The Driest Way to Reduce Food Waste Also Happens to Be Delicious
Last week’s column served an unintended purpose: I was reminded that my food dehydrator has been on extended loan to a pal who makes her own activated raw nuts.
I want it back.
It’s capable of so much more, you see, especially at this time of year, with all the rich, colorful abundance at farmers markets and roadside stands hollering “Buy me.” A dehydrator, which uses a fan to dry foods efficiently and relatively quickly, is one of the handiest electrical appliances there is—especially if it’s too humid to dry foods in the sun, or if you can’t take your oven out of commission for the time necessary to dry something low and slow.
One of the main benefits of a dehydrator is its “waste not, want not” aspect: Like freezing, it reduces the food waste generated in your home. It also helps lower food costs, since you can buy in bulk as well as prepare snacks and dried herbs at home for a fraction of their cost at the store.
It also gives you greater control. If you or someone in your family is sensitive to sulfites, for example, you should be aware that most commercial dried fruits have been soaked in a sodium bisulfite solution to reduce oxidation (browning) and loss of vitamins A and C. Some fruits—such as apples, pears, apricots, and peaches—are more appetizing and last longer when pretreated, but if you make them at home, you can briefly soak the fruit in an ascorbic acid mixture (available at supermarkets) instead of going the sulfite route.
The cost of a dehydrator varies depending on its bells and whistles; I think my basic model, a Nesco American Harvest, cost around 40 bucks online and is expandable, so I can add a couple of extra trays. Other tempting accessories include a fruit roll sheet and gun for piping out homemade jerky and other dried-meat snacks.
In any event, I’m determined to broaden my repertoire of preserving skills beyond Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce With Onion and Butter (the simplest of recipes are often the ones that will change your life), slow-roasted tomatoes, the best grape jam on the planet, and air-dried garden herbs. Because it’s been so hot and sunny in my part of the world, the fruit, in particular, has been outstanding—bursting with sweetness and juice—and dried peaches, plums, blueberries, figs, and fall’s first apples will come in handy for baked goods, snacks, a topping for oatmeal and other whole-grain cereals, and chutneys or compotes.
As I wrote in a column some years back, the nutrition in dried fruit can be higher than in fresh fruit because the dried version has less moisture—that is, you get more solid fruit per ounce. This is not true across the board, though, depending on what vitamin or mineral you’re talking about. A medium-size fresh plum contains 0.1 milligram iron and 670 IU vitamin A, while the equivalent weight in dried plums—often called prunes—contains 2 milligrams iron and 952 IU vitamin A. But a fresh plum is much higher in vitamin C than a prune.
Drying your own fruit is a huge improvement over buying the typical commercial stuff, unless you seek out the finest available—dried Blenheim apricots from California, for instance, which have a complex sweet-tart balance that is worlds better than the generic sweetness of imported dried apricots.
As with canning and other food-preservation methods, food safety is a concern, and it’s really important to use the right equipment and follow instructions carefully. The booklet that came with my Nesco is full of sound, easy-to-understand information as well as recipes that range from homemade chili powder and energy bars to turkey-and-sweet-potato treats for dogs, which immediately caught my husband’s eye. “Top-quality dog treats are so expensive!” he said. (Positive reinforcement and lots of it goes a long way with our puppy, 61 pounds and still growing.) “I’m in.”
Other excellent sources of information include the classic Putting Food By, by Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan, and Janet Greene; the Complete Book of Home Storage of Vegetables and Fruits, by Evelyn V. Loveday, which contains directions on building several different types of home dryers; and the free expertise provided by the USDA National Center for Home Food Preservation (thank you, tax dollars).
For raw foodists craving a cracker instead of a carrot stick, a dehydrator goes a long way in adding variety and crispness to meals. According to Raw Food Diet Magazine, drying time is key. “The definition of raw and living foods is foods that have not been exposed to heat high enough to denature the important living enzymes. As every enzyme is different the temperature varies. The most widely recognized food temperature for living foods is about 118° F. However, this lower drying temperature extends the drying time.” (I’m all for incorporating more raw foods into our diets, but here’s the skinny on plant enzymes and more.)
And crafter types should know that you can also use a dehydrator for making a dried apple wreath, dried flowers for a custom potpourri, or “baker’s clay” for dough ornaments. Which the puppy would hoover up in a second.