While drying food has lost favor as a method of food preservation in recent years, this centuries-old process is just as effective now as it ever was. Nearly any food can be dried. Because the moisture needed to support microorganism growth has been removed, dry food will keep almost indefinitely. Properly treated, dried food retains most nutrients, flavor and color although it does gradually lose quality and nutritional value with age. Choose food that is in prime condition for optimum results.
Fruits generally need only to be washed, dried, and cut up, but vegetables should be blanched before drying. Blanching sets the color, softens the vegetable, and destroys enzymes that promote changes in color, texture, and flavor during drying or storage.
Boiling water adds extra liquid to the food just before drying is to begin, so steaming and microwave blanching are preferred. Steamed and microwaved vegetables, as opposed to boiled, retain better flavor once they are dried.
Blanched vegetables don’t need to be chilled in ice water as they do when they are to be frozen. Simply spread them on drying racks to begin the process.
Drying can be a very inexpensive preservation process if solar energy is used. The low humidity, infrequent rain patterns, and high summer heat of a desert climate make sun-drying efficient.
The key to sun-drying is air movement. Place fruits and vegetables on racks or screens so that air can circulate freely around them. A piece of clean, cotton cloth stapled over frames makes a good drying screen. Window screens can also be used.
Smaller frames, about the size to fit in an oven, are manageable. Drying can be completed in an oven. It will also dry efficiently under the cover of a shed, provided warm air can circulate freely.
Place the fruits on a tray, skin-side down, to reduce sticking. On dewy evenings, take the food inside so it won’t rehydrate and begin to mold.
Insects are unwelcome visitors who invite themselves to drying parties. If they become a problem, cover the trays with cheesecloth or another screen, making sure it doesn’t touch the food.
Oven drying is a quicker way to dry fruits and vegetables. Temperatures should be set below 140° F. Spread food on oven racks or place drying racks in the oven and prop the oven door open with a spoon to let the air circulate. This method will take 12 to 14 hours to properly dry food.
Efficient food dryers can be purchased at local home and garden centers. These dryers require less drying time and energy than oven or sun drying methods. Follow the manufacturers’ directions for optimum results.
Air tight glass jars are the best containers for storing dried vegetables, but any air-tight container will work. Always use food quality plastics which do not transmit a plastic flavor to the foods. Store dried products in a cool, dry, and dark place.
To reconstitute your dried produce, place dried vegetables in a saucepan and pour enough boiling water over to cover food. Cover and leave over low heat just until water is absorbed. The food will look and taste much like its fresh, cooked counterparts.
Tomato puree can be made in a blender and dried by any of the above methods. It can be reconstituted for tomato sauce or paste. Puree red, ripe tomatoes and spread on plastic wrap to dry. Plastic wrap can be removed more easily if it is peeled off while the leather is still warm from the sun or fruit dryer. Individual pieces of leather can be rewrapped if desired. Roll up the leather while it is still warm, wrapping it in plastic for storage.
Pureed tomatoes can be dried on special, heavy plastic sheets in an electric dehydrator. Wash the fruit thoroughly and remove the seeds - puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. The puree mixture should be of pouring consistency. Add a small amount of honey if desired to help keep the leather pliable when dried. Heat the mixture to 190°F to prevent oxidization, and then cool it before pouring it onto the dehydrator trays. Coat the trays with a layer of tomato puree about 1/8" to 3/16" thick, and then dry the puree at 135 degrees until the puree becomes leathery. Be sure to remove all the moisture pockets from the leather. Roll up the leather while it is still warm, wrapping it in plastic for storage.