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Monday, February 9, 2009

Natural Food Preservation

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
When you first start gardening, you're probably happy just to get enough produce to eat fresh. For some, that might be all you need. But gardening, or even shopping your local farmers' market, can be addictive. It's fun. It makes you feel good. You want more.

But once you have more, you have to figure out what you're going to do with it. Freezing extra is a good option, if you have the space in your freezer and aren't worried about loss of power to the freezer. Canning is good too. But you need all those jars, some place to store both the full ones and the empties, and it means a lot of very hot work during the hottest part of the summer. Have you thought about dehydrating your fruits and vegetables?

Preserving food by drying is as old as mankind. Ever since someone first discovered that strips of meat dried over a smoky fire or berries laid out in the sun didn't spoil, people have been drying food. Those techniques have served well for thousands of years, and still do. But while the basic concept hasn't changed, helpful appliances now abound. While those are nice, you can still start simply, using the sun, or maybe your oven. I've even heard of people putting trays in the back window of a car sitting in the sun, windows opened a crack to let moisture escape, or rigging racks to hang over a wood stove. You can evolve as you feel necessary.

Some things, such as herbs, chiles, and green beans will dry nicely just strung up to hang in the open air indoors. The same oven you bake in might work, depending on how low the lowest temperature setting is. The main thing to remember is that you want to dry the food, not cook it. Between 110 and 120 degrees is ideal for drying fruits and vegetables; 140 is too hot for produce, but can work for meats, liquids, and dairy. Use an oven thermometer to check your oven at its lowest setting with the door propped open a couple of inches to see if it will work.

I use trays and screens, sandwiched between a couple of salvaged window screens to keep birds and bugs away, out on my deck all summer long. Most things only take a day or two in my dry desert climate. Solar dryers are easy to build too, to amplify the sun's power in a cooler or more humid environment. This one is made from two cardboard boxes, some plastic wrap and a bit of tape; plans here are for building something a bit like my set-up from scratch. Bring the trays in nightly, or provide some other protection from the morning dew, setting them back out in the morning. I also have an electric dehydrator I use in the winter. Pumpkin pie leather is a favorite treat, so I'll often whip up a batch when I cook one of my big stored squashes. If you decide to invest in an electric dehydrator, look for one with a fan and an adjustable thermostat.

Fruits are easy to dry, needing almost no advance preparation. Use perfectly ripe fruit - wash, core or pit, peel if desired, and cut away any bruised spots. I cut plums and apricots in half; apples, pears, and peaches into slices; pitted cherries and grapes whole; and some mashed or pureed together then spread out on cookie sheets to dry into leathers. Try to cut your produce into uniformly-sized pieces so they are all done at the same time. Dry fruits until leathery and pliable. Once stored, the moisture levels will equalize if some pieces are drier than others. I don't mind the natural browning that occurs when fruit dries, but if you want to preserve the color you can soak the cut fruit for 5 minutes in a quart of water with either ¼ cup lemon juice or 2 tablespoons vitamin C crystals or powered tablets. Other treatments, such as sulfuring, blanching in syrup, or steaming are too elaborate for me. On the other hand, apple slices sprinkled with a bit of cinnamon sugar before drying are heavenly; zucchini slices sprinkled with garlic salt and dried into chips disappear faster than fresh.

Almost all vegetables, other than tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, and chiles, need to be blanched in water or steam before drying. Wash, trim away tough parts, chop or slice, and cook just until heated through, not fully cooked. Dry vegetables until brittle and crisp. Drying meat can be a bit tricky. Handle it as little as possible, dry quickly, and use it before the fat in it can go rancid. Grated cheese can be dried, so can firm tofu cut into strips or cubes. To dry eggs, beat a number of them together, add dried herbs or spices if desired, pour onto a tray, and dry at 140ยบ until dry and crumbly to the touch.

The ideal storage for dried foods is cool, dark, and dry (herbs too - they look so decorative hanging in the kitchen, but I strip them off the stems and store them in brown glass or clear jars lined with doubled paper). Avoid sunlight, moisture, and heat to keep your dried foods tasty and safe - you don't want to chance mold, or eat something with all the taste of cardboard. I store some things in clear glass jars, but then keep the jars in a dark, lower cupboard. Other things are in freezer-weight zip-lock bags, packed away in tins in my pantry. Since the majority of the weight of fresh foods is water, once the water is removed the food is reduced to one-quarter its bulk. Drying food makes sense for anyone with limited storage space. Some foods, like the fruits and leathers, we eat "as-is", others are easily reconstituted - either by soaking before using, or cooking in dishes with a bit of extra liquid added. I like knowing I have a wealth of food, tucked away in a tiny corner of my pantry, secure from power outages or earthquakes (something we worry about here with glass jars). Maybe this post will get you thinking about preserving more of your harvest by drying, or maybe you do already. Have any recipes to share?


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