Dry it. You'll like it!
My mother never touched another pressure cooker or canner again. After bearing witness to such a culinary catastrophe, I was in no hurry to use one either. Nevertheless, as an adult, I found myself face-to-face with a pressure canner, compliments of my husband's grandmother. Just the sight of the thing made my heart leap into my throat as if it were trying to escape. But I'm one tough cookie, and I wasn't about to let an inanimate object stare me down.
With every ounce of will I could muster, I commanded my heart to quit pounding, and it resumed its place in my chest. I accepted the gift from Grandma and set about learning how to use it correctly. I paid close attention to Grandma's instructions and read the original booklet that came with the canner back in 1944. I called my local extension office, and they sent me some helpful information on using a pressure canner. It wasn't long before I had enough confidence to can the fruits and vegetables growing in our garden.
Ok, maybe confidence is too strong of a word. Even though I took every precaution recommended by Grandma, the manufacturer and the extension agent, I still felt the bite of apprehension when it came time to break out the pressure canner.
For years my canning routine was the same: When the canner was on the stove, no one but me was allowed in the house; this included dogs and cats. Once the corn was cobbed and the beans were snipped, the screen door was locked from the inside. Outside, under a giant cottonwood, the baby played in her playpen, and the older kids sat on a stump licking homemade popsicles. Inside, the canning process went on. If anything went wrong, I only had to save myself. I guess that really isn't confidence, but you have to admit it was a good plan.
The cottonwood grew bigger, the playpen fell apart, but for 14 years my canning procedure stayed the same, and I had no reason to believe it would ever change. Then, I received information from our extension agent about the Master Food Preserver Program.
The Master Food Preserver Program is one of the Cooperative Extension System's outreach initiatives like Master Gardener and Master Compost Instructor training. The three-day, hands-on program goes beyond the basics of home food preservation, teaching participants the most effective, up-to-date techniques to ensure safe food-handling and proper storage. When it was over, my relationship with my canner was forever changed. Yes, I learned a great deal about using pressure canners; I even went out and purchased a new aluminum model that heated faster and more evenly than the older one. I also learned something new, something that would allow me to unlatch the screen door.
I discovered that drying is a fast, economical and safe way to preserve food. It wasn't long before dried fruits and vegetables found a place in the pantry. Tucked beside the jars of French-cut green beans and corn were one-gallon plastic bags full of corn, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, apples, strawberries, raspberries, leeks, summer squash, dried beef and fruit leathers galore.
Dried food takes up considerably less space than canned food. It wasn't long before the number of Mason jars in my pantry waned, and the shelves begin to fill up with bags of dried food. I began seeing less of my pressure canner and leaving the screen door unlatched more often.
Understanding the process
The bacteria, yeasts and molds that cause most food spoilage require moisture to grow. Without it, they go dormant or die. Drying removes moisture from food, allowing it to be stored for long periods of time with no refrigeration. Most dried foods will keep indefinitely if properly protected from sunlight and moisture.
Just like in the canning process, time and temperature are paramount considerations and must be combined in proper measure to guarantee the best results. The best temperature for drying fruits and vegetables is 140[degrees]F. Meat should be dried at 160[degrees]F. At temperatures higher than this, a condition known as "case hardening" occurs. The food cooks on the outside, forming a hard, dry crust that doesn't allow moisture from the middle to escape. When this happens the food molds slowly from the inside out. For months all may appear well. Then, one day, you open the pantry to find a bag full of fuzzy beef jerky. It's the hard way to learn the first lesson of food drying: Be patient; it takes awhile.
Location, location, location
Food can be dried indoors and outdoors, depending on location and type of equipment available. Outdoor drying includes sun and fire drying. Because of its high acidity level, fruit is better suited to sun drying than meat or vegetables, which are better if dried over a fire. Indoor drying techniques include passive air drying, oven drying and the use of electric dehydrators.
Drying fruit outdoors
Properly prepared fruit dries quite nicely outdoors. Small amounts of fruit, such as the green apples that fall off the tree during a storm, can be dried in just a few days using nothing more than racks or screens placed on top of a couple of cement blocks--an instant solar dryer. Use only screens and racks made of stainless steel, Teflon-coated fiberglass or food-grade plastic. If you're fortunate to have a paved driveway, set up your instant solar dryer there. Setting the blocks and racks up in the driveway will speed the drying process because the sun's rays are converted to heat much more efficiently on pavement than on the grass or the porch.
This simple set-up works fine on warm sunny days with a light breeze and low-humidity. In my area those days are few and far between. Here, on the edge of the Chequamegon National Forest, the humidity is often oppressive in the late summer months, and we frequently go from no wind at all to gale force gusts with no warning whatsoever. Other parts of the country, where the humidity tends to be high in summer, like the Coastal South, are also difficult areas for a simple sun-drying rack. And don't get me started on the insects. Although, it's worth noting that if you have an abundance of flies, moths or other insects that might lay eggs on your drying fruit, you can "pasteurize" the fruit by placing it in a 160[degrees]F oven for 30 minutes. This will kill any eggs or tiny insects.
While these conditions present challenges, they don't preclude the determined homesteader from drying fruit outdoors. Sue Robishaw of Manytracks proved this when she built an efficient solar dryer that works well in more humid conditions and can be moved inside if the weather warrants. This is by far the best design I've come across for drying outdoors. I highly recommend constructing a solar dehydrator of this type if you are considering drying large amounts fruit outdoors. For more information see "Building and Using a Midwest Solar Food Dryer" by Sue Robishaw, in the September/ October 2006 issue of COUNTRYSIDE, or visit COUNTRYSIDE'S online library at www.countrysidemag.com/library. html and read the complete article listed in "Notes from the Northwoods."
Drying vegetables and meat outdoors
With the notable exception of sweet corn, most vegetables are low in sugar, and all are lacking in acid content, making them much more susceptible to spoilage during the drying process than fruits. When drying vegetables outside it is best to place them on stainless steel racks or in cast iron pans over an open fire. Place the prepared vegetables on the racks, leaving enough space between each piece so no pieces touch. Racks and pans should be placed carefully above a well-controlled fire for the best results. Drying times will vary from fire to fire, but most vegetables will be done in a matter of hours.
A smoky, old-west style jerky can be made by slicing round steak into 1/8" strips and marinating them in your favorite mixture for a day or two. The strips can then be draped across racks or rods, or skewered and hung above a constant low fire. Because the meat will acquire some of the flavor from the smoke, it is important to avoid burning pine when drying meat over an open fire. To ensure even drying, the strips of meat should not touch each other. Old broiler pans work great for drying marinated meat over a fire because excess marinade and juices will flow into the drip pan allowing for even drying. Drying meat over a fire isn't difficult, but it is an acquired skill, requiring patient tending of the fire.
Drying food indoors is accomplished in three ways: 1) room drying; 2) oven drying; and 3) with the use of an electric dehydrator.
Room drying is a convenient way to dry herbs, flowers and cayenne peppers. They can be dried on racks in an undisturbed comer, or they can be hung from the rafters. If using racks for indoor drying it is important to spread flowers and herbs evenly to allow for proper air flow.
Another room drying technique is to simply tie the stems of a fistful of herbs or flowers together. Then, make a few incisions in a small paper bag and place it over the heads of the flowers or herbs and tie it loosely around the stems. The bag will keep dust from accumulating. Tie the stems to an indoor clothesline or the rafters in the garage and let the bagged-up bunch hang upside down for a couple of weeks. Place herbs in a Mason jar or in a plastic bag once they have dried.
To dry cayenne peppers, thread clean fishing line through the stems, fanning the skinny ends into a circle as you go. If you use a heavy test line, you can string up a couple of pounds of peppers. Hang them in a corner and in a couple of weeks, you'll have a beautiful, edible homestead decoration. This is a great method for drying long, thin peppers; it doesn't work well for the fatter types like jalapeno. If dust is a concern, you can cover the whole thing with low-grade cheese cloth (the kind you buy at most grocery stores) or thoroughly wash each pepper before use.
It's been my experience that oven-drying produces an inferior product. Most modern ovens won't let you set the temperature below 170[degrees]F; at this temperature the outside of the food cooks, resulting in case hardening. I would recommend drying over an open fire before I would recommend drying in an electric or gas oven. The oven-drying method is the choice of last resort.
However, if you are fortunate to have a wood cookstove, you will be able to dry food quite well simply by knowing where the cool spots are. A wood stove is a far better choice for indoor drying than a conventional oven.
Electric dehydrators are designed to make drying efficient and uniform. They have a heating element that keeps the temperature constant and a fan for air circulation. Horizontal air flow dehydrators have a heating element and fan in the back of a square box. Vertical air flow dehydrators have a heating element and fan in the bottom of a cylinder-shaped container. Horizontal flow dehydrators have a greater drying capacity and produce a more uniform product than the vertical air flow-types.
Over the years, I've experimented with different drying techniques, settling on the ones that work best for me. In early spring, when we are cooking sap, we cut up a few pounds of round steak and dry it on the edges of the fire.
Herbs are dried on a wooden rack that sits in a shaded spot just beneath my kitchen window. I have a large, horizontal air flow dehydrator that I use for everything else. It runs nonstop from July through October.
The fruits I dry most often are apples, strawberries, raspberries, plums, pears, peaches, pineapples and bananas. We grow the apples, strawberries and raspberries; the rest I buy in bulk when they are in season or when I come across a sale. Buying in bulk and drying is a good way to hedge against the rising cost of food.
I can't over emphasize the importance of using only firm, ripe fruit. With the exception of apples, unripe or overripe fruit, or fruit that is bruised or broken, is best pureed and then dried into fruit leather or made into jelly or jam. Un-ripened apples that fell off the tree in the storm, well they make a tart tangy treat when sprinkled with a little cinnamon sugar and then dried for 6-12 hours in an electric dehydrator. Because of the threat of insects, I wouldn't dry sugared apples outdoors.
To prevent apples, pears, pineapples and bananas from darkening, I soak them in a solution of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and water before placing them in the dehydrator. I buy 1,000 mg tablets of vitamin C in the largest bottle I can find. Then I grind six of them with a mortar and pestle and add the powder to a quart of water. The ratio is 6,000 mg (two teaspoons of the powdered type) vitamin C to one quart of cool water. I find that vitamin C slows down the darkening process much better than lemon juice or syrup blanching.
To ready apples for drying, I peel and core them using my handy-dandy apple peeler/corer/slicer and toss them into my vitamin C solution, which I keep waiting nearby. Fruit should soak in the vitamin C solution for at least 10 minutes before being placed in a dehydrator. If you are preparing apples by hand, slice them into 1/8-inch pieces. Apples will dry in 6-12 hours in an electric dehydrator. They are done when they bend but don't snap. If you over-dry them, don't worry; they'll be a little dark, but they'll be fine.
We enjoy our dried apples in oatmeal, crisps and out of the bag (especially the sugared ones) all winter long.
Whenever I find pineapples on sale, I buy them. Dehydrated pineapples are as sweet as candy and a very popular treat around my house. I package them up in pretty little cellophane bags and give them as gifts. To dry pineapple, peel and core each one. Then, cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Soak in the vitamin C solution for 10 minutes then dry for 36 hours in an electric dehydrator
I'm always on the lookout for deals on ripe bananas, too. Dried bananas never last long around here. I only use ripe bananas for drying, they can a have a few specks of brown on them, but beyond that, they are better eaten or used in banana bread. Slice bananas into 3/8-inch thick slices and soak for 10 minutes in the vitamin C solution. Bananas will dry in 8-10 hours in an electric dehydrator
I buy pears, peaches and plums by the case when they are in season. I blanch them to remove their skins before I core them. I slice peaches and pears into 1/4-inch pieces; the plums I leave whole unless they are large. I always soak pears in the vitamin C solution, but peaches and plums do fine without soaking. Pears, peaches and plums dry in 12-24 hours in an electric dehydrator
Raspberries are the simplest fruit to dry. I pick them when they are at their firmest, wash them and place them in my horizontal air flow dehydrator for 12-18 hours depending on the moisture content and the humidity.
For strawberries, remove the tops and wash the berries. Slice them into 1/4" pieces and dry for 6-8 hours if using an electric dehydrator or until flexible but not brittle if drying outdoors.
If I have fruit that is damaged or old I make fruit leather out of it. I wash and prepare the fruit as if I were going to dry it; then I puree it. Sometimes I'll add sugar or honey to sweeten the mixture before I spread it out on the dehydrator screen. Some dehydrators come with special leather screens. If yours doesn't have one, you can use plastic wrap or wax paper Use two cups of pureed fruit for each 13" x 15" leather. Spread the mixture so the outsides are thicker than the inside portion. The sides dry faster than the middle; by making them thicker the middle doesn't become over-dry. Drying times for fruit leather vary, but I start checking mine after eight hours. Leather is done when it bends but doesn't break and has a shiny underside.
The list of vegetables that are suitable for drying is much shorter than the list of fruits. For years, I dried only fruit and herbs, leaving vegetables for the kettle or canner Then, a couple of years ago, a misunderstanding involving one-third of an acre of sweet corn led to a discovery.
I wanted to make sure I had enough open-pollinated sweet corn to freeze, with enough left over to save some seed. When I placed the order at the seed house, I specifically asked for open-pollinated, organic sweet corn. As far as I knew, that's what I got.
But as the ears grew well past 12", the skeptic in me began to wonder Everyone knows open-pollinated varieties rarely have cobs that exceed 10" on a good year. I called the seed house and asked them to double check my order. Sure enough, they had sent me a hybrid; it was worthless as seed, which meant I was going to have to freeze an awful lot of corn, not one of my favorite jobs. The corn has to be removed from the cob, steamed or blanched, then cooled and packaged.
I don't particularly care for frozen corn. I've tried several recipes and techniques (including adding sugar to the corn before freezing), but frozen corn tastes like frozen corn. It's hardly worth the effort. Then, on heels of a whim, I decided to try drying some of it. What did I have to lose? It's not like we would miss a few bushels if it didn't work out.
I removed the kernels and put them straight into the dehydrator without blanching. To my absolute delight, eight hours later I had a five-pound bag of the sweetest corn I had ever put up. Because the corn doesn't lose its sugar in the blanching process, it stays in the corn. When the corn is reconstituted by covering with water and boiling for 15-20 minutes, it as sweet as the day it was picked.
I made another discovery towards the end of the growing season that same year: When you leave corn in the dehydrator for more than 24 hours, it turns deep-gold, almost brown. While it isn't much for eating, it makes wonderful cornmeal. I ground my over-dry kernels into cornmeal and used it to make corn bread, topping for apple crisp, and breading for fish and onion rings.
Every year I dry about half the potatoes we harvest. The other half is stored in the basement. I've tried several techniques. All of them involved peeling the potatoes, cutting them into strips or cubes, and then boiling them before putting them in the dryer. To save time, I boil the potatoes in their skins, then peel and cut into 1/4- to 3/8"--thick pieces. Potatoes are dry in 8-12 hours. I like Yukon gold potatoes best for drying. They retain their flavor and their color deepens nicely when they are reconstituted.
One thing to keep in mind is that rehydrated potatoes don't make the best mashed potatoes. Trying to make mashed potatoes from reconstituted sliced potatoes will only get you a mixture of watery lumps. If you are dehydrating potatoes for mashed potatoes, it is better to actually make a pot of mashed potatoes and then dry the mixture as you would fruit leather.
While I still hot bath about half of the tomatoes I grow, I make sure the other half gets to the dehydrator. After I blanch and core the tomatoes, I lay them on the dehydrator racks and lightly sprinkle them with coarse-ground black pepper and let them dry for 12-18 hours. They make wonderful snacks right out of the bag; they're great added to casseroles and pasta dishes. Perhaps what I like best about them is how little space they take up compared to their canned counterparts.
Onions, leeks and peppers are a cinch to dry. Simply chop into 1/8- to 1/4" pieces and toss in the dehydrator. Onions and leeks dry in 4-6 hours; peppers can take up to 12 hours. One note here, when i dry onions and leeks, I dry only onions and leeks. Because of their pungent odor, they shouldn't be combined with fruits or other vegetables that might absorb some of the odor and flavor.
Drying is an easy way to preserve meat. I've used my dehydrator to dry leftover turkey and ham. There's nothing worse than coming across a container of forgotten leftover turkey tucked in the back of the refrigerator and not remembering how old it is. I just pick the turkey down to the bone, chop the meat and put it in the dehydrator for 8-12 hours. It reconstitutes great for soups and casseroles.
When I dehydrate leftover ham, I'm careful to trim all of the visible fat away from the meat. Fat goes rancid, even dehydrated fat, so it is important to work with only lean pieces.
I turn most of our round steak into jerky. I cut across the grain because I like a tender jerky, but if you prefer a chewier jerky, cut with the grain. When dehydrating meat, the pieces should be no more than 1/4" thick. I soak the meat in a marinade of tamari and herbs overnight before placing in the dehydrator for 18-24 hours.
The Cooperative Extension Service highly recommends that game and pork be boiled in the marinade before it is placed in the dehydrator. This reduces the chances of foodborne pathogens like E. coli and trichinosis. It is important to remember that boiling the meat will drastically reduce the drying time.
We also dry meat outdoors when we are cooking sap in the spring. I marinate it; then we hang the strips of beef on the edges of the fire, suspended by metal racks. Drying time varies, and we have to keep a close eye on the meat, but the diligence is worth the effort. The sweet smell of the sap as it condenses combined with the aroma of marinated beef and a hard wood fire is a reward in itself.
Putting it all together
So, is there dust gathering on my pressure canner? Have I abandoned canning and freezing in favor of drying? Hardly.
Some things just aren't meant to be dried. I've never had a dried beet that I liked. Beets have to be processed in a canner; there's just no way around it. Dried green beans work fine in green bean casserole, but they're hard eating otherwise. I still freeze and can my beans. Drying is a great complement to canning and freezing, but it's certainly not a replacement for these techniques.
These days my screen door is rarely latched, even when I'm canning. Not only did the Master Food Preserver course introduce me to drying, it made me much more certain of my canning abilities, which in turn gives me enough confidence to leave the screen door unlatched. Now that's more like it.
For more information on home food preservation call your local Cooperative Extension Service.
BY JERRI COOK