How to Dry Food: Reap the Garden and Market Bounty

Learn how to dry food. Drying foods harvested from your garden or the farmers market is one of the best ways to achieve year-round local eating. Learn the secrets of easy food drying, including how to dry which foods and time-saving tips. Also includes information about your electric and solar food dehydrator options.


| August/September 2008



Learn how to dry food. Drying food is easy and inexpensive, and is one of the best ways to enjoy local foods all year.

Learn how to dry food. Drying food is easy and inexpensive, and is one of the best ways to enjoy local foods all year.


Photo by David Cavagnaro

Dry the harvest, learn how to dry food in order to stock up on homegrown snacks and convenience foods for year-round eating. Food drying is easy to learn and will help you save money on groceries while keeping your pantry stocked with delicious and nutritious organic food all year.

How to Dry Food

Many gardeners freeze, can or give away surplus zucchini and tomatoes, but what about drying them? Not only is drying a delicious way to preserve and concentrate the flavors of your fruits, veggies and herbs, but when dried, produce requires little space — and no electricity — to store, so you can enjoy it throughout fall and winter.

Last year I dried peppers, squash, garlic and quite a few cherry tomatoes, which brought much comfort when a power outage pushed my frozen treasures to the brink of thaw. The biggest revelation came in early spring, when I began using dried foods as other stockpiled veggies ran low. I discovered that cooking with delicious home-dried foods is as easy as cooking with packaged convenience foods, at a fraction of the cost. Sweet dried fruits and crunchy veggies are great in meals, but they’re good enough to enjoy as snacks, too.

What can you dry? From tomatoes and beets to sweet corn and green beans, almost any vegetable that can be blanched and frozen is a likely candidate for drying, along with apples, strawberries, peaches and most other fruits. In times past, people waited for a spell of dry, breezy weather to dry bunches of herbs or peppers threaded on a piece of string. And the first dehydrator I ever used was a parked car (just lay the goods on the dash or under the rear window). You will need only a warm oven to dry a basket of shiitake mushrooms, but unless you live in an arid climate where sun-drying is practical, eventually you’ll want a dehydrator. To compare plug-in options, read David Cavagnaro's Choosing a Food Dehydrator. Or read as Eben Fodor shares his expertise on building simple, non-electric food dryers in Build a Solar Food Dehydrator. (For an inexpensive DIY solar dehydrator, see Build a Low-Cost Solar Food Dehydrator. And for lots more on solar options, see the Solar Food Dehydrators landing page. — MOTHER)

But back to the food. Do you want the simplicity of scalloped potatoes from a box — but homegrown? Or how about the makings for dozens of pasta salads in which everything but the noodles came from your garden or a local farm? With a stash of dried foods, you really can drag through the door after work, set some dried veggies to soak, and then flop down for a few minutes, talk to the kids or change your clothes. By the time you’re back in the kitchen, you’ll be greeted by plump, pre-cut, organically grown veggies ready to be stir-fried, sautéed, simmered or tossed with dressing for a fast salad. Plus, drying foods to stockpile is one of the easiest ways to achieve a more local diet.

Back to the money. Organic convenience foods have their place in busy lives, but you pay for the time and energy involved in their creation. You subsidize the growing, drying, packaging, shipping and marketing, and it all adds up to some hefty retail prices. A dried organic vegetable soup kit costs $2 to $3, and a frozen entrée can push $5. The organic “skillet dinner” category runs somewhere in between, and it’s a great example of a situation where you could make your own for 50 cents using dried foods.

marian_7
3/3/2009 9:36:48 AM

I was interested in reading your article on dehydrating food as I have dried food myself for years. The hands down easiest food to dry are bananas. Slice ripe bananas into rounds. If you have it, a wavy knife gives the chip more surface area so they dry faster. Dip the chips into lemon juice, then let them drain in a colander while you prepare more. Spread in one layer onto screen or dryer tray. Optional: dry in dehydrator until surface moisture disappears (a couple of hours) take out trays and loosen fruit in place so that they don't stick to the tray at the end. Put back into dryer and dry until chips are as leathery or crisp as you like (about eight to twelve hours, more for crisp). For different taste dip chips in orange juice instead of lemon juice. Store in jars or plastic bags. Chips that are not dried to a crisp stage (like store bought) should be put into the refrigerator or freezer for long term storage.


heather mack
10/27/2008 3:12:45 PM

I love the article and I'm excited to try drying. However, I'm a bit concerned about the environment where I live. Here, in New Orleans, our humidity is notorious and we don't have basements because the water levels are too high. (And forget the garage, unless I'm trying to steam the veggies instead of keep them dry!) One of the appeals of drying is that it would prevent the massive loss of food we experience when we empty out our freezers and refrigerators for hurricane evacuations. It nearly broke my heart to throw away hundreds of dollars of produce this past year. So, drying would seem to be the elegant solution, but given what I'm reading about storage requirements, I'm not sure I can meet them. Even if I kept the dried food in the kitchen pantry (instead of in a basement), for most of the year our house is at least 75 degrees (trying to be responsible with our thermostat and all). I'm also wondering if the produce would ever get genuinely dry in the first place, given that Tom Robbins has described our climate as "an obscene phone call from nature." So, I love the notion, but I'd like your opinion on whether it's likely work down here before I go investing. Thank you so much, Heather


barbara pleasant_3
8/29/2008 7:27:01 AM

I am wondering if you have any articles or suggestions for plans to build a food dryer, specifically one that would be used in our sustainable agriculture education work in Africa. Shannon W., Bristol, TN You may have trouble assembling all the materials you would need to build the solar dryer described in our recent article, but it's still worth looking over: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/2006-08-01/Build-a-Solar-Food-Dehydrator.aspx As part of your information gathering, you may also want to look at the many solar cooking devices shown at http://www.solarcooking.org/. Some might be adapted for drying. A very simple solar dryer that works well enough can be made from a couple of cardboard boxes. The important thing is to position the heat collecting box low, so that the warm air moves upward and over the food as the heated air rises. Here's a basic construction plan: http://www.thefarm.org/charities/i4at/surv/soldehyd.htm.


barbara pleasant_3
8/26/2008 10:42:05 AM

After reading your article in the latest Mother Earth News I have a question: When getting tomatoes ready for drying, do you blanch, dip, or skin before slicing and placing in the dehydrator? Or can you just wash them, slice them and dry? M. Sue Witte Good questions! My favorite varieties for drying are rather firm by nature, so they can handle blanching and skinning before slicing, which is my preferred method. Removing the skins helps the slices dry faster, and since it's quicker (and less energy intensive) to steam-blanch than to use boiling water, I usually steam blanch tomatoes I'm going to slice before drying. Two minutes of steam does it. I make no attempt to remove the skins from cherry tomatoes before drying them, but I do slice them into halves or quarters and place them on the trays cut sides up. If the only tomatoes you have are very soft and juicy, then I would leave the skins on or you may not be able to get uniform slices at all. I don't dry soft-fleshed tomatoes, but it certainly can be done. Further down in this thread I name some of my favorite tomatoes for drying, but we need a longer list. Fellow food dryers, please post the variety names of your dehydrator darlings.


barbara pleasant_3
8/26/2008 10:24:09 AM

I got very excited after reading your article in Mother Earth News about drying food. And would like to purchase a dehydrator. Is there one you can recommend over another one? Are the cheaper ones really cheap or worth a try for a first timer? Thanks in advance. Lisa. Hi Lisa, Thanks for getting in touch. Drying foods that store well that way is simple and fun, and I do like my big 9-tray Excalibur, which retails for a little over $200. I cannot speak for or against any others, though long ago I had one that was really heavy. So, as you shop, I would look at weight. In summer, I move mine outside often to keep from heating up the house, and bring it in should storm clouds threaten. This source has a number of models, which may make your shopping a little simpler. http://www.harvestessentials.com/fooddeh.html Before you shop for a new dehydrator, why not try freecycle.org or Craigslist.org to locate a used one? A friend recently networked for a dehydrator, and ended up with two. Apples are really easy, so I hope you get yourself set up soon!


barbara pleasant_3
8/14/2008 6:47:54 AM

Hello from Canada. I've just read your article in Mother Earth News about dehydrating fruit and vegetables, and, aside from raisins and dried apricot recipes, have little experience with using them. Do you know of a cookbook that deals with this, or any other useful suggestions for someone with a bountiful garden who is running out of freezer and cupboard space? Thanks. Joan Portland, Ontario, Canada Hi Joan, I use Mary Bell's books as well as guidelines from the National Food Preservation Center when drying and cooking with dried foods, but mostly it's fun to learn by doing. As you get familiar with how different foods behave when they rehydrate, you will come up with all kinds of things to do with them in the kitchen. For example, dried cherry tomato halves that are rehydrated (soaked in hot water) for twenty minutes have just the right chewiness for salads. But to make an apple pie, my dried apples need to sit in water for twice that time. One thing I like to do with dried veggies is combine some in a covered casserole with an inch or so of water, salt and olive oil, and bake them slow for an hour or so. Add pasta and cheese, and you have dinner. Hope you get the idea here. When making anything that cooks for more than an hour, you can toss in dried anything and it will work. I know what you mean about a bountiful garden. This time of year, the challenge is figuring out what to dry, what to can, and what to stash in the freezer. Good luck!


barbara pleasant_3
8/14/2008 6:45:32 AM

i am a home brewer and have decided to grow my own hops. all is well in that department. have you ever dried hops and if you did how did you do it? any thoughts or hints will be greatly appreciated. Thanks. Rich from Idaho. Hi Rich, Like most green herbage, I think it's best to dry hops cones quickly in a ventilated dehydrator. High temperatures can injure the crop, so be careful if you're going solar and vent generously to keep the temp under 140 degrees. I'm no expert with hops, so I suggest reading this harvesting overview from the Oregon Hops Commission. Take their advice about storing your dried hops in the freezer seriously, because there is still enough moisture left in properly dried cones to cause them to go moldy. Good luck with your brew. My apple wine is bubbling away today.


barbara pleasant_3
8/5/2008 10:48:03 AM

This morning a reader called the Mother Earth office asking if he should peel apples, peaches and tomatoes before drying them. Good questions! I suggest peeling any fruit that is not organically grown. By doing so, you remove the part most likely to be tainted with pesticide residues. Peaches often carry a heavy load, so definitely peel them. Peeling is mostly a matter of personal taste with organic apples. And, the results can vary with the variety of apple. Try drying them both ways and see what you like. Keeping the peels adds fiber and lots of nutrients, too. See prior question on tomatoes. I don't remove the skins from cherry tomatoes before cutting them in half and drying them, but I do when cutting larger fruits into slices to dry. The skin can serve as a barrier to drying, and tomatoes already take a long time. The ten minutes I put into removing the skins (by steam blanching for 2 minutes) probably cuts a couple of hours off of drying time. Don't forget to "condition" your stuff a day or two after you dry it. After waiting a couple of days for moisture levels to equalize inside a jar of dried goodies, I almost always put things I've dried back on the trays for an hour or so to achieve the uniformity needed for long-term storage.


barbara pleasant_3
8/5/2008 10:45:04 AM

Just read the article in Mother Earth News and found it awesome. I dehydrate a lot of my garden however I do have a problem and thought maybe you could tell me what I am doing wrong. I love dried tomatoes and have tried a number of times to dry them in my dehydrator. I have one with a fan and one without. They always start stinking way before they are done and was wondering if you knew exactly what I might be doing wrong. I end up throwing them out because I can't stand the smell. Not sure whether it is the juice dripping down inside the dehydrator or what. Any solutions? B.U., Southwest Virginia Last year I dried cherry tomatoes, cut in half, and so far this year I've dried some Ida Golds -- a firm, early orange tomato. The quarter inch slices dried into beautiful little wheels. Right now I have lots of Stupice, but they're so juicy that I don't think they would dry very well. The San Marzano paste tomatoes are too dry, I think, and I want them for ketchup anyway. I have a couple of Romas, which are juicier, so I may dry some of those. The Green Zebras are just ripening, but they look like they might dry well, too. I do think variety makes a big difference in the outcome, so maybe if you steer clear of soft, juicy tomatoes you will have better luck. I would not try to dry Brandywine, for example. I use an Excalibur with a heater and fan, and dry them at 125 - 135 degrees. They do take a while, maybe 8 hours. When it's hot I move the dehydrator outdoors.






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