Enjoy Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables Year-round by Dehydrating
As you learned from our previous articles on food preservation, dehydrating foods can be a healthy way to save money on your grocery bill. Imagine being able to snack on healthy berries, vegetables, etc. in the middle of winter for a delicious immune-system boost.
Plus, dried vegetables and fruits have intense flavors that can enhance your recipes. Now let’s take a look some common methods for dehydrating fruits and vegetables.
Food Dehydrators – Do You Really Need One?
Food dehydrators certainly do have some pros and perks. But then, so do air and oven drying. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of dehydrators and other methods.
These neat machines look a bit like air purifiers or humidifiers. They work by circulating hot, dry air around food at a temperature of about 150 degrees F.
- Speed There’s no doubt that dehydrators speed up the process of food drying, sometimes significantly. Fast drying means bacteria have less time to grow, and it also means that foods tend to retain their color better.
- Space A dehydrator takes up a lot less space than spreading foods all over screens or stringing them on thread and hanging them in garlands.
- Convenience When you dry food in a dehydrator, you don’t have to carry your food indoors at night and put it back out in the morning. You also don’t have to worry about leaving an oven on all day if you have to step out.
- Expense Dehydrators can be expensive. Expect to pay anywhere from $40 to $250 for various models.
- Energy use Dehydrators don’t necessarily use a lot of energy, but they certainly do use more household electricity than air and sun drying.
- Storage You won’t be using your dehydrator every day, so storing it when you’re not using it (which is most of the time) can be a problem.
How to Use a Dehydrator for Fruits and Vegetables
If you plan to store a bounty of those healthy, colorful fruits and vegetables for delicious and healthy meals year-round, then you may want to invest in a dehydrator. Here are some tips and ideas for how to get the most from your dehydrator for fruits and vegetables.
As you embark on your dehydrating ventures, it’s a good idea to set aside a whole day or chunk of time to get it done. Produce is best if it’s bought/harvested and put in the dehydrator on the same day.
Before you begin to dehydrate a particular food or foods, there are some things you’ll need to get started. Here is a basic list of equipment you’ll need in addition to the dehydrator itself:
- Sharp knife
- Cutting board
- Sugar, salt, herbs, spices, and other flavor enhancers (optional)
- Air-tight containers such as zip top plastic bags or glass jars
Choose Your Fruits and Vegetables
As you get ready to use your dehydrator, it’s important to choose the right produce. First, make sure the produce is at the peak of ripeness and flavor – don’t be tempted to buy overripe or underripe foods just because they are on sale or you’ve overlooked some produce from your garden and it’s gotten too ripe.
Prepare the Produce
Wash your fruits and vegetables first unless you’re drying mushrooms. Mushrooms should just be wiped clean. Then cut and slice produce so that all pieces are about the same size and thickness (thinner slices are better).
For fruits that tend to turn brown as they dry, toss them with some lemon juice first. Vegetables should be blanched in boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes and then plunged into ice water. Pat them dry before putting them in the dehydrator.
At this stage, you can sprinkle produce with sugar, salt, herbs, or whatever you’d like. Apples might be enhanced by sprinkling them with cinnamon sugar, for instance, and green beans might be tastier if you sprinkle them with some salt and an herb like dill.
Loading the Dehydrator
Lay the fruit pieces in single layer on the trays. Make sure the pieces do not overlap, and that there is some space between the pieces. Place the dehydrator somewhere that it won’t get in your way for the next day or so. It takes about 8-10 hours for foods to dry, and it may take longer. You can periodically check the produce – just remove a piece with tongs, let it cool, and see how moist it feels. Cut it in half – if it looks moist inside, it’s not done.
Cool and Store
Once the pieces are dry, turn the dehydrator off and allow the food to cool for about an hour. Then remove the trays and store the food in your airtight containers. Pack them loosely, and watch for condensation. If it appears, return the food to the dehydrator for a while.
- Saves space Since you already have an oven in your kitchen, you don’t have to make space for another appliance, or for homemade drying racks.
- Relatively fast Oven drying is not as fast as a dehydrator due to the lack of circulating air; but it’s generally faster than air drying.
- Energy use Oven drying is probably the most energy-consumptive method. Even on a low temperature, it takes a decent amount of electricity to keep an oven warm constantly.
- Inconvenience You can’t cook or bake anything else in the oven until the food is dry.
Air and Sun Drying
- Free energy You don’t have to concern yourself with using electricity – sun and air are free!
- Flavor Some claim that air and sun drying produces the best flavor in produce, and infuses it with “natural energy” instead of electrical energy.
- Pests Bugs, rodents, and pets can spoil your efforts.
- Weather If the weather turns wet and you can’t get your food inside on time, your whole venture may be ruined.
As you look at this list, it seems like dehydrators do stand out as the most effective means of drying food. But if you can’t afford one or if you don’t have a place to store one, or if you are just working with a small amount of food to dry, the oven and the air and sun can still work. You can also check at yard sales this summer and see if anyone is selling a used dehydrator for cheap.
Using the Air and Sun to Dry Your Foods
People have been drying foods for centuries. Before refrigeration, drying was the primary means of preserving fruits and beans. Drying herbs is a time-honored way to preserve these healthful plants, and drying garden produce in the attic is something early American settlers often did.
These days, one of the reasons people turn to drying foods is because it seems simpler – you don’t need the equipment and added ingredients that are necessary for canning, and even a dehydrator is optional. You can make use of nature’s basics – sunlight and air – to dry foods. Of course, while drying isn’t as involved as canning in terms of equipment, there are still some items you’ll need and some techniques to employ. Here are some tips on how to use the air and sun to dry your foods.
Sun and Shade
Some foods do fine in the sunlight – grapes and mushrooms, for instance – but others do not. Green beans, for example, lose their color if they are dried in the sun, but they do great in dry shade.
You’ll find that soft-fleshed fruits like peaches and pears tend to turn brown when dried, as do apples and bananas. One way to help prevent this is to toss fruit with lemon juice before drying, or dip it in a mix of lemon juice and water.
Here are some simple things you’ll need to dry your own foods using only the sun and air.
- Screens You can use clean, old window screens or make your own with a simple wood frame and plastic screening stapled to the frame. (Plastic resists rust, but you can use metal screening as long as it does not contain lead.)
- Cloths and/or paper towels You need these to cover the screens so that the food has a clean, dry surface on which to be placed, and you’ll need cloths or paper towels to cover the food lightly while it dries. Clean, thin cotton works well, as it allows air to circulate above and below the food.
- Upholstery thread and large needle Some foods do really well when strung on thread and hung, garland-style, from your home’s eaves, in the attic, or other shady, dry places. Green beans do great with this method, as do mushrooms and apple rings.
- Oven Even if you rely solely on the sun and air to dry your foods, putting them in a warm oven (about 175 degrees F) for half an hour after they dry is a good idea. This is to kill any insects and their eggs that may be lurking in the foods.
The basic air and sun method is to lay the food pieces on a cloth-covered screen, making sure they do not overlap and that there’s a little space between them, and covering it with another cloth. Then place it outside in an area where birds, pets, squirrels, other critters can’t get at them. Leave the screens out during the day and bring them in at night.
String slices of apple, green beans, garlic cloves, tiny onions, etc. on upholstery thread and hang them in a dry, warm place such as an attic or outdoor shed. Once again, you’ll need to guard against pests and bring the “garlands” in at night.
There you have it; plenty of useful information to start preserving seasonal fruits and vegetables from your garden or the farmer’s market to enjoy year-round.