Wednesday, May 2, 2012
PROBABLY MORE THAN YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT DRYING FOODS
First things first, what to dry? I only dry fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are grown organically and have been picked at their peak of freshness. That's easy for me, because I grow all my food, but if you don't have access to your own garden, a good source of such things is the farmer's market, roadside fruit stands, and a good reliable fruit market that specializes in locally grown fruits and vegetables. It's a colossal waste of time to preserve fruits and vegetables that have been trucked half-way around the world because they lose a lot of their nutritional value in the process of shipping them plus you lose more in the preserving of them.
There's three ways that you can go about drying your foods; solar, in the oven, or in a dehydrator. I have a dehydrator made by Excalibur which costs about $200. A pretty expensive machine, for sure, but really does a great job on things like tomatoes, peppers, and apples. In my younger years, I had one of those cheaper ones that you can buy at any big box store. It did an OK job on drying some things like mushrooms and peas, but I've been equally successful drying those things by the solar or oven method, so I'd say it depends on what you want to do. Sometimes you just have to wait to buy the quality product rather than settle for a cheaper one. In the meantime you can try solar and oven drying.
Solar drying can be difficult. The extension service says that you need 3-5 days of temperature above 95 degrees and very low humidity. Something we rarely experience around here. But if you live in a drought area in the south, you might want to give it a try. Just put your vegetables or fruits on trays, cover them with some cheesecloth and put them in a sunny spot that is away from animals and dusty roads. Having lived in some industrial areas, where there was so much pollution, I wouldn't attempt to dry anything outside. You need clean fresh air. Anyway, if the temperature drops more than 15 degrees at night, bring your trays inside, or else the dew will rehydrate what you are drying and may cause mold and spoilage.
Another method that I use that's kind of a cross between solar and oven drying is to set my trays inside my car. You know how hot a car gets inside on a hot, sunny day. Works beautifully for drying herbs.And I've also used it for peas and broccoli minced fine (we use this in everything; sprinkled into soup and salads, thrown into spaghetti sauce, and cheese sauces).
Oven drying is another method. It's quite not very energy efficient as you have to operate your oven for several hours. So I like to do this on a cool day, when I want to take the chill off. You need to have an oven that you can adjust the heat down to 140 degrees. Arrange you trays so that there is room for air to circulate around them. Keep the door slightly ajar to help with the air circulation, or if you have a convection setting on your oven use that. Rotate the trays every half hour. You must use caution so that it doesn't get to hot or the fruits/vegetables will harden on the outside before they dry on the inside, causing spoilage. Plan for enough time to dry your produce thoroughly. Do not stop and restart the process. This can cause spoilage.
There's little prep work to drying fruits and vegetables, but there is some. For fruits with tough skins, such as, blueberries, grapes, cherries, and plums the skin must be checked, or cracked. To do this blanche the fruit in boiling water for 30-60 seconds, then immediately plunge into very cold water to stop the cooking process. Light colored fruits such as apples and pears need to be treated with ascorbic acid to keep them from turning brown and mushy. You can find this by the canning supplies. A mixture of 2 teaspoons to 1 cup of water sprinkled over the slices does the trick. Except for mushrooms, tomatoes and onions, which will turn to mush, all vegetables need to be blanched. Just use the guidelines for blanching for freezing to do this. You can find this easily on the internet.
Once you have the dried fruits and vegetables, now what? Use them in soup and casseroles. They don't have to be reconstituted for soups. Just add them to the stock. As a matter fact they used to manufacture a product called Soup Starter that was just a few dehydrated peas, onions and celery, etc. To reconstitute the dried fruits and vegetables, just soak whatever amount you are using in twice the amount of water for a couple of hours. Remember to save the water. You can use it like you would vegetable broth. Of course, dried fruits and vegetables make dandy snacks. We love the flavor of dried corn. And the tomatoes are good too. A winter compote of dried apricots, pears and apples is a lovely thing in the cold winter. A lot better than something made from anemic fruit that is available that time of year. Although this was a rather long post, drying fruits and vegetables isn't a complicated process. As a matter of fact our forefathers, dried apples and beans (leather breeches) just by string them up over their fires.
So I hope that answers all your question. Next time I'll be back with some lovely things I want to share with you. Have a nice week until we meet again!