Then, a few years ago, we stumbled across a food preservation method that's easy, economical, healthful, and just about perfect for us. I'm talking about drying. Almost any edible — vegetable, fruit, herb, fish, or meat — can be processed in this way, without additives.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/MARILYN BARBONE
Sun drying — one of the oldest food preservation methods known to man — is still highly efficient in areas of strong sunlight and low humidity . . . such as the arid section of Washington State where Pat Kenoyer practices the art. Residents of less favored climates, however, can get in on the action too . . . if they'll take the time to fabricate a simple homemade indoor dryer like the one Peter Murphy describes in the pages that follow. Either way — whether you try sun drying or dehydrating your edibles with artificial heat — this age-old method of storing food deserves your consideration. Drying, which doesn't require the support of heavy industry as do canning and freezing, is too valuable a skill to be forgotten.
To those of us who prefer organically grown fruits and vegetables — and also like to save money — home preservation of food is a major concern . . . and everyone has his or her favorite method.
At first, our family couldn't seem to find a technique that suited us. Freezing seemed to have all sorts of drawbacks . . . especially since we move often and simply didn't want to cart around a big, heavy cold storage unit. We could have used a frozen food locker, of course, but we found the necessary frequent trips to such a plant inconvenient.
To our minds, canning wasn't much better than freezing. The jars are expensive, subject to breakage, and bulky to move . . . and anyhow, we soon tired of washing them. Besides, I didn't like the thought of additional sweetening on our fruit or the threat of botulism from our fish and vegetables.
Then, a few years ago, we stumbled across a food preservation method that's easy, economical, healthful, and just about perfect for us. I'm talking about drying. Almost any edible — vegetable, fruit, herb, fish, or meat — can be processed in this way, without additives . . . and the finished products won't support destructive bacteria (or even mold) as long as they're kept free of moisture. Besides that, dried foodstuffs require little storage space and only inexpensive containers.
Drying is such a simple method of preserving edibles that you really have to remember only two ironclad roles:
- The food must be clean.
- Juicy fruits and vegetables must be cut in half, and are sometimes better quartered or sliced. The more moisture an item contains, the smaller we cut it.
Other predrying treatments — including blanching, sulfuring, dipping in salt water, or adding sugar or honey — are said to help dried foods retain a better color and flavor. We've never used any such measures, however (apart from adding a little salt to fish) and all our products have looked and tasted good. (Some authorities insist that low-acid vegetables must be blanched before dehydration to destroy spoilage-causing bacteria. See Putting Food By by Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan, and Janet Greene for a discussion of this point. — MOTHER.)
Drying can be done in the oven when you want quickest results (fruits are ready to pack after only about six hours of such forced heat) . . . and we do fall back on our indoor facilities occasionally when the sun gets sulky. (To us dehydration specialists, that's an emergency!) Oven drying, however, causes a greater change in color and flavor than does the heat of the sun, and we prefer to use the latter whenever possible.
Our outdoor drying is done on folding tables set up on the patio and covered with clean, light-colored paper. Once I tried a backing of aluminum foil to see whether it made an appreciable difference in processing time or the quality of the dried foods. It didn't, and — since the use of that material goes against my ecological conscience — I haven't repeated the experiment. Cookie sheets, cake pans, wire racks, or just plain butcher paper are all suitable surfaces on which to dry edibles, as long as the items to be dehydrated are placed far enough apart to allow the circulation of air. (Spaciousness is important . . . as I know from one occasion when I crowded some apricots together on the table, and lost them to mold.)
Fruits seem to store especially well when sun-preserved . . . and I was surprised to learn how great a variety can be dried. We've processed not only apples, apricots, peaches, and pears, but cherries, chokecherries and crab apples. Even watermelon can be dehydrated if it's spread thinly enough over a drying surface. Elderberries, serviceberries, currants, and Oregon grapes all turn out beautifully too, ready for use in winter pies.
The only fruits I haven't found satisfactory for drying are raspberries, blackberries, salmonberries and strawberries, which take too long to process and occupy table space I need for other foods that follow them into season. I should mention, though, that my sister — who has more room for her dehydrating operation than we have — has sun-preserved strawberries and was very pleased with the results.
Fruits which are being dried must remain in direct sunlight for several hours of the day. I learned the importance of this point from my only failure (apart from the overcrowded apricots): a batch of peaches which I put out just as the sun rebelled. At the time I was too busy with other responsibilities to oven dry the poor things . . . and four days of cloud and rainstorms proved too much for them.
Fruits being dehydrated by the sun can be left out at night, if you're certain it won't rain, but they should be covered with a sheet. (Insects stay away from most food that's exposed to full sunlight, and then crawl all over it after sundown.) As soon as the shade falls on our tables late in the day, we set them back under the patio roof and drape them with clean sheeting.
Many vegetables also dry well: green beans, green peppers, squash, pumpkin, beets . . . even potatoes and carrots, although these are so easily stored for winter that there's little reason to process them. My biggest problem was with corn, which attracted insects and the neighborhood cats and had to be protected until its sweet milkiness had dried up. (Food can be shielded with cheesecloth or wire screen, suspended above and around — without touching — the edibles.)
Even though vegetables store quite nicely when sun dried, Ole Sol does tend to bleach most green and yellow varieties to an unappetizing gray. For this reason we prefer to dehydrate vegetables indoors. I spread green beans, green peppers, squash and suchlike on trays and set the containers on top of the refrigerator, where their contents dry quite beautifully.
Most vegetables, incidentally, dehydrate faster than fruits. Two days is an average processing time . . . although some, like whole green beans, take twice that long.
Herbs are also best dried indoors. If you have room, you can simply tie them in bundles and hang them in a dry place . . . as a picturesque decoration for your kitchen, perhaps. Since I can't do this in our mobile home, I handle herbs in the same way as vegetables. When the plants have dehydrated, we break, crush, or cut them into small pieces. Most shatter as they're pulled off the stalks or rubbed between our hands . . . but horsetails, for instance, have to be chopped into bits with scissors.
Horsetails? That's right! Not all the fruits, vegetables, and herbs we dry are home grown. My husband and I like to gather as many edibles as possible from the wild . . . and we dehydrate much of what we collect. On foraging trips we carry along an assortment of boxes that nest one inside another, and spread each item we harvest in its own container. Boxes that hold fruit are put in the sun near our camping trailer, while those containing vegetables are placed in the shade under the vehicle or on top of the bunk inside. Often we'll have ten or more different foods sitting around drying at once.
I'd also like to dehydrate some of the fish we catch when we're camping or traveling . . . but haven't been able to so far because problems with cats and flies compel us to oven dry our piscatorial treasures. Relief is in sight, though: We're planning to build a drying box (a frame covered with two thicknesses of fine-mesh screen spaced one-quarter inch apart). This should allow air to circulate around the fish, yet keep the various beasties from reaching them.
It's much easier to describe the food-drying process than to explain how to tell when an edible is ready to be packaged. I can only say that most fruits and vegetables will be leathery but not brittle, while a few will actually become crisp and will shatter when struck with a hard tool. Some — cherries, for instance — will still be sticky even when free of moisture. You'll soon learn to judge the feel and appearance of whatever you dry. At the outset, though, you may want to consult a reference work for a description, of "doneness" in specific foods. (Putting Food By includes this information . . . and you might wont to inquire about whether or not your county extension office has on file any of the home drying Instructions formerly offered by the USDA. — MOTHER.)
Your dehydrated stores can be packaged in various ways, depending on your local climate. In a damp coastal area, for instance, I'd use heavy plastic or glass jars, and make sure that both containers and food are perfectly dry before packing. I'd also check for condensation from time to time during any extended storage period.
Here in the dry south-central region of Washington State, net or paper bags (my favorites) are satisfactory containers for dried food. When we've bagged our products, we fold over the tops of the sacks, fasten them with paper clips, mark each parcel in red ink with the name of the item . . . and sometimes add instructions for its use. The packages are then placed on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard . . . but aren't left there indefinitely without attention.
We take the bags down occasionally, check their contents to see that they're still dry, and sometimes carry part of our store outside or to the oven for a brief reprocessing. This can be done by leaving the food in the sacks and turning them to expose all the edibles to the warm air.
Remember, the only danger that threatens your stock is contact with moisture (which will cause molding and possibly provide a breeding place for bacteria). As long as the fruits, vegetables, or whatever are kept dry, there will be no problems and the edibles will last until next season's produce is available.
Dehydrated foods can be used in a number of ways. You can restore moisture to fruits by soaking them in water (overnight, if the treat is to be eaten for breakfast), or by placing them in a colander over the open top of a steaming teakettle or pan. The reconstituted peaches or whatever can then be used just as if they were fresh or canned. Alternatively, the fruits can be left dry, chopped, or added to cakes, breads, stuffings or salads. They're also fine to eat in place of candy, and are great snacks to tuck into packed lunches or to nibble on while traveling.
Dried vegetables can be soaked or steamed in the same way and served in casseroles or with butter and seasonings. They also go well in stews or soups.
Herbs can be sprinkled, while still dry, into salads or various cooked dishes . . . or can be made into delicious, healthful teas by steeping one to one and a half teaspoons of the crushed or finely cut foliage in one cup of boiling water.
Every time we enjoy one of our dehydrated foodstuffs, we're glad we discovered drying. Its convenience, low cost and tasty results make this the preservation method that's just right for us. Try it . . . maybe you'll like it too!
Highly recommended by the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editors: The Solar Food Dryer book, by Eben Fodor. If you are thinking of building a solar food dryer, or you just want to learn the basics of how to preserve food by dehydrating, this is the best book available. Includes full details on how to build a very effective solar-powered dehydrator.