Benefits of Drying Vegetables and Fruits
Have you ever been faced with a garden full of produce you weren’t sure what to do with? Or maybe the grocery store or farmers’ market had a sale, and you wish you could take advantage of that much fresh food but you’re afraid it will go to waste. Maybe you’ve thought of canning, but it seems too complicated and time-consuming. Have you thought of drying fresh foods?
Drying is a viable way to preserve a great many foods, and many children of all ages enjoy snacking on dried fruits and vegetables even if they dislike them fresh. But not all foods work well for drying.
Just about every season has some food you can dry. Vegetables like corn and green beans can be dried, and all sorts of fruits – including even bananas and apples which are available year-round in most grocery stores.
But why bother? Are there any added benefits to dried foods? Absolutely! Here are some of the benefits of drying foods.
Have you looked at the price of jerky and dried fruits and vegetables in your grocery or health food store? You might have had to look twice – they’re expensive. They are particularly pricey if they are healthful versions, free of preservatives and artificial colors and flavors. Drying your own wholesome food is much less expensive, especially if you dry foods that are in season and/or on sale.
Also, bringing along some of your own dried foods on car trips and vacations can save you a lot of money on snacks and meals on the road.
Long Shelf Life
If you like camping, dehydrated food is great to take along – it’s lightweight, doesn’t require refrigeration, and is high in nutrition and can provide a great energy boost. You can also store it for use in an emergency, and include it in emergency kits you may have for yourself and your family. If the power goes out during a summer storm or due to some other act of nature, you can still have fruit, vegetables available for a meal.
There’s no doubt that dried foods are convenient. They are especially handy if you have children and need to grab a quick snack on the way out the door. What if one of your kids needs to go to the doctor, and you don’t know how long you’ll be in the waiting room or in the queue for prescriptions to be filled? You and the other kids will need something to eat. Even for running errands, it’s nice to have snacks in the car. In fact, you can have a take-along bag with dried foods that you always take with you in the car.
Speaking of having snacks in the car, we always carry plenty of snacks for long drives or road trips. As vegetarians, it’s hard to find meatless meals and snacks on the road. We’ve learned to bring our own, and dried fruits are one of our road trip staples.
Dried food is also convenient when you can’t get to the store, such as during a snowstorm. It’s also nice to be able to have dried produce on hand for soups and stews and other recipes. You can serve up a fresh-tasting raspberry sauce with your holiday meal without spending a ton of money on store-bought berries.
Dehydrated foods retain most nutrients, except those that depend on the presence of water. All of the fiber is intact in dried foods. And it’s chemical free, devoid of preservatives and artificial flavors and colors. Think of being able to reap the nutritional benefits of, for example, raspberries in December when you feel a cold coming on.
Easy and Inexpensive to Prepare
Dried food is not particularly complicated to make. You don’t need to fuss over sterilizing jars, using a pressure canner, and spending money on added ingredients like sugar and vinegar. You just dry the food – it’s simple, and the food is not too far from its natural state.
What Foods Can You Dry?
Here are some tips and ideas on what foods you can dry, and what to expect in terms of look and texture (dried foods are not necessarily as “pretty” as canned foods!).
Did you know you can dry these? The best way is to steam them for about 5 minutes first, and then use a sturdy needle and upholstery thread to string them. Hang the strings outside in a shady area during the day (sun causes the beans to lose color), then bring them inside at night. Or hang them in an attic. They will get leathery after a few days, and can be used in soups. Before storing, heat the beans in a 175-degree oven for half an hour – this kills any insects and eggs that might be hiding in there, waiting to come out in storage.
Don’t wash mushrooms first; just wipe them off. String them on thread like the beans, indoors or out, but mushrooms can be hung in the sun. They will become crisp and brittle after a few days, so if you prefer them leathery you should keep a close eye on them. They should also be heated before storage to kill insect eggs.
Drying mushrooms intensify their flavor. In fact, many recipes specifically call for dried mushrooms. We use them in soups, braises, stews and sauces. You can also rehydrate them for pasta and rice dishes.
Italian or Roma tomatoes work best for drying due to their lower moisture content. Slice them lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and air-dry them. You can string them or lay them on several thicknesses of paper towel placed on a screen. Turn them as they dry if they are lying on the screen. They are fully dried when they are leathery and fairly pliable. As with all dried fruits, place tomatoes in the freezer to kill any bugs.
Make your own raisins! Breaking the skin first helps the drying process along. You can dry these in the sun if you wish, laying them on a paper towel-covered screen and covering them lightly with a cloth or paper towel. They should be ready in about 5 days, but they might dry before that. Freeze before storing.
Dried strawberries have a hard texture that makes them fun to suck on to soften them. You can also slice them first. Strawberries can be dried on screen trays like grapes.
What You Can Do with Your Dried Foods
Of course, one of the easiest ways to enjoy your dried foods is to eat them out of hand. They are convenient as take-along snacks when running errands or camping. But there are other creative ways you can use your dried foods that you worked so hard to preserve. Here are some ideas and recipes for what you can do with your dried foods.
Yogurt and Oatmeal Topping
Dried fruits like grapes, plums, and apricots make excellent toppings for plain or vanilla yogurt. You can chop them up small if you prefer, and maybe sprinkle some nuts on top. You can also stir them into oatmeal or any hot cereal.
Soups and Stews
Dried vegetables are great in soups and stews. Dried green beans, tomatoes, peas, corn, etc. can be added to simmering broth or water. The vegetables will absorb the liquid and plump up. For quicker cooking time, rehydrate the vegetables first by pouring boiling water over them and soaking them for several hours. Dump the rehydrated vegetables and their soaking liquid into the stewpot.
As mentioned earlier, many recipes especially Asian soups, feature dried mushroom as one of the main ingredients.
Rehydrate your dried vegetables and use them as pizza toppings (drained and patted dry first).
No need to buy onion power. Dried onions can be minced and sprinkled on rice, noodles, beans, and pretty much anything that needs an onion flavor. You don’t even have to rehydrate them first. Add a tablespoon or two to baked beans prior to baking, or sprinkle over a casserole before you cooking.
I’ve only scratched the surface with what you can do with dried vegetables and fruits. I hope you’re starting to see that dried foods adds another dimension to vegetarian and vegan cooking.