Why not, says Sheila O’Toole Domon. “It’s easy and you can really save a lot of money,” she said. “Then you have it all winter.”
Domon and her husband farm about 100 acres west of Spokane.
“I have three freezers and they’re all just bursting at the seams,” said Domon, who is a Spokane County Master Food Preserver.
She also cans much of the harvest and “gives food away like crazy.”
Domon uses her American Harvest dehydrator to dry black and great northern beans, garlic, onions and herbs from the garden. She also dehydrates raspberries, strawberries and banana chips and makes fruit leather for her grandchildren.
Drying foods is an ancient and simple technique. Before canning and refrigeration, it was an important way to preserve food, removing enough moisture to prevent decay and spoiling.
Denise Marcum, of Spokane Valley, began drying foods from her huge backyard garden in 1976. She built a dryer from plans in Mother Earth News.
“I tried to can a lot of the produce, but with two little children things quickly got away from me,” she says. “The food dryer was a way to ‘catch up.’
“Besides, I was running out of jars.”
There is not as much precision to drying foods as is required in canning.
“You can be more confident that your food is safe – since it is dried the botulism spores are inactive – if it is spoiled it obviously looks and smells spoiled,” said Marcum. “You do not have to be a microbiologist to figure it out.”
Marcum uses her dehydrator year-round, drying fresh produce from her garden as well as home and commercially canned fruits and vegetables. She makes jerky, tofu, dried yogurt, fruit leathers, powdered vegetables, herbs and teas.
She’ll teach an upcoming class on dehydrating and canning at The Kitchen Engine in Spokane.
Marcum said the most common mistake is misjudging if things are dry enough to be stored. Beginners need to be sure to slice produce a consistent thickness to ensure foods are dry at the same time.
But even the most experienced can make that mistake. For that reason, she stores her dried foods in pint jars so she’ll only lose a little if mold begins to grow.
Bonnie Wyrobek of Newport, Wash., another Master Food Preserver, dries pie cherries and uses them in place of raisins in many recipes, from quick breads to stuffing.
She heats cherries in light sugar syrup and drains them before drying. If they’re big enough this year, she hopes to dip them in chocolate and add them to her holiday gift trays.
She’s still perfecting her technique for apricots.
“Apricots appear to be the enemy,” she said in an e-mail message. “No matter which method I’ve used thus far for pre-treating or how carefully I time the drying, they first turn brown, then green, then a really pretty blue and finally a mixed palette of white, gray and black.
“Artistically they are a wonder to behold, but not one bit safe for consumption.”
Drying foods for storage requires using enough heat to draw moisture from foods without cooking them. Air circulation draws out the moisture. The most reliable way to do it is to use a commercial food dehydrator, although sun, solar and oven drying all can be used.
Before you buy a new or used dehydrator, food safety experts recommend checking to see that it has these features:
•Thermostatically controlled temperature dials with settings between 130 and 150 degrees. Those who plan to dry meat jerky should make sure the dehydrator can maintain a temperature of 145 degrees.
•Fan or blower to circulate warm air.
•Shelves made of stainless steel or food-grade plastic. Galvanized screens are not food safe.
•Outside cabinets made of hard plastic, aluminum or steel. The best quality dehydrators have double-wall construction to prevent heat loss during use.
•Enclosed heating element.
•Source for replacement parts.
Start with the best quality fruits and vegetables you can find. Choose firm fruit that is ripe and heavy for its size. Vegetables should be fresh and just mature. Wash in cold water to remove dirt, bacteria and insects just before drying.
Both fruits and vegetables can be pretreated to improve quality, preserve color and flavor, and minimize the loss of nutrients. It also helps ensure even drying and extend shelf life.
Fruits don’t have to be pretreated because natural sugars and acids counteract decomposition, but apples, pears, peaches and apricots tend to discolor, which can be decreased by using an ascorbic acid or salt solution dip, syrup blanching, a honey dip or sulfating. Commercial anti-darkening powders also work.
Here are some guidelines from “Drying Fruits and Vegetables,” a Pacific Northwest Extension publication, or follow the instructions in the manufacturers’ manual for a dehydrator.
Salt Solution Dip: 2 to 4 tablespoons salt per gallon of water. Soak fruit 2 to 5 minutes and drain well.
Syrup Blanching: 1 part sugar to 2 parts water. Use less sugar, if desired. Bring the syrup to a boil, add fruit and simmer 5 minutes. Drain. Produces candied fruit.
Honey Dip: 1 part honey to 4 parts water. Dip fruit immediately after slicing and soak about 5 minutes. Drain well before drying.
Sulfuring or Sulfiting: Most commercially prepared light-colored fruits are treated with sulfur compounds. Sulfuring at home is complicated, potentially dangerous and no longer recommended.
The most popular sulfating agent is sodium bisulfite and can be purchased at wine-making suppliers or some large supermarkets. University extension publications include guidelines for those who want to use sulfites at home.
Vegetables are best pretreated by steam blanching or water blanching. Blanching times vary depending on the vegetable. The heat destroys the enzymes that makes vegetables deteriorate. There’s a good chart, “Drying Fruits and Vegetables,” available free online or at extension offices for $2.95.
There’s no need to pretreat or blanch some vegetables. Garlic, leeks, onions, peppers and tomatoes keep quite nicely without it, according to editors of “Preserving Summer’s Bounty” by the Rodale Food Center.
Domon uses a mini-mandoline to slice slivers of garlic before drying them. Or she’ll send the cloves through her mini-chopper to mince them.
She spreads the garlic on the solid dehydrator trays about 1/4-inch thick to dry. Domon uses the same technique for drying some onions.
Herbs need only be washed and dried before dehydrating.
Fruits should be conditioned before storing. Some pieces of fruit will be moister than others after drying. Conditioning distributes the remaining moisture to reduce the chance of mold.
To condition, loosely pack cooled dried fruit into plastic or glass containers about two-thirds full. Cover tightly. Shake them daily for 2 to 4 days. Excess moisture will be absorbed by the drier pieces.
Dried vegetables are nearly waterless and need not be conditioned.
Store dried produce in an airtight container in a cool, dry place and away from light, or in the refrigerator.
Here are some recipes using dried fruits, vegetables and herbs:
Fruit leathers can be made by simply pureeing fresh fruits and spreading on baking sheets or dehydrator trays for drying. It is also a good way to use up canned fruits that have been on the shelf more than a year. Drain and puree.
The fruit puree can also be cooked for more concentrated flavors and faster drying. The Oregon State University extension offers a good primer on leathers online at http://extension.oregon state.edu/catalog/html/ fs/fs232/.
It recommends adding yogurt to fruit leather. Blend 6 cups of berries (strained) with 8 ounces of plain or flavored yogurt and 2 tablespoons of sugar for flavoring (optional).
Or, for a vegetable leather, try pizza. Blend one 15-ounce can of stewed tomatoes (drained) with one 8-ounce can of tomato sauce and 1 teaspoon of sugar (optional). Pour the purée on a drying tray and sprinkle with leaf oregano, leaf basil, and garlic salt.
From “Preserving Summer’s Bounty,” by Rodale Food Center.
1 gallon apples
1 cup apple cider
1/2 to 1 cup mild-flavored honey
Ground cinnamon, cloves and/or nutmeg, added to taste
Place the apples and their juice in a large, heavy pot and add the apple cider. Apples are drier than other fruits and can scorch as they are heated if you don’t add liquid to the bottom of the pot. If the apples are tart, add honey when the mixture looks somewhat clear and is boiling well. Then add the spices if you wish.
When the mixture reaches the consistency of a very thick sauce, remove from heat and run through a food mill, blender or food processor. Return to heat and cook to the consistency of thick applesauce.
Spread the pulp about 1/4-inch thick on oiled baking sheets or baking sheets lined with freezer paper or plastic wrap. Dry in a dehydrator or on low in the oven.
After the puree has dried into fruit leather, pull it from the baking sheet in a single layer.
Place the leather on a cooling rack until both sides are thoroughly dry. Dust the dried leather with cornstarch or arrowroot powder to prevent sticking. Then roll the leather between two sheets of wax paper to store.
Yield: 4 sheets, about 10-by-5 inches each
From Denise Marcum, Spokane Valley
1 cup of fresh strawberries, washed and dehulled, coarsely chopped
1 freckled banana, fresh, cut up into chunks
Place fruit in blender and pulse until desired consistency; some chunks are OK. Pour onto plastic wrap or fruit leather tray in dehydrator in about 1/2-cup, 1/4-inch thick, pancake-like circles. Dehydrate at 135 degrees until leathery.
Yield: About 4 fruit leathers
Apricot Nut Bars
From “Preserving Summer’s Bounty,” by Rodale Food Center.
2/3 cup dried apricots
1 1/3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 cup honey
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, well beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the apricots, cover with water and boil for 10 minutes. Drain, cool and chop.
Coat an 8-inch square pan with non-stick cooking spray. Mix 1 cup of the flour, ¼ cup of the honey and the butter. Press into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, sift the remaining flour and baking powder together. In a large bowl, with a mixer at low speed, gradually beat the remaining honey into the eggs; mix in the flour mixture and vanilla. Stir in the walnuts and apricots. Spread over the baked layer.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean; cool in pan. Cut into bars
To freeze: Prepare the recipe as directed. Wrap the bars in freezer wrap or foil and place in freezer bags and freeze. To serve, thaw in the refrigerator.
Yield: 32 bars
Spaghetti Sauce Mix
From Denise Marcum, Spokane Valley
1 tablespoon (or more) dried onions
3 tablespoon cornstarch (or substitute arrowroot)
1 1/2 teaspoons (or more) powdered dried garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup tomato powder (made from 1 quart of brittle dried tomatoes pulsed in food processor)
1 tablespoon dried parsley (tops and stems pulsed in processor)
1 tablespoon dried green pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon (or more) dried basil
1/4 cup sliced dried mushrooms
Mix all ingredients and put in a tightly sealed glass or plastic container. To prepare the sauce add ingredients to 3 cups cold water and mix on simmer until thick. Add browned meat if desired.
Yield: About 4 servings
White Bean-Chicken Soup
This recipe from the “Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving” by Jarden Home Brands, calls for dried navy beans, dried sliced leeks, dried sliced mushrooms and dried sliced zucchini.
2 cups (about 1 pound) dried navy beans
8 cups chicken stock
1 cup diced butternut squash
1/2 cup dried sliced leeks
1/2 cup dried sliced mushrooms
1/2 cup dried sliced zucchini
2 tablespoons minced flat leaf parsley
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 cups diced white meat chicken
1 cup diced plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Put beans in a large stockpot; add water to cover by two inches. Bring beans to a boil; boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let beans soak for 1 hour. Drain. Add chicken stock to beans and cook 1 hour or until beans are tender. Stir in squash, leeks, mushrooms and zucchini. Add parsley, thyme, rosemary and bay leaf. Cook mixture over medium heat until dried vegetables are reconstituted, about 1 hour. Add chicken, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Continue cooking for 30 minutes. Remove whole herbs.
Yield: 8 servings