My sister, Andrea Vargo, lives in Minnesota and is an avid gardener. She also is a dedicated dehydrator. She says if you grow a garden, dehydration is the best method for preserving all that bounty. It’s easy, the food retains its flavor, and it takes up way less space and equipment than canning pots, racks and jars. We also think it would be a good idea for anyone who can buy cheap, bulk items at a farmer’s market.
“I have not bought any [canned or frozen] vegetables from the store in over two years,” she claims.
Want to try it?
Start with the equipment. “First, you need to decide how much money you want to spend,” Andrea says. “I started with a $50 American Harvester with 20 trays and screens and solid sheets” found at a garage sale. Over the years, she added 12 trays and can use 32 trays at a time, according to the directions. She liked the process and results so much, “I went nuts and bought a $400 unit from Cabela’s that has 24 large, square trays and a multitude of settings.”
So you need to make some investment choices, she says. “The Excalibur 3900 only has 9 trays, but has very positive reviews both on the web and from people I know who have one. Another mid-size unit is the American Harvester Nesco FD-75A that people also seem to like.
“Search the web for the best prices, but don’t neglect your local Walmart,” she says.
Extra accessories, such as solid sheets for preserving liquids (like pasta sauce) or small screens for fine items like noodles or herbs, are useful. “Invest in a couple of each for variety,” Andrea advises.
How difficult is it to dehydrate food? The actual process is relatively easy and storing your dried food doesn’t require anything you don’t already have around the house, she says. Zip-top freezer bags are good for storage as is as an automatic food sealer. Andrea recycles clean coffee cans and ice cream buckets — almost anything free with a good lid — to store the freezer bags.
Depending on what you are going to dehydrate, the process differs a bit, Andrea says. A guide comes with each unit, or you can hit your local library for more ideas and information. Drying times vary by the product, temperature and water content. Foods like onions, garlic and tomatoes just need to be cleaned as you would for use, sliced in 1/8 to 1/4-inch pieces, placed on the dehydrator’s trays and dried according to the unit’s directions.Separating onions into rings is easy, and they dry up nice and crisp. Crunch them in the storage bag before using and you have roughly chopped onions for soup, or rehydrate the rings for fried onions with your burgers.
Other produce, such as green beans or corn, requires blanching as you would for freezing. Green beans are blanched and put on dish towels to drain a bit and then placed right into the dehydrator on the small screens. Corn needs to be cut from the cob and spread on the solid sheets to dry so you don’t lose the kernels in the bottom of your unit. The beans will come out looking like straight pins. But throw a half cup of each into a pot of soup and you won’t believe they didn’t come right from the garden. Andrea does not recommend dehydrating cucumbers or summer squash. She says herbs work well, though, but are only flavorful for about a year.
“Fruits are fun,” Andrea says. Apples and pears are particularly successful, as are banana chips.
Storage is important. “Dried produce likes the dark,” she says. She puts hers in the coolest, darkest place she can find. “I have 3-year-old onions stored in zip bags inside coffee cans in my root cellar that are white and tasty.” Mark each container with dates and contents.
Rehydration depends on how you want to use the product. Play with the process, Andrea advises. For tomato dishes, pour boiling water to cover the slices, or pulverize them in a blender and add boiling water until you get tomato paste. Andrea does not peel or seed the tomatoes. “I may throw a bag full of onions into a container of water and refrigerate overnight to use the next day,” she says. “Don’t discard any liquid; use it for soup.”
Andrea gives dried produce to friends and relatives in Christmas baskets. “They seem to look forward to using it,” she says.
Some websites will help you prepare and cook with your dehydrated produce. Try Easy Food Dehydrating for simple recipes. Also try Food.com’s dehydrating section for more ideas, including instructions on making beef jerky. If you plan to take your dehydrated food camping or backpacking, get some great tips from Backpacking Chef.
Now go harvest that garden or take a trip to the farmer’s market — then dry up!
Photo by Praisaeng, freedigitalphotos.net.