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Drying Food: Ask Santa for a Dehydrator

Food Dehydrator
by John Raven, Ph.B.

I wanna talk to you today a little about drying foods. Drying came about as a way to preserve food when it was plentiful, for hard times when it wasn't.

Hardcore traditional drying is done outside by the sun or with dry smoke from a fire. That process is a tad unhandy at times. A lot of folk lack a riverbank on which to build racks to dry their abundant catch of fish or what have they.

A while back I purchased a small home-style dehydrator. "Dehydrator" is a Latin word meaning "get the water out". That's what it does. The dehydrator I have is rather small; it has four trays about 16 inches in diameter to hold the food for drying. It has a thermostat on the top to set the temperature at which the food is dried, and there is a fan to circulate the warm air. We are drying the food -- not cooking it. The temperatures should stay under 150 degrees.

Food Dehydrator Instruction Book

The dehydrator came with a fairly complete instruction book. I was able to figure out how to use it in a few minutes. There is one caveat (another Latin word) here that I would like to toss out. The dehydrator manual has instructions for making "jerky" from hamburger and a pack of their spices.

This is not jerky. This is a Slim-Jim without the plastic wrapper. If you get a dehydrator and it has instructions for "jerky" made from hamburger, I want you to tear the page out and run it through the shredder, and then burn the shreds in the fireplace.

You can make acceptable jerky in one of these machines. You need to use real beef or bison or the like. There are several articles on making jerky archived over at Traditional Texas Food on the front page of www.texascooking.com. [See Jerky: It's Not Just for Christmas Anymore and Jerky: Quick Snacks & Cool Summertime Meals .] You can become informed there.

I have not tried drying everything the book says I can dry. My experiments have been mostly confined to fruits and vegetables. I guess the most enjoyable thing I have produced was some raisins. I had purchased some really large white grapes, and had never seen grapes that big. They were about the size of a quail egg. The grapes were not so tasty off the vine; in fact, they were rather bland. I decided to dry some and see what happened.

I pulled all the grapes off the vine, washed them and sliced them in half long ways. I put them on the trays cut side up. The following morning, I had delicious white raisins. The drying process concentrates the sugars and flavors in fruits and vegetables.

Dehydrating Potatoes

If you get a dehydrator and it has instructions for "jerky" made from hamburger, I want you to tear the page out and run it through the shredder, and then burn the shreds in the fireplace. My second big success was drying some potatoes. A neighbor gave me a five-pound bag of potatoes, which I knew would start growing under the counter before I could use them, so I checked on the process and dried the whole bag. Now, there is some work involved in drying potatoes. First thing, you have to peel all of them and cut off any blemishes. We know potatoes tend to turn dark pretty soon after they are peeled, so I had a big bowl of slightly salted water to store the peeled spuds in while I worked on them.

After you get them all peeled, you have to slice them. I have a mandolin slicer that makes short work of slicing things. You just have to be careful and not give yourself a manicure while using it. You want a slice about one-eighth of an inch thick. You can do this with your favorite knife if no slicer is handy.

As the potatoes are sliced, they go back in the salted storage water.

About the time you started slicing the potatoes, you should have put a large pot of water on the stove, put a tad of salt in it and brought it to a boil. We are going to blanch the potato slices. Pour the salted water off the potatoes and run on new water and swish the slices around.

You get a handful and drop the slices one at a time into the boiling water. If you just chunk them in, they will stick together and make a mess. Work rapidly. Put about two good handfuls in the pot at a time. Let them boil for about three minutes and then fish them out. One of the Oriental dippers that looks like a dip net made of brass works real well. From the boiling water, the slices go into cold water in another big pot or bowl. Let the slices cool off in the cold water while you put another batch in the boiling water.

When the slices have cooled enough to handle comfortably, fish them out, shake off the excess water and lay them one at a time on a dish towel to dry off all the excess water. Use paper towels or another dish towel to get off as much water as possible. The dry slices are arranged on a rack in your dehydrator. You don't stack the slices -- just one single layer.

When all the racks are full, load them in the dehydrator and set it on whatever temperature your instruction book recommends. Mine says 135 degrees. In about six hours, the slices should be at the crisp stage. The actual time varies, so you will just have to work it out.

The potato slices will shrink considerably. Five pounds of potatoes will reduce to a volume that will fit in a quart zip-lock bag. The slices will look like potato chips. Don't try to chew one; they are as tough as heck.

Dried foods are reconstituted by putting the water back in. The usual method is to cook them in boiling water. You can add them directly to soups and stews. There is no set time it takes for the vegetables to reconstitute. You will just have to work it out. It may take a tad longer than you expect but the results are worth it.

The potatoes I dried came back just like boiled fresh potatoes.

If you have never experimented with drying foods, give it a try. I find it entertaining and educational, and I can eat my homework.

You need to read up on the subject. I just don't have space to cover everything. You need to learn about "sulphuring" fruits like apples and peaches to keep them from turning dark when they are dried.

If you are a camper or backpacker and need some low-volume, lightweight foodstuff, you can't beat the dried products and, if you do it yourself, it is even more fun.

As with anything in the kitchen, you need to experiment and find what works for you.

See ya next month.

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