Dehydration is a great method of food preservation, with many advantages. The finished product requires less storage space, and it doesn’t require the attendant electricity of using a freezer or the quantity of special equipment needed for canning.
Though it may not be the best way to preserve everything, there are times when you can’t beat its usefulness. The method comes in particularly for:
- A large harvest from the garden
- Preserving a crop that has an especially brief season or is costly out of season
- Any occasion when dehydrated produce is either a useful food-prep timesaver or helps to produce a superior eating product
After covering some of the nuts and bolts, read on to see my crop recommendations to use dehydration as a real homesteader helpmate, along with some favorite varieties.
Often used on produce destined for dehydration, pretreatments are desirable because produce is being “degraded” by enzymes during dehydration and in storage. Pretreatments act to slow enzymatic activity, thus preserving color, flavor, texture and nutrients.
Fruits can be dipped into a variety of preparations. (See “In for a Dip,” at bottom.) Almost all vegetables—onions, sweet peppers and mushrooms being a few exceptions—should be blanched after they are sliced.
As well as preserving quality, blanching shortens drying time by softening tough tissues that would otherwise prolong it. Blanching times are similar to those used when freezing vegetables. It’s important to remember, whether dealing with dipped fruit or blanched vegetables, to blot dry before you begin dehydration so that there is no extra surface moisture.
Drying & Storage
Different foods dehydrate to different levels. Vegetables are not fully dry until they are either brittle (such as green bush beans) or leathery (beets, for example). Fruits, on the other hand, may end as pliable, leathery, leathery and sticky, or leathery and crisp when fully dehydrated.
You will want to find a listing for each fruit and vegetable so that you know what to look for.
To further protect their quality, store your dehydrated foods in airy, cool locations. Anywhere from 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal. Also, long-term storage should be in a darkened room or cupboard, though tinted jars allow for short-term storage in lit areas.
Dehydration or Rehydration
Some enthusiasts will rehydrate vegetables and serve them as a simple side dish, returning them to a fairly good equivalent of their previous appearance and flavor. Maybe you would like to try roasted asparagus tips in November?
It requires 1 1/2 cups of boiling water to rehydrate a cup of dehydrated produce. Vegetables absorb all of the water they can in two hours or often less, while fruits require at least two hours or may be left overnight for full absorption.
You should note that adding salt, sugar or spices to your rehydration water can interfere with absorption and should not be done—at least not until the later portion of your soaking process. Rehydration can also be done with an electric steamer, or it can take place while cooking in a dish, such as a soup, stew or casserole.
Many believe the winter soup pot the ideal way to use dehydrated vegetables and, with it, will make use on everything from broccoli to summer squash. Dehydrated fruits are universally popular whether they remain dehydrated or are eaten re-hydrated or cooked.
Dehydrated foods can be further processed to make them ready for use. Garlic, onion, hot pepper and tomato are good candidates for grinding into powder with a food processor or blender, then using as a spice or secret ingredient. Fruits can also be treated in this fashion.
This year, I used some dehydrated strawberries to make “fruit flour.” With the addition of milk and eggs (and heat), we should be making some tasty strawberry custard this winter.
Many herbs are simple to grow and simple to dehydrate, whether you are after the leaves (most popular), flowers or seeds of the plant. Plus, they make a great difference when cooking.
The plant oils that make herbs so wonderful are at their peak just prior to a plant flowering, making this the best time to harvest leaves. This is often a brief period of time, which is why they are such great candidates for dehydration.
Dehydrated herbs shouldn’t be crushed during storage, as this will release precious oils and lead to quality deterioration. Also, they may be stored individually or as a mixture (such as a bouquet garni), which will create an even more distinct, delicious flavor for your food.
Varieties: Use peppermint and tulsi for tea; oregano, marjoram and thyme for cooking
Apples & Other Fruits
At harvest time, you may pick apples from your own orchard or look for them on sale at quantity discounts. But not all apples store well into the winter, or you may run out of space. This is the perfect time to dehydrate!
They can be cut into rings, slices or cubes, depending on what you intend to do with them. We cube ours so they are ready to be rehydrated and added to cakes, cookies, breads or hot cereal.
Though apples are a great choice, you need not limit your dehydration to them. Strawberries or blueberries? Peaches or cherries? Sea buckthorn?
Varieties: The heirloom Wolf River is a favorite of ours as it is a very large, soft-fleshed fruit that doesn’t store well. However, try others, especially with a soft flesh (e.g. McIntosh) or poor long-term storage (e.g. Golden Delicious).
Whether in a controlled environment, field production or being grown from kits, mushrooms tend to come in flushes. And it’s amazing how little space they require once dehydrated.
In cooking, they function well as sponges and can be used to your advantage if you have a soggy spaghetti sauce or gravy that you wish to thicken up. Let your mushrooms pick up the slack.
Varieties: Try button and shiitake.
There always seems to arrive a time when you are busy eating all of the “new” crops in the garden, but the reliable kale is still growing. It’s wonderful to have this leafy green on hand in winter. We find it’s a cheering as well as a nutritious addition to soups and stews.
Additionally, it absorbs excess moisture from your recipe and makes for a thicker bowl of goodness. Casseroles are another excellent dish for your kale to ultimately adorn. You can also steam it on its own.
Varieties: Start with Winterbor and Redbor.
Dehydrated carrots occupy a special place of importance to us as one of the ingredients in our homemade chicken broth. Chicken broth isn’t usually a final food product but a step on the way.
It’s a real benefit to take advantage of any time-saving options you can for such preliminary work, and dehydrated carrots can simply be poured right to the stockpot. Even though they are a crop that stores fairly well, dehydrated carrots store longer!
Varieties: Try Bolero, Mokum and Purple Haze.
Read more: Grow your own carrots for a flavorful treat.
Dehydrated celery also stores longer. We use so much celery in soups, stews and salads. Being able to preserve what we grow in summer for winter and spring use is a great way to save money.
And if you use your dehydrated carrots, celery, onion, garlic and herbs to make your chicken broth instead of beginning with everything from scratch, it will be a snap to bring it all together.
Varieties: Try any you like, but it’s a great use for Redventure or any celery that is struggling to be succulent.
Your reason to dehydrate onion depends on the type of onion. Sweet onions have a relatively short shelf life. Cooking onions have excellent storage, but space limitations may come into play.
Even dehydrating part of your harvest will help. Really, you’ll be able to store onions of any kind longer through dehydration and can avoid having to buy them. Plus, dehydrated onions are convenient on a busy day and so very nutritious. Tthey should be used often and generously in cooking.
Varieties: Use any globe-type that you wish to have stored in a small space! But don’t stop there; I dehydrate leeks, scallions and shallots as well.
Again, garlic stores very well, so why would you dehydrate it? There are some varieties of garlic that don’t store well for extended periods. You may want to save them for later use by dehydrating them.
Additionally, if you aspire to supply your own garlic for the entire year, it will help to switch to the dehydrated garlic supply when the following June arrives and almost all garlic is getting a bit soft.
However, I dehydrate garlic for a very particular reason: to make my own garlic powder.
You might think that garlic powder is easy enough to buy and there is no need to make your own. You’ll change your mind the first time you try your own!
Varieties: Hard-neck varieties don’t store as well as soft-neck and could be used preferentially, but any garlic you have in abundance is the one to dehydrate.
We dehydrate tomatoes solely in order to pack them in oil, and they are one of the more labor-intensive dehydration products we make. But they are wonderfully sweet and super nutritious, superior on both counts to any tomato you will find out of season. (And they cost less).
Use them in vegetable or pasta salads, on garlic bread, in sandwiches, cooked into a sauce, or wherever your imagination takes you. Our stored tomatoes are kept until there is a need to revitalize winter fare with a touch of the late summer harvest.
Varieties: Principe Borghese, an Italian heirloom cherry tomato that resembles a tiny paste tomato, has few seeds, little juice and a thick flesh. It’s the only tomato we dehydrate.
Cayenne powder, chili powder or even chipotle powder (if you feel like smoking some jalapeños) can all be produced in your home. If you frequently use these nightshade-derived spices, I highly recommend you give this a try.
Those who grow hot peppers know that production is what they thrive at, giving you lots to work with. Thinner-skinned peppers such as the cayenne will even air-dry readily.
Varieties: We grow a special heirloom pepper called Siberian Home, which makes a great stand-in for store-bought hot sauce once powdered.
Your dehydrating pursuits can be involved or simple. You can purée fruits to dehydrate as fruit leather, make beef or fish jerky, or simply stick to the spice rack with herbs, alliums and hot peppers.
Don’t be afraid to try things. I have read that dehydrated basil and parsley are of “disappointing” quality, but my spaghetti sauce and chicken noodle soup (with chicken broth) would lose tremendous flavor without them. So see what works for you.
Sidebar: In for a Dip
There are a few options with dips that pretreat fruits for dehydration. In all cases, place the fruit into the dips as quickly after slicing or chopping as possible. The dip options are:
Salt Water Dip
Combine 6 tablespoons of flaked pickling salt with 1 gallon of lukewarm water. Soak the fruit for no more than 5 minutes, or it will develop a salty taste.
Ascorbic Acid Dip
Combine 2 tablespoons of ascorbic acid crystals or powder with 1 quart of lukewarm water. Remove the fruit 1 or 2 cups at a time.
Fruit Juice Dip
Use 1 quart undiluted pineapple juice or 1 quart lukewarm water into which 1/4 cup lemon or lime juice has been stirred for this dip. Soak fruit for 5 to 10 minutes. This is a popular option for peaches and apples.
Into 3 cups of hot water, combine 1 cup of sugar, and additionally 1 cup of honey when the mixture is lukewarm. Remove the fruit 1 or 2 cups at a time.
Sidebar: Technique Tips
Air drying, sun drying, convection ovens and dehydrators can all be used to dehydrate. Each method has pros and cons.
Used mainly for herbs (leaves, flowers, seeds), air drying is simple and cheap. Hang your materials indoors in an airy, warm, dry location out of direct sunlight. Paper bags can be used to cover your product and keep debris off it, if needed. There are some challenges, however.
Inexpensive and simple, sun drying is simply leaving your product (vegetables, fruits or herbs) in the sun to dry on racks built to allow for good top and bottom airflow.
The downside to sun drying is rather substantial. It’s unpredictable and uncontrollable.
Humid air conditions greatly hinder this method, fluctuating daytime temperatures prolong it, and nighttime critters and morning dew make it necessary to move your setup (which should be insect and bird-proof) inside and out again until dehydration is complete.
Though this option offers an even temperature and has none of the “dangers” of being outdoors, ovens have poor air circulation and require you to leave their door ajar in order to use a fan to blow the moist air out.
This is the most costly option. Though many dehydrators are energy-efficient, it’s the greatest investment in specialized equipment. However, it offers even temperature and great air flow (thus, consistent results), and extreme convenience, as it can run all day whether you are in or out of the house and overnight as well.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.