Drying foods is a natural alternative for people with limited time and limited space for storing frozen or canned foods. Almost any food can be dried, but those most popularly dried are fruits, herbs, and a few vegetables including mushrooms.
Blanching or Dipping
Drying foods does not stop the enzymatic action that causes fruit to mature and decay; it only slows it down. Some foods keep well without pretreatment, but others deteriorate in color, flavor, texture, and nutrients for months after drying unless treated. Pretreatment can mean blanching or dipping the foods. For more information about blanching, see the section on preparing vegetables for freezing earlier in this chapter. Dipping can be accomplished using various preparations.
Salt water dip. Dissolve 6 tablespoons flaked pickling salt in 1 gallon of lukewarm water. To keep fruit from darkening, slice or chop it directly into the water. Soak for no more than 5 minutes or the fruit will absorb too much water and acquire a salty taste. Drain before loading onto drying trays. This is not recommended for those on a low-sodium diet.
Ascorbic acid dip. Ascorbic acid is a form of vitamin C. Dissolve 2 tablespoons of ascorbic acid crystals, 2 tablespoons of ascorbic acid powder, or 5 crushed, 1-gram vitamin C tablets in 1 quart of lukewarm water. Slice or chop fruits directly into the solution. When 1 to 2 cups of fruit accumulate, stir and remove the fruit with a slotted spoon. Drain well before drying.
Fruit juice dip. Dip peaches, apples, or banana slices into 1 quart undiluted pineapple juice or 1 quart lukewarm water into which 1/4 cup of lemon juice has been stirred. Soak for 5 to 10 minutes and drain well before drying.
Drying Food in a Dehydrator
You will get the most consistent results from a dehydrator, and dehydrator drying is so trouble-free you can leave a dehydrator operating overnight or while youre at work. If a load is almost dry at bedtime, reduce the heat to 105-degrees F to 110-degrees F and go to bed. By morning, the food will be ready to store.
- Clean your work surface and assemble knives, peelers, a cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, a bowl (if pretreating), a colander, and a heavy towel. Dehydrators come with their own drying trays.
- Select young, fresh vegetables and fruits that are table-ready or slightly immature. Wash, then drain on towels.
- Preheat dehydrator to the desired temperature. Recommended temperatures are 115-degrees F for uncooked fruits, 120-degrees F for vegetables and some cooked fruits, and 110-degrees F for leafy herbs.
- Peel, slice, dice, chop, julienne, halve, or leave whole, depending on recommendations for the fruit, vegetable, or herb. Pretreat or blanch according to recommendations for each.
- Spread foods evenly over dehydrator trays in thin layers. Different foods can be dried at the same time, but very moist foods should not be dried with almost-dry foods, nor should you combine foods with strong odors or flavors.
- Dry according to times specified for each food. Rotate the trays front to back, side to side, and top to bottom at least once. Also stir the food or turn it.
- Package dried foods in airtight bottles, jars, or plastic bags. Store in a cool, dark place.
Drying Food in a Conventional Oven
Drying food in an oven has the advantage of controlled, even temperatures, but the disadvantage of poor air circulation. Prepare foods as you would if you were using a dehydrator (see previous page). You will need a large, easily readable thermometer that registers 100-degrees to 150-degrees F, an electric fan, and commercial or homemade drying trays.
- Set the thermometer on the top oven shelf and preheat to the desired temperature. Recommended temperatures are 115-degrees F for uncooked fruits, 120-degrees F for vegetables and some cooked fruits, and 110-degrees F for leafy herbs.
- Prepare the food, then spread it sparsely but evenly over the drying trays.
- Place the trays in the oven. To improve air circulation, allow 1 inch of space on each side, 3 inches on top and bottom, and 2 1/2 inches between trays. In addition, leave the door ajar a few inches and place an electric fan in front of the door to blow away moist air.
- Dry according to the directions for each food. Stir or turn the food occasionally and rotate the trays front to back, side to side, and top to bottom every 2 to 3 hours.
- Package the dried foods in airtight bottles, jars, or plastic bags. Store in a cool, dark place.
Let The Sun Do Your Drying
If you are blessed with clean air, low humidity, and an abundance of hot, sunny days, sun-drying is the least expensive and simplest method of preserving foods. But drying outdoors is unpredictable unless the temperatures are over 100-degrees F and humidity is low. If the temperature is too low, the humidity is high, or both, spoilage will occur before drying is achieved. Because sun-drying is slower and food is exposed for a longer period of time, pretreating is important.
Begin by pretreating and preparing your foods. Your drying trays can be cookie sheets or homemade wooden trays, but those made of fiberglass or stainless steel screening work best. Do not use galvanized screening, which contaminates food. Youll also need cheesecloth to protect food from insects and birds.
- Spread foods sparsely but evenly over your drying trays in thin layers. Different foods can be dried at the same time. Cover with cheesecloth.
- Place the trays in a well-ventilated spot in full sun. Turn or stir the food every few hours, and take the trays inside at night. Dry according to the recommendations for each food, but do not include inside time when calculating drying time.
- Before storing, place foods in an oven set at 125-degrees F for 30 minutes to kill insect eggs that may have been deposited on them, or place the foods in a freezer for a day or two.
- Package foods in airtight bottles, jars, or plastic bags. Store in a cool, dark place.
from The Busy Persons Guide to Preserving Food by Janet Chadwick
illustrations by Judy Eliason, Alison Kolesar, and Elayne Sears