The most ancient and highly reliable method for preserving food is drying. Since before recorded history, people have dried herbs, meats, fruits, and vegetables to store for use at a later date. Historians have even credited the ability to store foods in this way with allowing the first advances toward civilization. In the drying section, we will give you all the info you need to dry food – including, dehydrating, smoking, sun-drying, air-drying, and baking.
There are many ways to dry foods including:
Perhaps the easiest way to dry is with a food dehydrator. It is a fast and reliable method for preserving your garden gains.
In recent years dehydrators have become inexpensive and more efficient. They can be purchased via mail order, the internet, or even at your local department or drug store. Most models will do the job more than adequately.
A few things to remember in buying a dehydrator:
- Get sufficient capacity.
- Trays should be lightweight and sturdy.
- The price should be reasonable.
- Elaborate controls are not absolutely necessary.
The most important facet of using a food dehydrator is making sure that food is properly prepared and properly spaced. Leave at least 1/8 to 1/4 inch between each item to ensure proper drying. Stacking can create slow or incomplete drying.
All dehydrators will not dry at the same speed, so check your manual for drying times.
Sun drying is best performed where the air is dry and temperatures in the sun reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooler temperatures and higher humidity create spoilage in most fruits and vegetables.
Screens can be made for sun drying from old pictures or window frames. Be sure to thoroughly clean the frames before stretching the screen (don’t use galvanized screens as they can impart a strange flavor to food), cotton sheeting, or cheesecloth over them. The material can be secured with staples or tacks.
Place fruit or vegetables on racks. Put in the sun in a place where the air can circulate both above and below the frame. It will take about 4 days to sun dry the produce, but it can be accomplished in as little as two days. It is best not to leave produce out at night, moisture and cool air are your enemies when drying food.
After sun drying, it is recommended that you make sure that the eggs of insects and pests are destroyed. This can be accomplished by freezing the produce for 2 to 4 days at below-zero temperatures (Fahrenheit). Or it may be heated on a tray in the oven at 175 degrees for 10 or 15 minutes.
Smoking meats is a great way to preserve food and at the same time add flavor.
In handling meat it is always wise to take great care not to spread food-borne illness. To prevent possible tainting of food it is wise to
follow the USDA’s guidelines which specify:
- Wash hands and surfaces often.
- Keep different animals separate to avoid cross-contamination.
- Cook to the proper temperatures to kill germs.
- When the process is complete, refrigerate promptly.
If the meat you intend to smoke is frozen, be sure to completely thaw before smoking. As smoking uses low temperatures it can allow unthawed food to produce harmful bacteria. Defrosted meat also has the benefit of cooking more evenly. The USDA also recommends that meats be thawed in the refrigerator. Alternatively, meat can be thawed quickly in the microwave.
Marinades should also be done in the refrigerator. Meats at room temperature may spoil quickly. Do not re-use marinade.
People can and do make their own smokers, but commercial smokers are safer when directions are followed. Commercial smokers come with explicit instructions on their use and maintenance. But generally, smokers comprise a metal unit within which charcoal or hickory or some other wood chips are slowly burned to produce smoke. The smoke then heats the meat and infuses it with a smoky flavor.
To safely smoke meat, you will want two thermometers, one for the food and one for the smoker. A thermometer is needed to monitor the air temp in the smoker. You will want the temperature to stay between 225 to 300 degrees (Fahrenheit). A food thermometer is used to determine the temp of the meat. Be sure to use an oven-safe thermometer.
The time to cook depends on a myriad of factors including the type of meat, its size, and shape, as well as the distance the meat is from the source of heat. It may take anywhere from four to eight hours to properly smoke meat.
Use the following table to determine meat’s doneness:
- poultry breast: 170 degrees (F)
- whole poultry: 180 degrees
- beef, veal, lamb roasts: 145 to 170 degrees – pork: 160 to 170 degrees
If a sauce is applied use it during the last half-hour of smoking.
Generally, refrigerate meat within 2 hours of removing it from the smoker. Best to use smoked meat within 4 days. For later use, freeze.
Another inexpensive way to preserve foods using simple kitchen tools and appliances is to oven dry. This can be done by placing food on simple cookie sheets in the oven at 120 to 145 degrees (Fahrenheit). Usually, 4 to 12 hours will be sufficient to dry most items.
Even so, cookie sheets tend to create uneven drying; so for best results, larger items can be dried right on the oven racks or on specially prepared trays, such as the ones described in the section on sun drying.
Air drying is very easy to do and quite effective on green beans, and leafy spices, such as basil or dill.
Air drying is accomplished by hanging the produce in a dry breezy place. Under the porch or in the garage rafters. String beans or mushrooms can be strung with a needle on cotton thread. Spices can be gathered together in bunches and tied together at the stems. Very humid conditions may not only hinder drying but create mold and spoilage.
It is advisable not to leave produce exposed to the night air as morning dew will likely collect on it.
Generally, air drying is complete in two or three days, depending on conditions. Leafy spices will be crackly and dry. Green beans will be leathery and most other vegetables will be leathery or brittle.
Not recommended for tomatoes, small vegetables, or fruits.
How To Prepare Foods for Drying
It is best, to begin with, fruits, vegetables, or meats that are of high quality. Drying is a bit like computing, if you put garbage in then you are likely to get garbage out. Ripe fruits are best but try not to use fruits that are too ripe or over-ripe as the results will not be as high quality. When cutting fruits and vegetables try to be uniform in size. This is so that foods will dry at a uniform rate.
Blanching is an important step in the drying process for most vegetables. There are enzymes within the vegetables that cause food spoilage. Blanching destroys these enzymes before they can get to work.
Blanching is a fairly simple process. It involves dipping produce in boiling water for a few minutes or preferably putting them in a steam bath for the same amount of time. Steam blanching is preferred to immersion because it introduces the vegetable to less moisture, which will just have to be dried out later.
To blanch in boiling water simply dip the clean and cut-up vegetable into a kettle of boiling water in a sieve or colander. Remove after the desired time and immediately immerse in iced water (to stop the cooking process). To steam, blanch uses a Dutch oven or canner or a colander in a pot with boiling water at the bottom. Cover and steam for desired time. Then remove from heat and place in ice water. When blanching is done, dry vegetables on a towel.
Notes: Fruit slices may be dipped in a marinade, such as ascorbic acid, honey, juices, pectin, and even salt.
Storing and Using Dried Foods
Now that you have sun-dried your tomatoes, air-dried your parsley, dehydrated your apples, and oven-dried your pumpkin seeds…what do you do with all this food!
Proper storage is very important. The first thing that you will want to do is finish off your large batches by putting them in a plastic bucket in a warm, dry, and well-ventilated space. Stir the batch about twice per day. (This process is not necessary with most spices and foods that are thoroughly dried.)
Place your dried produce in zip-lock sealed bags or tightly closed jars. Be sure to fill the container to the top and remove all the air possible. Remember, air and moisture are now our enemies. It is best to make the container size “serving size”, if possible, so you do not have to repeatedly expose the dried goods to the air. It is best to store in a cool and dry place. Darkness will also help preserve the color.
Many dried fruits and spices can be eaten straight from the container. Others should be rehydrated. This means pouring boiling water over the dried fruit or vegetable and allowing it to sit for a considerable period (from minutes to hours). Beans are often rehydrated by leaving them to sit in water overnight.