This is a series on Food Preservation — taking summer’s bounty and preserving it for winter’s scarcity. Dehydrating fruits and vegetables is one of several methods of food preservation that should be in your arsenal to allow you to enjoy the benefits of fresh, vitamin rich, chemical free food year round and at the lowest possible price.
Why dehydrate fruits and vegetables?
Dried fruits and vegetables do not need refrigeration to keep them safe to eat. They are stored dried in jars with tight fitting lids and are kept free of vermin. They can be reconstituted with water before you eat them or they can be enjoyed as dried snacks, for a nutritional boost on the run.
Dried fruits and vegetables take up less space in storage — 5 lbs of dried fruit or vegetables will fill a one litre jar in storage, but contain the same nutritional benefits as the fresh product with a minor loss of vitamin C.
Dried fruits and vegetables are convenient to use — eat dried right out of the jar, without cooking or reconstitute by soaking in water to use as fresh. Add veggies to soups and stews and allow to cook for 2o minutes before serving.
Dried fruits and vegetables will continue to be safe to eat if the power goes out.
They are convenient to take on long car trips or back packing trips, being light weight, and of small volume. We even keep a few ziploc bags of dried fruit in the car in our winter emergency kit. You never know when you’ll end up off the road in a snow bank.
Home dried fruit tastes better and retains its antioxidants longer. Grapes you dry yourself, without chemical additives, retain their delicious grape-ness. You won’t think they are raisins when you taste them.
Essential equipment for dehydrating fruits and vegetables
You don’t need a dehydrator to dry fruits and vegetables, although, if you plan to dry a lot of fruit or veggies at a time, for many years, a dehydrator will pay for itself in the first year or two — based on the money you will save by preserving your own food in the summer, when its less expensive.
To dry without a dehydrator, use a baking sheet lined with a cotton tea towel in your oven, with the oven light on. You should be able to fit two baking sheets in your oven. You will need to move the sheets around to ensure even drying of your fruits or vegetables. About 3 lbs of fruit or veggies will fit on two baking sheets inside your oven.
If you have a wood cook stove you can place food on baking sheets in the warming cabinet, turning often to ensure even drying, just like your great grandmother used to do.
You can use a car to dry your fruits and vegetables, too. Fit a frame with window screen to use as the dehydrating tray. Place it in your vehicle in full sun, windows rolled up. Prop the screen up on books or bricks in the back with a towel or newspaper under the screen to catch any moisture — allowing a 4 inch space between the seat and the bottom of the tray for air circulation. Place a second window screen over the first screen to keep out insects. Rotate fruit (or veggies) every couple of hours until the fruit is leathery and dry or vegetables are brittle-crisp. Pasteurize food before storage by placing in a 120 C oven for 20 min. to kill any insect eggs. Cool completely before storing.
Or use an electric food dehydrator.
Excalibur 3900 Deluxe Series 9 Tray Food Dehydrator – Black
My dehydrator holds 20lbs of fruit or veggies at a time. You can dry different food on each tray. Some food is strong smelling — like broccoli, onions or garlic. The smells will transfer to other food, so if you are combining food in the dehydrator keep this in mind.
If you aren’t building your own dehydrator, make sure that the dehydrator that you purchase is big enough for your family’s needs. A single person or couple can get by with the small counter top model but if you have 2 or more children you will need a dehydrator with at least 6 trays. My dehydrator has 12 trays and the top and bottom 2 are left empty when I fill it.
How to dry fruit
Fruit is really easy to dry in the dehydrator. Begin with organic fruit. Fruit is one of the most heavily sprayed crops — especially apples. If you can only find non-organic make sure you peel the fruit before drying. If your fruit is organic you can leave the peels on. If its not top quality, simply cut off any bad parts. You don’t need perfect fruit to get a good product from dehydrating it.
Cut the fruit into small portions, slice apples, half cherries, apricots, plums or grapes. Take out the core or pit. Turn soft fruits inside out with the moist side exposed and dry on the tray. Try to lay the fruit on the tray so that each piece of fruit is not touching any other piece of fruit.
You do not need to treat the fruit to keep it from browning. As soon as you place it in the dehydrator the forced dry air will cause the fruit to form a seal that stops browning. Although some books on dehydrating will tell you that you need to apply a chemical to stop browning — sulphur dioxide (a poison) or ascorbic acid (vitamin C) — these adjuncts are totally unnecessary if you are using an electric dehydrator. You might want to use vitamin C — use powdered Ascorbic Acid — 1 tbsp in a 2 litres of water — if you are drying inside your car or in the oven, as the slower drying will allow oxidation. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and will prevent this.
If you’ve never dried fruit before start with apples. Apples are the easiest fruit to dry. In the old days apples were sliced thinly in rounds and strung on twine and then hung behind the wood cook stove to dry in very airy houses. They will dry in 12 to 20 hours in an electric dehydrator, depending on the wattage. Dried apples can be eaten out of hand, reconstituted by soaking in hot water for an hour or two, and cooked into pies or apple sauce for winter desserts. My kids call them “apple cookies”. They were the snack of choice to bring to a youth event and the other kids preferred them to potato chips.
Fruit like apricots, and plums just need to be washed, halved, pitted and then pushed inside out, before putting on the trays to dehydrate. These fruits are very moist and should be checked and turned every 4 hours during the drying time to ensure even drying. They will be half done after 24 hours and can be crowded closer together on trays so that you can add new fruit to the dehydrator, while they finish their drying cycle.
Peaches are high in water content. If you don’t have your own peach tree, they are better canned or frozen than dehydrated. The dried product is thin and without much substance compared to the whole fruit. But if you have only dehydrating as a choice for food preservation than by all means dry them.
Although commercially fruit is dried until it is leathery and pliable. It is difficult in a home situation to measure the moisture content of food. I dry until I feel no coolness in the fruit when I touch it and no soft spot. If in doubt dry it longer or keep the dried fruit in a bag in your freezer. Improperly dried fruit will mold at room temperature.
Store your dried fruit in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid. This is a great use for all those glass mayonnaise jars that are sitting in people’s basements and attics.
Some fruits to dry:
Apples, strawberries, blueberries, black currants, huckleberries, pears (my favorite), apricots, cherries, grapes, plums, pineapple
Some fruit that is very moist and would be better in another form for winter storage:
Black berries, raspberries, red currants, peaches, nectarines, other very moist fruit.
How to dry vegetables
Vegetables are low acid foods that are generally lower in sugar. The sugar in vegetables converts quickly into starch after picking. To halt this process, vegetables should be blanched before canning, freezing or drying. The exception to this rule is tomatoes, peppers and onion which can be dried, frozen or canned after washing and slicing.
To blanch vegetables, boil a large pot of water, 3/4s full. Wash and slice your vegetables into bite size pieces. Blanch vegetables by placing in boiling water for 1 minute. Some vegetables, like broccoli and green beans, will change to a bright, lively green when properly blanched. Strain the vegetables from the water and plunge immediately into cold water to quickly cool the vegetable. Drain and space on trays to dehydrate.
Don’t try to blanch your vegetables in the microwave. This harms the vitamins and proteins in the food and doesn’t halt the conversion of sugars to starch. Your finished project will lack the flavour and nutritional content of normally blanched foods.
Dry your vegetables until they are crisp, brittle and hard, with no sign of flexibility or moisture. Turn them often during the drying time. Once they are dry, cool completely and store in glass jars with a snug fitting lid.
Dehydrated vegetables can be added to soups, stews and sauces all winter long. They can be reconstituted and served as a vegetable side dish or added to salads. You can also grind them and use them as a spice to perk up winter potatoes or pasta and add nutrition.
Vegetables to dry:
Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, winter radish, carrots, beets, peas, string beans (called leather breeches in the old days), corn, tomatoes, onions, peppers, hot peppers, lettuce, chard, garlic, egg plant, asparagus, rhubarb, new potatoes (older potatoes are more starchy and brown badly while drying.)
Remember to keep in mind your families likes and dislikes when you are choosing which vegetables to preserve for winter.
What’s your experience with dehydrating fruits and vegetables? What’s your favourite dried fruit or veggie? Leave a comment.
In this week’s Purple Sheep Newsletter I’ll be sharing my recipe for Kale Chips — a totally nutritious and yummy snack that you can grow in your garden from early spring till snowfall, and dehydrate in your oven. Its so yummy you may not have any left for winter storage though. If you haven’t already joined the flock of Purple Sheep, you can subscribe today and get this recipe, too.