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Use the Air and Sun to Dry Your Foods
People have been drying foods for centuries. Before refrigeration, drying was the primary means of preserving fruits, beans, and even meats. Drying herbs is a time-honored way to preserve these healthful plants, and drying garden produce in the attic is something early American settlers often did.
These days, one of the reasons people turn to drying foods is because it seems simpler – you don’t need the equipment and added ingredients that are necessary for canning, and even a dehydrator is optional. You can make use of nature’s basics – sunlight and air – to dry foods. Of course, while drying isn’t as involved as canning in terms of equipment, there are still some items you’ll need and some techniques to employ. Here are some tips on how to use the air and sun to dry your foods.
Sun and Shade
Some foods do fine in the sunlight – grapes and mushrooms, for instance – but others do not. Green beans, for example, lose their color if they are dried in the sun, but they do great in dry shade.
You’ll find that soft-fleshed fruits like peaches and pears tend to turn brown when dried, as do apples and bananas. One way to help prevent this is to toss fruit with lemon juice before drying, or dip it in a mix of lemon juice and water.
Here are some simple things you’ll need to dry your own foods using only the sun and air.
* Screens – You can use clean, old window screens or make your own with a simple wood frame and plastic screening stapled to the frame. (Plastic resists rust, but you can use metal screening as long as it does not contain lead.)
* Cloths and/or paper towels – You need these to cover the screens so that the food has a clean, dry surface on which to be placed, and you’ll need cloths or paper towels to cover the food lightly while it dries. Clean, thin cotton works well, as it allows air to circulate above and below the food.
* Upholstery thread and large needle – Some foods do really well when strung on thread and hung, garland-style, from your home’s eaves, in the attic, or other shady, dry places. Green beans do great with this method, as do mushrooms and apple rings.
* Oven – Even if you rely solely on the sun and air to dry your foods, putting them in a warm oven (about 175 degrees F) for half an hour after they dry is a good idea. This is to kill any insects and their eggs that may be lurking in the foods.
The basic air and sun method is to lay the food pieces on a cloth-covered screen, making sure they do not overlap and that there’s a little space between them, and covering it with another cloth. Then place it outside in an area where birds, pets, squirrels, other critters can’t get at them.
Leave the screens out during the day and bring them in at night.
String slices of apple, green beans, garlic cloves, tiny onions, etc. on upholstery thread and hang them in a dry, warm place such as an attic or outdoor shed. Once again, you’ll need to guard against pests and bring the “garlands” in at night.
Now you have the basics, the generalized guidelines, but what about the nitty gritty? Let’s have a step by step outline for drying fruits and vegetables.
How to Dry Foods Step by Step
Generalized articles and recipes are fine, but sometimes you really just need some basic information that breaks a process down into doable steps. It’s also helpful to learn more than one technique for drying foods. Here’s a how-to guide for drying foods step by step, focusing on fruits and vegetables. Read through these steps before embarking on your venture.
Obtain Your Produce
Your produce may come from your own garden, a friend/neighbor’s garden, a local farmers’ market, grocery store, etc. The main thing is that you have fresh produce that is at its peak. Even though you’ll be drying it, you don’t want shriveled, dried-up produce to start with. However, fruit that is somewhat overripe can still be dried if you use it to make fruit leather.
Look for fruits and vegetables that do not have soft or mushy spots, and avoid hard, green, underripe fruit as well. The food does not have to look perfect; it just needs to be ripe and free of decay.
Prepare Your Produce – Wash and Blanch
If possible, obtain your produce and dry it on the same day. Wash it well and pat it dry. Then, bring a large pot of water to a boil and fill a large bowl or pot with ice water. You will also need a slotted spoon or steamer basket to get the produce out of the water quickly. You are preparing to blanch your produce – dip it quickly in boiling water, and then plunge it in cold water to stop the cooking.
Sources recommend that you do not skip this step, because it will make all the difference in the quality and shelf life of your foods. This is because blanching kills bacteria that cause decay. The exceptions to the blanching rule are mushrooms, which should just be wiped clean, and bananas, which will soften too much in boiling water.
Blanch vegetables for 3-5 minutes and fruits for 2-3 minutes.
After blanching, place your produce on cookie sheets covered with several layers of paper towels, and then pat it dry.
Slice and Cut Food
Slice fruits like strawberries, bananas, pineapples and apples into thin slices. Cut corn kernels off the cob. Halve stone fruits and remove the stones (pits).
Place Food in Dehydrator (if you have one)
Place the food in the trays with space between the pieces with no overlaps. Turn the dehydrator to the setting recommended by the manufacturer.
OR Place Food on Cloth-Covered Screens or String with Thread
Using old window screens (as long as they are lead-free) is fine, and so is stapling screening to a plain wood frame. Cover with cloth, place food on the cloth (close together but not touching), and cover with another cloth. Place outside in a dry, shady area and bring in at night. Repeat for several days.
If you string your food on thread, as with green beans or whole, small mushrooms, you’ll need to hang it in a dry, shady area as well and bring it inside at night. Both methods can be done indoors in a dry attic, too.
Got it? This is not hard and I know you can do it. But WHAT food can you dry? It’s all well and good for me to say “fruits and vegetables”, but we all know that they’re not all the same.
What Foods Can You Dry?
Have you ever been faced with a garden full of produce you weren’t sure what to do with? Or maybe the grocery store or farmers’ market had a sale, and you wish you could take advantage of that much fresh food but you’re afraid it will go to waste. Maybe you’ve thought of canning, but it seems too complicated and time-consuming. (It’s not, but not everything can be canned.)
Drying foods is a viable way to preserve a great many foods, and many children of all ages enjoy snacking on dried fruits and vegetables even if they dislike them fresh. But not all foods work well for drying. Here are some tips and ideas on what foods you can dry, and what to expect in terms of look and texture (dried foods are not necessarily as “pretty” as canned foods!).
Did you know you can dry these? The best way is to steam them for about 5 minutes first, and then use a sturdy needle and upholstery thread to string them. Hang the strings outside in a shady area during the day (sun causes the beans to lose color), then bring them inside at night. Or hang them in an attic. They will get leathery after a few days, and can be used in soups. Before storing, heat the beans in a 175-degree oven for half an hour – this kills any insects and eggs that might be hiding in there, waiting to come out in storage.
Don’t wash mushrooms first. Just wipe them off. String them on thread like the beans, indoors or out, but mushrooms can be hung in the sun. They will become crisp and brittle after a few days, so if you prefer them leathery you should keep a close eye on them. They should also be heated before storage to kill insect eggs.
Italian or Roma tomatoes work best for drying due to their lower moisture content. Slice them lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and air-dry them. You can string them or lay them on several thicknesses of paper towel placed on a screen. Turn them as they dry if they are lying on the screen. They are fully dried when they are leathery and fairly pliable. As with all dried fruits, place tomatoes in the freezer to kill any bugs.
Make your own raisins! Breaking the skin first helps the drying process along. You can dry these in the sun if you wish, laying them on a paper towel-covered screen and covering them lightly with a cloth or paper towel. They should be ready in about 5 days, but they might dry before that. Freeze before storing.
Dried strawberries have a hard texture that makes them fun to suck on to soften them. You can also slice them first. Strawberries can be dried on screen trays like grapes.
Drying Your Own Herbs
Drying your own herbs is an economical, healthful, and flavorful way to preserve the herbal harvest, and it’s a very practical part of drying food. Whether you have tried it before and not been happy with the result, or whether you will be trying your hand at drying herbs for the first time, here are some success tips and suggestions.
What Herbs Work Best?
An herb, when used as food and/or medicine, consists of the leaves, flowers, and/or stems of a plant. Sometimes the root is considered an herb, too, as in the case of ginger and valerian.
Some herbs lend themselves to drying better than others. Chives, for example, tend to wither into brown threads when dried; other herbs retain their shape and color nicely. Here is a list of some of the herbs that do well with drying:
* Echinacea (flowers, stems, leaves, and roots)
* Lemon balm (stems and leaves)
* Catnip (stems and leaves – but watch out! Your cats will raid it while it’s drying if you don’t have it out of reach!)
* Mints (stems and leaves)
* Bee balm (stems and leaves)
* Dill (seeds and leaves)
* Stevia (leaves)
* Ginger (root)
* Sage (leaves)
* Basil (leaves)
When you go to harvest your herbs, the best time of day and method of harvest depends on several factors. For one thing, it depends on what part of the herb you’re harvesting; for another, it depends on the time of day and season. (If you’re purchasing herbs to dry, such as ginger at the grocery store, you can do that any time of day or year.)
When harvesting roots, it’s best to do so on the fall, sources say. If you are cutting the aerial parts (stems, flowers, and leaves), then it’s considered best to do that in the morning. Most herbs reach their peak somewhere in late spring, depending on where you live – herbs are best harvested at this key point, when the blooms have just opened or the foliage is at its best. You can still harvest herbs after blooming, but they may not be as flavorful and the stems might become woody (as in the case of stevia).
To dry the aerial parts of herbs, the best method is to hang them upside down. Cut the stems close to the ground with sharp clippers, then tie the bundle at the base of the stems with twine. Leave a loop when you tie, and hang this on an S-hook or other convenient area. Herbs dry best in shady, dry environments like open sheds, attics, or under house eaves. You can also dry them indoors.
For roots, slice them very thinly and place them in a dehydrator or on a drying rack/screen covered with cotton cloth or paper towels. Cover with another cloth or another layer of paper towels, and leave in the open air to dry. It should take a few days.
Dried roots and aerial parts should be stored in airtight containers.
Okay, so that’s herbs. What about spices, though? Can you and your amazing dehydrator do anything with those?
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Make Your Own Dried Spices – A Guide
Have you ever gone to the store to buy a particular spice and were shocked at the price? Spices can get expensive – especially if they are organic – and making your own is more economical. It also makes your house smell really good! So that you have mastered the art of drying food, you can start drying spices!
First, it’s a good idea to reiterate that spices are not necessarily the same as herbs.
Spices are usually made from seeds or fruits of plants, while generally speaking herbs are leaves, stems, or blooms. Roots cross over into both categories sometimes, as with ginger.
What Do You Need to Make Your Own Dried Spices?
There are some basic things you’ll need to be successful at making your own dried spices. You’ll need:
* Glass containers, such as used spice containers or vitamin bottles (washed of course)
* Grinder, such as a coffee grinder
* Rice – you’ll need to grind plain uncooked rice in the grinder periodically to clean it between spices (and if you want to use it for coffee again!).
* Ascorbic acid – you can find this at most health food stores in powder form. You might find it near the sprouting supplies; it’s usually not very expensive.
* Fresh spices for drying
What Kind of Seeds/Fruits/Roots Can I Use?
If you have access to them, there are all kinds of plant spices you can use. A popular first one to start with is ginger root. Here are some other suggestions:
* Citrus peel
* Hot peppers such as cayenne, seeds removed (you can save and dry the seeds for topping pizza and other foods)
* Celery seeds (celery can be grown in your garden)
* Mustard seeds (mustard is also easy to grow)
* Dill seeds (another garden favorite)
To dry these plant parts for grinding, slice onions, garlic and ginger very thinly and dry in a low oven or on a drying rack/screen. You can also use an electric dehydrator, of course. The seeds should also be dried in the air for a few days before grinding. For hot peppers, you’ll need to remove the seeds first (wear gloves!) and dry your peppers in low oven. You can also string peppers on thread to dry them before grinding.
Use your airtight containers and jars to store your spices, either whole or pre-ground. Some people prefer to keep spices whole until used to retain optimal flavor. You can also give these as gifts – people appreciate them, and they are affordable to give!
You have learned a LOT if you’re still with me. This is almost a course in dehydrating foods, isn’t it? So now that you’ve dried a whole bunch of foods, what are you going to DO with those jars of dried food? Keep reading for a few recipes and ideas!
What You Can Do with Your Dried Food
Of course, one of the easiest ways to enjoy your dried foods is to eat them out of hand. They are convenient as take-along snacks when running errands or camping. But there are other creative ways you can use your dried foods that you worked so hard to preserve. Here are some ideas and recipes for what you can do with your dried foods.
Yogurt and Oatmeal Topping
Dried fruits like grapes, plums, and apricots make excellent toppings for plain or vanilla yogurt. You can chop them up small if you prefer, and maybe sprinkle some nuts on top. You can also stir them into oatmeal or any hot cereal.
Soups and Stews
Dried vegetables are great in soups and stews. Dried green beans, tomatoes, peas, corn, etc. can be added to simmering broth or water. The vegetables will absorb the liquid and plump up, so definitely use more liquid. For quicker cooking time, rehydrate the vegetables first by pouring boiling water over them and soaking them for several hours. Dump the rehydrated vegetables and their soaking liquid into the stewpot.
You can use dried veggies in Spanish rice. Here’s a very, very simple recipe.
4 cups cooked brown rice
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
1/3 cup chopped dried onion
1/3 cup chopped dried bell peppers
1/3 cup chopped dried tomatoes
2 fresh garlic cloves, minced
1 cup tomato juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients and bring to a boil; simmer for 10 minutes.
Rehydrate your dried vegetables and use them as pizza toppings (drained and patted dry first).
Pork and Apples
Rehydrate dried apple rings by soaking in boiling water for about an hour. Then, brown boneless pork chops in a skillet, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Place chops in baking dish, cover with rehydrated apple slices, and pour the apple soaking liquid around the pork chops. Bake at 350 F for 45 minutes to an hour.
Really – you can make your own instead of buying them at the grocery store.
And they’ll be much better and fresh – not to mention less expensive. Dried onions can be minced and sprinkled on rice, noodles, beans, and pretty much anything that needs an onion flavor. You don’t even have to rehydrate them first.
If you’ve never used dried onions, it’s easy to get started. Add a tablespoon or two to baked beans prior to baking, or sprinkle over a roast before you cook it. And if you want to make onion chip dip – dried onions are a must!
You can make a nice, simple cranberry sauce using dried cranberries. It’s a bit different than the Cranberry Fruit Sauce in A Cabin Full of Food. Try this recipe for 6 servings:
1 cup cranberry juice
3 ounces dried cranberries
Half a cinnamon stick
3/4 cup sugar
1 sweet apple, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon cornstarch
In a saucepan, simmer the cranberries in the juice, cinnamon, and sugar for 5 minutes. Stir in the apple pieces and continue to simmer, stirring, for 5 more minutes. Take about 1/2 a cup of the liquid from the saucepan and stir the cornstarch into it. Stir the cornstarch mixture back into the cranberries and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cool, and refrigerate. Goes well with turkey or pork roast!
So what do you think? Do you have a good idea now about what you need for dehydrating, what foods you can dry, how to go about drying food, and what you can do with the dried food when you’re done? I hope so!
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