Unlike canning, drying is a little more alchemical because of all the things that affect it. For example, temperature variations and humidity will both affect the drying process, specifically how long it will take. Pay attention to these things so that you can adjust your drying method accordingly. There are a variety of different ways to dry food.
Herbs and flowers are the most common air-dried foods. If you grow your own, harvest herbs and flowers before 10 a.m. to retain the greatest amount of essential oil for aroma and flavor. The later hours in the day cause the oils to retreat into the plant stem (or dry) from the heat of the sun.
If you’re hanging the plants, don’t bundle too many together; about six stems is good. Hang them upside down from a string in a dry, warm spot with a paper lunch bag draped loosely over the bundle to keep it free from dust and to protect the bundle against sunlight. Use a toothpick to make holes in the bag to allow air to circulate. The plant matter should be dry in fourteen days.
When considering which drying method is best for you, don’t forget to look at your environment. To sun-dry food, for example, you’ll need about five days of low humidity and high temperatures (95 degrees F being ideal). While someone in Arizona might use this method with no difficulty, it’s not likely to be practical for, say, someone in New York in January.
An alternative method of drying is to remove the flower petals or herb leaves from the stem and lay them on a screen. It’s very important that the screening material be clean and that the plant pieces don’t touch each other. Place a piece of cheese cloth (or a large paper bag with pinholes in it) over the top of the screens. Again, this protects the flowers and herbs from airborne dust and dirt. Keep the trays out of the sunlight and in a cool, dry area. As with hanging, it will take about two weeks to thoroughly dry the plant matter.
Sun drying is not always practicable due to geography. You need several days of 90°F–100 °F temperatures and low humidity for successful, even preserving. Additionally, great caution is required to keep the items safe from bugs, dirt, wandering animals, and other hazards. Sun drying is not recommended in areas with high levels of air pollution.
What kinds of food can be dried?
There’s a wide variety of food that can be dried, including fish, fruit, edible flowers, meat, vegetables, and herbs. The taste and texture of dried food is different than fresh or frozen, so make small batches at first to see how well you like the results. Keep a list of items that you like best and return to those recipes to make larger batches later.
If you live in a region with consistent hot, dry weather, you can look into commercial sun dryers that use screening to protect the foods. If the weather changes unexpectedly, it’s best to bring the items inside and finish the drying using your oven.
Pressing as a preserving method is most commonly seen with flowers. While some people use pressed flowers and herb parts for decoration, they can also be stored for culinary purposes as long as the flowers were grown organically. Similar to herbs, flowers should be gathered early in the morning as soon as they’re open a bit. This makes cleaning them off easier.
Gently run the flowers under cool water to remove any debris. Leave the plant parts on a paper towel while you set up your pressing method. Your layering materials include cardboard (8" × 11"), newspaper, paper towels, and a heavy book (8" × 11").
Begin by putting the cardboard on a flat surface. On top of that, put three sheets of newspaper, followed by three sheets of paper towels. Lay the flowers or herbs on the top sheet, leaving space between them. Over the top of this, place three more paper towels, three more sheets of newspaper, and another piece of cardboard. You can keep going for two or three more layers, topping everything with the heavy book; good-sized stones or bricks also work very well. Your plant matter will press dry in about a month.
Many flowers are edible and a great source of vitamins, especially vitamins A and C. Wondering what petals you can eat? There’s quite a list, including angelica, apple blossom, borage, carnation, chrysanthemum, dandelion, jasmine, lavender, lilac, marigold, nasturtium, rose, and squash flowers!
Sand drying isn’t recommended for culinary purposes, but it’s an excellent way to make beautiful gifts and decorative garnishes. About the only flowers that don’t seem to preserve well by sand drying are short-lived varieties such as daylilies. Beyond that limitation, the visual results of sand drying are quite stunning.
Unlike other preserving methods, you’ll want to harvest the intended blossoms when they’re fully open but before they start showing any sign of wilting. Once cut, gently push a thin piece of wire into the flower’s stem to mount it. This wire helps keep the flower upright in the sand. It can also be used later for flexibility in dried flower arrangements.
Next you’ll need a bag of white sand and a box deep enough to cover the flowers and wide enough that they don’t touch each other. Pour 2 inches of sand in the bottom and place the wired flowers in. Fill the box with sand up to the base of the petals, then slowly sprinkle sand below and above each petal. Be careful here; you want to preserve the natural shape of the flower, and adding too much sand too quickly crushes the petals.
Once covered, it takes twenty to thirty days for the flowers to dry completely. Don’t peek! They need to remain covered for the best results. Use gardening tags to mark where your flowers are in the box. This is helpful when you unearth them.
Finally, reach down into the sand below a flower and hold the wire. With your other hand, begin brushing away the sand around it with a small paintbrush. In this final form, the flowers have a good shelf life. If you plan on using them more than once, preservers suggest using clear varnish for improved strength. Otherwise, put them in a padded container for storage.
For longer lasting floral decorations, treat the flower petals with glue. Use a small paint brush and mix the glue with a little water. Paint this on the base of each petal where it attaches to the stem. Let the glue dry completely before moving the flower into the sand-drying container.
In 1946, Dr. Percy Spenser was trying to make a vacuum tube when he stumbled onto the basics of microwave technology. Commercial microwaves were marketed in 1947, and the first countertop microwave oven hit stores in 1967. By 1975, microwave sales surpassed sales of gas ranges.
Microwave ovens vary in their overall power, which makes providing tried-and-true instructions for their use difficult. Overall, herbs are the items best suited to this preservation method, but you have to be careful.
Take some fresh herb leaves or flowers and put them on a paper plate. If your microwave has a power setting, go to 50 percent power and dry the herbs in 30-second intervals. Each time you check the herbs, turn them over. If your microwave platform doesn’t rotate, you’ll also need to rotate the herbs on the plate. Most herbs dry in 2 minutes using this method, but they may not be well suited to cooking because the microwave evaporates many oils that make herbs flavorful and aromatic.
Using the microwave makes things faster; using your oven for drying may be costly. Because you’re leaving food on low heat for many hours, the bottom line on your electric or gas bill may price this method right out of your comfort zone.
If you have any stainless steel screens, put these on your oven racks to elevate the food. This will give all sides of the item more air exposure and improve even drying. Aluminum screens are not recommended for this purpose because they can impart an odd flavor.
On the other hand, oven drying is very simple. Get out oven trays, preheat your oven to 140 °F, and pre-prepare your food according to instructions. Most oven trays hold up to 2 pounds of food. Unless you have a very large oven, it’s suggested that you dry no more than three trays at a time, shifting their position and turning the food every 30 minutes for best results.
Finally, try to keep the door of the oven open about 2 inches throughout this time. This improves air circulation and decreases the amount of heat you lose when you circulate the drying items.
Using a commercial electric dehydrator takes half the time as drying in an oven, making it perfect for the energy-conscious consumer. An additional benefit is that these devices are created specifically to maintain air circulation, sustain even heating, and safeguard nutritional value. Fruits, herbs, and meats are good candidates for the dehydrator.
There are two basic types of dehydrators on the market. One dries the food using a fan and heat from the side; the other dries food from the bottom of the machine. Drying from the side produces better results when you want to preserve a variety of items at one time because it doesn’t allow the flavors to mix.
The market for dehydrators has grown, which means you can find some great optional features—for a price. You can pay more than $300 for a stainless steel dehumidifier with 16 cubic square feet of interior space, but most home preservers don’t need anything quite so impressive. If you plan to spend between $60 and $75, you’ll usually get a good quality machine.
Watch for machine features that will make your life easier. For example, a temperature gauge lets you adjust the heat to specific food groups, allowing you to produce a higher quality dried item. Additionally, you want a dehydrator that fits in your kitchen comfortably, has enough trays to make several layers of dried goods, a timer to keep things from overcooking, and a good warranty. Last but not least, dishwasher-safe parts save you a lot of time.