As you prepare to preserve your harvest, it’s easy to overlook a simple and effective technique: dehydration. The process provides nutritional, flavor, and storage benefits and both preserves and enhances a surprising range of foods. Dried foods are handy not just in your kitchen but also in your child’s lunchbox, the stem bag on your bike, the front pouch on your daypack, and your ski jacket pocket.
Like most preservation techniques, dehydrating has pros and cons. On the upside, dehydrating intensifies the flavor of food, saves space, and needs little hands-on time. On the downside, food that isn’t fully dried or properly stored can mold. And although you can dehydrate in open air, you’ll get the best control over moisture, heat, and other factors is you use a dehydrator.
What You Can Save
What comes to mind if you say the words, “dried food”? If you’re a cook, it’s probably herbs. If you’re a mom or dad, it might be lunchbox snacks. If you’re an outdoor adventurer, it’s probably dehydrated meals. Bring them together, and you can dry a large list of homegrown food. I typically save this list:
- Seeds: coriander, dill, fennel
- Herb leaves and flowers: basil, chamomile, cilantro, cutting celery/lovage, dill, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, sorrel, lavender, thyme
- Sliced fruits and berries: apples, pears, prunes, cherries
- Fruit leathers: apple, apricot, blueberry, pumpkin, plum, raspberry
- Vegetables: chilies, garlic, tomatoes
The Tools You Need
At its simplest, dehydration requires no special tools. You’ll need a space and way to hang or spread out the food you want to dry so that air can circulate, and you’ll need resealable bags or jars with airtight lid for storage. A marker and piece of masking tape or label also comes in handy—dried food may not be easily identifiable, and noting the dehydration date let’s you use the food before it loses flavor.
But at its easiest and most successful, dehydration uses a food dehydrator. A good electric food dehydrator features a heater, fan, and vents. It easily lets you control temperature and air circulation, allowing for fast, efficient drying. Many affordable models are available for small batches, as are large, more expensive models for large-scale dehydration.
Smart Processing Tips
When fully dried and properly stored, dehydrated foods last many months. The main concern, when drying and storing, is moisture. A few tips will help you fully dry your harvest—and keep it that way:
- Let it cool. Always allow food dried in a dehydrator to cool completely; warm food might be dry but still sweat moisture. It’s also easier to check that a food is completely dry when it is at room temperature.
- Keep it sealed. Storing dried food in the portions you plan to use reduces air and thus moisture exposure when you open the package. Snack-size zip-close bags can be handy—and can be gathered into a gallon bag.
- Keep it cool. Temperature and light can affect the quality and shelf life of dehydrated food. The cooler the temperature, the longer the storage time.
- Keep it whole. Even when dried, herbs retain their flavorful oils. Store dried leaves as whole as possible, crushing them only when you’re ready to use them.
- Check in. When you open a package, check that the food is still dry. Spoiled dried food will be moldy and inedible. An overly moist unspoiled batch can be redried and repackaged or frozen.
Twice as Tasty
Now that you’re excited about dehydration as a way to preserve your harvest, how should you go about it? You can find recipes on the blog with instructions for dehydrating various types and blends of herbs and teas and a range of fruit leather flavors. My latest dehydration adventure dries chilies by smoking them, taking their flavor to an new level.
I’ve also started dehydrating tomatoes to take when cruising aboard our sailboat, the Blue Mule, and just to use in the kitchen at home. My first attempts at simply drying slices seemed bland in flavor, but then I discovered a marinated variation in Joel MacCharles and Dana Harrison’s Batch and was immediately hooked. They won’t taste quite like “sundried” tomatoes—which are most likely run through commercial dehydrators anyway unless you’re paying import prices at a specialty shop. But they have all of the flavor of fresh, homegrown tomatoes and herbs and take up a fraction of the space of frozen or canned tomatoes.
Ready to give it a try? Full details are in the recipe below, but here are the basics:
You need just 1 main ingredients plus some herbs and kitchen staples.
1. Combine all ingredients and let them marinate.
2. Drain and spread on dehydrator trays.
3. Dry completely and store or use.
Marinated Dried Tomatoes
1/2 cup fresh basil or 3 tablespoons dried basil
1 tablespoon fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
4 cloves garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Core the tomatoes and cut them lengthwise into 3 or 4 slices, placing them in a large bowl. Coarsely chop or crumble the basil and oregano and mince the garlic; add them to the bowl. Toss the mixture with vinegar, syrup, and salt and pepper until coated. Let them sit for 30 minutes, until the flavors combine.
Briefly drain the tomatoes through a colander, just until they start to drip; set aside the liquid for another use if desired. Spread the tomatoes on dehydrator trays, ensuring they don’t touch. Dehydrate at your machine’s fruit setting (usually 125°F–145°F) for 8–24 hours, until the tomatoes are crunchy.
Check for dryness by letting the tomatoes cool to room temperature (as explained earlier) and then attempting to break them in half; they’re completely dry when they crackle and break easily. When completely dry, gently pull the tomatoes off of the dryer trays and store them in small zip-close bags or glass jars in a cool, dry place out of direct light. Makes about 2 cups.
Tips & Tricks
- I like to dry paste or sauce tomatoes; they’re fairly firm and not as juicy as large slicing varieties. Letting juicier tomatoes drain more thoroughly will remove more liquid but also more of the flavorings.
- This recipe gives you about 3 quarts of tomatoes after slicing, which fills my 6 round dehydrator trays nicely. If you have more or fewer trays, you can scale the recipe up or down; plan on about 2 cups of tomato slices per tray.
- I get the best results when I lay the slices directly on the open-weave dehydrator trays. Although it seems tempting to put them on solid dryer sheets like you would fruit leather, I struggled to fully dry the slices. Don’t be alarmed by the wide range for the drying time; it can vary widely depending on the amount of moisture in your tomatoes and your particular machine.
- Dried tomatoes can be briefly rehydrated in hot water and spread on sourdough pizza or tossed with hot pasta. Drop them into soups instead of frozen tomatoes or crumble them over a salad. They can also be ground into a powder and used alone or with other spices as a seasoning.
Update: My live Prepare to Preserve the Harvest presentation is now available online. Watch it here. You can also read the blog series:
- Prepare to Preserve
- Quick Food Preservation (dry storage, freezing, and refrigerating)
- Prepare to Dehydrate
- Prepare to Can
- Prepare to Pickle
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