Monday, August 6, 2012

The Mighty Dehydrator

I started dehydrating food out of simple necessity. I needed a fast and easy method to preserve the hundreds of pounds of peaches I get from my two peach trees every year. However, I soon became a food dehydration fan, searching out foods to dry to see how they would taste. This year my goal is to stop buying fruity lunch snacks for my son, who loves the dried peaches, bananas, apples, pears, cantaloupes, and even the tart plum chips that I make for him.

Like any food preservation technique, dehydration helps me to eat more local and organic food. I can preserve the tons of excess produce from my garden and fruit trees at the height of summer (picking at peak freshness for best flavor), which enables me to eat locally year-round. I can also take advantage of farmer's market / supermarket specials to purchase foods at low cost and preserve them. At the same time, I'm creating food storage for my family that will last for many months.

Not only does dehydration help me eat more locally and organically, but it also helps my family eat in a more environmentally friendly way, because it reduces packaging waste. Since I can re-use glass jars and lids repeatedly, I don't have to eat food stored in plastic, and we don't need to throw away packaging after only one use. This may seem like a small benefit, but it makes me surprisingly happy.

Although I also can, freeze, ferment, and jam, when I've got a lot of food to preserve, I usually prefer to dehydrate. Why?

1. Inexpensive.
I purchased my Nesco food dehydrator for about $50, and I store my dried food in glass jars found at garage sales. Both the jars and lids can be re-used over and over (unlike with canning, where a new lid is required each time.)  The only other equipment needed is a cutting board and a knife, although an apple corer does come in handy. I don't have to purchase any kind of special extra ingredients to add to the food.

2. Makes great snacks.
Dried fruits are quite sweet even without adding any sugar because the natural sugars are concentrated when the water is removed. Fruit dried at home is cheaper than the organic fruit strips or dried fruit from the store, and without questionable additives or preservatives. In my experience, most dried fruits keep for a year or more.

3. Simple and fast.
Dehydration is great for beginners, because generally, there are no complicated instructions to remember. I simply cut up the food, put it in the dehydrator trays, and turn on the dehydrator. When the food is finished drying, I put it in glass jars and seal it with lids and screwtops. I prefer to get the food pretty dry so that I have no concerns about food safety; I put any food that is still moist in the fridge or eat it within a few days.

4. Takes up less space.
You might be amazed by how much food can be stored in a quart jar after it has been dried. If your pantry or freezer space is limited, dehydration is your best friend. In fact, dried food shrinks up so much that it's a little frightening - but don't worry, the fiber, calories, minerals, and Vitamin A are still in there.

Although dehydrating food is a great preservation technique, there are a few quirks. Dehydrators make noise and put out heat. Therefore, when I am using the dehydrator, I always place it in the garage, up on a ledge. This is especially crucial in the summertime, when I don't want any extra heat in the house.

Preparing food for dehydration does not take much time, perhaps half an hour, although peaches require more time because I first remove the skins. However, the actual dehydration process consumes many hours, and unfortunately, most dehydrators do not have timers attached. I've found that drying times vary according to many different factors. I usually dry peaches for twelve hours; apples, which are much less juicy, for four to six hours. So, if you are trying to preserve a lot of food at once (for example, 160 pounds of peaches or 70 pounds of apples), you might want to purchase or borrow a second dehydrator, use multiple techniques for preservation, or time your preservation so that you can kick off a batch in the morning and then overnight. I use all of these strategies at the height of food preservation season.

One of the best parts of dehydrating food is that I can listen to Great Courses, Peak Moment TV, interviews on the Energy Bulletin, books on tape from the library, or chat with a friend at the same time. An activity that could have been a chore becomes as fun as watching a good movie or reading a book - but with quarts of inexpensive, tasty, local, organic food storage at the end.

4 comments:

SharleneT said...

I'm a MAJOR dehydrating fool! And, have pretty much decided to most everything that way. This year, because my neighbor decided to raise chickens, I've become the beneficiary of lots of organic eggs. So, powdered eggs was the answer! Why pay a fortune when you can do it at home. And, my pizza sauces are made into leathers and then powdered. They cook up so fast. Some tomatoes are sliced and then flaked for adding to soups and stews, etc. I also powder a blend of veggies to use as thickeners in recipes rather than flour. Great way to hide veggies. I enjoy it so much, I actually added another one, this year. Have fun!

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Hi Sharlene - thanks for the tips! I love the veggie powder idea. Maybe I can try that with my dried tomatoes.

Betsy said...

I'll second the veggie powder comment. It's a good way to use up bits and pieces of dried veg. I use the powder in any recipe that calls for veg. broth. 1 Tablespoon per cup of water to make a broth.

Betsy said...

Another thing I love to dry is watermelon. It comes out looking like pink tortillas and tasting like cotton candy. Slice a seedless watermelon into 1/2" or less slices, remove the rind and dry at 125 degrees for 12 hours until leathery.