(Excerpt from the Popular Kitchen Series magabook Canning & Preserving with permission from its publisher, BowTie magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. Purchase Canning & Preserving here.)
What can you dehydrate? Just about anything. Experiment and have fun using your gardenâ€™s surplus or produce purchased from your local farmers market. While vegetables, fruit and meats are handled differently, some universal dehydrating principles apply:
- Use high-quality products that are ripe and fresh.
- Use products free of bruises and blemishes.
- Choose items that dry well.
Dehydrate Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits make a naturally sweet, dried product. Apples, cherries, figs, grapes, plums, pears and tomatoes (technically a fruit) make excellent candidates for dehydration. After washing perfectly ripened fruit, cut the fruit into thin, even slices; thinner slices are recommended for quicker drying. Some fruits â€” such as berries, grapes and cherries â€” dry well when left whole, though they will take longer to dry.
To prevent light-colored fruits like apples from discoloring, treat the fruit beforehand. One method to do this uses an ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Ascorbic acid is available in a powdered form at most pharmacies. Mix 1 teaspoon of the powder in 2 cups of water. Place the fruit in the solution for three to five minutes; drain well, and place on drying trays.
Vegetables dehydrate well, but because they contain less acid than fruits, vegetables typically need to be dried longer until they are brittle. Vegetable options for dehydrating include onions, potatoes, turnips, corn, peas, celery, beets and carrots.
Thoroughly wash the vegetable with cool water before slicing it into uniform pieces. Make sure you wash all the dirt off root crops in particular. If a vegetable needs to be blanched before freezing, it also should be blanched before drying. Blanching is the technique of boiling food, then plunging it in icy water to stop the cooking process. Blanching slows the enzyme processes that could cause changes in the flavor and texture, which you donâ€™t want. Most vegetables can benefit from a quick blanching before dehydrating.
Whichever dehydrating method you use, always place the fruit or vegetable in a single layer on the drying trays, making sure the pieces do not overlap or touch. Drying times can vary tremendously depending on which method you use.
The key is to know when the item is dry. Most fruits should contain 20 percent moisture when dry. To test for a fruitâ€™s dryness, cut several cooled pieces in half. The fruit should be pliable but not sticky, and there should not be any visible moisture, nor should you be able to squeeze out any moisture.
Vegetables, however, generally should be much more brittle and crisp when dry. At this point, the vegetable should contain only 10 percent moisture, a stage in which microorganisms cannot grow.
Herbs add flavor to your cooking, and drying herbs is an easy way to preserve them. To minimize wilting, clip fresh herbs early in the morning before the flowers open and right after the dew evaporates. Gently rinse the herbs, and shake them to remove moisture. Ovens and electric dehydrators work well with herbs. The herbs should crumble when they are completely dry.
Warning: Once you start making jerky, you probably wonâ€™t be able to go back to the store-bought kind! Homemade jerky can be made from just about any type of meat, and the flavor is outstanding. Always choose fresh and lean cuts of meat. Lean beef stands up best to dehydrating.
Raw meat can be contaminated with disease-causing microorganisms that multiply on moist food that is high in protein. Contact your local Cooperative Extension System office for information based on the type of meat you are dehydrating. Pork and wild game, for example, need to be specifically treated prior to dehydrating.
Partially frozen meat is easier to slice. Cut the meat into slices no thicker than Â¼ inch, and trim off all the fat, as fat does not dehydrate well and will cause your jerky to go rancid quickly. Cutting with the meat grain produces a chewier jerky, while cutting against the grain produces a more tender, crisp jerky. For more flavor and tenderness, marinate the meat in your favorite marinade.