Robin Sweetser: Drying is worth trying

  • Preserve tomatoes by placing thin slices in an electric dehydrator or an oven set on a low temperature. Robin Sweetser / For the Monitor

  • Preserving tomatoes with an electric dehydrator is more efficient than some other food preserving kitchen appliances. Robin Sweetser / For the Monitor

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Summer hung on in our garden this year through Columbus Day, giving us non-stop cherry tomatoes.

Since sun-dried tomatoes are a winter favorite at our house it was time to put the dehydrator to work and make some of our own – minus the sun. Drying concentrates the flavors of whatever foods you are drying, making them extra delicious.

It preserves food by removing the moisture that bacteria, yeast and mold need to grow and is thought to be one of the oldest and easiest forms of food preservation. A USDA study found that dried foods have higher nutritional value than canned or frozen foods.

To dehydrate food you need three things – heat, dry air and air movement. You can use your oven if it can be set to stay around 140 degrees. Leave the door ajar 2 to 3 inches, and set up a fan to blow across the opening to remove moist air. (This is not a good method to use if you have small children.) The trick is to get the food hot enough to dry without cooking it. This past summer would have been perfect for a sun-drying experiment. Usually, we don’t get enough sunny, dry days in a row above 85 degrees to be successful.

Since I waited until a rainy fall weekend, I used an electric dehydrator. It takes less time than the oven and is more energy efficient. If like me you have an aversion to kitchen gadgets with cords, it costs far less to purchase than a freezer or pressure canner and only a few dollars a day to run. When you are done, box it back up and tuck it away until next year. Best of all, once the foods are dry, they take up very little room and don’t require any electricity to store so you don’t have to worry about losing food when the power goes out.

Tomatoes are easy to dehydrate. Just wash, wipe dry, cut in half or make thin slices if using larger tomatoes, squirt out the gel and seeds if you want them to dry faster, and place on the dehydrator racks so they are not touching. Check every few hours for dryness and turn occasionally. They are done when they are still somewhat pliable but have lost about 80 percent of their moisture.

Other fruits are easy to dry as well: just wash, peel and slice. We have tried kiwi, bananas, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples and strawberries with success. The amount of moisture that is present in a fruit dictates how thin you should slice it. Juicy peaches and plums take much longer to dry than apples.

To keep sliced fruits from browning, dip them in an acidic fruit juice or diluted lemon juice first.

Try making your own fruit rollups. Puree whatever fruit you have in abundance; adding applesauce will make the fruit leather smoother and more pliable. Spread it 1/8-inch thick onto plastic wrap (or the special sheets for making fruit leather that come with some dehydrators) and dry until you can touch the center without making a dent. Peel off the plastic wrap while the leather is still warm.

Most vegetables require a little more prep. Fix them as you would for freezing, including blanching them in boiling water. Cool, drain and pat dry before placing them in the dehydrator.

Dry most vegetables until they are brittle and crispy.

Surprisingly, blanched vegetables take less time to dry than those that are not blanched. We have made our own dry soup mix using excess zucchini, green beans, carrot rounds, red and green pepper slices, and celery, parsley, and basil leaves.

Once your fruits and veggies are thoroughly dry and have cooled, store them in plastic bags or airtight jars for up to one year. Since dehydrating removes 80 to 90 percent of the moisture from your food, it will take much less room to store. A bushel of fruit will fit in a few Ziploc bags! As long as they stay dry there should be no problem but check them periodically for signs of moisture, condensation, or mold.

Dry it, you’ll like it!

For more information, Utah State University has a 28-page article on drying food at home. Find it at extension.usu.edu or ask your local library for the book Food Drying With an Attitude by Mary Bell.