Photo Credit: Norma Kerby
Shelving Sunshine: the art of food dehydration
“What are you going to do with all those apples?”
Clint the roofer stared down at the rows of boxes and pails I was moving out of my orchard. He and his crew had been watching me all morning as I frantically picked fruit from my apple and plum trees.
A big black bear with a white chest had moved into the neighbourhood. Earlier that morning, it decided my orchard was its new lunch spot. It is one thing to have a bear breaking branches, but this one was into pushing trees over so it didn’t have to climb them. I was now in a frantic rush to get all of the ripe fruit picked before Arnold Bearzenegger returned.
As we loaded a large box of Sunnybrook apples into Clint’s pickup, he listened carefully as I described how I was going to dehydrate the apples, then he just shook his head. Sounded like a lot of work to him, he said. He was going to turn his box of apples into jelly. Apple jelly goes great with pork.
For people who have never tried drying fresh fruits and vegetables, picking and processing for dehydration does look like a lot of work. For those of us with electric desiccators, whole new worlds of food storage and gourmet cooking have opened up with the easy, modern methods of mechanized dehydration.
Back in time
Food dehydration goes back thousands of years in human history. Somewhere, long before the Greeks or Romans, prehistoric peoples discovered that dried foods kept much longer than their hydrated counterparts. Later, dried grains or dates or salted meat stored in water-proof pottery jars and sealed with parchment or wax would last for a very long time. In the days before refrigeration and tin cans, drying was one of the few methods that allowed food to be kept in storage for famines or unfriendly sieges.
Food was—and still is—dried in the sun. In arid climates, produce is laid out on rooftops where it dries rapidly in the intense sunlight. In wetter, cooler climates such as the Pacific north coast, sunshine is a rarer commodity and traditionally other methods, such as smoking, were used to dry food, especially fish and meat.
Nowadays, we do not need to worry about rain or cloudy weather. Electric dehydrators, which use a combination of heat and air blown through grated trays, rapidly dehydrate almost anything that is edible, with only small losses to food values. Dehydrated food takes up a fraction of the space of canning jars or frozen food. Compared to four deep-freezers of various sizes which struggled to hold a side of beef plus all of the frozen apples, plums, raspberries, strawberries, currants, gooseberries, and baked pumpkin from my garden, food dehydration allows me to grow and save 20 to 30 percent of my food budget each year in a much smaller space.
Plenty to dry
Throughout the summer and fall, there is food to be dried. From early to mid-summer, green onions, garlic leaves, chives, parsley, and even broccoli and squash flowers are cut, washed, drained, chopped, and in just two hours, dried and stored in sealed jars. Most of these plants can be continuously harvested if only a few of the leaves or stems are removed at one time. I chop garlic and green onion leaves into ½ to 1-cm lengths, but dry spice leaves whole and crumble them after drying. Garlic and green onion leaves are surprisingly flavourful and tasty, and can be added to any meat dish, pasta, dumplings, or even bread for an aromatic adventure.
Another successful plant for drying is kale. Kale can be harvested non-stop throughout the summer months. Champion of vitamins and minerals, it retains its green colour and flavour remarkably well. After washing, strip the stiff midrib from each kale leaf and dry the curly kale chunks whole. Within a couple of hours, the kale is crisp and ready to be crumbled into a coarse powder and stored in sealed glass jars. Do not over-dry kale—it will lose its flavour and colour. Kale can be added to almost everything. Kale powder does not overwhelm other flavours, and adds a high level of nutrition to stews, soups, quiches, biscuits, and even cookies.
Tomatoes are the kings of dehydration when it comes to flavour. There is no commercial equivalent to rehydrated sun-ripened tomatoes added to spaghetti or tortillas. The secret is how the tomatoes are dried. Slice cherry and smaller varieties of tomatoes in half or in quarters and dry the juice inside the tomato pieces. Red tomatoes have the most flavour and acidity, although some of the yellow heritage varieties also give intense tastes. For juicy beef-steak tomatoes, dry them on fruit leather trays or drain them before drying. I freeze larger slices of dried tomatoes in zip-lock bags, and crumble the brittle pieces into my cooking.
Enter the fruits
By late summer, apples, plums and pears have started to ripen. Each variety, with its own special aroma and taste, has particular strengths for food use. Dried slices from tart apples or crabapples are great for outdoor work or strenuous hiking. Fleshier apples, such as Macintosh, Wealthy, Ottawa, or Gravenstein, produce mealy dried apple slices, which, if frozen, can be fractured or powdered to add to a range of baked desserts and even as flavours in main courses. If recipes require rehydrated fruit, warm water or other liquids such as milk, fruit juices or wine can be used to bring the fruit back to its hydrated state.
Dehydration does not need to stop at the obvious. Looking for a substitute to replace the evils of commercial potato chips, I discovered that thin zucchini slices, shaken in a bag with a selection of spices such as powdered mustard, chili, pepper, and ginger, then dried to crispiness, produce a tasty, crunchy chip that helps solve both the nutritional problems of store-bought chips and the issue of what to do with so many zucchini.
Dehydration is an efficient way to save food for winter. Gourmet selections of dried fruits and spices are popular for gifting and food exchanges among my friends and neighbours. As for Clint, I never did convince him that dried apple slices were a better use for apples than ruby-red apple jelly, but perhaps if he had eaten some Christmas bundt-cake made with dried W.H. Perron heirloom apples, he would have tasted the reason for dehydration.
Buying a Dehydrator
Quality dehydrators are worth the investment, as they will last for years. Buy a robust dehydrator with sufficient space and trays. A plastic-tray dehydrator works well with fruit and vegetable products, but you may want stainless steel for meat and fish.
The secret to a long life for your dehydrator is to keep it clean after each round of use. Avoid drips which can damage the motor or gum up the trays. Remove excess moisture by placing food on paper towels before drying or place fruit leather sheets on the bottom tray until the food has stopped dripping.
Colourful Summer Garden Dumplings
1 cup whole wheat or unbleached flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp dried powdered kale
2 tbsp dried onion greens
1 tbsp dried garlic leaves
dried edible flowers
crumbled dried tomato
Mix together dried ingredients and add:
¼ cup light olive oil
2 fresh eggs
½ cup milk
Do not beat. Mix only until ingredients are blended together. The batter should be stiff.
Drop with large tablespoon on to boiling soup or stew. The dumplings will cook in 5 minutes and are great hot, especially with butter.
This mix can also be cooked as bannock in a hot frying pan.