Drying And Dehydrating

Introduction

One of the oldest forms of food preservation, drying is a relatively easy process. However, if not done properly (i.e. if foods are not properly dried) then spoilage and mold is a certainty with this method. That having been said, drying is not a difficult process to succeed at. So for some things, it is well worth a try. Drying can be done using the sun (if you live in the right area), the oven, the microwave, or the dehydrator.

Dehydration (or drying) is simply removing all of the moisture from a food. There are many things that can be dried; however, just because something can be dried, doesn’t mean that it would be of any use to you in dried form. A good example of this is iceberg lettuce. While you could try to dehydrate lettuce odds are it would not do well and would have no real use. Drying can take a little bit of prep time, and you only want to dry or dehydrate what you can and will use from your foods that will dry or dehydrate properly.

Dehydrated apples and tomatoes on a drying rack. Photo by Kelly Cree under the Crea-tive Commons Attribution License 2.0.

However, there is so much that can be dried or dehydrated successfully while maintaining their many culinary uses that it will be a much more difficult chore to decide what you do want to dry or dehydrate, than it would be to avoid those foods that you cannot.

Let’s look at some of the more popular items that can be dried or dehydrated, either in a slow oven or dehydrator. You can use the sun as well, if you live in the right region of the country.

Vegetables

Many types of vegetables may be dried for later use. Dried produce can be crumbled for a vegetable-type blend to shake onto food, re-hydrated for use in casseroles, or dried in pieces for later use in soups, where the vegetables will rehydrate on their own in the broth. Some common drying candidates in this category are:

1. Onions:

Onion slices will dry well and have a number of uses when dried. Keep and store onions in slices to use in recipes where large pieces are needed. Crush the dried onion into small flakes for use in soups and other recipes. You can also pulverize and create an onion powder, or create an onion salt by adding salt to the onion powder to taste (sea salt is recommended).

2. Peppers and Pepper Seeds:

Home-canned pickles and beans on a wire rack

Any type of pepper or pepper seed may be successfully dried; however, unless you are saving seeds for planting, you will most likely dry only hot pepper seeds for culinary use, as a hot pepper’s heat is in the seeds. Bell peppers may be dried and flaked for use in soups, chilies, and other similar culinary dishes. They may be dehydrated or dried in strips for later re-hydration in pizzas, casseroles, or fajitas.

Hot peppers, such as cayenne, habanera, jalapeno, and others may be dried whole for later use, flaked, or ground. To keep the heat, remember to include the seeds in your ground or flaked peppers.

3. Tomatoes:

If you are lucky enough to live in an area with lots of hot sun and warm weather, you can make sun-dried tomatoes. Otherwise you will need to dry the tomatoes in your oven or in a dehydrator. Don’t worry; it is easier than you might think. Simply slice the tomatoes in half vertically (romas are best for this). You may lightly season however you like with a fine salt—preferably sea salt. Arrange the slices on cake racks. Do not allow the slices to touch. Place cake racks directly onto oven racks in an oven that has been preheated to the lowest possible temperature. Drying time will vary, with five hours usually being the minimum. Tomatoes will be done when they are dry to the touch, but still flexible. They should not be brittle. Remove, let cool, and store in bags or jars, or pack in oil and refrigerate.

Should your tomatoes come out brittle, do not throw them away. If they do not look or taste burnt, simply crush them into pieces and use as a seasoning. Again, store in a bag or jar in a cool, dry place.

4. Beans:

Fresh beans (including green beans) are easy and fun to dry, and can be a good project for kids who are old enough to use a needle and thread. Simply string the beans, still in their pods, onto a heavy thread, just like stringing popcorn. Hang the string of beans in a cool, dry space out of direct sunlight and allow them to dry thoroughly. When dry, store right on the string or in jars. To use, put in stews, casseroles, and soups. These dried beans in the pod are also called leather britches.

5. Fruits:

You can dry fruits in much the same way that you would dry vegetables.

6. Strawberries:

Strawberries that are firm and sweet may be dried using the same oven or dehydrator methods as vegetables. The berries may be cut in half and stemmed, or cut into slices about a quarter of an inch thick. Place the berries on cake racks, then place cake rack on an oven rack in a low temperature oven (as low as possible); or, if using a dehydrator, follow the directions that came with your equipment. Drying time will vary with the size of the berry, drying method, and temperature. The berries may be dried until they have no moisture left but are still pliable, or simply dried to a crisp. To store, place dried berries in an airtight container. Note that dried strawberries will lose quality if they are re-hydrated but will retain quality if they are is stored in the freezer

7. Bananas:

Banana chips are a favorite snack of kids and adults alike. Slice the bananas into half-inch discs, dip the discs into lemon juice (to keep the banana from turning brown), place onto a cookie sheet, and put into a low temperature oven, again set to the lowest possible temperature. Check and turn pieces as necessary. Chips are done when dried through and crisp. Once again, if using a dehydrator, follow the directions for your particular machine.

8. Citrus Peel:

Yes, you can dry citrus peel; in fact, dried citrus peel is an ingredient in a number of recipes, both culinary and craft, so it is worthwhile to keep the left over peels from your oranges and lemons for drying.

There are two ways to dry citrus peel: as a zest, which is basically grated peel and is the most common version asked for in recipes; or in pieces, normally used for potpourri making. Although citrus zest asked for in recipes is usually fresh, dried zest can be used in a pinch, especially if you don’t have fresh available.

To dry zest, simply take the very finely grated peel, spread it out onto a single layer on a plate or tray, and let air dry. You could also dry zest on a sheet of waxed paper, but should you find it necessary be to move it during the drying time, it would be difficult. When thoroughly dry, store in a tightly sealed container.

To dry larger pieces or strips of peel, simply lay on a cookie sheet or plate in a single layer and let dry in a warm, dark spot. In a pinch, you can dry citrus peel in an oven or dehydrator; however, you could end up with burn marks on the peels, so air drying is preferable. Drying time depends on the warmth and dryness of the area that the peel has been set in.

As an extra tip, the white pith on the back of a citrus peel can be quite bitter. Before drying the larger pieces of peel, carefully cut off as much of the pith as possible. Removal of most of the pith will also reduce the thickness of the peel allowing faster and easier drying. When grating the fresh peel into zest, be careful to only grate the pigmented part of the peel and not the pith. Otherwise, you could have a bitter zest. Do you know about lacto-fermentation? Get more information about lacto-fermentation.

9. Meats:

Meats may be dried as well. We all recognize it as jerky, a favorite snack of many, including me!

Meats can be trickier to dry than fruits and vegetables, so it is best (and safest) to follow specific recipes when making jerky, at least until you know the correct way to make it. Once you know the correct way to dry meats, you can become creative and make your own recipes.

Although we have only touched on drying and dehydrating you can see how easy it really can be. And as an added bonus, it is a preserving method that, after all the prep work is done, allows you to go about doing other things while the food is drying or dehydrating. Plus, when stored properly, dried or dehydrated foods can last a long time, and are great in emergencies as they do not need refrigeration.

10. Herbs:

Dried persimmon halves on a drying rack

There are a few ways to preserve herbs: freezing, vinegars and oils (both of which preserve the flavor but not the herb), and drying. Although none of these methods are difficult to carry out, the easiest and most foolproof method is drying. There are a few options open to those looking to dry herbs: microwave (or oven), dehydration, and air drying.

Although microwave and oven drying work and are the fastest method, you will have to continuously monitor the drying process, lest the herbs crisp too much or even burn, despite the low temperatures you’d be using. It is not a method that you can set and forget until the process is done. Added to that, oven drying is not the most energy efficient method of drying, especially if you are only doing one or two small trays.

Using a dehydrator is a bit easier, and is the method to pursue if you want to stick with mechanical means of drying. Although you may not have to watch the herbs as much as with the oven or microwave, you still may need to do a little “rearranging” of trays or plants, depending on the machine you are using.

The best and easiest method to dry your herbs is through air drying. And as I already mentioned, it is virtually error proof! Air drying involves simply drying the herbs by hanging or laying on a flat surface, and exposing them to the air to dry. Simply lay out on a cake rack or cookie sheet, or tie the herbs together by their stems and allow them to hang in as dust-free an area as you can manage, well out of direct sunlight (as this can affect the color and possible potency of the herbs). If you are drying the herbs on a cake rack or cookie sheet, you may need to periodically turn the herbs over for even drying.

Once the herbs are thoroughly dry, they may be stored whole, crushed, or pulverized. Store away from direct light, in a dark, cool cupboard or pantry area. An extra layer of protection from too much light, if you need to store on a counter top, would be to store in an amber or other dark tinted container. To preserve the best flavor and keep the plant’s oils strong, store the dried herbs whole, and crush or grind as needed. The longer an herb sits preground or crushed, the weaker the oils will become, and the lesser the flavor. Dried herbs do have a shelf life. If your herbs have lost their color or scent, replace with new. Herbs can last a year or more depending on how they are kept and stored.

To grind or crush your dried herbs, a small electric coffee grinder or mortar and pestle work perfectly, with the grinder being the best way to pulverize an herb. However, when using the coffee grinder, make sure that the grinder you use remains designated for herb and spice use only, as the plastic cover will absorb the oils from the herbs (or spices) and can affect the flavor of your coffee if you grind your beans in it as well.

When hang drying herbs that have seeds (such as dill) that you are planning to keep, before you hang the plant by the stems, put a small, brown lunch bag over the flower heads and lightly tie. Then hang the bunch as usual. The bag will still allow the plant to dry properly, while also keeping the seeds contained as they drop off. When dry, before removing the flower heads from the bag, shake the herb to release any other loose seeds into the bag, then remove the bag (with the seeds) and store the dried herb as you choose. The seeds can be stored for later use.

The air drying method is the slowest of all the available methods, but it is a pretty much “set it and forget it” method, especially if you are hanging the herbs.

You can hang dry flowers for craft use as well. This can also be done for edible flowers, to an extent, if you plan to just mix the petals into salads, rubs, or other recipes. However, there is another way to dry flowers if you are using them for craft work only, and that is by using Borax. Using a shoe box, place about two inches of Borax powder in the bottom. Take flower heads (which have been removed from their stem, except for at least one to one and a half inches), and place upside down on top of the powder. Make sure that the petals are laying properly. Then, gently pour more Borax over the flower heads until they are totally buried including the stub of the stem. From here, drying time can take a few weeks or more. To check your flowers, carefully remove from the powder. If they are dry, they are done. If not, carefully repeat the submersion process and leave them in longer.

You will notice that this process will preserve the flower head in the proper shape and will also do a good job of preserving the color. To “replace” the stem, carefully attach a length (of your choice) of thin floral wire to the stem stub that you left, using floral tape, and use as you like! Remember: this process is for craft use only and NOT for any plants that you will be eating.

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