Anyone who grows their own food knows the incomparable joy of eating straight from the garden. Nothing beats a savory slice of sun-warmed tomato, sweet handful of fresh-picked blueberries or hearty helping of just-unearthed potatoes.
But gardeners also know that, not matter how healthy a family’s appetite, there comes a point during the summer where yields outweigh meals. And of course this is where preservation comes in—putting up extras for homegrown nourishment during the cold months, when growing options are scarce.
Canning is a perennial favorite, and for good reason. Fresh-picked fruits and vegetables can be batch-processed in a short span of time for a whole winter’s worth of eating. (And vibrant glass jars lined up on a shelf make for some pleasing color when things during monochromatic in winter.)
Fermentation, too, is an effective preservation technique. All one needs is water, salt and time to harness beneficial microorganisms that enhance flavor and preserve food against rot. An ancient process, fermentation is enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to reported health benefits.
And if you’ve got extra freezer space, that’s a great place to keep your bumper crop until a recipe calls for it. You can toss freezer bags of fruits in fresh, blanch greens for long-term storage or place ice cube trays of fresh-made pesto in there to pull back out in February for some garden-grown goodness.
Dehydration Is an Ancient Technique
But let’s not forget one of the oldest and most effective methods of food preservation: dehydration. A method (or, really, variety of methods) that removes moisture from food to eliminate rot and allow long-term storage, dehydration is an excellent way to put back extras from the garden to enjoy well after harvest season has passed.
While we may wonder how humanity discovered certain food-prep techniques (like, what genius first discovered grain could be preserved in the form of beer?), dehydration seems pretty obvious. Anyone who’s ever left an apple core in the sun knows that solar energy can quickly dry a piece of fruit or vegetable.
In fact, it’s believed that prehistoric people used the sun to dry seeds for long-term storage. Native Americans regularly sliced and sun-dried meats for preservation and ease of travel. Asian cultures have sun-dried food for tens of thousands of years—everything from peppers and rice to eggs. And Norwegians have dried fish going back to the Viking age!
Still Important Today
Despite a run of preservation advances that allowed grocery stores and well-stocked pantries to develop, dehydration is still a valid and important preservation technique.
In my home, for example, drying food is a favorite way of putting back food for later use. My family and I live in a small home, where putting up glass jars of canned produce would fill our already-tight pantry. (Also, from past experience, we know that filling our house with steam makes everyone grumpy in July, and we don’t have a canning porch here.)
Our fridge is too full to store lots of fermented goods (though I do have some well-fermented peppers in a basement corner right now). And though we have a chest freezer in the basement, it’s currently full of chickens from last year’s poultry harvest down at the family farm.
Prodded by Peppers
But this summer, when my backyard pepper plants—lemon drop chilis, habaneros and Tabasco chilis—delivered a shocking crop of fruit, I jumped on Amazon and ordered the smallest five-tray dehydrator I could find. When it arrived, I washed and dried my peppers, sliced them in half and set them on the trays.
I flipped on the dehydrator, then, after my kids complained about the habanero fumes, transported the machine down to a basement closet. I flipped on the dehydrator again, and a handful of hours later, transported some of the papery peppers to a gallon bag.
The rest I crushed with a mortar and pestle, dropped into small jars and added to our spice rack to add some kick to a future pot of chili.
A Dehydration Kick
Bolstered by the effortless success of my dehydrated peppers, I then turned my attention to other garden produce that had accumulated around our compact kitchen.
Tomatoes are the most popular garden crop, hands down. And those of us who grow tomatoes know that when they come on, those plump, red fruits can pile up quickly.
Luckily, tomatoes dry exceptionally well, leaving sweet and tangy slices of summertime goodness. And while they rehydrate easily enough for use in a variety of recipes, I’m currently enjoying our summer tomatoes cooked into a quiche. Add in a few leaves of baby spinach and hunks of goat cheese, and you have a delightfully decadent homegrown dinner.
Yes, you can easily wrap bunches of herbs to hang around the house. They’re attractive and aromatic as they dry, and I encourage you to do this.
But when we trimmed back a bushy batch of oregano from our front yard garden over the summer, I quickly rinsed, de-stemmed and dehydrated the herbs. A few nights later, I dipped into the stash to make a deliciously herby sauce for family pizza night.
I can’t be the only one who rushes out at the first warning of frost to collect all the unripe tomatoes from the garden. It’s common knowledge that this is folly. The last green tomatoes are best regarded as a sacrifice to the winter gods.
But I love tomato season and choose to deny its inevitable end.
Luckily, green tomatoes have their uses, too. I fried a handful of them to make egg sandwiches for dinner. I also pickled a large jar and am still enjoying those tart wedges on salads. The rest I sliced and tossed in the dehydrator.
Dried green tomatoes are great ground up to use as a seasoning or to add a touch of sour to dry rubs.
I love growing beets, especially when the roots bulge from the ground, signaling they’re ready for harvest. I also love eating beets and have been delighted to discover my kids appreciate a serving of roasted beet root, too.
But I grew too many beets this year and recently discovered a bag of red roots in a refrigerator drawer. I could have roasted them but instead chose to peel, slice and marinate slices in vinegar and olive oil. Then I salted and dried them.
The resulting bag of beet chips made for a healthy snack that my family devoured in less than 24 hours.
I’ve raised cows, pigs and chickens for meat, but these days my livestock population is limited to six Australorp egg layers in the backyard. Also, I’m not much of a hunter.
So while I’m not raising or catching my own meat to make jerky, I’m pretty good at buying extra when I find good meat on sale. Which I how I ended up with a few bags of frozen salmon in the freezer.
I’m sure fresh salmon makes better jerky, but frozen worked fine for me, too. I just dethawed the filets, patted them dry, then cut into them slices. These I marinated in a soy sauce/brown sugar/lemon juice mixture (you can find a simple recipe online) for about half a day, patted lightly, then into the dehydrator the salmon went.
I do love my dehydrator, but of course there are other ways to dehydrate foods. You can set slices out on screens in the sun, of course. I’ve hung peppers (sliced open to prevent mold) from strings in windows.
You can put your items in an oven on a low setting (ideally below 200 degrees F—the “warm” setting works well). You can dry using a wood stove. Or you can even put your items in a smoker on low heat until they’re dry, which will give your dehydrated food an extra layer of smokey flavor.
As of this writing, it’s winter and gardens are limited to greens and other cold-hardy plants. But it’s also citrus season in many parts of the country, and you can always practice your dehydrator skills with purchased produce.
So go ahead—give drying a try!