Many homesteading skills are best learned through experience. And that I say from, well, experience.
Most any of the tasks that we so desperately desire to take on as homesteaders require a sense of adventure – of focus – of determination to make it work. It was the same situation this past August, when I dug 75 pounds of potatoes out of the garden bed (that had since been trampled in the making of our greenhouse which was built atop the potato bed).
I lovingly stared at this orbs of starchy goodness – in all their beautiful shades of brown, red, purple, and yellow. Like a dull rainbow, the sat on the soil boasting of winter culinary potential.
As someone who preserves, cannes, freezes, dries, and saves as much food as possible from our summer harvest months, it was incredibly important to me that these potatoes store well through the fall and into the winter. I wanted them. I needed them! Oh, baby did I ever.
Time to dive into the deep end.
I kept 50 pounds of fingerling potatoes at our house to eat through the Fall, since they don’t store quite as well as the larger storage varieties. Combined with those we freshly dug out of the garden all summer, these fingerlings have provided us with all of our potato needs since last June! Incredible!
But then came the storage potatoes. The big daddys. The meat of the matter. Those were stored in a special way – dried in the heat of the sun to develop skins and kept in a safe place for the months ahead.
Now – before I go into specifics, I want to make a very important point: February potatoes are not July potatoes. And January potatoes are not August potatoes. As with most food that is kept for months on end, they fade from their stout and bold summer state to a state of… well, less luster. But that’s okay. Because March potatoes don’t need to be July potatoes. They just need to get us through till summer.
How To Store Potatoes
1. Dig the potatoes from the soil with your hands.
No matter what tool I try and use for this, I always end up jabbing the potatoes, rendering them useless for long term storage. So instead, my knees hit the ground and my hands dive into the soil, fingers pulling the spuds from their nesting ground. Consider it sweat equity in your culinary future.
2. Let the potatoes dry in the sun for a day.
Harvest on a hot and dry day. As you dig the potatoes, lay them out on the top of the soil to ‘air dry’. This time in the sunshine will help them to toughen their skin and help them to dry out just ever-so-slightly to prevent rotting. It’s important that the skin is dry when they’re packaged for storage. Sometimes I leave mine out for a day. Sometimes two. I just like them to feel dry – so if that involves flipping them over so the other side can dry, so be it. I mulch my garden heavily with straw and so the potatoes usually do just fine strewn out on that to soak in that summer sun.
3. Bring the potatoes inside and let them ‘cure’ in a single layer for 1-2 more days.
I usually just line a big section of my floor with newspaper and then lay all the potatoes out on that in a single layer for a more days to ensure their skin is tough enough for storage. You’ll see what I mean soon enough – a freshly dug potato has the most beautiful, tender skin. We need ours to be a bit more hardy than that. Much like a piece of bread left out on the counter, the potatoes will harden and toughen up just enough to make them durable.
4. Transfer the potatoes to a burlap sack.
I like burlap because it breathes, which is absolutely critical for storing potatoes. Potatoes that are stored in a plastic bag will simply rot – they need air circulation and something that can easily absorb any excess moisture. Burlap bags are perfect for this. I usually do about 30-40 pounds per burlap sack.
5. Transfer the burlap sack to a dark, cool climate (such as a basement, root cellar, garage, etc.)
Think of somewhere that won’t freeze but will stay steadily cool year round. For us, that means transferring the potatoes to my parents crawl space under their house. It’s dark and cool – perfect for potatoes. In our shop, they’d be susceptible to freezing: far too great of a risk to take with such a valuable staple crop!
6. Check the potatoes weekly.
Remove any rotting potatoes (which, hopefully, you won’t have!). If there is any rotting potatoes (you’ll smell ‘em!) then just remove them and wipe up any extra moisture that’s leaked out onto other potatoes. For storage potatoes, moisture means certain death. So keep it dry, baby.
It’s so rewarding to grab a few pounds of potatoes for supper. Here we are, middle of January, and we’ve still got a lot of potatoes in storage! Now, remember what I said about how they loose their luster? Here’s what I mean:
Yes, they get a bit wrinkly.
And yes, they grow funky sprouts. Because that’s what potatoes do! But that’s okay. Just a quick flick off of the sprouts with my thumbnail…
… and they’re good as new.
Even though they’re a bit prune-esque this time of year, they still taste and cook up exactly the same. They’re tender, moist, and delicious.
This isn’t a task about perfection. This is a task about sustenance through the cold, barren, winter months.
I wouldn’t trade my ‘ol wrinkly potatoes for a million dollars. They’re right from my garden – a part of my farm!
At least until I eat them…