Our Freezer's FULL - What do I do with our produce now?

There always comes a point in our gardening year when our cup runs over and produce is everywhere. Additionally, many fruits and veggies are cheap to buy in bulk in the summer but still a beast to save for the winter. I have a tray of tomatoes ripening on the kitchen table always, I have other produce in processing and there is always something on the edge of going bad. Well, Dehydrate that produce and save it for your own rainy day. Yes, today, we're going over dehydrating.

Some of the many dried products here at Windy Thistle.

Drying foods is an interested chore all by itself. Learning what foods can be dried and how the process works is a bit of a learning curve but the rules are pretty simple after a while. People have been drying foods as long as there have been people.

My Darling Daughter-Cohort loaned me a Nesco Dehydrator with five trays with different inserts - solid trays for tiny foods like green peppers or corn, mesh trays for stuff that will shrink mightily like onions or garlic and just regular trays for most other items. I have used other brands and burned them out pretty quickly but this one has been pretty steady.

You don't have to use a dehydrator to dry foods. You can use your oven. Set the heat to 200 degrees and spread your food on sheet pans. Leave the oven door open slightly and that's all there is to it. Check it every few hours for drying progress.

You can also dry foods in an automobile on a sunny day - just know that your car will smell like whatever you were drying, so not the best way to dry onions or garlic. Just put your trays of food on the seats, leave the windows up and walk away for a few hours. If the foods aren't dried by nightfall, bring them into the house to prevent mold and put them right back out the next day.

The Nesco Dehydrator

Lets talk about fruits, first. Most of them can be dried pretty easily. You cut the fruit in uniform pieces and spread them on your dehydrator trays so that nothing is touching. If the fruit is peaches or apples, you need to dip them in water that has two tablespoons of lemon juice added. This will keep your fruit from browning too much and looking unappetizing. Any fruit can be dried and when summer prices are low, it's the time to stock up.

I use the dried fruits in several ways. Rehydrating them is easy, too. Just cover with water and let sit for a few minutes and they'll plump back up. My grandkids love to eat the fruits right as they are, out of the jar. Apples dipped in sugar and cinnamon before drying become this wonderful chewy fruity chip! I will break up strawberries and peaches and add them to oatmeal for breakfast and there is something that will vie with anything Quaker Oats puts out in those fancy little packets of sugar they pass off as instant oatmeal and for less then half the cost.

Dried Apples before storage. Separate your produce on the trays so that air is able to circulate around. These apples were in the bargin bin at the green grocer and many had bruises. I cut out the bad parts, dipped them in lemon water and then rolled them in cinnamon sugar to coat.

Cinnamon Apple Chips. After they have dried, store them in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid.

You want to dry your fruits until they are no longer moist but are still leathery. Place your batch in a glass jar and turn it upside down on your counter. Watch for condensation inside the jar for a couple of hours. If you do see condensation, put the produce back in the dehydrator for a while yet longer - it wasn't completely dry. Do this the same day, leaving less then dried produce in the jar will promote the development of mold and no one wants that! Always, you want to use the best parts of your produce for drying so take that into consideration while you are filling your trays.

Tomatoes sliced and on the tray ready to dry.

Veggies fall into separate categories in the methods used to preserve them.

First, items that can be dried as is - just slice them up and dry them. Garlic, Onions, Tomatoes, Celery, Carrots, Peppers (both green and hot) and herbs can all be dried without anything more then cutting them up to fit the tray.

After the tomatoes are dried. I eat these like potato chips - so good but you can also add them to soups and stews.

The wet foods do tend to stick to the trays, so give the trays a very light spray of olive oil or vegetable oil before you lay out the veggies and that will help. You could also use parchment paper to line your trays and that will let the foods release a little easier.

The green beans were prolific.

Other veggies need to be blanched before they are dried to keep their colors bright and to stop enzymes that would otherwise cause rot. Green Beans, Corn, Peas and all other green or yellow low acid veggies need blanching. Fill a pot with water and get it to a boil. Add your cut up veggies and simmer for five minutes. Immediately, drain and plunge the produce into ice water to stop the cooking. Spread on the trays and dry as usual.

Dried Yellow Crookneck Squash - drying made this batch sweeter and blanching kept the squash pale. Without blanching, the squash would be a sick brown purple - it would still be good to eat but very nasty looking. We eat with our eyes first.

Other veggies need to be cooked to tender and cooled before drying. Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes and Pumpkins fall into this category, also things that you want to make into instant meals can be fully cooked before being dried. With Potatoes, as with the Squash, drying without cooking first produces an ugly brown dried product - very unappetizing to see. I boil my potatoes until they are tender, drain, then let them cool before I slice them and put them on the tray. They are exactly like the potatoes you will find in a box of scalloped potatoes made by Betty Crocker and you use them exactly the same - only without the sauce packet or the price tag.

Dried Potatoes, just ready for a cassarole or stew

You can also make up spices that you like.

I like the Trinity of Southern Cooking - onion, green pepper and celery - so I dry all of them.

Drying also saves you space. In the photo of the Southern Trinity above, there are three bunches of celery, twelves vidalia onions, and nine green peppers! That's a lot of veggies in small bottles. You only need a tsp of celery and a tbsp each of onions and peppers to cook with at a time. Rehydrate them by putting them in a small bowl and covering with warm water for fifteen minutes before cooking with them.

Some foods will dry naturally if you hang them - like herbs and hot peppers. I make sure we have plenty of dried oregano, thyme, basil and mint. These are the simpliest of the plants to dry. Just give them a rinse with clean water, remove bug bitten leaves and tie into bunches. Hang them where it's cool and they get airflow. Within just a couple of weeks, they're ready.

Peppers strung on cotton string and drying over the fireplace.
This corner of the kitchen has great air flow and no sunshine - just right for herbs, garlics and onions.

Sometimes I will dry hot peppers in the dehydrator, especially if I don't have enough peppers for a strand or if they are tiny hot Asian Peppers.

HOT LAVA Peppers.. ok, so they're Asian Peppers, the same kind that make General Tso's so tasty! Use them whole in your recipe for a little heat or break them up for more heat than you ever expected.

Drying things can be used in different ways. I dry tomatoes and make tomato powder out of some of them. This powder has intense tomato flavor and just a tablespoon to a stew or chili will thicken the sauce and add taste!