Another amazing way to preserve the harvest is to dehydrate foods. From vegetables to fruits to meats to spices and teas, there's a whole wealth of seasonal foods that are ready to be dried to use all year long in such a multitude of ways. I currently have kale, tomatoes and mushrooms in my dehydrator, bunches of sage and oregano hanging in my kitchen, and have dried flowers in my double boiler infusing into oils to turn into a healing salve. Here are a few tips for selecting foods and herbs that dehydrate well and some fun suggestions for using up veggie and fruit scraps in interesting and creative ways. Plus a recipe for one of my favourite dried snacks, Lemony Apple Chips.
The Benefits of Dehydrating Foods
Drying foods and herbs is one of the simplest and oldest forms of food preservation. One of the main benefits of drying is how easy it is to do. Although you can use an electric or a solar dehydrator to speed things up, it's not always necessary. There are many things that air-dry easily without buying equipment by hanging them or spreading them out in a single layer on a rack. You can also use your oven on a low setting, however, this is more energy intensive and even at the lowest temperature it will be high enough to damage some of the nutritional value of foods.
From a nutritional perspective, drying foods retains most of the nutrients if they're dried below a temperature of about 115 degrees F. When foods are heated above this, the enzymes are destroyed. Enzymes are really important because they help our bodies to digest and assimilate the foods we're eating. According to the book, Micro Miracles, when foods no longer contain the enzymes nature designed and packaged them with (think over-cooked but also processed, pasteurized and refined foods) your body has to manufacture its own enzymes. Enzyme production uses up a lot of your body's energy and resources. If your body can't keep up, you may experience digestive symptoms like bloating, indigestion, nutrient deficiencies and food sensitivities. Over time, requiring the body to make the enzymes to digest food, may also mean a lack of enzyme production for other organs, like the heart, brain, liver and kidneys.
Even at low temperatures that preserve the enzymes, there will be a loss of vitamin C and B6 as these nutrients are sensitive to heat and air. (Fermentation preserves these nutrients though, so check out my previous post to learn how!)
Dry Outside the Box
Some of my favourite things to dehydrate are the scraps that normally get tossed in the compost bin. I often spend more money on higher quality and organic produce, so I want to get the very most out of it that I can! I dry citrus peels and use them in my herbal tea blends. You can chop pieces of lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit and then pair them your favourite tea herbs (such as green or black tea or herbals like raspberry leaf or dandelion root). One of my favourite combinations is blending dried lemon rind, apple pieces, rose hips, cinnamon bark and toasted almonds to make a sweet and nutty herbal tea perfect for Fall.
You can dry stems of herbs and inedible parts of alliums (like the tough green ends of leeks) and create savoury herb blends. You can chop the dried herbs or grind them into a powder. Lately, Andrew and I have been playing with dehydrating our ferments too. We've made kimchi powder, Indian lime pickle powder and a fermented garlic paste powder that are so flavourful and easy to sprinkle onto foods (like roasted nuts or popcorn) or add to soup and stew bases.
A good place to start is thinking about the dried materials you're already using. I infuse oils with flowers and herbs for skincare, so growing and foraging them to dry myself was one of the first things I started drying regularly. Herbal teas and spices were the next area I got excited about. I realized I could forage so many herbal teas myself - red raspberry leaf, wild mints, labrador tea plant, sweet fern, dandelion leaf, dandelion root, chicory root, pineapple weed and many more all grow within walking distance. What herbs do you love to cook with? Drying your own thyme, sage, oregano, parsley, basil and cilantro while these herbs are still in season is a great way to save money and add amazing immune and digestive benefits over the winter months.
Tips and Equipment
If you're thinking of purchasing a dehydrator, there's a big range of prices. There are versions with stainless steel racks which don't leach plastics into food, but these come with a much higher price tag. You can get cheaper versions made with plastic racks, but leave food in contact with plastic for an extended period of time. I have a plastic one, but I always put down parchment paper so that my food isn't in contact. Choose a model that lets you purchase additional stackable racks so that you can dehydrate many levels at one time. This is a great way to be able to purchase in bulk or forage a large haul and dry all at one time.
If you're sun drying, do so on a dry day (as opposed to a humid one) and bring trays in overnight. This prevents the food for absorbing the moisture in the damp night air and keeps it safe from wandering night critters. You can use netting over top if the food is going to tempt birds or squirrels. You can buy and build solar dehydrators as well, but I haven't experimented with them.
When air-drying, you can bundle small bunches of herbs and hang upside down in a window or from racks in a room with good air circulation. Kitchens work well since there's often heat emitted here and drier air. Don't air dry in a humid room, like the bathroom, basement or laundry room. If you're air drying fruit and veggies, cut them into uniform-sized pieces and spread in a single layer leaving space between. They may take a few days, you can flip them over half-way. A tip my parents taught me is to prop up a fly screen between two chairs so that air is also getting at the bottom of the items.
Once fully dry, store in airtight containers away from direct light and heat. If you do this before things are completely dry, then you may run into mould problems. On the other hand, if you dry fruits and veggies too long, they may get too crispy and hard. Many foods will lose colour as they dry, this is normal. Make notes as you go, drying times will really vary if you're using sun and air methods as the humidity makes a big difference. Most electric dehydrators will have settings with suggestions for different types of foods. I aim to do lower heat for longer periods to preserve the enzymes.
Wash and dry apples. Cut into thin rounds, about 3-5mm.
Brush apple slices on both sides with lemon juice then arrange in a single layer on dehydrator racks. Sprinkle with cinnamon.
Dehydrate on 115 degrees F for 8-12 hours, depending on how crispy you want your chips.
Store in an airtight container.
Enjoy on their own or add to granola recipes or rehydrate and toss into porridge, soups or smoothies.
Thanks so much for reading! Happy preserving and let me know how your dehydrating adventures go!