One of the oldest ways to preserve food is drying or dehydrating. Most bacteria love water and need it to grow. Successful dehydrating removes enough water so yeast, mold, and harmful bacteria cannot grow. The best environment for drying fruits, vegetable, and herbs requires low heat, good air circulation, and low humidity. With Illinois’ humid days and cool nights, outdoor sun drying is not recommended. There are a variety of different ways to dry indoors using the oven, a dehydrator, air-drying certain foods, and microwaving.
The most efficient method for dehydrating food is using a dehydrator, which is designed to dry foods fast. For those who wish to dry without a dehydrator, an oven is another option. Make sure the appliance can go down to 140°F or else the food will cook. Leave the oven door open about 2-6 inches and place a fan in front of the oven to help with air circulation. Although oven drying is another option, it could be dangerous with young children or pets in the house. Herbs, peppers, and nuts can be easily air dried by simply tying and hanging. Placing a bag with holes in it over the herbs, peppers, and nuts may be a good idea to prevent dust or insects from damaging the food. Microwave drying is best for small amounts of herbs, or leafy vegetables. Microwave drying may lead to food tasting overcooked rather than dried.
Similar to freezing, blanching vegetables in boiling water is suggested to stop the food from deteriorating. Blanching also helps dried foods maintain better flavor, color, and texture. For fruit that turns brown like apples, pears, and bananas, pretreatment with ascorbic acid. Soak the cut fruit in juice for 3 to 5 minutes or dipping in honey will prevent that unwanted color and texture change. When dehydrating fruit, always spray tray with non-stick spray. Since fruit has sugar in it, it’s more likely to stick when drying. Dehydrating times vary depending on the food. One technique to ensure fruits and vegetables dry evening and quickly is cutting or slicing all produce consistently no more than 1/4 inch thick. Lay out on a tray in a single layer with no overlap.
Dehydrating meat for jerky is a delicious and portable protein option. Jerky can be made from lean beef, pork, smoked turkey breast, or venison. Generally, chicken is not recommended because of its change in texture and flavor when dried. The leaner the meat, the better the jerky. Remove any fat on the meat as it will go rancid fast when dehydrating. The way the meat is cut will also affect the texture of the jerky. Cut the jerky with the grain for chewy jerky, and slice across the grain for a more tender, brittle jerky. For more flavor, consider marinating the meat for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator.
Food safety is critical when making jerky since it uses raw meat. When making jerky from pork or wild game, freeze the meat for at least 30 days to destroy any optional parasites. Additionally, heat treatment is required either before or after drying to destroy the presence of E.coli 0157:H7. Heat before drying by boiling meat and marinade for 5 minutes, using a food thermometer to make sure the strips reach 160°F. To heat meat after drying, place strips in a 275°F oven for 10 minutes or until the food thermometer indicates the strips have reached 160°F.
The final step for dehydrating is conditioning. Conditioning is making sure any moisture left from dehydrating is evening distributed to prevent mold. Pack dried produce in a plastic or glass jar about 2/3 full. Cover container and shake daily for 10-14 days. If any condensation builds up under the lid, put the food back in the dehydrator to finish drying. Dried foods should not stick together, and dried berries should rattle when shaken. For best quality, store in a cool, dark, and dry place for one year.
University of Illinois Nutrition and Wellness Extension team is offering weekly webinars every Wednesday, June through July, from 1-2 pm on preserving garden produce. On Wednesday, June 24, the focus is on dehydrating foods. Call the extension office to sign up or register yourself at go.illinois.edu/nutritionwell.
Berry Leather - Makes 1-14-inch tray
1 pint blueberries
1 pint strawberries
¼ tsp. ascorbic acid
Questions about food safety, nutrition, food preservation, or looking for recipes? Contact the local University of Illinois Extension office.
Source: Lisa Peterson, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness