Reap the Garden and Market Bounty: How to Dry Food

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.
By Barbara Pleasant
August/September 2008
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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
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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.

Drying peppers and herbs can save you big bucks at the spice rack, too. When you make your own smoky sweet paprika or hot pepper blend, your cooking improves as you discover new ways to use your blends to punch up your favorite dishes.

Drying Food with Attitude

In Lanesboro, Minn., organic gardener and food drying expert Mary Bell thinks people should look at food drying with a creative eye. Bell has invented what can only be called new foods, like succulent “half-dried tomatoes” seasoned with basil and thyme or “Can’t A Loupe Candy” — chunks of cantaloupe seasoned with ginger and powdered sugar before being dried. To deal with bountiful crops of hard-to-preserve eggplant, she figured out how to cut eggplant into strips, soak them in a salt/lemon juice solution and dry them into pastalike strands. For overripe zucchini, she marinates thin slices before drying them into chips.

According to Bell, the attitude behind her newest book, Food Drying With an Attitude, is sustainability. “I want everybody to have food they can supply for themselves year round,” Bell says. “Drying can provide a way to use things you already have instead of buying from some other place.” Bell removes ribs from big kale leaves, dries them raw, and crushes them into a jar to use as all-purpose potherbs, and to sell at her farmers market booth alongside her locally famous fruit leathers and dried tomatoes — a springtime treat that satisfies customers’ appetites for fresh flavors.

“If people are given permission to try new things, they are often surprised at what they can dry — like marked-down bananas at the store,” Bell says, adding that drying food is a simple skill to master.

Food Drying is 1-2-3 Easy

Slice or dice food into small, uniform pieces.
Dip the pieces in an acidic solution or blanch them to enhance the quality of the final product.
Place the pieces in single layers to dry, and turn as needed to help them dry more quickly.

Most vegetables are dried to a crisp, but fruits are done when they become leathery. Bell points out, however, that there is plenty of room in between, for example, savory chunks of half-dried tomatoes. If you want to try drying using only a sunny windowsill during the day and a warm (from the pilot light) oven at night, start with veggies that can be dried raw — garlic, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and peppers — and fresh greens such as kale or chard. First wash greens in cool water, then pat dry between towels.

Onions, okra, horseradish and many herbs are dried raw, too, but don’t wait until your onions get soft. Instead, select onions for drying that may not store well.

As I harvest garlic, I set aside the best bulbs for replanting, and then dry some of the rest. When the fresh garlic runs out (usually in February), the dried garlic fills in until the new crop is ready.

The high sugar and acid content of apples, pears and peaches make them great candidates for dip-and-dry treatments, in which cut pieces are dipped in an acidic solution to stop the oxidation process that darkens them. Orange, pineapple or cranberry juice work well, and you can drink the leftover juice when you’re finished. You may like the flavor enhancement from using pineapple juice, or the colors you get from letting apple slices soak in cranberry juice for an hour before drying. Some vegetables also darken when dried, but that’s easy to prevent by soaking the pieces in a mixture of one part lemon juice to four parts water.

Check Your Berries

If you want to replace the organic trail mixes you’ve been buying with a homemade version, go for it! Blueberries, cherries, cranberries, seedless grapes and figs do require extra steps to get great results, but if you can boil water, you can dry them.

After they’ve been washed, drained (and pitted if necessary) “check” the fruits by dipping them in rapidly boiling water for two seconds, or pour boiling water over them for a count of four. After the water drains away, spread the fruits on cookie sheets, pat dry, and pop them in the freezer for one to two hours. Then take them out and dry them right away. The boiling water cracks the skins and the brief freezing breaks down cell walls, transforming the fruits into incredibly tasty nuggets for snacks, cereals or baking. Try drying them halfway, to the chewiness of raisins, which will require refrigerated storage because of their high moisture content. Fruit dried until near-crisp can be stored in any cool, dark place. To rehydrate, just soak them in water for an hour before eating.

Steam and Blanch Basics

When preparing veggies for drying, blanch them in boiling water, or better yet, use a steamer to limit their uptake of water and fix enzymes. Broccoli florets and carrot slices that are steam-blanched and dried transform into soup in minutes (just add stock), and rehydrated steam-blanched green beans almost pass for the freshly picked version.

Sweet corn dries beautifully, too, and it’s easiest to handle if you blanch the whole ears before cutting off the kernels. Instead of blanching beets, winter squash and pumpkins, roast them until almost done before peeling, cutting into slices or chunks, and drying them.

Simple, Safe Storage of Dried Foods

Many foods that seem to be dried to perfection when you stash them in airtight containers may surprise you by going soft again as moisture levels equalize inside the container. Putting the pieces back into the dehydrator for an hour or two will fix the problem, making it possible to store the food at cool temperatures for up to a year. Keep chewy cherries, half-dried herbed tomatoes and other dried foods that are still slightly moist in your refrigerator or freezer to prevent mold. Freezer storage also is a good idea for foods dried outdoors because it will kill any insects hiding in crevices.

Prepare to be amazed at how little storage space your dried foods require. I can fit five big zucchinis, three butternut squashes, 12 fat garlic bulbs and 20 pounds each of tomatoes and peppers on one basement shelf once they’re dried. I never have to worry when the power stays off for days, but best of all, I always have something fast and easy to cook that came from my own organic garden. Of course, non-gardening cooks can also stock up at the farmers market when harvest is high and you’re likely to find the best deals. It’s a great way to support local farmers now, and keep eating delicious local foods all winter long.


Food Drying Tips

Make creative cuts. Try using an egg cutter or other unusual blades to slice mushrooms or carrots into attractive serrated slices or matchsticks before drying them. If you do a lot of drying (or pickling), a manual mandoline slicer can be a huge timesaver.

Do it outside. When using an electric dehydrator, run it outdoors — in a place protected from rain — to avoid heating up your kitchen. Or run it at night.

Dry on a shrub. If you suddenly need lots of space to dry a tree’s worth of apples or pears, spread an old sheet over a dense bush (like a boxwood), spread out the fruit, and cover it with cheesecloth to keep out insects. With good weather, the fruits will dry in two days. At night when it’s damp, bring the fruit indoors and spread it on an unused bed or table.

Make fruit leathers to cut into kid-pleasing roll-ups by combining equal parts of any fruit purée with thick applesauce before drying on lightly oiled sheets. A small amount of gelatin mixed into the fruit mixture helps leathers set up and dry more rapidly.

Powder your culls. Dry onions, garlic, asparagus, snap beans and other vegetables. Then grind them into a vegetable powder. Mixed with a little water or oil, vegetable powders work like vegetable bouillon. Use a small coffee mill to chop dried vegetables and herbs into coarse pieces or fine powders.

Pick up your scissors. Before rehydrating dried tomato or zucchini slices, cut them into smaller pieces with kitchen shears to help them plump up faster.

Get wet. When cooking, add dried vegetables to the moistest part of the dish. For example, sprinkle dried tomatoes and peppers over the sauce layer of a pizza rather than on the top.


Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on .


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Post a comment below.

 

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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