Drying Your Harvest
Updated: Jul 10
Moving on with our series on preserving our harvest! We have covered cold storage and freezing, and now it is time for drying (also known as dehydrating). Drying your produce is incredibly space efficient as removing all the moisture shrinks your product significantly. It is also a worry free method of storage. No need to stress if there are power outages or temperature fluctuations. Once your produce is dried, it will last a very long time, easily over a year and longer than almost any other method of preservation. There is only one drawback: drying can take a really long time, often over 24 hours depending on the method you use. For specific drying times and recommendations, check out Best Ways to Preserve Your Fruit and Best Ways to Preserve Your Veggies (both coming soon). Ready to learn all about drying or dehydrating your garden goodies? Let's begin with the easiest method: air drying.
The Five Methods of Drying
As you can tell from the picture below, I use this method for almost all my herbs. (For delicate herbs like basil, cilantro and chervil that lose a lot of flavour when dried, I store by freezing them instead. See the article Freezing Your Harvest for details). I also use it for all my edible flowers for tea. It is the ultimate in lazy preservation! Just wash, tie, hang and leave it for a couple of weeks until it is fully dry. That is it. Air drying is perfect for smaller, quick drying items like these. There are just a couple of things to consider. Like all methods of drying, the key is air circulation! Any plant parts that don't get good air circulation are going to rot or mold, and we definitely don't want that. Hanging your produce allows air to access all parts of your plants. You can also set them on a slatted rack or on a screen for smaller items. There are a number of drying racks you can purchase specifically for this purpose, but it is just as easy to rig something together yourself too. Don't forget to hand dry as much as possible after you wash your produce too. You can pat dry with towels or use a salad spinner for greens and herbs.
Using the Microwave
This method is used almost solely for herbs, as they are thin enough to have their moisture evaporate before they cook. I'll be honest, I don't use this method very often, as I usually go for the hands off and bulk method of air drying, but using the microwave does have its advantages. It is the fastest method for drying, by far. Because of that, it retains colours and most flavours better too. That being said, you do have to keep a careful eye on it so that nothing burns. Start by stripping the leaves off the stems and placing them on a double layer of paper towel on a microwave safe plate. Top with an additional paper towel. You can also use clean kitchen towels instead of paper towel if desired. For heartier herbs, like the Mediterranean ones, start with 60 seconds on high. For more delicate herbs (like cilantro, chervil and basil) start with 40 seconds. Remove any dry leaves and then continue to cook for 20 more seconds. Check for doneness and remove any fully dried leaves again. Repeat the 20 second bursts and checks until all are dried.
Note that some recycled paper towels can have bits of metal in them. Check the label to ensure they are microwave safe before using. This will prevent unwanted fires in your appliance.
Using a Dehydrator
While air drying and microwaving are great options for quick drying foods like herbs, we need something a bit more powerful for the rest of our produce. A dehydrator is a fantastic tool that will be worth the cost if you do a decent amount of drying. It excels at air circulation thanks to a built in fan. There is almost always a temperature controlled heater component as well. Check out the Best Ways to Preserve articles for specific times and temperatures for each fruit and vegetable, but in general you want 110°F for leafy herbs, 115°F for uncooked fruits, and 120°F for vegetables, some cooked fruits and fruit leathers. Rotate trays and stir you produce a few times so that your produce dries evenly. Drying can take anywhere from 2 hours to 48 hours, depending on size and thickness. Patience is involved. There are many models and brands of dehydrators available, but the biggest difference between them is usually size, and as a result price. Think about how much you need to dry at one time and then choose accordingly. Most will also include specialty tray liners, specifically for making fruit leathers. And yes, you should absolutely try make fruit leather, even if you don't have kids. It is delish! Look for recipes coming soon to Gooseberry Gardens.
Using The Oven
No worries if you don't want to invest in a dehydrator. Your oven can do an equally good job of drying produce, it will just take a little bit longer. Ensure items are well spaced and on racks or screens to allow for that all-important air flow. If your oven allows it, stick a wooden spoon in the oven door to wedge it open for even better air circulation. Some ovens will turn off when you open the door, so check your specific model first. Use the same temperatures as you would for a dehydrator. If you oven doesn't go that low, set it for the lowest temperature possible and crack that door.
This method is not always the best choice for fall produce preservation. It needs consistent sun, decent temperatures and low humidity. Not our standard fall here at all. It also needs these conditions for an extended period of time. Sun drying takes a long time; usually 2 - 3 times as long as using a dehydrator. That being said, sun drying can be a fun (especially with kids) and energy efficient way to dry produce mid-summer. Ensure temperatures will be warm and dry for at least 5 days before starting, and that produce is protected from bugs and foragers. The last thing you want is wildlife snacking on your hard earned produce! Bring trays inside at nighttime and then take back outside in the morning if temperatures are going below 15°C at night. There are many DIY plans for solar dehydrators online, including some great ones from Mother Earth News (see link here).
To create delicious dried produce, pre-treating may be needed. This is especially important for drying methods that take a longer amount of time. Sun drying for sure! One type of pre-treatment is a brief dip in a solution to prevent browning or oxidation. This solution can be a saltwater dip for savory foods such as potatoes or an acid dip (using ascorbic acid or citric acid/lemon juice) for sweet foods. Whichever one you use, go for a 10% solution in water, measured by weight. Once cut into your desired shape and size, simply dip your produce into the solution and then set on your the trays of your dehydrator, oven or solar dehydrator. The second type of pre-treatment involves blanching. It may seem counter-intuitive, but blanching in water can improve the texture and colour of many vegetables, especially tough or dense ones. Use the exact same times and methods for blanching as you would for blanching before freezing. Check out Best Ways to Preserve Your Fruit and Best Ways to Preserve Your Veggies (both coming soon) for pre-treatment recommendations for each individual fruit and vegetable.
How Do I Tell When It Is Dry?
Good question! Not all produce will have the same properties when fully dry, and it's important to know when that point is so that our harvest lasts as long as possible. If you want to really geek out, you can measure your produce before drying and then when you believe it is dry and compare. Your produce should weigh 5% to 25% of its original when fully dry due to moisture loss. Or you can use the cues below to determine when fully dry. Up to you. Just be sure to cool completely before testing to be accurate. Warm fruits and veggies will give you incorrect results.
For root veggies, squash, pumpkin, green beans:
- Tough and leathery, still pliable, and with no moisture in the centre
- Hard and brittle
For greens, corn, peas, dry beans, berries, rhubarb, citrus peel, thin banana:
- Brittle, crumbles in your hand, shatters when tapped with hammer
For peaches, pears, apple, plum, thick bananas:
- Leathery, pliable, don’t stick together
For fruit leathers:
- Slightly sticky, easily pulls away from plastic wrap
How To Store Once Dry
All dry? Well, then we need to package it for long term storage. Wait until your produce is fully cool before packaging. Any remedial warmth will result in moisture, which is the bad guy here. Once cool, immediately package into containers, jars, or zip top bags. Don't leave this too long or your fully dried produce will start to rehydrate from the moisture in the air. Obviously, this depends on how humid your environment is (not very humid at all during the winter in my area, but better safe than sorry). If you do happen to live a fairly humid area, it may be worth adding a desiccant packet to your containers. You can purchase these from Amazon, or you can reuse the ones you get in food products you have bought (seaweed snack packages are a good source). Make sure they are food grade desiccant packets, not the ones you get in the box your new shoes came in. Whatever package or container you choose to use, it must be airtight. Air holds moisture. Again, moisture is the enemy for dried goods. Store your container in a cool, dark place for up to a year. After this point, there may be a deterioration in taste, colour or texture, but it will still be edible for much longer. Keep each type of dried vegetable or fruit separate if at all possible to ensure the flavours stay true.
How To Use Your Dried Produce
Much of your dried produce can be used in its dried form. Think dried herbs and flowers in cooking or for teas, dried berries in baking, dried vegetables directly added to soups and stews or dried fruit right out of hand (yummy fruit leather!). However, there also may be times you want to rehydrate your produce before using. To rehydrate dried vegetables, simply place them into a bowl, cover with cold water, and microwave on high until it begins to boil. Then, remove from the microwave and let sit until tender. For dried mushrooms, cover with boiling water and let soak 20-30 minutes.
Not too hard, right? I hope this has gotten your creative juices flowing. There are so many fruits and veggies we can preserve by drying, and so many ways to use them once they are dried. Up next, we have water bath canning...
Yummy gardening everyone!