Why to Dry Foods
Drying foods was one of the original ways our ancestors preserved their foods. There is evidence showing that some cultures actively dried foods in the hot sun as early as 12,000 BC.
Originally, foods were dried in the sun. In the early 1900s, natural draft dehydrators were developed for drying foods in areas where they didn’t have enough strong sunlight. Those dehydrators had fire pits at the bottom and exhaust vents at the top.
Drying food can be a good way to preserve foods without electricity. They are ready for use whenever and wherever you need them. Dried foods are smaller and lighter than their fresh counterparts, so are easy to store and carry.
Some nutrients can be lost when drying food, but not as much that are lost when home canning. Canning uses high temperatures, leading to 60-80% nutrient loss. Dehydration only loses 3-5%.
Drying food can be accomplished with little equipment, and is one of the fastest and least expensive ways to preserve your harvest.
How to Dry Foods
People have been drying foods in the sun for a long time. Sun drying works very well in places where there is a lot of hot sun. Any place that has a minimum temperature of 86F and a relative humidity of 60% or less will work.
It can take several days to dry food thoroughly in the sun. Place your food on a tray, cover it with a mesh screen, and allow plenty of airflow when drying food.
Drying foods in the shade works too, especially those foods that need protection from the sun. Drying foods like delicate greens and herbs is better in the shade.
If your humidity is too high for drying foods naturally, you can build or purchase a solar dehydrator to help the process along. A solar dryer may speed up how long it takes when drying foods.
If you don’t like drying foods the old fashioned way, there are more modern conveniences to help you speed up the process. Try drying foods using the oven or buy an electric appliance to dehydrate your foods evenly inside your house.
Oven drying is not the most efficient way to dry, but it is a good way to start if you want to see how you like drying foods before buying a dehydrator. You set your oven around 140F, keep the door propped open to let moisture escape, and then wait. Don’t dry above 140F unless you want to cook instead of dry.
Electric dehydrators come with fans and heating elements to efficiently dry food. You avoid spoilage and can dehydrate at any time rather than waiting for a hot dry day. These appliances usually come with a thermometer and a way to adjust the temperature.
Dehydrating fruit is one of the best ways to start drying food. Since most fruit is acidic and sweet, bacterial growth is minimized, making fruit ideal for sun drying. Dried fruit is great for snacking or adding to oatmeal or baked goods.
The best dried fruit starts with the freshest fruit. Ripe fruit has peak sugar content, and thus the sweetest end product. Bruised or overripe fruit may turn black when dry.
Fruit should be washed and cored, and can be peeled if you prefer. You can dry small pieces whole, cut larger ones in half, or slice fruit from 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Since fruit is sticky, you may want to spray your trays with oil before drying.
Since some fruit darkens when it is dried, you may wish to treat your fruit to preserve the color. Some options for treating involve sulfuring, using ascorbic acid, fruit juice, honey, or syrup. Steam blanching may also help but will change the flavor and texture of the fruit.
Dry your fruit at 135 to 145F until leathery and pliable. Properly dried fruit should be retain about 20% moisture content when it is finished. Let your fruit cool, then pack loosely in a sealed jar for a week or so to equalize leftover moisture before storing long term.
Apples, bananas, peaches, and nectarines will take from 6 to 16 hours to dry. For apricots, grapes, figs, and pears, drying times will range between 20 to 36 hours. Check every 2 to 3 hours when you are getting close to your end time, rotating trays as needed.
Fruit leathers are a delicious option for overripe or bruised fruits. Puree fruits and add sweeteners or acids to taste and pour 1/8 inch thick onto tray liners or plastic wrap. Dry at 140F until they don’t indent when you touch them.
Store your dried fruit for a year at 60F, or 6 months at 80F. Fruit leathers should keep for a month at room temperature. If you want longer to store them longer, place your fruits in the freezer.
Some favorite vegetables to dry include carrots, mushrooms, onions, peas, beans and tomatoes. These can be added to soups, stews, and backpacking meals. There are also recipes for vegetable leathers online.
Start drying vegetables by preparing them correctly. Wash them, then prepare according to the type of vegetable. Keep your pieces uniform so they all dry at the same rate.
You should blanch most vegetables before drying. Blanching both stops enzyme action that would damage your final product, and shortens the drying process because it relaxes tissue walls. You can either steam or water blanch your vegetables.
Water blanching usually removes more nutrients, but it takes less time than steaming. Both heat the vegetables to a high enough temperature to stop the enzymes. The most common vegetables to blanch are asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, corn, green beans, peas, and kale.
Vegetables dry faster than fruits, but also spoil faster. Place them on trays and dry most at 125F. If you are drying foods like tomatoes or onions, dry at 145F instead. Times will range from 4 to 10 hours depending on the vegetable and size of pieces.
Vegetables like Brussels sprouts, onions, peppers and garlic are strong smelling. Take care to not dry them with other vegetables.
Properly dried vegetables will contain only 10% moisture. They should be brittle and crisp. Some may shatter if hit. Since they are so dry, they don’t need the conditioning fruit does. However, they only last half the time fruit does.
Making jerky is simple but the final product won’t last as long as other dried products. Homemade jerky is fantastic, and a great lightweight snack to carry with you.
Jerky can be made from fresh, lean meat and fish as fat spoils quickly. If using pork or wild game, the meat must be treated to kill the trichinella parasite before it is sliced and marinated.
Partially freeze meat before slicing for more uniform strips. Slice it no thicker than 1/4 inch. You can then marinate it for flavor.
Jerky can be made from raw, cooked, and ground meat. Care must be taken to ensure the meat is dehydrated properly. Once dried, eat jerky within two weeks or freeze it for longer.
Drying foods like herbs are quick and easy. They take little prep work and they store a long time without losing flavor.
It’s best to harvest herbs in the morning, and early in the year before flowers bloom. You cut single stem lengths, bundle them together, and hang in the shade. Alternatively, put them on dehydrator trays in a single layer and dry around 100F for two to four hours.
When finished, herbs will be brittle and crumble easily. Hold single herb branches over a sheet pan and rub fingers along the length to remove the dried herb. You can store them in dry jars.
Using Dried Foods
Dried herbs can be made into teas or used in cooking. Dried fruit makes fantastic natural snacks and can be used in trail mixes, baked goods, or oatmeal. You can also rehydrate the fruits and make fillings for cobblers or pies.
Jerky is expensive, and making your own means you can make it exactly the way you want. Dried veggies can be rehydrated and made into delicious soups, stews, and casseroles. Add fresh or rehydrated jerky, and you have a filling meal.
For some delicious ideas on how to use your dehydrated foods, see the Missouri Extension office. Another great resource is the Backpacking Chef, who goes more in depth as to his back country cooking techniques with dehydrated foods.
Dried foods not only are easy to make, but sustainable as well. They also store well in small spaces!