Interested in eating more local food year around? There are a number of helpful strategies. I gave an overview of food preservation basics two weeks ago and last week, talked more about freezing food.
Today’s tool is a dehydrator. Mine is made by Berron, a company that apparently has no website, though they do still exist. (**This appears to be untrue–in 2012 I cannot find any evidence this company is still in business) They were based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. I’ve had my machine since about 1985 and it still runs efficiently.
Food Preservation: Dehydrating
Here are some qualities I particularly like in it:
1. Capacity: It has 10 trays, each a good size. If I’m drying thick things, I might have to go to only 5 trays, but that still holds a lot.
2. Heater and fan at the back: This combination provides the best possible air movement around the food. The door does NOT seal tightly, allowing moisture to escape.
3. Multi-temperature settings: Herbs require a lower temperature than jerky, so it’s nice that it’s very adjustable.
4. The trays are easy to clean. If they have dried fruit juice on them, I lay them in the bathtub with enough water to cover, then use a small scrub brush to get in the mesh. It looks like it would take longer than it does.
1. Make the pieces of food as close to the same size and thickness as is reasonably possible, so they’ll dry uniformly.
2. Place them cut side up whenever possible. This keeps the vitamins and minerals from the juices in the dried food rather than dripping to the floor of the dehydrator.
3. Turn the trays front to back 2-3 times a day. I usually do it when I get up in the morning, after work, and at bedtime. This is a good time to test for dryness and remove pieces that are fully dry.
4. Know how long to expect the food to dry and how to test for doneness. Your dehydrator’s manual will give you tips on this.
5. You can add more ‘wet’ food as pieces dry and compact. Just take the semi-dry bits and put them closer together on the racks, then put those trays at the top. Fresh moist food goes on the bottom.
6. You can dry different types of food at the same time, but you’ll want to keep an eye on recommended temperature. Also, if one of the items has a strong odor (drying cabbage, for example) you may not want to dry it with other food.
7. The dehydrator can run in a shaded outdoor area on dry days (don’t make it fight humid air!), in your porch, basement, laundry room, or wherever you’ll remember to check it often. Note that it may be loud.
Foods to Dry:
Herbs: Although I freeze a lot of my herbs, as I mentioned last week, I like to have dry oregano, basil, and dill on hand as well. Also chamomile and other herbs for tea. As you can see from the oregano in the above photo, you don’t need to take the leaves off ahead of time. Just put clean stems in the dehydrator. It’s very easy to peel the dry leaves off later. Label everything. Dry herbs look and smell amazingly alike.
Tomatoes: I love having my own “sundried” tomatoes on hand. Wash roma (Italian style) fully ripe tomatoes, then quarter them. Lay them cut side up on the trays. These need to be dried until completely shriveled. I use kitchen shears to snip them into food later–into focaccia bread, meatloaf, into scrambled eggs, for example.
Vegetables: I don’t dry many vegetables, though it’s entirely possible to do so. The only times I’ve gotten into dried veggies is when we’ve planned and packed food for extensive backcountry camping or canoeing trips.
Fruits: Many fruits can be dried, from bananas (peel, cut in half cross-wise, quarter length-wise, and dry cut-side-up, so much better than little dried-up discs!) to pears, plums, apples, grapes, and pitted cherries. These are easy to eat by the handful like candy, but concentrated sugars in any form are best in small amounts. Make sure they don’t get stuck in your teeth, and brush afterward. Dried fruit is great in Plumi Moos. (I thought I’d put the recipe on this site but apparently not.)
Fruit leather: Leathers can be made from nearly any pureed fruit. In my dehydrator, I place a piece of plastic (vapor barrier weight works well) on HALF of each tray, then spread some puree evenly on the plastic. Alternate the trays with plastic at the back, then the front, etc, to force the air into a winding path through the machine. Remember to switch the trays around every few hours. When the top is dried through, peel the leather off the plastic and return to the dehydrator upside down until that side is dry too. Afterward, roll up each piece. As with dried fruit pieces, be careful with your teeth!
Jerky: There are hundreds if not thousands of jerky recipes to be found online and elsewhere. Beef, venison, bison, and many others can be jerked in a variety of flavors. I’ve also dried drained canned tuna and cooked lean ground beef for camping meals.
Backcountry camping: As mentioned, I’ve dehydrated meals for trips as long as 10 days in a canoe. Just to give you some ideas of possibilities, here are two menu items we prepared in advance.
Cole Slaw: Dehydrate grated carrots, apples, and cabbage, Bag together in a zip-loc. Place an oil-and-vinegar dressing in a film canister (how will we manage without those?) to take along. A few hours before the meal in which you’d like to serve the cole slaw, add plenty of water to the zip-loc, squish it around a bit, and allow it to sit. At mealtime, drain the excess water, mix in the dressing, and serve.
“Cabbage Rolls:” Dehydrate grated cabbage and onions. Take your usual tomato sauce recipe and dehydrate it as leather, then tear it into small pieces. Dehydrate lean ground beef. Add instant rice. Rehydrate the cabbage and onions in camp. Into the boiling water for rice, place the dry meat and leather. Add the rice. Mix together in bowls.
Experiment! You can dry all kinds of things. Do you have a dehydrator? What have you successfully dried?
NOTE: I can find no evidence that the food dehydrator company BERRON is still in business. They’re not online or discoverable through phone searches.