Vegetables can be preserved by drying or dehydrating. This particularly suits households in which soups and stews and backpacking are a way of life. Herbs and pithy vegetables such as carrots, corn, peas, and beans dry readily in a dehydrator. Drying preserves strawberries as well. In recent years many dried foods, such as tomatoes and cherries, have seen more frequent usage, showing up in salads, pasta sauces, soups, and other appetizing concoctions.
Drying opens the door to a new form of “cooking”. Dried watermelon, for example, is a wonderful sweet treat. Most dried foods need to be reconstituted in water before eating, so are best suited to wet food like soups and stews. A pantry full of dried fruits, vegetables and vegetable powders opens the door to new culinary possibilities.
After drying, either in the oven or in sunlight, they may be stored as they are or in jars covered with olive oil. It is very satisfying for a cook to have access to the intensely fresh flavor of home-dried herbs and vegetables when the plants are out of season. Properly packaged and stored, dried vegetables keep well for long periods of time and are a welcome adjunct to any pantry.
If you become deeply committed to drying produce, buy a home dehydrator fitted with drying racks. You will be spared the competition with animals, birds, flies, and assorted buzzing insects that you have to contend with when drying foods on outdoor screens. Foods dried in a dehydrator are cleaner and more appetizing. Many simple machines are available; they are not costly, use little energy, and are very easy to use.
In hot, dry regions, the sun dries produce quickly. In the south of France, farmers still dry figs and grapes on corrugated and tiled roofs. The heat generated from the roofing material hastens the drying process.
You can improvise drying screens by stretching nylon window screening or clean cheesecloth over oven racks, or use framed window or door screens. Place the elevated screens in direct sunlight in an airy outdoor corner. Don’t forget to bring in the screen if mist or rain threatens.
When drying thick produce, such as carrots, cut them in 1/4-inch slices before spreading them on screens. After two or three days in direct sunlight, the food should be two thirds dry. Move the screens to a shady place to finish drying. If bad weather threatens, finish the drying process in the oven.
You can oven-dry produce in fairly large batches. For sliced vegetables, set the temperature to 160 degrees. If the oven is electric, prop open the door 1/2 inch. If the oven is gas heated, prop open the door 1/8 inch. Expect 4 to 12 hours for oven drying, depending on the thickness of the vegetable slices.
To ensure even drying, fill the oven with no more than 4 to 6 pounds of produce. You may stack trays so long as there are at least 3 inches of air space between the racks. Rotate the trays three or four times during the drying period.
Storing and Using Dried Food
Store dried foods in airtight, screw-top containers. Check for any spoilage the first few days; remove spoiled pieces and re-dry the remaining food. Dried food stored in a cool, dark place keeps for about a year.
Another popular use of dried vegetables is to make vegetable powders. Dehydrated onion, garlic, carrots, celery, spinach, and green and red bell peppers make wonderful powders for use in stews, fresh pasta sauces, gravies or soups, or to sprinkle on hot popcorn. Place the dried vegetables in a food processor or blender and reduce to a powder. Store as you would any dried vegetable. The powders can be stored individually, or mixed together to make a vegetable medley. They add a richness and depth of flavor that is otherwise difficult to achieve.
Herbs are among the easiest crops to dry, because the foliage and seeds are fairly dry already. Herbs should be picked in late summer, early in the morning when the oils in the leaves are at their peak.
The simplest method for drying herbs is to air-dry them. Gather the herbs in bunches and tie them snugly with twine. Hang them in a cool, dark spot that has adequate ventilation. They may be woven into wreaths and their beauty enjoyed as they dry. It is also possible to dry them in a microwave oven, taking care to not burn them or make them over-brittle.
When the herbs have dried sufficiently, place them on a tray, one bunch at a time, and gently stroke the leaves from the stems. Gather the bits into small jars with screw-on lids, close tightly, and store in a cool, dark place. They also may be stored in the freezer if wrapped well or packed with a minimum of air into small jars. They will keep well for months this way.