time between writing, and doing collaborative projects with Winter-Hébert: the design studio she runs with her husband. Best described as “endearingly eccentric”, she spends any spare moments wrestling with knitting projects, and devouring novels by obscure Czech writers. A Toronto native, she has recently chosen to leave that splendid city in favor of a tranquil lakeside nook in rural Quebec, where she and her Sir co-habitate with two hand-raised sparrows that live in their writing-desk.