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If you’ve ever used a dehydrator to dry your harvest, you’ve likely experimented with onions, peppers, tomatoes and apples. That’s great, but what about the rest of the produce that you don’t have time to can or won’t fit in the freezer? Those fruits and veggies often find their way into the compost pile, so instead of letting that food go to waste, why not make some convenience foods? Snacks made from your homegrown produce are less expensive and healthier than store-bought versions riddled with excess salt and fat.
Dehydrating fruits and vegetables creates a dense, nutrient-rich food that can be stored without refrigeration for many months. Dehydrated foods are best used within a year, but can keep for up to two or three if thoroughly dried and stored in a cool temperature in air-tight containers.
A Quick Dehydrating How-To
Dehydrating is a simple process, but by following a few basic rules, you’ll ensure a quality end product.
Step 1: Process
It’s important to dry produce as soon after harvest as possible. Trim and cut the produce into uniform pieces so they will dry evenly, blanching when necessary. The general rule is if you eat it fresh in a salad—onions, peppers, tomatoes—you don’t need to blanch; however, if you eat it cooked, blanching greatly increases the quality and safety of the dried food. A great resource for blanching methods and times can be found here on the Colorado State University Extension website. [LINK: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09308.html]. For blanched produce, cool in an ice bath and dry on towels before putting them in the dehydrator.
Step 2: Dry
Lay cut produce in single layers on the racks. If you can regulate the temperature of your dehydrator, set it between 130 and140 degrees F. Temperature is important—if it’s too low, microorganisms can survive or grow before it is dry, but if too high, the food can harden on the surface and not dry properly, which is called “case hardening.”
Check for dryness. When you think your food is dry, place a portion of the food in a jar with a lid for an hour or two. If condensation appears, put the food back into the dehydrator for 1 to 2 more hours. Check again before proceeding to the next step.
Step 3: Condition
Place the food in jars, leaving 2 to 3 inches of air space. Cover and keep at room temperature for a week so the moisture remaining in the food can redistribute. Semi-dried foods should be refrigerated or frozen.
Step 4: Store
Store dried foods in airtight containers in a cool environment. Vacuum sealing is an option to ensure even longer storage life. Safety tips for vacuum sealing are on this University of Wisconsin Extension website [LINK: http://fyi.uwex.edu/safepreserving/2014/05/01/safe-preserving-using-a-vacuum-sealer/]
If you’re ready to move past dried apples and kale, here are 12 fruits and vegetables to try.
1. Brussels Sprouts
Sometimes an under-appreciated vegetable can be rendered tasty by drying, and Brussels sprouts are the perfect example. Trim and slice sprouts thinly, spread out on a tray, and dehydrate for 6 to 8 hours. Cool and condition.
How to Use: Add dehydrated Brussels sprouts to a bowl of equal parts sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds, then season with dried herbs and salt to taste, creating a flavorful, crunchy and gluten-free topping for salads in place of croutons. A bit bitter, salty, and nutty, it will add interest to winter greens.
There’s always too much zucchini, right? Unless the squash beetles found their way into your patch when you were on vacation, you’ll need to preserve a portion of the harvest in some way. Freezing and canning are never great options here, as it affects the texture of the vegetable. Slice zucchini thin—between 1/8 and 1/4-inch is about right. Blanch for 4 minutes, drain well and dry on towels. Dehydrate for 6-8 hours, until brittle.
How to Use: Sprinkle with salt and spices for a chip to be eaten as-is, or condition and store to use in soups or stews. Rehydrate by soaking in boiling water for a few minutes to use in casseroles.
3. Green Beans
Wash, trim and cut green beans into 2- to 3-inch pieces. Blanch for 4 minutes, cool in an ice bath, dry on a towel and spread out on a sheet pan. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and other spices, if desired. Spread on the trays and dry for 8-12 hours, until crisp.
How to Use: To use in soups and casseroles, skip the oil and salt, and dry until crisp. Rehydrate by pouring boiling water over them, and steeping for 15 minutes before adding to a dish.
4. Other Beans
Soak and cook beans until tender. Spread out on a towel to dry and then place in the dehydrator. Dry for 8 to 12 hours. Cool, condition, and store in glass jars.
How to Use: Added to soup, dehydrated beans will rehydrate in 10 minutes—a great convenience food for busy nights. Dehydrated garbanzo beans also make a great snack: Add a drizzle of olive oil, juice of a lemon, salt, and dried herbs of your choice. Rosemary, thyme, smoked paprika, chipotle and cumin are great flavors to add.
Homegrown celery produces lots of leaves that often go to waste. Separate the leaves from the stalks, and slice the stalks thinly. Blanch for 1 minute, drop into an ice bath, and dry on a towel. Spread the stalks and the fresh leaves on a tray and dry for 6 to 8 hours, until crisp.
How to Use: Add a couple tablespoons to soups and stews for great flavor.
Peel and cut into 1/4-inch slices. Lay on the dehydrator racks and dry for 16 to 20 hours, or until desired dryness. For a sweet treat, dry melons to a pliable stage. They will keep sealed in a bag in the refrigerator for a couple weeks or frozen for up to a year. Dry until crispy for longer storage, which will not require refrigeration.
How to Use: Eat alone as a snack, or combine into your favorite trail mix.
Trim the stem end from each fig, cut in half, and blanch for 30 seconds. Lay figs on the trays and dry for 8 to 20 hours, depending on stage of dryness you desire. Store in the refrigerator.
How to Use: Eat as is, or chop up and use in cakes and muffins.
Peel and cut kiwi into 1/4-inch slices. Dry for 6 to 12 hours, depending on the stage of dryness desired.
How to Use: Use as a chewy snack or chopped up. Dried kiwi is a great addition to granola or baked goods.
At the end of the growing season, there’s often a surplus of salad greens. Drying will reduce the bulk and allow you to simply throw a handful into soup for added nutrition and flavor. Kale, spinach and Swiss chard are all easily dried. Strip out the center rib, and tear the leaves into 3- to 4-inch pieces. Spread onto the trays and dehydrate for 2 to 3 hours, until crisp. Condition and store in air-tight bags.
How to Use: Crush the dried greens into flakes to add to soups, smoothies, eggs or casseroles, like you might use parsley.Add dried herbs to the greens for a nutritious and flavorful seasoning mix.
10. Fruit Peels
Before you eat or cook with citrus fruits, use a vegetable peeler to cut wide strips of peel. I keep the peels in a zip-top bag in the freezer until I have enough for a tray. Dehydrate 6 to 8 hours, until crispy, process into a powder using an electric spice or coffee grinder into a powder. (You can also crush with a mortar and pestle for larger pieces.) Store in airtight jars or tins.
How to Use: Add the dried peel to baked goods for a boost of citrus flavor or to tea and spice blends for a bright component.
Drying cabbage reduces the bulk by quite a bit, and makes it convenient for making soup in a hurry. Cut into the size pieces you want in your soup—1/2-inch squares are good—and blanch for 4 minutes. Cool quickly in ice water, drain, and dry on towels. Spread cabbage out on trays and dry about 10-12 hours, until brittle. Store in airtight jars or vacuum bags.
How to Use: Toss into homemade broth with noodles and other veggies for a quick soup on the run.
While it seems a bit strange, dried sauerkraut makes a great zingy topping for casseroles or just to snack on by itself if you like salty, vinegary flavors. Spread out on the trays and dry for 6 to 8 hours, until crispy. Store in airtight jars or vacuum bags.