Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Time to Shrivel Up and Dry

Most of you know that I love to can, especially pressure canning. But this week I am going to talk about dehydrating. As the gardens start producing at full force and I find myself elbow deep in tomatoes it's time to start filling up the dehydrators.

I numbered the drying trays to help keep track
of where each type of herb is as the trays get
rotated during the process for even drying.
Why Do I Dehydrate?
There are several reasons and I find it interesting that they run from one end of the spectrum to the other:
1. Preserving Small Batches of Produce. Much of what I harvest out of the gardens is not enough for a canner load, at least not before some of it goes bad. For example, my strawberry beds are still very small, so I only get a handful of berries each day. In order to be able to make jam from my home-grown berries I could turn on the freezer and run it throughout the season to preserve each handful of berries as they accrue until I have enough for a batch of jam, but this would either require the sun to be very cooperative in charging our batteries, or require the occasional use of our generator, which seems a waste when I could simply run the dehydrator on sunny days to dehydrate the strawberries. The other advantage to this option is that once dehydrated the berries can sit in the pantry for months if I don't feel like making jam in hot weather. One of the best jams I made last fall was made from wild elderberries I had picked and dehydrated in August and pears I had canned the previous fall. On a side note, if you dehydrate strawberries for a specific project, be sure to set aside some extras because if you taste test them you will find out they taste like Strawberry Twizzlers.

5 pounds of potatoes sliced and
dried fit in a 1/2 gallon jar. Breaking
up the slices will save more space.
2. Saving Space With Large Volumes of Produce. Early this spring we received a 50 pound bags of potatoes for free. Then, a few weeks later we received another 50 pounds, and being early spring  these spuds were not going to store for very long. Well, we ate a lot of potatoes, I canned a lot of potatoes, I canned a lot of meat with potatoes for soups and stews and we still had a lot left. You have to take a couple extra steps when dehydrating potatoes or you will end up with gray slices - they will still taste like potatoes... if you can convince  yourself to eat them. I list the the basic steps for dehydrating at the end of this post, including how I dehydrate potatoes. The 50 pound bags of potatoes each contained ten 5 pound bags so as I was processing them it was easy to determine that I could fit a 5 pound bag of potatoes into a 1/2 gallon canning jar. This was keeping them stored as potato slices, I am going to break some of them into pieces that can be thrown into soups and stews and I will be able to fit 2 to 3 times as much into the same size jar.

Dehydrating is also a great space saver for the heavy producers in my garden. I do can a fair amount of tomato sauce to be used in other canning projects (meatloaf, meatballs, stews, etc.) but my favorite way to preserve tomatoes is also the best space saver - tomato powder. I slice the tomatoes and dehydrate them until crispy. Then process them in the food processor with just a slight amount of corn starch until they are pulverized to a powder. I can then add this tomato powder to lots of dishes as a 'stealth vegetable'. I have also grown a loose leaf cabbage this year (think kale) and have dehydrated it with plans to make vegetable powder from it as well.

The vegetables in the front jars each started as a one pound
bag of frozen vegetables - peas, broccoli & green beans
3. Keeping a Variety of Vegetables on Hand. I am not a fan of canned vegetables - that is the ones sitting in cans on shelves in the grocery store. Before we moved off grid, I would buy my 'long term' vegetables in the frozen food department. Well guess what, sometimes I still do ...and then I bring them home and dehydrate them! Yes, you can dehydrate vegetables that have been frozen. I do this for vegetables I don't grow in our gardens or if I find something I would like to add to my pantry. The other day we were at a store that had locally grown rhubarb in their freezer section. My rhubarb will not be ready to harvest until next year so I picked some of the frozen rhubarb up to process and add to my pantry to go along with my dried strawberries.

How Do I Dehydrate?
Solar or electric? While there are many plans out on the internet for solar dehydrators, my method of choice for off-grid dehydrating is to use our solar generated electric power to run our electric dehydrators. Using electricity to generate heat is not an efficient use of power, that is why we do not have a toaster, waffle iron, coffee maker, blow dryer, etc. However, I feel the electric dehydrators have enough advantages over the solar dehydrator to warrant the power usage. I just make sure I only run the dehydrators on sunny days when we are creating an excess of power.

The first of this year's tomatoes,
this batch was 4 trays of tomatoes
and two trays of blackberries.
With the electric dehydrator I know I will have a steady heat throughout the entire drying session, whereas a solar dehydrator has heat variations due to cloud cover, wind, etc. Also, from those I have talked to who do use solar dehydrators, the dry time per batch is usually more than a day which means there is more chance of mold or spoilage occurring in between the drying sessions. I feel I get safer, quicker results using my dehydrators and since I am using excess power we are generating on sunny days it is still free power from the sun.

Always have to remember to save
some seeds for next year's crops.
(More on that in another post.)
When we were researching dehydrators, our goal was not the biggest and the best, but rather the most power efficient. We chose a model from Open Country. This is one of the basic styles with six round stacking trays. The top cover contains the heating element/fan.  We did make an addition of creating screens that fit in the trays as small produce like peas tend to fall through the grates in the trays as they shrink during the drying process. We have been very happy with our choice, in fact it is efficient enough that we purchased a second and run them in tandem when we have a lot of produce waiting to be dehydrated.

I purchased about a dozen of these metal racks on clearance
for $2 each with plans for using them in a solar dehydrator.
But for now I use them as extra trays for drying in the oven. 
Back up and 'stand-by' drying option. Using the electric dehydrator does not mean every batch gets dried on the day I start it. Even on optimal sunny days, we do not have a long 'window' of full sun on our panels. Being situated in a north-south valley means we need to wait for the sun to climb up over the eastern mountain in the morning and then it dips behind the western mountain in the afternoon. And, our time is even more limited in the summer due to the arc of the sun and the tree cover. Our shortest solar days are actually mid summer when we only have full sun on the panels for about 5 hour a day. I always monitor our power usage while drying and turn off the dehydrator(s) if the power starts being pulled from the batteries, meaning they are no longer using 'excess' power. This is where my back-up solution comes into play - our oven. Our stove is propane and, in most cases, the pilot light in the oven provides enough heat to 'hold over' the trays that are partially dehydrated until the next day. Just remember to prop the oven door open slightly  so the humidity does not build up and defeat the purpose - I use the handle of a spatula. I have learned the hard way to not trust this method for wetter produce such as berries and tomatoes. If they have only had 4-5 hours in the dehydrator and I need to turn them off, I refrigerate them until I can return them to the trays and put them in the dehydrator again. Otherwise they tend to mold. On the other hand, if I have an  abundance of herbs, I often dry them from start to finish in the oven.

The Basic Steps. Dehydrating is a very simple process  with no exact time to follow. You have to judge that a batch is finished by the feel and texture as well as the conditioning step below.
1. Wash produce
2. Peel/Slice/Dice as needed. When slicing or chopping consistency is important for even drying.
3. (Optional) Treat fruits/vegetables that may turn brown due to oxidation. We grind up vitamin C tablets and dissolve the powder in water. As we slice the vegetables/fruits we place them in the vitamin C water. We keep them in this water until we are ready to start the dehydrating, anywhere from a few minutes to overnight. 
Guess which potatoes were
blanched and which were raw.
4. Steam or water blanch. Not all produce needs to be blanched. The rule of thumb is that if a vegetable is usually cooked before serving, then it should be blanched before drying. Blanching helps speed the drying process and also the cooking process after re-hydration. I prefer steam blanching for preserving nutrients but I water blanch potatoes to aid in color retention.
5. Place food on tray in a single layer, not touching to prevent edges from sticking together.
6. Dry until crisp - rotate trays every few hours and the slices may also be flipped over.
7. Turn off dehydrator and allow food to cool.
8. Condition by placing in zip-loc bag or canning jar over night. This gives time for any remaining moisture to 'even out' over the batch. Check for moisture the next day and dry for extra time if necessary.
9. Vacuum-seal or vacuum-can. We made a vacuum-canner which we use to vacuum-pack dry goods in canning jars.

The vaccu-canner Alan built. We use this to vacuum can dry
goods such as flour, sugar and dehydrated produce in
canning jars. Being vacuum sealed in jars protects them
from humidity in the summer and also allows for long term storage.
So, while I love to pressure can and enjoy the versatility and creativity of what I make in my canner, I appreciate my dehydrators for the ease and speed with which I can process the produce as it starts flowing out of the gardens in the heat of summer. Then, as the weather turns cooler, I can pull out the jars of dehydrated goodies, start cooking up some larger batches of jams, soups and various one pot meals to can for our winter larder.

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