Food Dehydration

Photo by alyssssyla, used under Creative Commons license

Big thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s Food Dehydration workshop!  There was a great group of folks with lots of expertise in growing and preserving food, and it was a lot of fun to hear about everyone’s projects, challenges and goals.  For those of you who missed the workshop, you I’ve put together some helpful information and tasty recipes to help you with your food dehydration adventures. 

I first got interested in food dehydration the year that I was farming and had massive amounts of produce to deal with.  After I filled my root cellar I started canning like crazy, and after filling my cupboards with mason jars (and getting awfully sick of hanging out in a hot steamy kitchen in the middle of a Kootenay summer) I started looking for other options.   There are definitely lots of good reasons to dehydrate your garden goodness.

Photo by storebukkebruse, used under Creative Commons license

Why dehydrate food?

  • Tasty:  Not only are dried foods tasty in their own right, but they have even more concentrated flavour than the fresh versions of themselves.
  • Economical:  You can buy or gather food in season and dry it yourself rather than paying to get it year round at the grocery store, and you don’t pay for the electricity to run a freezer or for canning equipment.
  • Nutritious:  Dried food retains about the same nutritional value as frozen food, is efficient way to get calories, maintains fiber, carbs and minerals in foods, and helps you avoid some of the nasty additives that commercial dried foods have.
  • Easy to store:  Don’t have a giant freezer?  Don’t have a huge pantry for canned goods?  Well, tiny shrivelled up dried foods are definitely your friend!
  • Fun:  Easy to master, no worries about botulism, less food safety issues to be concerned about, and it’s nice to be able to create your own custom fruit leather blends and other creations.

Once you’ve gotten stoked on food dehydration, it’s time to think about how to go about drying food.  Here’s some information on various forms of food dehydration, with some pros and cons of each method.

Commercial food dehydrator
Advantages:  Safe, easy to clean, reliable, easy to adjust temperature
Disadvantages:  Can be pricey, but keep an eye on Craigslist and UsedVictoria for good deals, or go in with a few friends to share one.
Notes:   There are lots of different models, some better than others, so check online for reviews before you buy.

Photo by biberfan, used under Creative Commons license

Oven drying
Advantages:  Don’t need to buy special equipment, good for herbs, rose petals or other small items
Disadvantages:  Takes a looooong time, not efficient use of energy
Notes:  Get an oven thermometer to make sure your oven can maintain a low enough temperature (140-150⁰F).  Prop the oven door open 2-4” to allow moisture to escape.  You can just use the regular oven rack for larger veggie and fruit pieces, but use a non-stick baking sheet for fruit leather.

Home-built dryers (there are tons of plans for these floating around the internet)
Advantages:  Can be incredibly cheap (some are made of cardboard boxes)
Disadvantages:   Can be a potential fire hazard (wood or cardboard boxes + heat source = bad news), tend to be pretty inefficient and need lots of monitoring
Notes:  Not recommended if you can wrangle up another way to dry food

Photo by california cowgirl1, used under Creative Commons license

Drying in the sun
Advantages:  The sun is free, the trays and covers are cheap (or you may already have them), the ultraviolet rays have a natural sterilizing effect to help preserve food
Disadvantages:  Takes a really long time (6 hours in a food dehydrator = 4 days in the sun), if it starts to rain you are totes out of luck
Notes:   Try it with fruit leather or any fruit with high acid and sugar content.  Not recommended for most veggies, especially in our climate.

Solar dehydrator
Advantages:  No operating costs, can still work in cooler climates, can build with recycled/reclaimed materials
Disadvantages:  Need tools to build, requires storage space (fairly large)
Notes:  If you’d like to try building your own solar dehydrator, I recommend checking out The Solar Food Dryer: How to Make and Use Your Own Low-Cost, High Performance, Sun-Powered Food Dehydrator by Eben Fodor

There are a ton of great dried food recipes in cookbooks and on the internet.  I’ve reprinted a couple that I particularly enjoyed below, and you can find more by searching around on the internet machine or checking out the resources below.

Lime and Sweet Potato Leather

  • 1 c cooked, peeled sweet potato
  • ¾ c water
  • ¼ c fresh lime juice

Cook the sweet potato until soft, then puree with water and lime juice (the consistency should be like a fairly thick smoothie, if that helps).  Spread the mixture as evenly as possible (easier said than done, as you can see by my photo) on the fruit leather sheet of a food dehydrator, and dry at 135 degrees or so until finished. To check if the fruit leather is done, touch the top of the leather in a few spaces.  It should be translucent, feel like leather, and not be soft/moist to the touch.  When it’s done you should be able to pull it up in one piece beginning at the edge of the tray.  This should take 4-8 hours, depending on the thickness of the puree, the kind of fruit or veg, and your particular dehydrator.

Leather Britches (aka dried string beans):  great in soups!

  • Any quantity of fresh beans, washed and dried
  • A darning needle
  • Heavy thread

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, drop beans in, return to boil and blanch for one minute.   Immediately shock the beans in cold water to prevent them from cooking any more.  To dry the beans, line them up parallel to each other with about an inch of space between them.  Run the needle and thread through the beans, about 1/2 inch from the top of each.  Hang somewhere hot and dry with lots of air circulation.  In 2-3 days, the beans will be brittle and can be clipped from the stem.  Pasteurize them in a 170⁰F oven for 15 minutes, then store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.

Dried Balsamic Strawberries (great snack or salad topping)

  • 1 lb strawberries, washed and halved
  • 3 Tbsp good balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp raw sugar
  • freshly ground black pepper

Toss berries gently with vinegar, sugar and pepper.  Set aside for an hour, stirring occasionally.  Drain and place in dehydrator.  Time will vary depending on size of berries and temperature, but they should take around 12 hours at 135⁰F.  Recipe and photo source:  Intentionally Entertaining.

Resources (all books listed are available at the Victoria Public Library):

BOOKS!

WEBSITES!

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