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October 6, 2010

Dry Summer Produce to Keep Through Winter Plastic-Free

 

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 Produce

Jean NickDrying 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.

Fruit Leather

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.

Drying Vegetables

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.

strawberry fruit leather

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.

strawberry fruit leather

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.

strawberry fruit leather

I decided I wanted the mixture to be smoother, so I ran it through the blender and then returned it to the stove.

strawberry fruit leather

I cooked the strawberry puree, stirring constantly, until it was so thick it would not run off the spoon.

strawberry fruit leather

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.

strawberry fruit leather

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?



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24 comments
Anna@GreenTalk
Anna@GreenTalk

Jean, I have been looking for a used or new stainless steel dehydrator. Most come with chrome and one manufacturer says there is no aluminum but iron underneath. The steel shelved ones are so expensive. What do you think. In fact, if they made a solar do it yourself kit rather than offering a book, I would opt for that in a minute... I am at my dehydrator end of the rope with produce multiply as we speak....

Jean Nick
Jean Nick

Cooling racks designed for cooling cookies, etc. are fine for larger, firmer foods such as apple slices, as long as the racks are made of something that will not react with acidic foods as the moist slices will be in contact for long enough to discolor/develop off tastes if they are in contact with iron, tin, aluminum. I avoid non-stick, so that pretty much leaves stainless steel as the only safe metal rack material I can think of right now.

edna
edna

For drying the apples, what about using a cookie drying rack??

Jean Nick
Jean Nick

RE: Seeded grapes: leather will be easier...unless you like crunchy raisins. As I recall if you de-stem the grapes, add just enough water to keep them from scorching, and cook until they get soft and mushy. Mash well and the seeds will mostly settle to the bottom of the pot and you can separate them pretty easily. Then whir the skins and pulp in a blender to pulverize the skin (Concords have notoriously substantial skin). If you blend a seed or two it won't hurt anything and you will increase the antioxidant goodness of the final product. Alternatively you could run the cooked pulp through a food mill or sieve to remove both seeds and skins.

Stephanie - Green SAHM
Stephanie - Green SAHM

I have a dehydrator I inherited from my grandmother. We're going to dry some apples in it soon. I hope it works well for us. Takes a little electricity, but it's not too bad.

Rebecca
Rebecca

Hmmm.. has anybody ever tried making raisins, or maybe fruit leather from concord grapes? The vine is totally loaded with them at the moment... of course they have seeds. Any suggestions?

Jean Nick
Jean Nick

Cover fruit with a couple of layers of cheesecloth to help keep off insects. I keep an eye on my local Craig's List and see a high-quality dehydrator with stainless screens come up every few months, you could also set up an alert on eBay. Or just buy good stainless steel mesh trays and build a simple wooden box with a small fan fitted into it to pull air in a screened opening and discharge the moist air out and with or without a light bulb or heat element. There are lots of plans online such as http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles/sanders63.html or http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/2006-08-01/Build-a-Solar-Food-Dehydrator.aspx.

Ms. Adventuress
Ms. Adventuress

I have a little toaster oven that I carefully, gently and quickly "cook/dry" my produce with, when I want something a little warmer than raw food. It's not perfect, but it works fine for now. Eventually, I hope to have a small stainless steel dehydrator. Right now, I'm storing everything in mason jars, whether they stay out on the counter, go in the fridge or the freezer. Love that dried foods don't need to be frozen!

Anna@Green Talk
Anna@Green Talk

I dry alot in the oven or out in the sun. I let my beans dry outside on the vine. My corn too until the crows sweep in. I made leather once in the oven but found the parchment paper made nice lines in my pan. Plus, I could get the paper off that easily. What did I do wrong> I am trying to figure out which dehydrator to get. I looked at the stainless steel ones with stainless steel trays. Very pricey. What does everyone use?

ecogrrl
ecogrrl

i use the 200 degree setting on my gas range and it's awesome. drying herbs is awesome - cookie sheet, 200, 12 minutes, boom, done! made spiced pear fruit leather this year which was incredible but very time consuming for the amount consumed - i used the recipe (substituting pear for peach) in the 'jam it, pickle it, cure it' book and made pear butter, then spread it out on compostable parchment paper on a cookie sheet (you gotta do this so you can peel it off easy and it cooks evenly - just like cookies, it's worth it), and it was about 7 hours til it was done - but man it was good!

Twyla
Twyla

How are bilberries diff't from blueberries (I just image google searched them and they look the same). But thats not really why I am here. I have issues drying fruity things. I've done greens successfully (swiss chard leaves, parsley root leaves, etc) but when I try fruit or anything that wil be thicker: apple slices, purees, etc ... I always get fruit flies in them. I don't want to use the oven because thats just a waste of energy when its already so hot in the summer. ANd I don't want to buy a dehydrator machine (energy also and the plastickness of it - though I have watched at garage sales the past few years - saw a juicer once but no dehydrator machine) What can I do?

Amber
Amber

I have some instructions for drying apples that involve cutting it into rings and hanging it on a string. I haven't attempted it, but it sounds easy. Although, in fairness, many things SOUND easy before we try them. ;)

Madz
Madz

I grew up on dried fruit snacks. My mum had a fruit dehydrator and she used to dry EVERYTHING! My favourites were always apples, tomatoes, and banana chips. Only thing with dried fruit though is that it's basically a lolly, it;s ALL sugar (which is probably why it lasts so long) As for stainless steel as an ecologically friendly option well after seeing what happened in Hungary yesterday by the Aluminium steel mill I don't think so. Steel manufacture seems to have a lot of chemicals involved. Maybe recycled steel is GOOD but most appliances I believe are made from virgin stel.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Hi Genna. I guess I wasn't clear. I don't have any silicone baking sheets, and I wanted to try it without disposable parchment (which is coated with silicone) or wax paper. I just wanted to see if I could do it w/o creating any trash at all. Rob, please share how you make red pepper flakes!

Rob
Rob

I have a hand me down dehydrator and Love it. I make red pepper flakes, kale and chard chips, dried fruit and jerky with it. Great way to preserve food. A+ on this post!

Alyssa
Alyssa

Do you have an electric oven or gas? The nice thing about gas is the pilot keeps it warm most of the time and it's great for drying stuff out. I usually don't even bother turning the knob if I want to keep things just slightly warm. Also, about silicone baking mats. I bought one thinking it would be great to cut down on foil usage and stop ruining my baking sheets. I bake a lot, and cook a lot so I figured it would be a great product. It was peeling off on my food within six months. So not worth it. A bare baking sheet is fine most of the time, the rest of the time parchment or foil will do the trick. Finally, a great book for ideas on preserving fruits and veggies is Put 'em Up by Sherri Brooks Vinton. I absolutely love that book and it covers drying, infusing, freezing, canning and every possible preservation method you can think of. I also have the Ball Book of Home Preserving out from the library almost constantly although it mostly focuses on canning. Their Blue Book has freezing ideas as well.

Genna
Genna

Why is it more ecological to use stainless steel than silicone? I thought the silicone baking sheets were supposed to last forever....

Kathy G
Kathy G

I got a dehydrator two Christmases ago. Since then I've dried fruit (strawberries, blueberries, and bananas), tomatoes, and beef for jerky.

sudha
sudha

nice...on this note...wanted to add one thing...it is good to encourage people to use up dry or limp veggies from their refrigerator and not toss them...as a rule it is good to use up veggies unless they are rotten....dry..is good as fresh..right!! ( I am a vegetarian so could talk only about veggies :)..no exp with meat or meat products so no idea on that)

Tracey
Tracey

I'm passing this posting on to my DIY friends. I have ambitions, but at present I dry: garden greens (celery, sorrel...) and herbs, mushrooms and other stuff if it looks like it will go off before I get to it. I just string it up to dry, although the pilot light in my gas oven might do the drying trick. I'm inspired to see if my 4 year old would like to make fruit leather!

Nancy
Nancy

I have 2 dehydrators - and use them alot - if going to purchase one make sure it has a thermostat and a fan - I dry all kinds of fruit - peaches - kiwi - plums - strawberries - and throw them all together in a jar and store in the frig - put it in oatmeal in the winter or eat plain - I have dried everything I need for a soup recipe - onions - carrots - celery and stored till winter when I made soup - drying mushrooms are cheaper than buying dried mushrooms - I soak raw peanuts in salt water over night and dry those in the dehydrator instead of buying peanuts from the store..there are some great books at the library - but the one I cannot do with out is my Stocking up 3 book.

Jean Nick a.k.a. Rodale's Nickel Pincher
Jean Nick a.k.a. Rodale's Nickel Pincher

BTW, if you don't have a set of silicone cookie sheet liners I heartily recommend them as a way to avoid stuck foods, greasing pans, and parchment/wax paper. They seem pretty much indistructable, I've been using my pair for years, and other than a couple of careless knife cuts, they are as good as new, if not quite as pristine. High quality silicone bakeware contains no plastics and everything I've read suggests it's pretty much safe and inert..

Jean Nick a.k.a. Rodale's Nickel Pincher
Jean Nick a.k.a. Rodale's Nickel Pincher

Hi Beth - Thanks for pasting and illustrating my little article! For those of you who's ovens don't go low enough you might want to leavingthe oven OFF and hanging an electric light (like a workshop trouble light) with a 75 or 100 wat standard light bulb (not a compact flurescent, in this case you WANT the heat) inside to provide gentle heat. Still remember to crack the oven door and be VERY careful no one turns the oven on (tape over the dial?). If you think a light bulb isn't hot enough to matter you ae not from my generation when aspiring bakers were given toy easy-bake ovens -- complete with tiny metal pans, tools,(I still have my little stainless steel mixing bowl), and even tiny boxes of cake mix and icing mix -- and the easy-bake ovens actually baked...thanks to a (drumroll please) standard electric lightbulb! Josefine - perhaps bilberries have thicker skins than the North American version? Ours tend to have very thin skins and dry easily. Try blanching a batch in boiling water and then drying them to see if that works or chrush them slightly first -- just enough to break the skins?

Josefine
Josefine

I love dried fruit. If anyone has some tips regarding blueberries (not the American ones, I think you might call our Scandinavian blueberries "bilberries"), I'd be most grateful. I failed at drying those. Twice. However, I constantly dry apples. Every time I can my hands on local apples I dry them (after I've made pie...). In fact, I'm going to my sister's house tomorrow to take care of the fruit from her two apple trees. I most commonly use a dehydrator that I usually borrow from my mother, but I won't be able to do that this time and will use the oven. I tried using the oven once, but got impatient and raised the temperature... bad idea. Very bad idea.

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  2. [...] but these are way better than the alternatives!  My Plastic Free Life also has a great post on drying foods for storage.  Canning is another great option.  The lids will be plasticized [...]

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