Dehydrating Produce

While we’re on the topic of food preservation, let’s talk about dehydration for a minute.  Beginning with fresh herbs in May, our dehydrator runs almost non-stop through November, as we dry the last of the orchard apples. Benefits to dehydration: extremely long shelf life, requires very little shelf space, makes quick, nutritious snacks, reduces food waste, adds intense flavor without unnecessary fluid, foods retain fresh “uncooked” flavor….and so many more reasons. Now is the time of the year to find dehydrators cheap at yard sales and excellent prices on food to be dried.  I’ll just give you a quick overview for now and we’ll talk about the specifics later.  There are several ways to go about dehydrating food: in a modern dehydrator, in a low oven, or with screens in a warm, ventilated area.

I’m going to shamelessly plug the modern dehydrator because it’s simplest, quickest and will yield the most dependable results.  Dehydrators range in price from $30 at discount stores to hundreds of dollars for top of the line.  There’s no shame in starting with the $30 version.  It’s missing some of the perks of the “Cadillac” Excalibur-brand dehydrator, but the theory is the same; warm air circulates around food to remove water creating an inhospitable environment for bacteria.  This is my preferred method of dehydrating as it’s practically set-it and forget-it.

My great-grandmother Pearlie used an enclosed porch in her eastern-Kentucky home to dehydrate food.  She’d set up screens (think old window screens) on tables, place the food in single layers and cover with cheesecloth to protect the food from gnats and houseflies.  This was an effective, albeit, time-consuming method that has been used for eons.  All you need is a well-ventilated space, a rack or a screen to allow airflow and some sort of fabric to protect the food from flies.  This method takes the longest and you risk spoilage, particularly during humid, still seasons, but it also requires practically no equipment.

The third method is using an oven on it’s lowest setting for 8-12 hours.  This is the method I’ve had the least success with.  No matter how low I set my oven, inevitably, I end up with scorched food, so I’ll just leave this method alone and you can do your own research.

There are just a couple steps to dehydrate food.

–First, choose the freshest produce available. Rotten fruit will yield rotten results.

–Second, peel (if necessary) and slice or chop to create the highest amount of surface area.   This will allow the produce to dry more quickly and give you more consistent results.

–Third, some many fruits and veggies require a pretreatment to prevent browning and destroy enzymes that could compromise the quality of the dried food. Different foods have different requirements, but typically it’s just a dip in salty or acidic (lemon juice) water or blanching, which is just plunging raw food into boiling water for mere seconds then removing and drying.

–Fourth, put the treated food in single layers in your dehydrator or on screens or racks and process for the prescribed amount of time. The drying time will vary depending on the produce and method used.   Apple slices will take 12-24 hours (in a dehydrator), herbs and leafy greens, mere hours.  When you think the food is thoroughly dry, feel it.  Apples will be firm and leathery, herbs and greens papery, onions and peppers will be hard as little stones.

–To store your dried produce, cool to room temperature and place in an air-tight canister or canning jar. You can also place in sandwich baggies and drop them in the freezer for optimum “shelf” life.

To enjoy the food:  dried fruit can be added to cereals, eaten out of hand or rehydrated with water or juice or stewed.  Veggies can be rehydrated and added to casseroles or thrown dry into soups and stews.  The texture won’t be quite the same as fresh, so plan accordingly.

Here are some links you may find helpful:

http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/dry.html  Very reliable site, lots of how to information as well as recipes. Covers everything from fruit and veggies to seeds and jerky.

http://www.pickyourown.org/dryingfoods.html  Plenty of useful, seasonal information.

http://momwithaprep.com/101-dehydrating-recipes/!   101 recipes to help you use all that delicious dried produce!

Til next time!