Food Dehydration: The “Other” Type of Food Preservation

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Throughout the summer and autumn seasons, the Farm to Table pantry has undergone a radical change. Where April and May offered up nearly empty shelves and freezers, the kitchen is now packed tightly with food.

While the local growing season may be coming to a close, the local eating season never ends.

That’s because Krista and I spent quite a bit of time getting ready for the long, cold winter.

Spring had us making various jams, pickling garlic scapes, stewing rhubarb, and dehydrating strawberries. Mid-summer found us making pickles and preserves, freezing basil pesto cubes, and dehydrating various types of veggies. Fall was a time for blanching and freezing corn, canning bushels of tomatoes, and dehydrating late garden vegetables such as kale and hot peppers.

As a result, we’ll have tasty local foods that will last most of the winter months.

There are a number of ways that you can go about preserving food. We try to make use of a few of them in order to allow for the best variety of preserved foods.

Canning is one option, and my wife Krista and I put away a pantry full of jams, jellies, pickles, sauces, salsas, and more every year.

You can also freeze food. We have two freezers full of local fruits, veggies and meats and look forward to treats such as local corn in March.

And then there is dehydrating – probably the least recognized of all food preservation practices, and yet one that should appeal particularly to parents.

Dehydrating, you see, preserves food without any vitamin and nutrient loss – which is usually not the case with canning and freezing processes.

Not thought of dehydrating before? Here’s a quick primer:

There are three main ways to dehydrate at home: with a food dehydrator, using your oven, or using the power of the sun.

Countertop food dehydrators are fairly inexpensive. Small units run for just over $100 and are simple tools to use.

Essentially, dehydrators are boxes with low-powered heating elements and fans to keep warm air flowing over drying food. They take no special training or skills to use.

Another option is to home dehydrate using your oven. As you need to keep drying temperatures between 110 and 130 degrees Celsius (around 150 degrees for meats), you will want to use a few careful options to keep the food from cooking rather than drying.

If you have a gas oven, the heat from your pilot light will be sufficient for drying. If you have an electric oven, you will want to set your oven on the “warming” setting and prop the door open an inch or two. You may also want to place a fan in front of the slightly open door, or turn on your interior oven fan in order to promote air flow.

You will be using your warm oven for lengthy periods – around 4 hours for something like apple slices, and up to 8-10 hours for tomatoes. As a result, you’ll be using quite a bit of energy. For this reason, I don’t tend to recommend using the oven for most dehydrating jobs. It is, however, a great way to experiment before committing to buying a dehydrator of your own.

While you can oven dehydrate on your usual baking pans. I’d suggest lining your baking pan with parchment paper to prevent sticking.

Many people who start by using their oven will eventually move on to countertop dryers for ease and convenience. Once you are hooked on dried foods, you’ll never turn back.

You can also try solar dehydrating. There are plenty of inexpensive solar dehydrators out there. And there are also a number of plans available for do-it-yourself dryers made everything from cardboard and plastic film wrap to wood and glass. My friends Tom and Myra – who are as industrious and clever a couple as you’re likely to find – built their own dehydrator this past summer. I went to their place a few weeks ago to check it out.

Tom – who took the lead in the design process – promises that he’ll explain some of the science behind his creation to me next year, as he works out the kinks.

While he has already had some good success in drying apple slices, next year will be the first year for a full season of drying.

I’ll be there to report on his successes. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I’ll turn to Krista to offer up some useful tips on getting foods ready for dehydrating. After all, she is the one who does much of the preserving in our kitchen.

Krista’s tips for drying:

· Cut off any bruised/soft sections of fruit or vegetables.

· Cut food into slices of uniform thickness – a ¼ inch is usually the norm for most foods.

· Spray discolouring foods (such as apples and peaches) with lemon juice (from a spray bottle) to maintain colour in the dried product.

· Leave a bit of space around drying food portions to allow for air flow – no overlapping.

· When making fruit leather, spread a puree of your favourite fruits, evenly until around 1/8 of an inch thick in the centre – very slightly thicker at the edges.

· Let food dry completely before storing to avoid moisture build-up from the cooling process.

· Dehydrate food until leathery or slightly crisp (apples and fruits turn leathery, while veggie chips will crispen up) in order to ensure better storage.

· Store dehydrated food in an airtight bag or container. If kept in a dark, dry cool space, they should last for a number of months – different foods will last for different amounts of time, but a good rule of thumb is to use any summer foods by the end of the following winter. Try to remove as much air as possible from your bags/containers for optimum freshness.

· Keep your counters, drying racks, and kitchen utensils clean – as with any food preparation, you want to avoid contaminants.