Monday, August 6, 2012

The Mighty Dehydrator

I started dehydrating food out of simple necessity. I needed a fast and easy method to preserve the hundreds of pounds of peaches I get from my two peach trees every year. However, I soon became a food dehydration fan, searching out foods to dry to see how they would taste. This year my goal is to stop buying fruity lunch snacks for my son, who loves the dried peaches, bananas, apples, pears, cantaloupes, and even the tart plum chips that I make for him.

Like any food preservation technique, dehydration helps me to eat more local and organic food. I can preserve the tons of excess produce from my garden and fruit trees at the height of summer (picking at peak freshness for best flavor), which enables me to eat locally year-round. I can also take advantage of farmer's market / supermarket specials to purchase foods at low cost and preserve them. At the same time, I'm creating food storage for my family that will last for many months.

Not only does dehydration help me eat more locally and organically, but it also helps my family eat in a more environmentally friendly way, because it reduces packaging waste. Since I can re-use glass jars and lids repeatedly, I don't have to eat food stored in plastic, and we don't need to throw away packaging after only one use. This may seem like a small benefit, but it makes me surprisingly happy.

Although I also can, freeze, ferment, and jam, when I've got a lot of food to preserve, I usually prefer to dehydrate. Why?

1. Inexpensive.
I purchased my Nesco food dehydrator for about $50, and I store my dried food in glass jars found at garage sales. Both the jars and lids can be re-used over and over (unlike with canning, where a new lid is required each time.)  The only other equipment needed is a cutting board and a knife, although an apple corer does come in handy. I don't have to purchase any kind of special extra ingredients to add to the food.

2. Makes great snacks.
Dried fruits are quite sweet even without adding any sugar because the natural sugars are concentrated when the water is removed. Fruit dried at home is cheaper than the organic fruit strips or dried fruit from the store, and without questionable additives or preservatives. In my experience, most dried fruits keep for a year or more.

3. Simple and fast.
Dehydration is great for beginners, because generally, there are no complicated instructions to remember. I simply cut up the food, put it in the dehydrator trays, and turn on the dehydrator. When the food is finished drying, I put it in glass jars and seal it with lids and screwtops. I prefer to get the food pretty dry so that I have no concerns about food safety; I put any food that is still moist in the fridge or eat it within a few days.

4. Takes up less space.
You might be amazed by how much food can be stored in a quart jar after it has been dried. If your pantry or freezer space is limited, dehydration is your best friend. In fact, dried food shrinks up so much that it's a little frightening - but don't worry, the fiber, calories, minerals, and Vitamin A are still in there.

Although dehydrating food is a great preservation technique, there are a few quirks. Dehydrators make noise and put out heat. Therefore, when I am using the dehydrator, I always place it in the garage, up on a ledge. This is especially crucial in the summertime, when I don't want any extra heat in the house.

Preparing food for dehydration does not take much time, perhaps half an hour, although peaches require more time because I first remove the skins. However, the actual dehydration process consumes many hours, and unfortunately, most dehydrators do not have timers attached. I've found that drying times vary according to many different factors. I usually dry peaches for twelve hours; apples, which are much less juicy, for four to six hours. So, if you are trying to preserve a lot of food at once (for example, 160 pounds of peaches or 70 pounds of apples), you might want to purchase or borrow a second dehydrator, use multiple techniques for preservation, or time your preservation so that you can kick off a batch in the morning and then overnight. I use all of these strategies at the height of food preservation season.

One of the best parts of dehydrating food is that I can listen to Great Courses, Peak Moment TV, interviews on the Energy Bulletin, books on tape from the library, or chat with a friend at the same time. An activity that could have been a chore becomes as fun as watching a good movie or reading a book - but with quarts of inexpensive, tasty, local, organic food storage at the end.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Summer Solar Cooking

Cooking with a Sun Oven is never easier than in the summer months, when the sun is intense and the days are long.  Temperatures inside my Global Sun Oven can easily reach 350 degrees within around fifteen minutes, and so I can cook a wide range of dishes - sometimes several in one day.

Yesterday, I cooked a batch of applesauce with Granny Smith apples that I scavenged with my friends out in Jones, Oklahoma, and I also cooked potatoes for potato salad that evening. The applesauce was so hot that when I ladled it into jars, it caused the lids to seal (not true canning, but I thought it was impressive). As I made dinner later that night, I realized that I could have also cooked hard-boiled eggs and heated up the black-eyed peas for a 100% solar cooked meal.  If only I had planned better! C'est la vie.

Solar cooking is also more worthwhile during the summer months of May through September. There is less wind or cloud cover, and thus less anxiety about whether the Global Sun Oven will tip over or fail to cook a dish completely. Cooking outside also decreases the heat gain inside my house. Since my air conditioner has a difficult time keeping our house under 80 degrees when it is over 100 degrees out (for example, the entire last three weeks), solar cooking saves energy (and money) on both cooking and air conditioning, and is essential for keeping the house cool on the hottest days.

For this same reason, solar cooking is the only way that I bake in the summer.  I just can't stand to add an hour or more of oven heat to my house when it is 105 degrees outside.  So I use the Sun Oven to bake, or don't bake at all.


While there are many, many things that I can cook and bake in the sun oven, (see Cooking with Sunshine, or Sharlene's blog Mainstream Solar Cooking) here's a short list of my "go-to" sun oven items - items I know will cook quickly, easily, and well:

  • Potatoes
  • Corn on the cob
  • Banana bread
  • Rice
  • Ratatouille
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Applesauce
One thing that I have never tried - but would love to try - is canning in the Sun Oven.  I don't have the confidence to do it, because of the health and safety concerns, but I also believe that it would be a truly useful device for anyone who wants to can when it is inferno-level hot outside, or wants to save on energy costs.  So if you know anyone who would be qualified to conduct rigorous canning trials with a Sun Oven, please encourage them to do so and let me know the results!