9/28/11

Dehydrating the Harvest

For many vegetables and fruits I grow, processing in my dehydrator is a great way of preserving the harvest. I've written about air drying to dehydrate herbs, but this time I am referring to using an electric dehydrator.

Even though I "cure" the home-grown onions and garlic I've dug up by air drying for a couple of weeks, I have not been successful keeping them in cellar storage for an extended time without many rotting. I've found dehydrating onions and garlic allows me to store them indefinitely, and I still find plenty of ways to use them - in soups, casseroles, dips, stews, etc. I've found this useful for my jalapeno harvest, which provides way more than I could ever use fresh. I'd love to dry them in decorative big bunches, as they do in New Mexico with their red chiles, but the first time I tried stringing my jalapenos together and hanging to air dry I just ended up with a lot of moldy peppers to throw away. Our east coast humidity doesn't quite do the trick, like the dry climate of Santa Fe! So my appliance of choice for these projects in my electric dehydrator.

My first electric dehydrator was given to me free from friends Gordon and Terry, who had bought it for venison jerky. They were no longer using it, so I gladly accepted the gift. It was circular, with the heat unit blowing air out from the center. There was no temperature control; just a lever for opening or closing the blowing air. It worked, but I found the drying to be very irregular; the trays had to be rotated up and down and the food had to be moved around from the outside to the inside areas on each level during the drying period. But I used it successfully, trying lots of different veggies and fruit. Tomatoes, bananas, apples, peaches, plums, and blueberries all dehydrated wonderfully. Dried green beans, sweet potatoes, carrots, greens, and most other vegetables didn't make the grade (kale chips are easier and better in my oven). Still, I was convinced that I'd keep dehydrating and decided I needed a better machine. My research showed the Excalibur to be the cadillac, and I bought  a 9-tray "factory reconditioned" model from the manufacturer's eBay store, with an adjustable thermostat and more even drying, with the motor and fan at the rear of square stacking trays. I've primarily used it for the past few years exclusively for drying fruits and veggies, and I sometimes make my own yogurt in it. I'm not big on eating fruit leathers and I haven't tried it for crackers or other recipes, but I might someday. From the start, it has worked fabulously.


So back to the onions, garlic, and jalapenos. I recommend dehydrating all of these outdoors, since the fumes are intense. I also recommend using a sheet of silicon parchment paper on each mesh tray, or the shrunken pieces will be falling through the trays as they dry. Excalibur sells pre-cut drying sheets (they call them disposable, but I rinse them and hang to dry from pant hangers so I can reuse them a few times) or you can cut your own from rolls of parchment paper from the supermarket baking aisle. For the onions and garlic, I peel and clean them, then pulse in my food processor only enough for a rough chop. Protecting my hands with gloves, I cut the stems off the jalapenos, then cut them lengthwise into quarters. The chopped pieces are spread in a single layer on the parchment sheets, right to the edges. Drying time varies, depending on the moisture content of what you are drying, the ambient temperature, the dehydrator temperature, the space around the items being dried, etc. I like to dry these 3 items until brittle, which might take 12 hours at 135 degrees. When dried thoroughly, I have the option to grind them into a fine powder, in a coffee grinder dedicated to herbs and spices (or in a food processor or high speed blender, when you have a big volume to grind). I also save the dried seeds which drop out of the jalapenos, and use them on pizzas. Rick dubbed the ground red jalapeno as my "secret powder", and my friend Julie likes me to keep her supplied - she sprinkles it on her homemade dark chocolate bark.

Dehydrated food will keep for a long time if stored in a cool dark area, and even longer if you vacuum seal them in bags or jars until ready to use. Enjoy!