Monday, September 12, 2011

Preserving the Harvest: Drying Food for winter storage

Since my last post, where I wrote that we had found a home and things were moving forward for us to close and move in a couple of weeks, everything has fallen apart, well in the house realm that is. Working with banks and trying to buy a foreclosure is an interesting learning experience. Although I must admit that I would be very glad to be done with the "learning" aspect of this process. It turns out the bank who owned the foreclosure we were trying to buy decided to change their part of the agreed offer leaving us having to back out of the deal. We've been scrambling once again to find a place to live, now focusing on renting on a short term basis, since there is no longer enough time to buy a place before we move (which is in about 2 weeks). Finding a rental property is hard where we live. Well, it's hard if you don't want to spend a fortune or commit to a 12 month lease and you have pets. Both my husband and I are working towards not feeling overwhelmed with so many unknowns in our life at the moment. It's been and a hard and exhausting process. What we know is that we are going to trust in our Lord our God. We know He can give us the wisdom we need for making the right decisions and He can also provide us with the right place to live. So for now, I am packing, and scouring the internet for places to live and hoping that something opens up for us in the next day or so, so we at least can know whether we need a storage unit, if we need to sell more of our stuff, when we need to rent a check and all the other fun stuff that goes with moving. For those of you who are believers in Christ Jesus and our Holy Father in Heaven our Savior, please lift us up in your prayers.

Now, how about something that actually deals with food?!

Last weeks CSA box. Doesn't it look delicious and what amazing colors?!
This time of year I keep my eyes wide open for ways I can get fresh foods in bulk for an excellent price, so I can put it away for winter. I also put aside any extra food we don't or can't get through in our CSA box.

When looking for where to buy bulk quantities of food, one great place to check out is the local farmer's market, especially for tomatoes, peppers and even herbs. Even if you can't find cheap bulk prices, consider how much you are spending on a pound of food now versus how much it will be in the winter. I think it's reasonable to say buying almost anything in season is going to be cheaper then buying it off season even if the co-op or grocery store is running a special on it, so stock up! Plus it will more then likely be far more nutrients dense. Besides the farmers market, I love to get things from Azure Standard. They have excellent prices that only get better with the larger amount you buy.

A mix of sweet peppers that have been had the skin blistered under a broiler to remove the skins then dried.
The hardest part about stocking for up for winter is knowing exactly how to preserve what you get. It's been my goal to start to veer away from relying on electricity through refrigeration and freezing to store my foods for long term. While a root cellar would make this far easier, which I don't have or have a way to mimic, this year I'm trying to dry my food. This is an especially helpful way to store food with us moving and not knowing what type of kitchen/storage we'll have available to use. I'm still canning tomatoes and such, but a good majority of my foods are being dehydrated. I did this some last year, but then failed to use much of it, because I didn't know what to do with it. However, with a bit more research and realizing that canning has only been around since the mid 19th century, I realized that preserving through drying would have likely been the way people would have stored at least a portion of their food through the winter months. Well, if my ancestors could do it I certainly can too... at least that's what I'm telling myself! Plus, drying supposedly helps retain more of food's nutrients. Boiling food through water bath canning or heating it to an even higher temperature with a pressure canner will kill (hopefully) all of the bad bacteria and such that would cause the food to spoil and make your sick. Yet, if it can kill the bad stuff, it can and dose certainly kill the good nutrients too. The food the majority of us has access to is already void of much of it's nutrients because of poor farming practices and soil maintenance. If we have an inferior product to start with (hate to say it but it's true folks) then I certainly want to do my best to preserve whatever nutrients I can. Freezing food just after it's peak is actually probably the best way to preserve nutrients, there is one big problem with freezing though.  If all your food for winter is in your freezer and you have a period of time where you loose electricity or your freezer shuts down, well, yeah, um say good by to your hard earned money. This has happened to us twice now with two different freezers. It's very frustrating and discouraging to have to throw away food that has spoiled because of a power outage or because a freezer stops working properly.

A mix of mostly hot peppers. I cut the tops of, but otherwise left them intact with the seeds inside.

You can dry, it seems, just about everything. Fruit, vegetables, herbs, cultures like yogurt and kefir, kefir grains, sourdough starter, meat and even broth/stock to make your own bouillon.

Fresh tomatoes cut into about 1/2" slices then dried until they are leathery. I left the skins on this time, but you don't have to.

Once the food is thoroughly dried, which for most items you'll be left with a stiff leather or something that is dry enough to actually crack like a chip, you can store it in the container of your choice that locks out air and moisture. For me, I use quart, 1/2 gallon and 1 gallon glass jars with tight fitting lids. It's very important that moisture does not permeate the food once it's been dried or it could develop mold on it.

Fresh cherries, pits removed then dried to a leathery texture. Looking forward to making some pie with these!

If you notice that your dried food has begun to absorb extra moisture, perhaps from a very humid environment, as long as it hasn't spoiled (smell/taste test) and doesn't have mold on it, go ahead and dry it again and pack it back away.

After you've thoroughly dried your food and packed it into jars or another suitable container, store your items in a dark place where light can't harm it. Also, choose a place away from a lot of extra humidity (if possible),  extra heat (like setting your items next to a heat source) and toxic fumes. For instance, the garage might not be the best place for most people to store their dried food. Lot's of fumes come from our cars and unless you are completely convinced you have your food in very airtight container that fumes can not penetrate, a basement may be a better choice. The problem with basements can be the extra humidity. But hey, don't get overwhelmed here, just think it through and make do with what you have. The better the environment the longer the food's shelf life will be. When you are ready to use your dried food, you can rehydrate it by placing it in a bowl of water for a couple of hours or grinding it up into a power/flour, or like in the case of dried fruit or meat, eat it as it is.

Fresh green beans, blanched first then placed in ice cold water to stop cooking process, then ready to be dried.

This year I am using my new Excalibur Dehydrator to dry all of my foods. I must tell you that this dehydrator is fabulous. I used to use a standard dehydrator where you stacked your trays. Mine didn't have a fan and was about as basic as you get. It made drying far more difficult as you had to switch the trays around so all the food would evenly dry. That part wasn't such a big deal, perhaps just a bit tedious, what was hard though it often my food would burn on the bottom tray or dry out towards the center of the tray and not on the edges (this was very frustrating when trying to make fruit leather). If you are looking at dehydrators, make sure to get one with a fan on it. It will make a significant different in your end results. The fan helps circulate the warm air and the food more evenly dries. With the Excalibur you don't have to switch trays around, which I love because I can set it down in our basement and let it do it's thing without checking on it every 5-6 hours. Again this is more of a convenience thing. What I really love about the Excalibur is it's ability to let you select the best drying temperature for the food you have.  This means that you can better preserve the different type of foods you have and your dehydrator can be used to make yogurt or other cultured items (you can remove the shelves and place your jars at the bottom and then set the heat at about 105° F) or even help rise dough (great for cool climates).  By the way, I just want to mention I'm not selling Excaliburs nor was I asked to give a great review about them, I simply like this item and what to share with you all the benefits of it.

One of these days I hope to start drying food outside without the use of electricity. This is going to take far more research though. We simply don't get the heat/sun and dry environment this far north for drying food well. That doesn't mean it can't be done, I know it can be, I just need to look into it more. So, for the time being the Excalibur is my best friend for preserving my food for this winter.

Fresh and dried zucchini.
While I'd love to share exactly how to dry your food with length of times for drying and end texture or level of dryness and even how to prep different food items, that is essentially a book in and of itself. What I'd recommend is doing an internet search for the food you are trying to dry, or purchase a book about drying, or head over to your local library. Not all foods can be placed in whole or even sliced form to be dried. Some items needs to be prepped so they'll be easier to use later. For instance, you are going to want to remove pits from stone fruit, fresh veggies like green beans are best blanched before drying and you may want to consider removing the skin of items like peppers and tomatoes before drying. Some items should also have a bit of lemon juice put on them so they don't discolor and so on. So, in the end take a bit of time to research what it is you are going to be drying.

One final note, always use fresh food without any rotten spots. You want to preserve the best quality food you can. Food that has already begun to rot won't be nearly as nutrient dense, it can have an off flavor that can only be enhanced during the drying process and it won't preserve as well for the long term.

Good luck with your preserving for this fall season. I hope this post was a little bit helpful or at least a bit eye opening to another way to preserve the fall harvest!

1 comment:

  1. I too have an Excalibur dehydrator and I love it. I have had mine for years and used it to make so many pounds of Jerky not to mention dried fruit and veggies. I dread the day it gives up the fight.


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