I learned to can shortly after I moved to Oregon. Yup. I’ve only known how to can for about 6 years. There are people who live among us who have FORGOTTEN more about canning than I will ever learn. As wonderful as canning is as a method to preserve foods we enjoy eating, I quickly learned how much easier it is to dry food for safe storage and later use.
The point is to remove moisture, thereby eliminating mold as a destroyer of food. This can be done using the sun (yeah for our Oregon sunny summers), the oven (at its lowest setting) or an electric dehydrator.
I picked up my first dehydrator at a yard sale for $10. By the time I opened Can-Do Real Food the next summer I had learned some basics and was ready to plop more money down for the higher volume I would need to produce for the business. My family went in together and bought my first one as a Christmas present. Over the years the Excalibur machines have come down in price considerably and by watching sales, you can get one for under $300. The type of machine makes a difference for larger volume drying….the fan and temperature selection options can make a significant difference in the time needed. I found a timer was nice and I actually found the analog dial easier to use than the electronic models.
I purchased several books about dehydration but stopped needing to look for any more after I read the introduction to Dried and True by Sarah Dickerman. Not only did the intro provide a tip that would make my life easier, but the book also provides something I have not seen elsewhere: a chart that explains how to prep each kind of fruit or veggie or meat and how long it can take to dry and what it should feel like at that point to be safe. For someone who is self-learning without a mentor, a chart like that is SO much more helpful than the typical “dry until finished” in most other books.
So, what can you dry for later enjoyment??
Fruit: Not only can you dry cut pieces of fruit for simple snacking, but you can also puree fruit and dry as leather for a fruit roll-up. You can season the fruit or leather with spices like cinnamon, or even add other fruits for a combined flavor, as I did when I made applesauce roll-ups with blueberries. Commercially prepared dried fruit usually has added sugar which is not needed. Like anything else you prepare at home, you can control the ingredients.
Herbs and Greens: These have to be the fastest things to dry!! In a couple of hours, you can take fresh herbs from your garden and dry them for later use in the year when fresh herbs are no longer available. I have dried greens like kale for use in soups, spinach to add to a veggie or chip dip.
Zucchini: okay…..you grew it and it has now overrun the garden. You heard about how prolifically squash plants produce but come on already!! Well, you can make zoodles for year-round gluten-free pasta substitute enjoyment. Shredded zucchini can be stored on shelves in the equivalent of the 2-cup measures you have been saving in your freezer for year-round zucchini bread. Free up that freezer space! I also developed several soup recipes with zucchini (and a canned marmalade….and that was a pleasant surprise).
Winter Squash: Pumpkin or squash puree can NOT be safely canned but it can be dehydrated so you can add liquid when you want to use it. Can-Do Real Food has a fantastic instant soup recipe with butternut squash and pumpkin that won best in Dehydrated Division at the State Fair in 2016. That recipe was developed from one submitted for inclusion in a community cookbook The Wild Ramp (Huntington, West Virginia) produced. So, while ingredient quantities have to be figured out carefully, whole-food recipes CAN be converted into dehydrated mixes.