All Dried Up

Change the texture, flavor, and shelf life of produce with one kitchen tool.

By Edward Lee

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Dehyrdated strawberriesThe need to preserve fruits and vegetables after an abundant harvest is as old as farming itself, and dehydration is the easiest preservation method I’ve found. A dry environment inhibits the growth of microorganisms and bacteria, preventing food from spoiling. It is a technique that has been used from ancient civilizations to the modern commercial food industry, but the resulting products remain the same, from peppers to corn to cranberries. More recently, tabletop dehydrators have brought this technology into the home, and chefs have innovated ways to create new flavors and textures.

There are many benefits to dehydrating foods: As opposed to canning, they retain many of the nutrients that are found in their fresh form; there is no need for chemical preservatives; and it’s an effective way to utilize fruits in season when they are abundant and cheap. At the end of strawberry season, for example, I will buy gallons of strawberries at a great price. Preserving them is as easy as slicing the ripe berries and laying them out on the trays. They can be eaten as an afternoon snack, in a bowl of cereal, as a garnish for salads, or wherever a chewy, intense strawberry texture is welcome. I make a wonderful topping using both fresh and dried strawberries diced together and use it over ice cream. The juiciness of the fresh strawberry contrasting with the concentrated flavor of the dried is a playful and unexpected combination.

Making jerky is a popular use for dehydrators. I take the same technique of marinating the meat but apply it to umami-rich mushrooms instead. Again, this is a tasty vegetarian snack but with a little creativity, it becomes an elegant garnish to a dish of tofu in a light ginger broth. The mushrooms absorb the marinade and take on a meaty flavor that adds a nice contrast to lighter vegetarian dishes.

Leathers are also a common method used in dehydration, but if you continue to dry the food even longer, you will get a brittle texture resembling paper. It is both beautiful to look at and texturally complex. Use a brightly colored vegetable like beets and you will have a stunning presentation for a salad. Granolas are another simple food that becomes elevated when you add seasonal dried fruits like heirloom tomatoes. 

There are so many more uses for dehydrators, from herbs to meat, even flowers. We have only scratched the surface of all the endlessly creative ways to preserve vegetables in this handy and inexpensive tool. Hopefully, these ideas will get you curious and started on your own path to dehydration innovation.

Dried Strawberries with ice creamDried Strawberries
1. Remove the stems from 2 pints strawberries. Slice into 3/8-to-1/2-inch thick slices. Arrange on dehydrator trays, being careful not to overlap any slices.

2. Dehydrate for 6 to 8 hours at 140°F, checking for doneness periodically. Once dry, store in an airtight container.

Choosing a Dehydrator

  • Dehydrators have only a few components to worry about: a heat source, a way to control air flow, and trays to hold the food. Pick a good machine, one that’s not too cheap.
  • Make sure the dehydrator has an adjustable thermostat. Most recipes call for temperatures between 120° and 150°F;  there’s no need to pay extra for ones that go higher.
  • Choose one that has stackable trays so you can do a good amount at once.
  • Look for ones that use fans or “nonpassive” airflow. This is important, because you want the heat to be evenly distributed throughout the trays.
  • The most reliable brands are Excalibur, Nesco, and L’Equip. They make sturdy, safe machines that clean easily.
     
Keep reading for these great dehydrator recipes: Mushroom Jerky, Savory Granola, and Beet Chips.
 
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