Archive for July 10th, 2008

Demons Will Gnaw Your Entrails if You Don't Do This…

Sharon July 10th, 2008

Ok, maybe a little bit of an exaggeration.  But there is a price.  Trust me.  The price for violating the one essential rule of food storage and food preservation is very, very high.  And that rule is…


So you’ve dried the tarragon.  You cut it, hung it, watched it, rubbed it off the stem, and it smells amazing.  Take 2 seconds and write the word “tarragon” on a piece of tape or a label or something.  Please, for the love of Hestia, Goddess of Food Storage, put the label on!

Why should you do something so banal, you ask me (or rather, my evil inner demon asks me)?  Of course you can tell the smell of tarragon from rosemary.  Who needs labels? Plus I can’t find the tape.

Trust me, you need a label.  I need a label.  Because someday you will be cooking and the kitchen will be redolent of many spices, your nose will be saturated and you will be sitting their sniffing… it savory or tarragon?

Or you will be sitting there trying to guess which of the unlabelled jars of red stuff is the horseradish-red currant jam and which one is the strawberry.  Guess whose children will be unhappy if you make a mistake on their peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches?

Or you will be prying up the lids of uncounted 5 gallon buckets, looking for the adzuki beans.  Or trying to figure out if the yellowish powdery stuff if bullion or masa.  Seriously, you have better things to do with your time.  I have better things to do with my time.  Label it now.

 Now, if only I could take my own advice in a kitchen full of unlabelled jars ;-) .


Salting Food Down

Sharon July 10th, 2008

Another “oldest method” of preserving food is salting.  It is comparatively rarely used now, and for fairly good reasons - some people are salt sensitive, and experience blood pressure rises if they consume too much.  Eating lots of heavily salted foods has been linked to stomach cancer.  And salted foods are salty - they have to be soaked to remove the salt and be palatable.  But that said, however, salt brines were the standard method of preservation for many meats and fishes for centuries, and we should know how to do this - period.  Salt is inexpensive, and its replacement came with the era of refrigerated shipping, which is probably getting close to over.  And salt foods have their place in various cuisines and cultures - baccalao, or salt cod, is a traditional food for the large Portugese populations in coastal Massachusetts - having grown up around fishing communities, this was a familiar food to me as a kid.  Salt pork was the staple meat of most pioneers, simply because it could be transported, and is still commonly used in baked beans. 

 The theory is very simple - enough salt and microorganisms can’t live.  They can’t tolerate an extremely salty environment.  The recipes I’m using have not been USDA approved - I can’t find any useful USDA information about salting at all, except in collaboration with smoking.  I don’t think anyone recommends it.  But in _Keeping Food Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipes_ there are recipes from French gardeners and farmers that have been used for centuries.  They suggest that fish should be essentially buried in salt - and that’s what is done with salt cod.  The fish are cleaned and layered with a thick layer of sea salt (sea salt has a better flavor than most kitchen salts) - at room temperature, salted fish will keep a full year - although use your nose and eyes for signs of spoilage.  Here’s how to make salt pork:

 More to my family’s taste, there’s wonderful recipe in the above cookbook for a salt stock - 1/2 lb of sea salt is layered with 2lbs of mixed green vegetables and herbs - they suggest parsley, chervil, celery and leeks but I’ve tried it with basil, onions, tarragon, etc…  Just chop up the herbs and toss them with the salt, put it in a jar and ignore - lasts forever, tastes fabulous in soup stock.



Dehydration: The Basics

Sharon July 10th, 2008

You already know that there are a lot of ways to dehydrate, so now we’ll talk about the actual practice of drying stuff. 

Dehydration is probably the oldest food preservation strategy known to man, and almost certainly the most frequently used.  It isn’t difficult - the idea is that you remove enough of the water in foods to make them unattractive to bacteria.  Once you do so, the food should keep a long time.  Dehydration is one of the least energy intensive ways to store food, and while you can use electricity to do it, you don’t have to - so it is attractive from a sustainability perspective. 

Nutritionally, most dehydrated food is roughly equivalent (according to the Rodale Institute) to frozen food.  Most of the nutritional loss comes if you blanch things - the steam or boiling water takes a lot of nutrients.  Sometimes this is useful, though, because it preserves flavor, color and texture.  Because dried foods are concentrated, pound for pound they are much more nutritious than fresh foods.  They are also more nutritious than canned foods, which lose nutritional value through high heat.  That said, however, you do want to dehydrate at the lowest temperature possible and store it in a cool, dry, airtight place if you are concerned with nutrition.  Greens and herbs especially require care in that regard.  I usually dehydrate both of these by hanging in a cool, dark spot, rather than with any heat at all.

Generally speaking, you want your food to be quite dry - fruits (including tomatoes) can be 80% moisture free, because their acidity helps inhibit spoilage.  Low acid vegetables require 90% moisture removal.  In practice, this means that fruits can often be stored at the flexible, chewy stage, while most vegetables need to get to the crisp dry stage.

The bigger and thicker the piece of food, the longer it takes to dry.  Which means that generally speaking, you’ll want to cut things up.  Cherry tomatoes, green beans and smaller strawberries are about the only thing I dry whole.  Everything else gets sliced up. 

Blanching - this is one of those things that the experts vary on.  Blanching softens foods, and makes them hold color and texture better.  The best way to do it is to steam things a minute or two, rather than to put them in boiling water, which dissolves the nutrients.  My feeling is that blanching should be used only when it really improves the flavor of things, so while books like _Stocking Up_ recommend blanching grapes (?!?!), I think that’s totally nuts.  The only foods we blanch are tough skinned vegetables that seem to need it - green beans, sweet corn and zucchini.  The Rodale Institute also recommends blanching greens, but I dry them without it all the time - I’ve done both, and the color is definitely nicer if you do, but they work fine either way.  Really hard things like potatoes, carrots and pumpkin do need to be softened up a bit as well.  If you do blanch, do it for the minimum amount of time and plunge the food into cold water to stop the cooking immediately afterwards.

 Which brings me to the question of books.  The range of opinions on dehydrating is huge - someone in my class just reported that one book said that dried strawberries were bland.  We think they might be the food of actual divinities - and bland is not the word.  Some books recommend lots of blanching.  Some recommend almost none.  Some recommend microwave drying of herbs and greens - others say that the food gets cooked and the nutritional value destroyed (I think this latter opinion is actually right).  The truth is that you’ll probably have to experiment.  I actually think the most even-handed treatment of drying is in Carla Emery’s _The Encyclopedia of Country Living_ - which is newly released in the 10th edition (which I helped with recipe testing for before Carla’s death, btw).  She really offers a range of perspectives on pretreatments.  The only pre-treatment other than blanching I’ve ever used is asorbic acid - this means I crush a vitamin C tablet into some water and dip fruit into it, because it keeps the color.  If you don’t do it, it just won’t be quite as pretty.   I do this with apples and if I think about it, apricots.  The rest I don’t worry about.

The definitive book on the subject is _Dry It - You’ll Like It_ By Gen MacManiman.  It is a nice book, and not too expensive.  She also has a great website, with recipes and lots of information and her own line of dehydrators: 

BTW, some people sulfur their fruit - I don’t, and I don’t recommend it - breathing sulfur isn’t good for you, it is just for pretty and the chemicals can cause severe allergic reactions in those sensitive to sulfites. 

 One traditional way to dry food is to hang it on thread - apples and green beans (leather britches) were the traditional foods done this way - the apples are cored and peeled and cut into rings, the green beans strung on a thread with a needle and hung up in an airy place to dry. 

So once you’ve decided what you want to dry, cut it into small, thin pieces, and lay it out in the dehydrator set up of your choice (if you want to use the sun, one way is to staple cheesecloth to light wooden frames and use tight strings across the back to support the weight of the food - don’t forget to cover the food with cheesecloth), and then check on it from time to time.  For most veggies, you’ll want it either crumbly or crisp, for fruits, you’ll want them quite stiff, and chewy.  If the fruits are sticky, you can toss them with something to seperate them - some cinnamon is nice. 

Once it is dry, if you are worried about insect eggs, you can freeze it for a couple of days or heat it up in your dehydrator or oven to 175 for 15 minutes. But usually just sticking it in an air-tight jar is enough.  But if you see any signs of condensation inside, your food is not dry enough, and should be dried more fast before it molds.  One option is after it dries to leave it out for a couple of days to further dry, stirring it every day.  Just keep an eye on it.  Then store it out in a cool, dark place in an airtight jar.  You can also determine if dry food is dry enough by weighing it - if you had a 10oz cup of strawberries before, the same number of berries should weigh 1-2 oz when appropriately dry. 

Dry foods keep a long time, but they do lose nutritional value in storage. Ideally you’ll eat most of them within 2 years, but greens and herbs should probably be used within one, at the longest.  

How to eat dried foods: We eat a lot of our straight - dried veggie chips, dried fruits, etc… are great eaten out of hand.  We also rehydrate them sometimes - fruit compote, where  a little water and wine is added and the dried fruit is stewed, or dried peppers or tomatoes are rehydrated in oil, adding a rich flavor.  If you are making soups or stews, just throw the dried vegetables in - greens at the last minute, but harder dry things like carrots and onions earlier.

We also use dried veggies as a flavorer - dry them to crispness, run through a blender or heavy-duty spice grinder and then add them as a seasoning.  The obvious choice here is onion or garlic powder, and can I just say how amazing homegrown garlic is powdered, compared to anything available at a store?  The same is true of home produced chili powder.  But you can get fancier than that - we use dehydrated tomatoes, onions and garlic together with some herbs to make a soup flavoring that can’t be beat.  Orange peel and dehydrated sweet peppers blended to powder are delicious together and brighten up just about any cooked dish. 

My kids love fruit leathers - just make a puree of fruit, a little lemon juice and sugar (if it needs it - if you use over-ripe fruit, you won’t), and those are great - you do need a special leather tray, though.  Don’t overlook the possibilities of chocolate-dipped dried fruits or other treats (lots on the Dry It! site linked above) as gifts!

Meats can be dehydrated, and store well after doing so.  Jerkies are one of those things you either like or don’t - we like them, but some people don’t.  The dryer you use for drying meats *MUST* be kept between 140 and 150 degrees at all times.  That means either very good care for solar dehydrating in a dehydrator system that gets HOT (but is kept low enough to avoid cooking), or an electric or wood dehydratore - period.  Don’t mess with it. 

Only beef from non-factory farmed, grass-fed sources, venison, moose and fish from safe waters should be dehydrated from a raw state.  All other meats must be completely cooked before drying.  The USDA recommends that all game meats should be frozen for at least 2 months before using, to kill all micro-organisms.  Also only extremely lean meats - less than 10% fat are recommended, since the fats turn rancid and ruin the taste of the jerky.   All jerky meats need to be marinated in a salty or soy saucy marinade before drying - the salt breaks down tissues, softens and kills insects and helps preserve the meat (we’ll talk about salting itself shortly). 

To 1lb of meat you need 1 1/2 cups salt dissolved in 1 gallon of water or 1/2 cup of soy sauce (soy taste better) - fish needs 1 cup of salt to the same quantity of water, and both should marinate for 24 hours.  Cut off every bit of fat or gristle, cut into thin strips and dehydrate until leathery and tough.  Store in a cool dark place for up to 2 months, checking for signs of rancidity, or freeze it for up to a year.    White fleshed fish and salmon dry best - oily fishes like mackerel or bluefish don’t do as well.

Ok, that covers most of the basics.

Also: I found this cool link online for a wood fired dehydrator for large scale projects:


Tools: Dehydrators

Sharon July 10th, 2008

Ok, today’s class will focus in part on Dehydration as a strategy.  I’ll post a general guide, but first I want to talk about the actual tools themselves.

 There are several ways you can dehydrate food.  The simplest is simply to air dry things.  This works best for light, leafy things like herbs (I’ll talk more about herbs in a seperate post later today), or for things like peas, beans and grain that naturally dry on the plant.  In dry climates it is often possible to dry wetter plants - tomatoes and peppers for example, by simply pulling up the plant and hanging it, but that’s not possible in humid places like the northeast. 

The next simplest option is to dry with the sun.  If you live in a sunny, reasonably dry place like much of the American West, you probably can simply dry things by laying food out on screens or mesh with cheesecloth over and under it (most screening is not food safe, so it is smart to put something under it) and wait until it is dry.  In both the west and the east, if you have a car you can put the food in the back of the car, again covered with cheesecloth so you don’t end up with thousands of bugs in your car, crack the windows for some ventilation, and come back to dried food.  Some people worry about the outgassing issues, here, but honestly, I think if you actually ride in your car you will get far more exposure to outgassing than you will through the food. 

If you live in a humid climate, you’ll probably find that food will mold faster than you can dry it most of the time.  Blue and furry food is not desirable ;-) , so you need something that will work better.  Ours is modelled on this (btw, their whole site is wonderful and has tons of useful sustainability information from people who really are living the life), and works very well.  We use black polyester fabric, and I use plastic mesh polypropolene screens from my electric dehydrator, rather than what they recommend (polypropolene does not contain bisphenol-a).  Ours is way too small, and we’re planning a much bigger one soon.

The next easiest way to dry is to use a heat source that’s already going - some people dehydrate in their gas ovens with their pilot light on - I think the success of this depends a lot on how humid your climate is - I’ve heard of people doing it successfully and of people having problems.  If you use a woodstove, you can dehydrate on screens placed near (not too near - you don’t want to cook the food) the stove, and if you have an earth oven, you can use it to dehydrate when it gets to the lower end of the temperature range.

It is worth stopping for a minute here to talk about temperature - most foods are most nutritious if they are dehydrated at the lowest possible temperatures.  Herbs and greens can lose most of their value if they are dehydrated much above air temperature at all - you generally don’t want to them too warm.  And with every food, you want to use the lowest acceptable temperature, because dehydrating already loses a fair bit of nutritional value.  So you do want to be careful with oven drying of any sort - yes, you can do it, but it can be hard to keep temperatures low enough for the food to be nutritious (more about dehydration and nutrition in my general guide) as well as good tasting.  The same issue occurs with solar dehydrating - if your car gets up to 200 degrees, that’s fine for beef jerky and it may not be much of an issue for tomatoes, but you do not want to put medicinal herbs, greens or berries like blueberries, elderberries or cranberries in there, since so much of their value is located in their nutrition.  Dehydration is easy, but it does take some care, and you want to use the right temperature for the right food - so maybe do the berries on an overcast day.

Finally, there is electric dehydration.  This is useful for people like me who have a limited period when solar dehydration is even possible - but who still have crops coming in during the other periods.  Basically, it is a set of stacked trays with a heating element.  and (sometimes) a fan.  If you live in a dry, warm place, you probably don’t need one at all - you might as well take advantage of the sun.  In a cooler place, if you are content to be done dehydrating in September and October, you’d also be fine without one.  On the other hand, electric dehydrators are convenient, and they are the sort of thing that shows up on Craigslist and freecycle and at garage sales. 

If you buy a used one, you probably will end up with one of the low end plastic models.  Depending on how much you care about this, you’ll definitely be putting your food in contact with polycarbonate, which means bisphenol-a.  This is something to think about, but may or may not be a major concern.  I’ve had two of these, all from yard sales - one American Harvest and one Ronco - and they all work.  The Ronco gets the best reviews of the bunch, but I’ve met people who like almost all of them.  They use more electricity than the upper end ones, sometimes overheat things, and can take a while, but they aren’t bad tools.  For $5 at a yard sale, there’s only so much complaining you can do.  If you have a choice, you do want one with a fan, not just a heating element, because you’ll get much more even dehydration, and fewer hot spots.

Most of these retail for between 35 and 60 dollars.  I would tend to bet that most of you could find a used one, though.  If you do buy used, do make a quick check of the produce recall lists for the brand you buy - one older American Harvest model was recalled because the heating unit caused a fire.  They are generally perfectly safe to use unattended, though.

There are a few more expensive, higher-end models, usually made by the same people (not always - Vita Mix has one) - I have not tried any of these.  When I do reviews, I generally try to try a range of things, and go around borrowing - in this case, I very pointedly didn’t bother.  And the reason I didn’t bother is this - every single review I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to says that if you are going to spend a good chunk of money on a dehydrator - for example, if you have a bunch of fruit trees, or a large garden and dehydrate a lot - buy an Excalibur.  And I’m going to go with that.

 That is, the lower end electric models are adequate to their purpose - particularly if you are getting them for $5 - but even at $35, they aren’t bad tools.  But if you are going to spend over $100 on a dehydrator, get the good one - get an Excalibur.  I simply don’t think there’s enough evidence that any of the mid-range options are good enough to bother with - spend the money making a good solar one instead.

 Eric gave me an Excalibur for my birthday last year, and it is really, really a good tool. It has multiple heat settings (and it actually keeps in that range, unlike any of the other cheapies), it dries quickly, it uses less electricity than anything else and has a huge amount of internal drying space.  Lehmans sells it (one of the few electric tools they do sell), and it is *not cheap* (I was stunned that I got such a fancy birthday gift - not our usual thing).  It is also a superb piece of equipment - among other things, the drying screens are polypropolene, so they don’t produce bisphenol-a, and the quality is very, very high.  I know people who have had them for more than a decade with no problems. 

But please understand me - my suggestion is not that anyone should break their budget on an expensive dehydrator - if money is an issue, you can get along very well with a solar dehydrator, your car, the sun alone, or those plus a cheapie from a garage sale.  But if you have a lot of dehydrating to do, and a budget that can stretch that far, and if you live in a climate where solar dehydrating is a very short season (sun is always better than electricity), then I’d recommend the Excalibur wholeheartedly. 

 Ok, on to techniques.