I often get questions about how to store summer produce in the freezer without zip lock bags. People who are trying to eat locally or who have big gardens want to be able to enjoy summer and fall fruits and vegetables through the winter without plastic. I personally use glass mason jars and airtight stainless steel containers in the freezer. But Jean Nick, who writes the Nickel Pincher column (“eco-advice — that’s ‘eco’ for eco-logical and eco-nomical”) every Thursday on Rodale.com has a different idea, which she offered to share with Fake Plastic Fish readers.
The following is a guest post from Jean. At the end of this post are photos of my own attempt this weekend to take some of her advice, with interesting results.
Drying food is the oldest, simplest, and greenest way to preserve the extra bounty from your garden or your local farmers’ market. And if you make your own it can also-be plastic-free (unlike dried foods that are often sold in plastic packages).
Drying, or dehydration, is eco-friendly for many reasons: Using local fruit and making it yourself saves on transportation energy. The process of drying takes little or no energy (unlike canning) and the dried food keeps for a long time at room temperature in any old airtight jar without any added energy (unlike frozen food). Best of all, drying food is easy and inexpensive to do and most of the “work” goes on without your help while you’re doing other things.
I also like drying food because I can do as little or as much as is convenient at the time. If I’m cutting up apples for a pie, I can cut up a few extra for drying. Got an extra ear of cooked corn? I cut off the kernels and dry them. Dehydrated fruits and veggies make great snacks and are fantastic for adding body and flavor to wintertime soups. Many foods can be dried without using any special equipment (though once you get into it, you may want to build or purchase a food dehydrator — high end ones are made of stainless steal instead of plastic — and some specialized drying screens to expand your options).
Here are a couple of great projects to get you started:
Dried Apple Slices
Apples are a good first project because they aren’t super juicy, which makes them easy to handle. Just about any type of apple will work, I like the tang of spicy tart ones. Buy organic apples or pick them from a local tree (you can trim out bad spots). Wash your apples gently, peel (optional), core, and slice into 1/8”-thick slices, rings, or 1/4” dices (great for adding to snack mixes or hot cereal later). If brown dried apples offend you dip the cut fruit in water with a crushed vitamin C tablet or a spoon of honey dissolved in it.
Spread the prepared pieces out in a single layer, not touching each other, on a cookie sheet or something similar (I use a couple of perforated pizza pans). You can make your own drying screens by stretching cheesecloth over a wood frame (aluminum or fiberglass window screens are NOT safe for food). Even a clean cardboard tray will do.
In dry climates you can put the trays of food in the sun to dry out, covering the food with (more) cheesecloth to keep insects off if necessary. Bring them in at night and if rain threatens. Turn the pieces over part way through to speed the process. Apples dried outdoors will take anywhere from a couple of days to a week, depending on your conditions. Those of us in humid areas do better by putting the tray or screen in the oven and setting it as low as it will go (200 degrees F or less; 160 is perfect) and propping to door open 1/2″ to let out the moisture. (A friend of mine puts her trays in her parked car on sunny days with the windows cracked open slightly — which works well too).
Food in the oven will dry in six to eight hours; I like to do this at night in the summer so I’m not adding heat to a hot house, on chilly fall days a little extra heat is nice. Your dried apples are ready when they are shrunken and leathery looking but still a little flexible. Don’t worry if they seem a little crunchy in places, they are still perfectly delicious, and the moisture will redistribute itself in storage. Store them in clean glass jars, preferably with airtight lids, and out of direct light.
This stuff is a favorite of kids of all ages. You can buy high-quality, organic fruit leather these days (please don’t buy the stuff that’s loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, excess sugar, and artificial glop) but chances are it comes wrapped in plastic – plus it is expensive. Luckily fruit leather is easy and inexpensive to make. It’s also a great use for slightly overripe fruit. You will tie up the oven for a while, as it can take three days or more for the leather to dry, but it won’t hurt to take it out for a few hours while you use the oven for something else.
You can make leather from a single type of fruit, or throw in a couple different kinds (remember pumpkin and winter squash are fruits too!). Whatever you decide on pick organic, wash, peel, core, pit, or seed as needed; cut into small chunks and place it in a saucepan. Two cups is a good amount to start with to make a single sheet of leather.
Mash soft fruit lightly to release juice, or add a small amount of fruit juice or water with firmer chunks. If you want the end result to retain some of the color of the original, add a ¼ teaspoon of ascorbic acid crystals or one crushed 750-milligram vitamin C tablet.
Cook on low, covered, until everything is soft. Whir the fruit mush in a blender or force it through a sieve or food mill for smooth leather. Or just mash it to break up the big chunks if texture is OK. Add sweetener if you want (I like honey, stevia, or none) and flavorings such as cinnamon or ginger to taste. Go lightly with both, as everything will get more concentrated as the puree thickens and dries.
Continue to cook the puree on low, with the lid off, stirring frequently (a double boiler or slow cooker is good for this, as it’s easy to scorch your puree if you get distracted as easily as I do) until the mixture is very, very thick.
Spread it in an even 1/8- to ¼-inch layer on a cookie sheet lined with organic waxed paper or a silicone sheet and place in an oven set at the lowest temperature. The leather is done when it’s still slightly sticky on the surface but looks pretty leathery overall. Speed the drying by carefully peeling the leather off the paper or liner when it is almost done, turning it over, and putting it back in the oven for a little longer.
Total drying time will be one to three days [Beth: If drying in the sun. See my experience below.] Roll the finished leather up with a sheet of organic waxed paper or parchment paper to keep it from sticking to itself (or dust it with organic corn starch) and store in airtight jars at room temperature. Cut off pinwheels with a sharp knife to serve.
Trim, cut, blanch (dip in rapidly boiling water for 3 minutes, chill immediately in cold water) then dry as for apples. Without blanching they will be very tough.
Beth’s Strawberry Fruit Leather Attempt
Strawberries are one of my favorite summer fruits, so I decided to try making strawberry fruit leather following Jean’s instructions. First, I cut up the fruit.
I mashed it in a pan on the stove to release the juices, and I added some maple syrup after cooking for a while when I realized the mixture was too tart for my taste buds.
I also added some ascorbic acid powder to retain the color. I was excited to find ascorbic acid in the bulk herbs section at Whole Foods and was able to fill my own jar at the store.
I decided I wanted the mixture to be smoother, so I ran it through the blender and then returned it to the stove.
I cooked the strawberry puree, stirring constantly, until it was so thick it would not run off the spoon.
Then, I spread it out on a stainless steel cookie sheet. I don’t have a photo of that step, unfortunately, or you would see that I did not use wax paper or silicone. I wanted to see if it could be done waste-free. And I think it can, just not with my oven. Unfortunately, my oven does not go down to 160 degrees, and in fact, I don’t think it really goes down to 200. It seemed very very hot to me, even on the lowest setting. And so…
The fruit leather started to burn on the edges within one hour. *Sigh* But I was able to save most of it, scraping it off the tray with a stainless steel turner. Here’s what my finished product looked like — the unburned portion. It tasted pretty good. In fact, I didn’t get to find out how well it would keep because I ate it all the next day.
I’m thinking that maybe next time, I’ll heat up the oven and then turn it off and let the fruit stay in there for several hours to dry out. I couldn’t leave it out in the sun this weekend because it wasn’t sunny enough.
So, do any of you have experience with drying produce? What’s your advice for those of us without a dehydrator?