Putting up food for winter: dehydrating

Unless you live somewhere very warm, you probably aren’t able to grow much in the winter.  Here in a temperate zone 7b, there are crops that sit outdoors in the garden all winter and can be harvest fresh, like cabbage, spinach, kale, collards and kohlrabi, but eaten alone they would be a very boring and less than healthy diet.  If you like somewhere much colder, first frosts have probably already arrived and your winter garden is a blanket of snow instead of brassicas and greens.

Putting food away while it is in it’s peak season not only adds variety to your diet, it lines your pantry shelves with summer colors and flavors.  It’s also deeply reassuring.

Dehydration is almost certainly the first form of food preservation ever invented.  It is also a method that has stood the test of time in terms of food safety.  The lack of water in dehydrated food inhibits food decay and growth of microorganisms like botulism.  The drier the food, the longer it stores, and you don’t need to expend any energy to store them, just keep them away from moisture until ready to eat.  Dehydrated fruits and veggies can be added to casseroles, soups and stews, roasts and more.  You can eat them straight up as snacks, but if you are watching your waistline, remember the calories get concentrated along with the flavors!  You can also make cheap dog treats — my corgi loves dehydrated sweet potato chips like these, but without the high price tag.

Food needs to dry quickly to preserve flavor and nutrition and to prevent decay and mold from forming.  If you live in a less humid climate, an outdoor solar dehydrator may be just the thing.  If it’s really dry, you can probably put your produce on vented trays outside, but please protect them from insects.  For those of us in humid climates, an electrical dehydrator is really the only solution.  I own an Excalibur dehydrator.  They come in various sizes and colors, and are unfortunately fairly pricey.  If you’ve ever used (and been frustrated by) one of those round hairdryer style dehydrators that are cheap at your local big box store, you will understand why there are so many barely used ones in thrift stores.  The round ones *do* work, they just require a lot of rearranging and paying careful attention to your food,and watch for melting trays (no joke.)  The box style dehydrators with a fan are less needy, and I was delighted to move up to a dehydrator that worked so much better.  Dehydrating stopped being a chore.

Herbs can also be preserved by drying.  If you buy a bottle of spices in the store like oregano, that’s what you are getting: dehydrated leaves.  Herbs should always be dried in the shade at a low temperature (under 95F).  If your home is dehumidified, you can hang them up in a closet or pantry to air dry.

In summary, dehydration is:

  • Easy and effective
  • Requires no electricity to store
  • Makes food smaller and lighter
  • Minimal loss of nutritional content during the preservation process
  • Safe non-electric dehydration is not possible in most climates
  • Storage times vary widely with type of food and level of dryness  (Meats/jerky: up to a month; fruits and veggies may store for years at maximum dehydration
  • Good dehydrators are expensive.

(By Nicole Castle)

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