Preserving expert Sherri Brooks Vinton answers common questions about drying your own food and shares a simple recipe for oven-dried cherries.
Drying food is one of the oldest forms of home food preservation. Even before there was farming, nomadic tribes would dry the food they found or caught. Today, this method of home food preservation remains a popular, low-tech process that is accessible to every home cook.
Those who dry their own food swear by it. Here are some of the best reasons to dry that I have collected along the way:
- It’s an easy way to preserve small amounts of food.
- Dried food is light and compact, so it’s easy to store in small spaces.
- It’s economical. You don’t need any specialized equipment.
- It’s an easy process to master; the steps required are easy to follow.
- It’s delicious and nutritious. Home-dried foods don’t come with additives, preservatives, or sweeteners, making them a great addition to your diet.
Q: What are the best fruits and vegetables to dry?
A: You can dry all kinds of produce, but fruit is the easiest (and
most delicious in my book). The process intensifies the fruit’s sweet
flavor, so dried fruits pack a lot of punch. They are great eaten out of
hand but are also versatile as an ingredient in both sweet and savory
recipes. For example, you can reconstitute dried cherries (see recipe
below) in a little brandy or rum and serve them over ice cream,
or use them in stuffings and salads, where their tart flavor will make
your mouth water with every bite.
Q: What is the best way to crack or check fruits before drying them?
A: Cracking and checking are terms used interchangeably to describe the process of breaking the skin of produce so that it can dry more readily and thoroughly. It is an important step in the drying process. Foods are prepared in this way to prevent case hardening, a condition that occurs when items dry too quickly on the outside, creating an airtight seal that traps moisture in the food, a potential vector for contamination. Checking the produce allows internal moisture to escape so that the food dries all the way through. If your recipe calls for your produce to be checked, don’t skip it.
There are a couple of different ways you can check your produce. You can do it manually, by piercing the fruit or slitting it with a sharp knife. Or you can blanch the fruit so that the skin softens and splits. It may seem time-consuming to check all of your fruit or counterintuitive to put the food you are going to dry through such a wet process, but checking will greatly reduce the overall drying time.
Q: Do I have to have a special dehydrator to dry my own food?
A: You don’t need any special equipment to dry food. You can dry it outside or in an attic that gets good air circulation. Place it on mesh racks or string foods such as chiles and beans by running a needle and thread through the stem and hanging the threaded produce in a well-ventilated area. If you live in a damp climate, you can use your oven. Set it to a low temperature. I dry at 170°F, which simultaneously dries and pasteurizes the food. Just be sure to prop the door open slightly so that the steam created by the drying fruit can escape.
Q: How do I know that I have removed all necessary moisture from the produce I am drying?
A: It is important to make sure that your food is thoroughly but not overly dried. Food that has too much moisture will mold in its sealed container. Overdrying will compromise flavor and texture. Most recipes will give visual cues to help you ensure that your food is properly dried. As a rule, dried fruits should be dry but pliable. You should be able to squeeze a few in your hand without them sticking together. Dried vegetables, such as dried mushrooms and green beans, will be leathery but not brittle.
To test your produce to make sure that it is properly dried, seal the dried, cooled food in an airtight container for 24 hours. If water droplets, even the tiniest mist of humidity, form on the inside of the container, your food needs a bit more drying. Repeat the drying process until the inside of the container remains dry.
Q: What’s the best way to store dried foods?
A: Dried foods should be stored in an airtight container, such as a canning jar with a lid, away from light, heat, and, of course, moisture.
It’s a good idea to store your dried foods in small quantities. Each time you open the container, humidity from the air will cause some moisture reabsorption. How much depends on how humid the day. If you have a large container, your dried food will be exposed to airborne moisture many more times than it would be in a smaller container, which you might only open once or twice before you have polished off its contents.
Always inspect your dried foods before serving them. Even foods that went into the containers dry may have picked up moisture during storage. Discard any food that becomes moldy.
Make these dried cherries once and they will become your favorite pantry staple: substitute them for raisins in baking recipes; add them to salads for an elegant touch — try sprinkling a few over a salad of bitter greens dotted with goat cheese for a real treat. I also like to reconstitute them in a little liquor as a grownup dessert topping: douse ½ cup of cherries with ½ cup of brandy or rum, let stand for a few hours, and then sweeten with a couple of tablespoons of honey. Makes about 1 cup per quart of fresh cherries.
4–8 cups sweet cherries
Preheat the oven to 170°F. Line several baking sheets with tea towels and set aside. Prepare an ice-water bath in a large bowl or impeccably clean sink.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop the cherries into the water, no more than 1 pound at a time, and return to a boil. Blanch for 1 minute.
Scoop out the cherries with a spider or slotted spoon and plunge them into the ice-water bath. Continue blanching the cherries in batches. Remove the cherries from the ice bath with a slotted spoon and spread on the towel-covered baking sheets. Blot dry. Pit the cherries.
Spread the pitted cherries on metal screens or cake-cooling racks set over baking sheets. Dry in the oven until the cherries are shriveled and no longer moist in the center, 5 to 7 hours. The cherries are fully dry when you can squeeze a handful and they don’t stick together.
Let the cherries cool, and then transfer them to a covered container to condition for 1 week or so. Conditioning allows the dried fruit to redistribute any trapped moisture. If you notice moisture on the inside of the container, repeat the drying process for another hour. Dried cherries will keep for up to 1 year in an airtight container.