Winter Food Preparation: Preserving Food By Drying It
People have been drying food for thousands of years. The process best maintains nutrients and quality. Here’s how you can do yourself this winter.
Anyone who has eaten a raisin has eaten dried food. Raisins are simply dried grapes. Did you know prunes are dried plums?
Indigenous people dried meat over a fire to make what we call ‘jerky’ today. Not only did fire preserve it for the family to eat, but it was also lightweight to carry when hunting. Herbs have been hung and dried for centuries as food and medicine. Drying was a necessity, but it was replaced first by canning, and then by refrigeration.
Benefits of dried food
Properly dried food best preserves the freshness and nutritional quality of perishable food. Some foods are not suitable for other methods, such as meats, herbs, and certain fruits and vegetables. If you employ several methods of preservation, you can save almost any kind of food.
Dried food takes up a fraction of the space as its whole counterpart would. It saves space in your cupboard.
It is lightweight, as our ancestors know, making it great for backpacking and camping, as well as sending kids off to school with healthy snacks.
The flavors are concentrated, so they are richer and thicker than the fresh version. I toss dried cherry tomatoes into soup and chili, and eating them is like finding candy in the bowl!
Foods dried at home
Home dried foods are healthier than the store bought versions. Commercially prepared foods frequently contain sulfites as a preservative and to retain color. When you make your own, there are no additives.
Dried food does not spoil, because you are removing the moisture, which is where spoilage begins.
Properly dried food can last for years or even decades, because it never breaks down.
Storing dried food takes no extra energy to keep it cold or warm. If you dry it in the sun, it takes no energy at all!
Dehydrators for drying foods
You need to have low, even heat with air circulation to remove the moisture from the food as quickly as possible.
The most convenient and quickest way to dry food is with an electric dehydrator. You can turn it on, and walk away. Slice your foods evenly, and they will dry uniformly. A thermostat keeps the temperature even, and a fan keeps the heat evenly distributed.
The only drawback to a dehydrator is that it is electric. It may not be the best choice for off-grid homes.
Drying food in your oven
Alternatively, you can dry in the oven, if the temperature goes as low as 120º. Not all models do. There is also no air circulation, so the door should be cracked a bit. You will also need to rotate the pans to even out the heat, and remove pieces of food that dry before the others. This is not cost effective if you have an electric range.
I dried my cherry tomatoes in my gas oven. I sliced them in half horizontally, salted them, and put them on two cookie sheets. The recipe was for one cookie sheet – 120º for two hours. With two, the time went to six hours! Experiment with food this way. Consider drying racks instead of cookie sheets for air circulation and shorter drying times.
In certain parts of the world where there is lots of sun and little humidity, you can dry food outdoors in the sun. Lay the food slices on clean screens, and cover with more screens, netting or a couple layers of cheesecloth to keep bugs away. Put the screens on supports in direct sun when it will be clear for three to four days.
This method has the lowest energy impact. It does take a long time, though, and you have to keep an eye on it. Be prepared to be home and attentive!
An extension of sun drying is a solar dehydrator. This also takes a few days, but the time will be shorter than that of sun drying. You can build one yourself, which is cost effective. It takes no supplemental power. Just the heat of the sun.
Once your food is crispy, it can be stored in air-tight mason jars or zipper baggies. It will last indefinitely as long as all the moisture has evaporated from it. Keep the packages in the dark, as light deteriorates nutritional quality.
Keep records of what you dried, what worked best, what kept the longest, and how each tasted. This will help you plan your garden and/or farmers market trips next year!
Putting food away for winter and emergencies is a healthy and effective way to take control of your food source. Share or barter with friends and neighbors, and make extra for gift giving. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like something homemade from the kitchen!
The best book about all the methods of putting food away is Rodale’s Stocking Up. I’ve had the various editions of this book for over 30 years, and I refer to it all the time. Do a lot of research on- and offline for best results, whether you are stocking a pantry, building a root cellar, filling a freezer, or drying the harvest.
The more we can do for ourselves, the more self-sufficient we can become. As you plan your 2016 garden, include extra seeds and starts, and the space they will need, so you can put up some of your harvest for winter.
Sooner or later, we will send Monsanto packing its bags!