Friday, September 18, 2009

Dry food to preserve the harvest

Preserving produce doesn’t have to happen over a hot stove or by finding more room in the freezer. It can be as simple as slicing it, laying the slices in a dehydrator and storing the dried pieces.

“Some of the advantages to drying food is it’s inexpensive, no cost other than a little electricity if you use a dehydrator and packaging to store it because you can sit it out at room temperature,” said Elizabeth Andress, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension food safety specialist.

Dried food doesn’t have to be refrigerated because the moisture that would cause it to spoil has been pushed out.

Andress’s favorite foods to dry are apples, figs and pineapple. Last year, she experimented with drying Roma-type tomatoes, which she sliced and sprinkled with oregano.

“It smelled like a pizza kitchen when we were drying them,” she said. “They were great just eaten as is.”

It’s too humid in the Southeast to dry foods outside, Andress said. In other parts of the country, like California, people can lay their food out on a tray and place it in the sun.

From branch to shelf

Fruits are one of the easiest types of produce to dry. Unlike vegetables, which usually require blanching before they can be dried, fruits can be sliced and placed on a dehydrator.

But some fruits don’t work, like kiwi. “The slices ended up shrinking so much that it was just a mouthful of seeds,” she said.

To dry an apple or another fruit, follow these steps:

1. Choose good quality. If it’s moldy, mushy or browning, throw it out.

2. Wash the fruit, and slice it evenly. “The more even the width and sizes, the more even drying will be,” she said.

3. Place it on a tray in an electric dehydrator. If your oven can be programmed for low temperatures, you can use it. Set the dehydrator’s temperature at 140 F. Food dried at lower temperatures might never fully dry. At higher temperatures, it dries faster on the outside becoming hard but leaving the inside moist and likely to rot.

4. Wait a few hours and keep a close eye on the slices as they get nearer to the end of drying. Food close to being done will dry faster at the end than at the beginning.

5. Seal the finished pieces in freezer-weight plastic bag or in plastic storage boxes.

Follow the same steps with vegetables, except blanch them first. Blanching time depends on the vegetable. The only vegetables that don’t have to be blanched are onions, okra and peppers (all types).

“You might also want to use some pretreatments with light-colored fruits to prevent rapid browning,” Andress said.

Other foods that can be dried are meat jerky, seeds, herbs and greens like kale and collards. Foods can also be pureed and dried flat, much like Fruit Roll-Ups.

Health benefits

For people worried about preservatives, extra sugar or, in some cases, added oils, home-dried fruits and vegetables can be a healthier solution.

“One advantage to me of doing some of the fruits I like, like apples and pineapples, is sometimes commercially, they’ve added sugars and sugar coatings to them,” Andress said. ‘This way, you can just have them plain.”

As a diabetic, she says she still has to watch how much she eats. A whole dried apple has the same amount of sugar as a fresh apple; it just has a smaller volume.

It’s not just sugars that consumers have to consider. “Those hardened banana chips that you buy commercially often have some tropical oils in them, as well as sugar infused to give them that crispness,” she said. “Homemade bananas will be chewier, but you can get them in their natural forms without the additives.”

Using dried foods

Fruits can be mixed with nuts as a trail mix or eaten straight. So can homemade jerkies. Dried vegetables make a good starter for soup mix.

Drying “tends to be popular with people who do hiking and backpacking and kayaking and such,” Andress said. “A real advantage is the condensed volume, lighter weight and small storage space.”

For more information on drying food, visit www.homefoodpreservation.com.

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

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