Drying fruits and vegetables
This was a fabulous year for most fruits, particularly apples and pears. The abundance of it all made it impossible to eat all the fruit when ripe, so I have been processing fruit for the last few weeks. And although I froze enough apples for several pies, I have primarily been dehydrating the apples and pears for snacking or use in my breakfast cereal, come winter.
Twenty-some years ago, I was given a Mr. Coffee brand dehydrator for Christmas. That next summer I dried fruits and cherry tomatoes in it, and loved it. But it was small, inexpensive, and eventually it wore out. Then I got a NESCO brand dehydrator which I also loved. The NESCO came with a thermostat (which Mr. Coffee did not have). It has a simple heating element and a fan, no frills. Later I got another model of NESCO dehydrator that has a timer -- but the heater and fan are on top, not the bottom like my first one, and I liked it less.
Then recently I got an Excalibur dehydrator (www.excaliburdehydrator,com), and it’s the best of the lot. In most dehydrators the heat and air flows from either top or bottom, so the trays nearest the heater tend to dry out first. That means that one ends up rotating the trays from top to bottom or removing some fruit while leaving some to continue drying. Even within a tray, some tomatoes will dry out totally while others are still a bit soggy.
The Excalibur, by contrast, gets even heat and air on every tray because the fan/heater is in the back of the unit, so each tray gets equal air flow. The model I have has nine trays, each measuring 15-inches square. Not only that, the heater is programmed to fluctuate in temperature within a drying cycle to keep the fruit from getting too hot.
The NESCO unit uses 1,000 watts of energy per hour -- that’s equivalent to a lot of curly light bulbs burning -- but the Excalibur uses just 666 watts. Still a lot, but a lot less.
I compared the drying time for a batch of fruit, each dryer holding 15 sliced pears and 11 sliced apples. The NESCO dryer needed nine trays for that amount of fruit, while the Excalibur needed only seven trays. I left two trays empty in the Excalibur so that the two dryers would have equal quantities and I could compare drying times.
It’s difficult to estimate moisture content (to determine when a batch of dry fruit is adequately processed). I like the fruit chewy, not brittle. The bottom-heated NESCO dryer and the Excalibur dried the fruit in roughly the same amount of time -- perhaps the Excalibur was a little quicker. The Excalibur is much quieter.
In reading the instructions I learned that dried fruit is considered "raw food" if properly prepared. Too much heat can kill the enzymes of fruit, and that occurs, according to some research, at an internal fruit temperature of 140 degrees. But it is all right to start fruit at a higher temperature for the first two hours. There is a lot of water in the fruit at the onset -- and the evaporation cools the fruit so the core temperature never hits 140 degrees -- even if the machine is set at 155 degrees. This also shortens the drying time considerably, saving energy.
I have always dehydrated my hot peppers especially the very hottest ones. I dry them until they are brittle, and then put them -- seeds and partitions included -- in my coffee grinder. This allows me to sprinkle just a little bit of "heat" into a dish -- or a lot, if it pleases me.
Blueberries have a waxy outer skin, and at lower temperatures they take forever to dry. But by cranking up the temperature for a while I can dry them in a reasonable time. I bet you could freeze them first ---they often burst on freezing -- then dry them.
Last weekend I finally pulled the last of my carrots. A few were damaged by rodents, or had cracked. I stored all the perfect ones and dried the others. I scrubbed them well, then cut them in thin slices. I started off doing the slicing with a knife, but soon switched to my food processor, which has a special "julienne" blade that did the job nicely. I will use the dried carrots in soups this winter.
I know that some gardeners like to make dried foods to take on the trail. You could dry carrots, green peppers, squash, tomatoes and onions -- the start for a good stew. You can dry meat, too, or make jerky, but I’ve never tried that. Maybe this winter.
Dehydrating fruits and vegetables intensifies the flavors and brings out the sweetness. I love to nibble on my dried pears (which I make with skins-on) while driving the car. They provide me with great satisfaction -- they’re as good as eating chocolate chips, but healthier.
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