In my quest to grow and store as much garden produce as possible, my food dehydrator has become essential equipment. Drying is my favorite way to preserve tomatoes and peppers, and I also dry herbs, apples and pears. I am often asked how I use my dried foods, which is hard to answer because I cook with them almost every day. Any dish that cooks for more than 30 minutes is fair game for dried veggies, so I use dried tomatoes, peppers and squash in soups, stews and countless casseroles. For special occasions, rehydrated apples make a killer pie.
How Food Dehydrators Work
Food dehydrators come in several models and sizes, and none are very expensive because they are so simple. Inside a square or round body equipped with shelves for several trays, a small fan circulates heated air controlled by a thermostat. Warm, moist air escapes through vents, so in hot weather I move my food dehydrator to the deck to keep from heating up the kitchen.
I’m often confused by photos that show five different fruits and vegetables in a food dehydrator, because foods are best dried at different temperatures. Herbs benefit from the fan action of a dehydrator but need little heat, while fruits need faster drying at higher temperatures lest microorganisms claim the natural sugars for themselves. All dehydrators come with a handy guide for selecting the best temperature for the foods you are drying.
Most vegetables need little preparation for drying beyond washing and cutting into pieces of similar size. You can leave skins on tomatoes destined for the food dehydrator, because the skins provide structure for the juicy slices. Cherry tomatoes are best halved and placed on the trays cut side up. Expect substantial shrinkage! I slice tomatoes for drying about 3/8 inch (1cm) thick, and the pieces dry to the thickness of a penny.
My food dehydrator stays in constant use in late summer, but I wait until winter to take on more interesting projects like making fruit leather from equal parts applesauce and pureed berries from the freezer. Speaking of the freezer, if you want to make sweet and chewy dried cherries or strawberries, the best way is to freeze the halved fruits with a generous sprinkling of sugar as the first step. Then thaw, drain and dry the sweetened fruit.
One of the things I like about drying is how little processing is required. Dried vegetables and fruits are never exposed to moisture or high heat, so they are the next best thing to raw. To rehydrate any dried produce, simply cover it with warm water for 30 minutes.
Storing Dried Foods
Exposure to light can ruin colors and cause nutritional losses in dried foods, so you will need a dark, cool storage place as well as airtight containers. I use glass jars for my dried parsley, mint, and other tea herbs, which fit nicely in a dark kitchen drawer. Any food that is dried until crisp, like tomatoes or peppers, can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature because so little moisture is present. But with apples, grapes (raisins), pears, fruit rolls and other foods that are dried only to the leathery stage and without the use of sulfur, I prefer using the freezer for safe storage. Dried foods stored in the freezer will keep in perfect condition for many years.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate the convenience of having a cache of dried garden goodies. One year when I did well with celery, I diced and dried it, and had plenty of celery for cooking for several months. Drying is also the answer for potatoes that are not doing well in storage. Simply bake them whole, allow to cool and peel. When grated and dried, cooked potatoes become instant hash browns (they rehydrate in a few minutes). Larger pieces of dried cooked potato work well in soups.
Is there a food dehydrator in your future? The work done by my food dehydrator varies with the flow of produce from the garden, sometimes leading to innovations like pumpkin jerky or beet raisins. Who knew that removing water from food plants could be so much fun?