As you may have noticed in our recent Facebook posts, Skookum members are drying up a storm this year, preserving the local (and local-ish) harvest of peaches, plums, squash, tomatoes, peppers, apples, pears, berries and more.
A crack team of 6 members have been buying, picking and sharing in-season produce from Bernie’s Fruit Truck (a.k.a Vitamin Express), and attending dehydrating work parties at the Community Resource Centre (CRC), which houses two food dehydrators. Part of the bounty is always put aside for CRC client use, thus fulfilling our community share. Additionally, Skookum’s newest project is a bulk order of dehydrators, where members of our cooperative got together and saved on shipping/ brokerage fees to have five Excalibur dehydrators delivered, making at least five local families more food secure.
What is the buzz on drying food?
- What can you dehydrate?
- Does it replace canning, pickling, or freezing?
- What are the advantages and drawbacks of drying?
- What can you dehydrate and what do you do with the dried food anyhow?
- How long does it take to preparea and dry stuff?
- How much does it cost?
- How do I get started?
Despite being an ancient form of food preservation, dating back to biblical times, dehydrating is coming into its own in our less-than-arid climate, through simple technology: a dehydrator. At its most basic level, this is a vented box with heat elements, fans and porous shelves upon which to place sliced, diced, shredded or even select whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, meat, fish, etc. The ‘devil is in the details’ though, as uniformity of dehydration and the ability to set accurate drying temperatures and lengths of time are attributes that only the better machines offer.
- Dehydrating foods provides “living ” or uncooked foods. If done properly, only the water content is extracted, leaving much of the flavour and nutrients behind
- They are easy to digest, rich in vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, and are highly nutritious
- Many modern methods of preserving foods through refrigeration, freezing, canning, pasteurizing, and chemical or even natural additives like sugar, salt, pectin, Sodium Bisulfite, etc. reduce the nutrient content in food, or provide unwanted extra calories/sodium
- Easily stored in air and light-proof containers, dehydrated foods weigh considerably less than fresh or food preserved any other way (useful in camping and backpacking: easy to carry!) and can sit on your shelf for up to 20 years making them excellent for disasters and hard times (think food security here!)
- It’s cheaper than freezing, in the end: a few hours of drying at a few cents per hour, and you’re done. This frees up freezer/pantry space for other goodies that must be preseved in other ways.
- See some seasonal food on sale or have a glut of local food? Pick it or buy it and dry it during any season. Dried pineapples and mangoes make great (if non-local) snacks; autumn is a great time to ponder dried chanterelles…
- And you can mix and match your foods to create dried culinary delights like pear-apricot leather with embedded walnut pieces, a mixed dried vegetable soup mix (with a different vegetable on each tray of your dehydrator), an entire dehydrated spaghetti dinner, stews and chile, even jerkies of all kinds (salmon, chicken, turkey, beef); think of it as gentle ‘cooking’, in slow motion
- Using dried food is a dream: either use it as is (as in fruit leathers) or mix it with wetter foods or soak to rehydrate dried food in water or broth to create flavourful concoctions with super-concentrated flavour
- Dehydrators can be used to raise yeasted bread doughs, make yogurt, teas (out of leafy herbs or bits of fruit), cheese, seeds for planting, and even dry flowers and leaves for crafts – anything that can benefit from a low, sustained, dry heat (this includes me—Swedish sauna, anyone?)
- As in freezing or canning food, there are some upfront costs, namely for the dehydrator (here is a review of some of the more popular types; they range from about $80 to $2,000+) and for containers in which to store the food (plastic bags, and even glass jars preferably with the air sucked out via a vacuum sealer); add to this the electricity use in the actual dehydration process
- Time is of the essence: you need to be able to collect or buy food at the peak of freshness and ripeness to get the best results, and it does take some time to peel, pit, check (drop briefly in boiling water to remove some of the waxy coating on things like blueberries or grapes) and slice certain items like pears, peaches or cherries to prepare them for dehydrating. Also, getting the dried food off the racks and in air-tight containers is best done sooner rather than later because the dried food will act as a sponge and collect ambient moisture!
- Certain foods just don’t dehydrate that well, such as:
- whole items (be it fruits, vegetables, etc.); this reduces access to the moister parts; sliced or shredded food works best and fastest
- fibrous food like sliced artichokes or carrots (unless they are sliced really thinly)
- high-moisture foods like watermelon and cucumber that take a long time (but they are interesting just the same!)
- foods with lots of fat/oil in them that can go rancid without other preservatives like salt/sugar, etc.
- You need to make sure that foods are dried and stored properly, to avoid mold and spoilage, so home-made dehydrators are not recommended in our climate
- You need to pay attention and respond to your dehydrating foods as needed; factors such as the type and variety of fruit/vegetable you are dehydrating, its ripeness and sugar level (both increase drying time), and ambient humidity, all factor in the final drying times. While you cannot really over-dry things at the recommended low temperatures, you don’t want to be wasting energy either or producing food that is overly dry for no reason; some moisture content is okay, depending on what you are drying.
Want to get started? Contact us (just comment below or use our contact page) and we’ll see what we can do to get you drying at least some food this year!