Leftover Fruit and Veggies? Dehydrate Them For Surprisingly Healthy Snacks!

Dehydrated Tomatoes

Drying foods for preservation is growing in popularity because the benefits are many.  For starters, finding a use for leftovers or inexpensive, in-season fresh fruits and vegetables is a great way to avoid waste, save money, and do well for the environment.  Moreover, drying food is easy.  The sun, the oven, or your dehydrator does most of the work.  All you have to do is eat it, which is a treat because drying food intensifies the flavor.  Furthermore, dried foods require no refrigeration, are compact and lightweight, and pack a lot of nutrition, so they’re very handy to have along on a long car ride, a hike, a camping trip or even a trip to the movies with a bunch of insatiable kids. Nibbling on brought-along dried fruit is healthier (and cheaper) than candy from the movie concession.  And drying your own is a a lot cheaper than purchasing store-bought dried fruit. 

The shelf life of dried fruit is about a year if stored at 60ºF and about 6 months at 80ºF. Dried vegetables last about half as long. And if you’ve dried more than you can use for awhile, you can freeze them for longer preservation. 

Types of Foods Commonly Dried

You may not have thought about it, but you’re probably consuming a lot of dried food already: dried apricots, prunes, raisins, dried herbs, dehydrated soups, beef jerky, and perhaps even fruit leather (if your teeth can take it). 

There’s a wide range of products that can be dried among herbs, vegetables, and fruit. For your initial effort, you may want to be creative and try fruit leather, puréed fruit which is then dried in a thin sheet.  It can be made with a single fruit or fruit combinations.  Many fruits are suitable for making fruit leather including these: apples, cherries, blueberries, grapes, peaches, and strawberries. 

In addition to being popular as bring-along snacks, dried foods are also used in cooking.  Dried fruits and vegetables can be used to make creamed corn or chowder, vegetable soups, casseroles, puddings, and pies. Your own dried herbs can season a multitude of dishes.

Methods of Drying Food

To clarify:  don’t confuse dried food with overcooked food, as one of my friends did.  Food is dried at a much lower temperature (140º-150ºF) than what’s used for cooking.  The goal is to remove the moisture so that yeast, bacteria, and mold cannot grow on or in it and spoil it.  Drying also slows down the action of naturally occurring enzymes that make food ripen.  Dried food can be reconstituted by putting the moisture back. 

A friend heard this a decade or so ago:  When flying over the Hungarian countryside, one could see red peppers drying on people’s roofs, peppers that would later be used to make the famous Hungarian paprika.  I don’t know if they’re still visible today since I haven’t flown over Hungary recently (or ever). However, I do know that people still dry food outdoors using methods called vine drying for beans and peas and either sun drying or solar drying for fruits.  (Fruits can be safely dried outdoors because they have high amounts of sugar and acid.)

Outdoor drying in the sun is most successful in very sunny, arid climates where temperatures exceed 85ºF, humidity is under 60%, and breezes are all common. Sun-dried fruits need to be pasteurized to kill any insects and their eggs that might be in the food.  There are two methods: freezing for 48 hours or heating to 160ºF.

If the right conditions for outdoor drying are not readily available in your area, indoor drying is an easy option. You can use your oven (with the door slightly ajar and a fan nearby) or your convection oven (which probably has a built-in fan). Your microwave has no air movement, so you should use it only for drying herbs (which can also be air-dried). If you get hooked on drying foods, you’ll probably want to buy an electric dehydrator, which is the fastest, easiest, and most economical way to dry food indoors. 

Some pretreatment of fruits and vegetables (such as blanching) is advised before drying, but it isn’t complicated or time-consuming.  For specific instructions on drying various types of foods by the methods mentioned above, consult the sources listed below.

For instructions on pretreating, drying, and rehydrating many specific foods, consult the sources below. 

Choosing the Right Food Dehydrator

A food dehydrator is a small electrical appliance used for drying food indoors.  It has a heating element, a fan, air vents for circulation, and lightweight trays.  It dries food quickly at 140ºF.  You can usually find one in the small appliance section of a department store, appliance center, natural food store, or garden and seed mail order catalog.  Prices range from about $30 to more than $400. 

These are the two main types:

Horizontal air flow dehydrators:  These have fans and heating elements at the sides.  They can dry different foods at the same time with little mixing of flavors.  The trays all receive the same amount of heat, so the food doesn’t need to be moved around.  They are designed in a way that prevents liquids from dripping onto the heating element, so they’re easy to clean.

Vertical air flow dehydrators:  These have fans and heating elements at the top or bottom.  When different foods are dried simultaneously, the device can’t prevent the mixing of flavors.  Also, food extracts and liquids can drip onto the heating element, making it difficult to clean. 

The horizontal model is clearly superior.  There are also dehydrators with no fan, called natural draft dehydrators.

These are some recommended features to look for:

1) Double wall construction made of high-quality plastic or metal:  This type is durable and provides protection from the heat.  Wooden ones are not recommended because they are hard to clean and a fire hazard.

 2) A timer and automatic shut-off

 3) An adjustable thermostat: Look for one that can be set from 85ºF - 160ºF. (Though most foods can be dried at 140ºF, 160ºF is needed for pasteurization and some other uses.)

4) Plastic trays: These are easier to clean.

5) Safe screens:  Stainless steel hardware cloth, nylon netting, or cheesecloth are fine.  Do not use galvanized screens.  These have been treated with zinc and cadmium, which can have a dangerous reaction when in contact with acidic foods. 

Also, purchase a dehydrator with a 1-year guarantee and UL seal of approval.

Source(s): 

PickyGuide “Food Dehydrator: What is it?” and “Types of Food Dehydrators”
http://www.pickyguide.com/sports_and_recreation/food_dehydrators_guide.html

University of California Cooperative Extension “Buying a Dehydrator”
http://ceplacer.ucdavis.edu/files/65.PDF

University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service “Preparing Food: Drying Fruits and Vegetables”
http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/links/georgia.html  

Cooperative Extension Service, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture “Drying Food at Home” by Kathy Daly-Koziel and Fudeko Maruyama
ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/fcs3/fcs3501/fcs3501.pdf

HFP - National Center for Home Food Preservation “Drying: Food Dehydrators”
http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/dry/dehydrator.html

Link(s):

HFP - National Center for Home Food Preservation “Drying: Food Dehydrators”
http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/dry/dehydrator.html

Thriftyfun “Cooperative Extension Service  “How to Use Dried Foods”
http://www.thriftyfun.com/tf466349.tip.html

 
 

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