June 27, 2022

Drying preserves fruits, vegetables, herbs, meat

Follow steps for dehydration to maintain food quality

DECATUR, Ill. — Drying is one way to preserve fruits, vegetables, herbs or meats that is not a difficult task.

“There are two primary ways for spoilage including enzymes,” said Caitlin Mellendorf, University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator for DeWitt, Macon and Piatt counties.

“When we take foods off plants, they no longer have the energy source coming from the plant, so the enzymes divert from growing to decomposition,” Mellendorf explained during a Fill Your Pantry webinar. “The goal during drying is to limit the action of the enzymes to preserve food.”

The second way food spoils is through microorganisms.

“We want to deactivate the microorganisms and kill them, so we can preserve our foods,” Mellendorf said. “Drying reduces the water in the foods, which deters the microorganisms because they can’t access the water and sugars they need to grow.”

Personal hygiene is a necessity when dehydrating foods.

“Wash your hands, especially whenever you’re changing tasks or touching different equipment or food,” Mellendorf said. “If you are sick, that is a good reason not to do dehydration at that time and make sure your kitchen surfaces are clean and sanitized.”

Mellendorf encourages the use of a tested recipe from sources such as the So Easy to Preserve book.

There are horizontal and vertical styles of electric dehydrators. Vertical dehydrators have trays that stack on top of each other with the fan and heating element on the bottom that pushes the hot air up.

The horizontal versions are box styles that have the heating element and the fan on the back side which pushes the air outward.

“You can use an oven or microwave, but an oven takes two to three times longer to dry than a dehydrator,” Mellendorf said. “Make sure your oven goes down to 140 degrees because if it doesn’t go this low, the food will end up cooking and not drying so you won’t have a preserved product.”

Microwaves can be used to dry herbs or leafy vegetables.

“You might get a cooked taste to your herbs,” Mellendorf said. “It is trial and error to see if you like them dried in a microwave.”

Air drying works really well for herbs and hot peppers.

“Bundle the herbs or peppers on the stems with string and cover them with a perforated paper bag to allow the air to circulate,” Mellendorf said. “You can do this inside or outside, but put the bundles in a place with low humidity.”

Beans such as kidney beans or garbanzo beans can be dried on the vine.

“Wait for the pods to shrivel up, take them off the plant and shuck off the pod,” Mellendorf said.

Sun drying is an option for food preservation. However, there are some challenges since it requires two to four days of ideal conditions.

“You need temperatures of 85 degrees or higher, humidity below 60%, a breeze and no rain,” Mellendorf said. “Getting all four of these to happen simultaneously can be challenging, so we really don’t recommend it.”

Mellendorf recommends pre-treating fruits to improve quality and flavor, especially for fruits that turn colors such as apples and bananas.

“Options include vitamin C, citric acid or lemon juice and cold soaking the fruits for 10 minutes, drain and put the foods in the dehydrator,” she said.

Vegetables need a pre-treatment by blanching to soften the cell walls, so they dry more efficiently. However, not all vegetables need this.

“Mushrooms and tomatoes don’t need this,” Mellendorf said. “Other vegetables need different times for blanching like carrots for four minutes, corn on the cob for four to six minutes and potatoes for seven minutes.”

After blanching vegetables, place them in ice water to stop the cooking process before placing them on the drying rack of the dehydrator.

“For jerky, boil the marinade and meat mixture for five minutes before putting it on the drying rack,” Mellendorf said.

When putting food into a dehydrator, it is important to make sure all the ingredients are in a single layer so air is able to circulate around all surfaces of the food.

“For fruits, we’re looking for dryness down to 20% moisture, so an apple is still flexible and if I fold it, it won’t stick to itself,” Mellendorf said. “If it is still tacky, allow the food to dry longer and dry vegetables to 10% moisture so they are almost brittle.”

After completing the drying, Mellendorf said, fruits require conditioning to help re-distribute the moisture.

“Put the fruits into a sealed container for seven to 10 days to allow the smaller pieces of apple to take some extra moisture from the bigger pieces,” she said. “You will get a more consistent product that stays at better quality.”

Check the containers for moisture on the walls during the conditioning process, Mellendorf said.

“If there is moisture, your fruits were not dry enough and they need to go back on the dehydrator,” she said.

When drying meat for jerky, the meat needs to be heated after it has gone through the dehydrator.

“Heat your oven to 275 degrees, spread the dried strips of jerky on a baking sheet, heat for 10 minutes and cool before packaging,” Mellendorf said.

After cooling dehydrated food for 20 to 60 minutes, store it in clean containers with tight lids that are labeled and dated.

“Dehydrated foods last a long time, but they won’t have the same quality forever,” Mellendorf said. “Especially with jerky that should be consumed in three to six months.”