Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: July, Week 2

We're well into food preservation season here in northern Ohio, as the farmers' market offers a growing variety of produce every week. It's such a treat to see more colors and to taste more flavors as the season deepens, and I can hardly resist splurging!

But when I get home and see all that produce filling my refrigerator, I know I need to get busy and do something with it all!

The easiest method for preserving so many of these early to mid-summer fruits and vegetables is usually freezing. But I'm coming to learn that drying is equally simple, takes little time to prep, and offers an energy-independent means of food storage.

Though in past years, I have simply used the oven (set at the lowest possible temperature) to dry my produce, this year I also have a five-tray electric dehydrator to use (thanks to the generosity of a certain Renaissance Man). The method used is the same in both cases, though the times may vary.

As always, if you want to try drying, I highly recommend using a good book (the ones I mentioned at the beginning of the series or Making and Using Dried Foods), following the instructions for the dehydrator, or using one of the excellent preserving guides put out by the USDA.

For vegetables, the first step generally is to blanch the produce. This means you need to chop or otherwise prepare the vegetables, steam or parboil them until crisp-tender, and then drain off the boiling water and dunk the produce in ice cold water (often with a couple changes of water, swishing the produce around to cool it more quickly).

Once the vegetables are sufficiently cooled and no longer cooking, they need to be drained, possibly patted dry in a towel (this is easy for beans and peas, not so much for cabbage and broccoli), and then laid out on either a parchment-covered baking sheet or a dehydrator tray.

For most fruits, blanching is not required before drying. Simply rinse, pat dry, and spread out on the baking sheet or dehydrator tray. A few fruits -- such as blueberries, currants, or grapes -- may need a very quick blanching (just a few seconds) in order to split the skins and keep the fruit from bursting while drying.

The time and temperature required to dry the produce completely will vary depending on the thickness of the individual items, the original moisture content, and the desired end result. I've found that most vegetables should be dried until brittle, while fruits usually are dried until leathery and possibly a bit sticky. As I mentioned, be sure to consult a more authoritative guide!

So what have I been drying so far this summer?

For vegetables, I have so far dried peas and carrots -- both of which are useful for adding to soups -- and spinach leaves to be used in pasta dough. Today I have cabbage drying in the oven, and I hope at some point to do my usual round of oven-dried tomatoes as well as some dried onions. Maybe other vegetables will inspired me, too!

For fruit, I've dried lots of sweet cherries, some red currants, and some strawberries, all of which will be great in baked goods. I have black currants and black raspberries drying in the dehydrator today, and later this summer I plan to dry more grapes (last year's raisins were so good) and whatever else strikes my fancy.

As previously noted, drying is also an excellent method for preserving herbs, whether for tea or for cooking. In addition to the ones I've already put away, I've been drying lemon balm, spearmint, peppermint, oregano, and more chamomile.

Not everything works well for drying, but for those items that do dry and rehydrate nicely, this method of preservation helps you conserve space in the freezer as well as the pantry, and after the initial energy use to dry the produce, you need no further energy input to keep the produce. That makes dried fruits and vegetables a great backup for frozen foods in case of lengthy power outages.

Once you've tried drying produce, I think you'll find that it's worth doing to vary your preservation activities.

After all, you can always dry, dry again.

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At 7/12/2008 9:31 AM, Blogger valereee said...

Jennifer, do tomatoes not dry well in the dehydrator?

At 7/14/2008 2:21 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

valereee, I don't know. This is the first year I've had access to a dehydrator, so I've not yet tried it. Will have to give it a whirl!


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