If your garden is bursting with fresh produce, your friends and neighbors give you fresh produce, you visit farms with you-pick-it programs, or you find sales on your favorite fruits and vegetables, you may be wondering what do with all of it. How do you store it? If you want to save space, save energy, save money, and enjoy great tasting goodies all year round, drying is the way. It's not just for vegetables either. You can also make your own beef or bison jerky if you have a dehydrator.
What follows are the benefits of drying food and some tips to help you get started. For more information about drying meat and poultry and for great jerky recipes, consult my book, The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook.
Most foods dry from one-third to one-sixteenth of their original size. Once dried, 76 tomatoes will fit into a single quart jar! If these same tomatoes were canned, they'd fill 16 (one-quart) jars. Dried foods also weigh 85% less then canned goods. For example, you can store 25 pounds of onions in a one-gallon jar once they've been dried into rings, flakes, or powder.
The one or two pennies per hour it takes to dry foods is far less than the energy it takes to maintain fresh foods in the refrigerator or freezer. The drying process usually takes 4 to 12 hours but most people keep fruits, vegetables and prepared foods in cold storage far longer then this. Enormous amounts of energy go to waste in food storage that could be saved or put to better use.
Reduce your environmental impact
Drying helps reduce your reliance on packaged, processed and so-called “convenience” foods. This translated into fewer cans, boxes, and bags in your home and, ultimately, in landfills. By some estimates, the average American throws out his or her own weight in packaging every month. Even environmentally aware shoppers often find it difficult to avoid buying heavily packaged foods. Why not make your own instant foods at home? With dried fruits and vegetables you can make your own spice blends, instant soups, sauce and stuffing mixes, soup “helpers” and extenders, desserts, powdered sweeteners, fruit leathers and meat-based jerky and dried veggie-chips
If you want to save money on nutritious dried foods, make them yourself. Sun-dried tomatoes often cost upwards of $12 a pound. Dried chives cost $30 or more a pound and shiitake mushrooms cost between $20 and $40 a pound, depending on the grade. Dried apples cost at least $10 a pound while dried apricots often cost $12 per pound. Commercially prepared dried herbs, spices, and seasonings can also be costly. In most cases, you’ll save up to 90% of the cost by drying foods at home.
For convenience sake
Dehydrators don’t require any attention except for occasional checking to see if the goods are as dry as you like. And you don’t need any special storage containers. Dried foods can be stored in empty peanut butter, mustard, jam, or spice jars, or in recycled zip-lock bags. Or, you can place them in widemouth pint and quart jars and vaccum seal them using a Food Saver and a special attachment. You can dry your favorite foods during the day while you’re at home or away, or at night while you sleep! Pretty easy, really.
Simply purchase or harvest fresh apples, peaches, pears, blueberries, or cherries, when they’re perfectly ripe, then dry them for use throughout the year. Make the most of the summer’s sweet corn (if you buy or grow organic, non-GMO corn), tomatoes, bell peppers, chile peppers, peas, parsley, chives, leeks, edible flowers, etc. By stocking up now, you’ll always have enough on hand.
Its the healthy way to go
By drying fruits, vegetables, meats and other foods at home, you can ensure that your meals are free of preservatives, refined sugar, and other unnecessary additives. Many allegedly healthy foods have been adulterated to such an extent that they no longer nourish us. Overall, drying foods benefits your health and the health of the environment.
Rehydrate it, you'll like it
Many dried foods can be eaten as is, though most are best presoaked and cooked. To rehydrate, place in a bowl with just enough cool water to cover and let soak for several hours or overnight. Or, cover with boiling water, cover bowl with a plate and allow to soak for several minutes until soft and plump.
For dishes that require some simmering, such as soups and sauces, finely cut, dried vegetables should be added at the beginning of cooking time without being rehydrated.
When using dried produce in cooking, add more liquid than when using fresh produce because dried foods will absorb the juices around them. A good rule of thumb is to add an extra cup of liquid per cup of dried food. For stewed fruit, add 2 cups of liquid per cup of dried fruit and simmer until tender. For pies and pastry fillings, add one cup of water or apple juice per cup of dried fruit and cook your rehydrated foods normally.
Stretch the season
With such a marvelous and easy-to-use invention as the food dehydrator, you'll be able to enjoy produce all year long, whether from the garden, the farmer’s market, a you-pick-it place, or from good deals on seasonal produce at the grocery store or natural foods co-op. But, the only way to truly appreciate the far-reaching advantages of dehydrating is to dry it and see!
Drying Tips & Techniques
There are no absolutes when it comes to drying. Many variables come into play like the kind of produce you dry, it’s size, thickness and freshness, the humidity in the air and the type of dehydrator you use.
- Use the freshest local and/or organic produce whenever possible.
- Buy enough produce. Most foods will shrink from one-third to one-sixteenth of their original size, so you may need more then you think. A good rule of thumb is 1 ½ pounds of produce per square foot of drying tray.
- Clean fruits and vegetables thoroughly before dehydrating.
- Peel vegetables and fruits if waxed or if the skins are thick or you find them irritating (e.g. sweet potatoes, yams, apples, etc).
- Remove any soft or spoiled spots before slicing and dehydrating.
- Slice, dice, chop or shred the produce in a consistent size to ensure that the pieces dry in the same amount of time. Consult your dehydrator's instruction manual for the suggested thickness of different types of produce. Generally 1/4-inch to3/8-inch works best.
- Steam or blanch vegetables with long cooking times or that tend to be eaten cooked (e.g., green beans, winter squash, and sweet potatoes). For peas and corn, brief cooking can be helpful to reduce the enzyme action that causes flavor loss. Vegetables with short cooking times – such as zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, celery and onions – require no precooking.
- To prevent discoloration, dip sliced fruits (bananas, apples, pears, peaches, etc.) in apple or pineapple juice for a few minutes before dehydrating.
- Check the food you are drying several times a day to avoid over drying.
- Dried, sliced fruits should be soft and pliable when fully dried.
- Dried, sliced vegetables should be brittle.
- Label the containers with the contents and date.
- Store dried foods in a cool, dry, relatively dark place. Ideal temperatures are between 60 degrees F to below freezing.
- If moisture beads appear on the sides of the storage container, the produce is insufficiently dried. Return it to the dehydrator immediately. Oily or very moist foods such as olives are particularly susceptible to rancidity if not dried properly.
- Dried herbs do not require rehydration.
- Buy a dehydrator with adjustable temperature settings. The Excalibur is my favorite; however, I used American Harvest machines for almost 15 years before upgrading to the higher end machine.