Drying foods is one of the oldest food preservation methods. Before refrigeration, those who lived in cold climates could store foods outdoors or underground to preserve them. This was not the case for those who lived in more temperate climates. Native Americans and early American settlers commonly dried foods such as corn, apples, and grapes. Drying food made it lighter, smaller, and more portable.
Drying foods is a pretty simple process. You can, of course, use a commercial dehydrator, but drying food in the sun as people have done for centuries requires little energy other than a bit from you and the rest from the sun.
Spread a thin layer of fruits or vegetables on a cookie sheet or baking screen and place them in a sunny location, allowing for good air circulation. If you’re crafty, make a frame and cover with cheesecloth, fine chicken wire, or dehydrator netting for an easy DIY drying rack. Cover the food with a mesh food tent or umbrella netting to keep the bugs away and find a spot that isn’t easily accessible to pets or animals. There are many types of commercially available drying racks from which to choose–-including raised ones for flat surfaces and those that hang to save space.
Solar dehydration takes about 3 to 5 days when the temperature is 95 degrees, perhaps longer in lowers temperatures. However, if the air is humid, or isn’t adequately dry and hot, drying in a dehydrator will do the trick.
Like other preservation methods, it’s best to prepare food for drying as soon after harvest as possible. According to a report by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Agriculture, vegetables and fruits should be blanched, cooled, and quickly laid out to dry to ensure a quality result. Rapid dehydration is important, however, if dried too fast, the outside can become hard before the inside moisture has had time to evaporate. High temperature and low humidity increases the speed of dehydration as humid air slows evaporation.
Dry food’s low moisture content prevents organisms from growing and spoiling, making it a great way to preserve foods. To avoid spoilage, don’t interrupt the drying process. By letting food cool down and drying it again later, partly dried food can grow moldy and spoil. For best results, spread out uniform food sizes in thin, aerated layers so they dry evenly.
Drying does not retain the food’s appearance, flavor and nutritional value as well as canning and freezing, but dried fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of necessary dietary fiber. Added benefits: they are lightweight, compact, easy to store and transport.
Consider drying apples, berries, cherries, peaches, apricots, and pears. Dried fruits contain concentrated fruit sugars which make them a good source of quick energy. Many contain a good amount of vitamins and minerals and are rich sources of riboflavin and iron, but the drying process destroys some vitamins, especially A and C. Adding sulfur before drying helps preserve the fruit’s color and retain vitamins A and C, however sulfur destroys thiamine, one of the B vitamins.
Peel, core, and slice apples and cut in half fruits and pit fruits such as apricots and peaches. Though you do not need to peel most fruits before drying, you do need to crack the tough and waxy skins of some fruits like cherries. Place the fruit in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds, then in very cold water before thoroughly draining and toweling it off to prepare it for drying.
Treat light-colored fruits with an antioxidant to prevent them from turning brown during oxidation. In addition to altering the appearance, oxidation compromises the flavor, aroma, and texture of the fruit. To remedy this, lightly coat the cut fruit with a solution of water and ascorbic acid–-2 teaspoons for apples and 1 teaspoon for other light-colored fruit.
Dried vegetables are also a good source of minerals and the B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. Try drying peas, corn, peppers, zucchini, okra, onions, and green beans. It’s less advantageous to dry root vegetables such as carrots because they keep well for several months in a cool, dry basement or cellar.
When cooking with dried foods, place them in cool water for about 2 hours, or until they plump up. Alternatively, simmer fruit for 15 minutes or until tender in just enough boiling water over the fruit to cover it. Save the nutrient-rich water to use in soups and sauces.
Generally, the leaves, seeds, or blossoms of all types of fresh herbs are great for drying. Stored in small glass jars or plastic bags, they’re ready at any time to toss into your favorite recipes.
Good news for the space deprived: dried foods require less storage space than frozen or canned foods. For camping and hiking enthusiasts, lightweight and compact dried food is perfect for stashing in a backpack to provide snacks for several days on the trail. Also, moms know that small amounts of dried fruits make great lunchbox or after-school snacks.
Start small and experiment with your various home grown fruits and veggies to find the ones you like best. Good luck with your “dry run” and let us know what works best!
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About the Author
Author, designer, speaker, and influencer Robin Plaskoff Horton, is Editor-in-Chief of Urban Gardens, the award-winning and Webby-nominated home and garden, sustainable living, and travel webzine. Mashable named Urban Gardens “One of the top 10 must-follow home and garden Twitter accounts” and Better Homes and Gardens Magazine named Urban Gardens one the top 10 garden blogs for 2015. Her trend spotting and product sourcing has earned her the moniker “coolspotter.” Robin has traveled the world as a brand ambassador to design events including The London Design Festival, Maison & Objet in Paris, Milan Design Week, Ambiente in Frankfurt, Germany, and invited by the city of Girona, Spain to co-create an outdoor public art installation made with plants for the annual Temps de Flors festival.