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By November 15, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

How to Dry Food

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Jars-fruit copyIn 2011 Home Farmer commissioned Piers Warren to write a series of articles on the different methods for storing your fruit and veg. Here he writes about foods that can be dried and the various methods for drying them.

Drying fruits and vegetables to store them for long periods of time is one of the oldest methods around, and this month we’ll be looking at some ancient techniques, but will also include the latest high-tech options of using equipment such as food dehydrators.

But first we should mention that in some cases the very simplest form of storage is to leave it to nature. Various crops, like leeks for example, can be left in the ground until required. The vegetable has to be frost-hardy to survive this, so in many other cases it is better to harvest the produce when it is in peak condition and place it in an environment where long-term storage is possible. Often this means a location that is cool but frost-free.

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Potatoes, for example, can be stored for long periods in a cool, dark location, in paper, hessian, or cotton sacks, or even cardboard boxes. Humidity needs to be low to deter fungal growth, which is why they should not be stored in plastic bags for any period of time. The problem with a small garden shed is that it will warm up in the spring and the tubers may start to sprout roots and shoots, so a cooler brick or stone outbuilding would enable longer storage. A really hard frost may freeze a wooden shed and all its contents solid – thereby spoiling any produce stored within when it thaws. Before placing tubers in the sacks they should be laid out in the sun for a few hours to dry off after digging up.

Apples and pears can be stored on shelves or in boxes. They need a slightly different environment in that they like the air to be a little moist. A cool, dark outhouse is ideal – you can occasionally wet the floor to keep the humidity up.

Choose only perfect, unblemished specimens for dry storage. The fruit should not be touching, so either space them apart or wrap them individually in paper – this stops the rotting fungi and bacteria spreading from one to another. Greaseproof paper is good, but even newspaper is better than nothing. If you have hundreds of apples you may not have the patience for wrapping each one, so why not just wrap a few ‘cratesworth’ for the longest storage – you should still be eating them next spring. Note that the fruit that ripens late in the season will keep better, and some varieties, such as Cox and Bramley, keep better than others.

Hanging is a simple technique mainly used for alliums and squashes. The best place to hang vegetables for storage is in a dry, cool, airy place that won’t be hit by hard frosts. A stone or brick outbuilding is ideal as long as it isn’t too damp. A garage might suffice as long as it doesn’t smell of petrol or oil, but certainly not a warm kitchen – no matter how attractive strings of onions may look.

Squashes such as marrows and pumpkins can be hung in nets – just make sure the fruits are not touching each other. Save any netting or net bags for this purpose: such as the net sacks that stock-feed carrots often come in. Netting bags (or even tights) can be used for hanging onions or garlic, but just aren’t as picturesque as stringing.

There are various methods for stringing – here’s a simple one that doesn’t involve plaiting or complicated knots: to start your string, take four onions and tie the stalks together, then tie the knotted stalks to a piece of string. Hang this from the roof of your store and then add further onions, one at a time, by tying their stalks around the string and sliding them down to meet the others.

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Some roots such as carrots, parsnips and beetroots can be stored in sand or sawdust (or a peat substitute). It’s important to use sand that is only just moist – if too wet, prepare in advance by spreading out your sand on a plastic sheet in the hot sun in the summer, then keep it in plastic sacks under cover until needed. Make layers of sand and roots (unwashed but with excess soil gently brushed off) in containers such as barrels, crates, deep seed trays – making sure the roots don’t touch each other. Store the containers in a dry, frost-free place.

Enzymes, bacteria, yeasts and fungi all require moisture – so drying food is effective at preventing the action of all of them. Well-dried produce has a long storage life and often an intensified flavour, resulting in the use of this technique to create desired ingredients such as dried mushrooms, chillies, tomatoes, or goodies to be eaten direct such as dried apple rings (home-dried fruit can be a healthy and tasty addition to packed lunches for school or work).

Dried produce weighs far less than when hydrated, and so is popular with backpackers and in situations where weight is a factor. In addition, glass jars of dried fruits and mushrooms, and strings of dried chillies, can look extremely attractive in the kitchen and make unusual presents.

A warm, dry place is needed for drying. An airing cupboard may do, but will take a few days – a warm oven (45–55°C (113–131°F)) will take a few hours. Herbs can be hung in bunches or laid out on a baking sheet. Once dried, the produce must be stored in airtight jars.

Beans and peas are best dried by leaving the pods on the plants until they have turned yellow, then cut the plant at ground level and hang indoors to dry completely. When the pods have become brittle, shell them and leave on trays for a few more days. Then store in a cool dry place in airtight containers.

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If you want to take the drying of produce a step further, you can use a modern electric food dehydrator. There are several tabletop units available, which consist of a base unit containing the temperature and time controls, the heater and fan, and then a series of plastic drying trays, which can be stacked on top. The food is usually sliced and laid out on the trays before the unit is set for the required amount of time and the correct temperature (which is detailed for each type of produce in the instructions that come with the unit). Dehydrators are clean, easy to use, and as they become increasingly popular are reducing in cost. Here are a few examples of produce that can be dehydrated:

Core the fruit and cut it into rings about 5mm (1/4in) thick. Place for a few minutes in a mixture of 300ml water plus 150ml lemon juice and a teaspoon of sugar (this stops the rings discolouring). Drain the rings before placing them in a warm oven or a dehydrator. Once the fruit feels dry and squeezing produces no juice, it can be jarred up and sealed. The product can be eaten dry as a snack, or soaked for a day in water before adding to recipes.

Slice the mushrooms, then dry them in a warm oven (45–55°C (113–131°F)) on a rack for a few hours. A dehydrator can also be used with good results. Store the dried mushrooms in an airtight jar in a cool, dark place – they are then a great addition to soups and stews. The drying process gives mushrooms new flavours and textures that are considered a delicacy by many.

Pods can be dried in a food dehydrator. A simpler technique is to hang the chilli pods in strings (tie clusters of three or four pods by the stems every few inches along a piece of string) in a dry, airy place until the pods snap when you bend them. Once fully dry, chillies can be stored in glass jars in a dry, dark place.

Tomatoes can be fully dried and stored in jars, or partly dried and stored in oil. Cut the tomatoes in half, lay them on a drying rack in a low oven and sprinkle a little salt on the upturned face of each half. The drying process can take up to a day depending on the size of the tomatoes – remove them when they feel firm and dry. For oil storage, remove them while still a little squishy and pack into sterilised jars, then cover with olive oil and seal. Either way they will store for up to 6 months. A food dehydrator can also be used.

See also How to Freeze Food,How to Pickle Food

Further Info

Piers Warren is the author of How to Store Your Garden Produce: The key to self-sufficiency, published by Green Books


About the Author:

Ruth Tott is the publisher of Home Farmer Magazine, and together with her husband, Paul Melnyczuk, Editor,is founder of the company. But her background is far removed having specialised in Costume History with a Post-Grad diploma in Museum Studies to boot. A far cry from looking after chickens, growing veg and making bread!

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