The Drying Basics

Learning the drying basics will allow you to choose which dehydration technique works best for you and the produce you are drying. Herbs are not the only food source that can be dried, or dehydrated, to remove the liquids in the food in order to extend the shelf life of the food product. Many fruits, vegetables, and, of course, herbs can be dried and stored for use throughout the winter season.

Although most food products can be dried, a few will need special care in order to successfully dehydrate them. Each vegetable, fruit and herb will have notes regarding special care, if any, in their separate chapters.

A Portable Drying Rack

Portable drying racks are an excellent way to hang your fresh herbs out to dry. It allows you to set the rack out in the sun during the day and bring it to a sheltered place such as a porch or indoors at night to keep the dew from accumulating during the night onto the leaves. Using clothes pins will keep the bundles secured to the frame during windy days and while you move the rack. These racks, of course, can also be used as your solar dryer for the laundry and during the winter to hang wet socks, gloves, etc. to dry over night. They are inexpensive and come in a variety of configurations. I bought this one online where the selection of solar dryers is quite extensive.


How Dehydration Preserves & Effects Food

Because bacteria and microorganisms need moisture to thrive, removing as much moisture from the food products as possible will alter the environment the microorganisms require for growth. Dehydration removes most of the moisture, but, not all. Most dehydrated food products contain from 5% to 20% of their moisture and, depending on the drying method used, retain most of their vitamins, minerals and nutritional value.

Although the fiber content of dehydrated food products is not effected by the removal of the moisture, most may loose some of the potency of certain vitamins or minerals when dried. Most dried foods actually have a higher concentration of protein, fats and carbohydrates per cup than the fresh produce.

Vitamin A is destroyed by solar dehydration, as the strong sun leeches the potency of the vitamin out of the produce. The longer the dried food is stored, the less Vitamin A and other nutrients, will be found in the products.

Vitamin B 1's, thiamine, (which is destroyed by heat), niacin, (which is unaffected), and, riboflavin, (unaffected by the drying process), can be saved in many foods to be dried by pre-treating the food before drying it. This pre-treating also allows the fruits, mainly, to keep most of the color and texture of the fruit and preserving the vitamin B Complex content.

The best way to preserve many of the vitamins, minerals and protein content is to quick dry the food products. This will also allow better texture and color retention, as the slow, steady, even temperature allows the foods to dehydrate faster, with less exposure to microorganisms in the air.

It is recommended to use these dried food products within a year of drying for the most beneficial nutritional value. Storing dried produce in a dry, dark place will also help assure that the foods are in peak condition for consumption.

Blanching Produce
Natural Pre-treatments
Chemical Pre-treatments
Using Commercial Dehydrators
Solar Drying Produce
Oven Drying Produce

When is the Produce Dry?

Only commercially dehydrated foods have the moisture removed almost totally from the produce. The average moisture content of commercially dehydrated produce is between 2% and 5%, which is not easily obtainable in home dehydration.

No worries...home dehydration, which removes from 80% to 95% of the moisture, which is quite sufficient for the purposes of home preservation.

Vegetables are dry when they feel brittle, are light in weight and snap when broken. Most of the water will be removed and the volume of the produce will be reduced significantly.

Fruits retain more moisture when dried. To tell when the fruit is ready to store after drying depends on the individual fruit, which will be noted in each chapter. The fruit will feel dry and have a leather-like texture when dried, and, although more moisture is left in the fruit, the natural sugar content will help to preserve the food product.

Methods of Drying at Home

Several ways to dry produce are available for home dehydration projects. Depending on what is to be dried, some of the methods are more suited to different produce, which will be noted in the individual chapters for each food product.

SIMPLE TRAYS:

Trays, either purchased or home made, are just as effective, and, depending on how much produce you plan to dry, might be a better match for someone needing to dry larger amounts of produce at a time, especially during the Fall harvest season. The trays can have wooden slats or wire bottoms, depending on which produce you want to dry. Avoid any rack that has galvanized screening, as the galvanization process deposits cadmium and zinc onto the the wire mesh, which will pollute your food. Wooden slats are fine if a layer of cheesecloth is put down to keep the slices of produce from falling through the spaces between the slats.

The advantages of these trays include having a large surface area to allow for more produce to be dried at a time and the portability will allow you to move the produce into the sun for solar drying. Just keep in mind that the sun's rays will destroy much of the Vitamin A and C in the produce. At night the trays can be draped with a sheet or other material (plastic is not usually used as it traps the moisture from the produce) to keep the dew from collecting on the surfaces of the produce and help keep insects away from the food to be dried. If you do not want to spread the trays out of doors, a dry attic or garage will suffice.

YOUR KITCHEN OVEN:

Your oven is another instrument you can use in the dehydration of your food products. I prefer this method, as it dries the produce faster, with even heat, and allows the produce to retain much of the color, vitamins and texture of the food. Set the temperature at the lowest setting (on mine, it is 170 degrees F.) and place the produce on large, flat metal trays (cookie sheets lined with parchment paper work well) on the oven racks. Contact with metal effects some produce more than others, causing a color change that can be quite unappetizing.

HANGING:

All herbs and some vegetables can be dried successfully by gathering into small bunches and hung to dry. This also works well with chili peppers, which can be strung together to form "ropes" to hang, and, garlic, whose long green tops can be braided together and hung to dry.


Selecting Produce for Drying

As with all home canning and preserving projects, the very best, freshest, most blemish free produce should be used. This produce is at its peak of flavor and nutritional value. Over-ripe produce has already started the decaying process and will not have the texture or flavor required for successful home processing.

Most produce can be dried, but, there are some vegetable, especially that are better off preserved in other ways. These include radishes, cucumbers, and watery fruits like melons. These can be pickled or frozen, instead.


Recommended Drying Temperatures

The two crucial elements of drying food products at home are proper temperatures and good air circulation around the food products.

Optimum temperatures for drying range between 100 degrees and 170 degrees F. If drying your produce in your home oven, the lowest temperature setting is recommended, which is usually 170 degrees F. Care should be taken to make sure that the drying temperature is 170 degrees F. or less, to assure that the produce is not scorched in the oven, ruining the taste and colour of the food products.

When drying produce out doors, the weather forecast should be low humidity without the chance of rain for three or four days. The temperature should be between 90 and 100 degrees F. for optimum drying. Adding a reflective material such as tin foil around the produce trays will speed up the drying process on days when the out side temperatures are below 90 degrees F.

Hanging the Produce

This method is used most often for drying chili peppers, herbs and garlic.

EQUIPMENT REQUIRED:

CHILI PEPPERS:

Fishing Line (10 pound test of better)

Toothpick or bamboo skewer

OR a Large needle and thread that has been doubled

1. Slit the peppers down the sides to allow for air filtration.

2. String the peppers onto the line using a toothpick or similar disposable skewer to poke a hole through the pepper to allow a path for the fishing line, or, "sew" the peppers together with the needle and thread, leaving an inch or so between each pepper to allow for good air filtration.

3. Hang in a warm, dry, well ventilated place until the peppers are thoroughly dry.

4. After the peppers have dried, place the string into the freezer for 48 hours to kill off any insects that might have wandered onto or into the peppers, such as fruit flies. Remove from the freezer and remove the string from the peppers.

5. Place the peppers onto a parchment lined cookie sheet and heat at the lowest oven temperature for 15 to 20 minutes, turning occasionally.

6. Remove and store as outlined below.

GARLIC:

Freshly harvested garlic cloves with tops intact

Rubber bands or twine

1. Harvest the garlic heads, taking care to keep the stalks intact.

2. Knock the excess dirt from the garlic cloves and leave out in the sun for a day or two to dry the soil on them and the outer layer of leaves.

3. Gently brush off as much soil as possible, leaving a small bit of the roots around the bottom of the garlic.

4. Braid the stalks together starting with three. Braid the stalks together a few times and then add three more, spacing the heads to allow for proper air circulation and arrange the stalks, dividing each into the original stalks to form the three strands necessary for the braid. Braid a few times, and repeat the above process to make the garlic rope as long as you wish.

5. When the rope is long enough for your taste, braid the remaining stalks together to the ends. Secure the loose ends with a rubber band or twine at an attractive point in the braid. Trim the stalks 2 inches or so above the rubber band.

6. Hang in a warm, dry place such as a porch, attic or shed until the outer layers are dried.

These garlic ropes are quite attractive and are expensive in specialty shops. They make a great present for any cook on your gift list with the addition of a ribbon over the rubber band, and are often seen hanging in delicatessens and gourmet shops worldwide!