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Dehydrating food is simple with the right tools

My husband and I like dehydrated food for different reasons. He’s an avid hiker, and sees dried food as a way to pack lightweight meals while backpacking.

I’m not such a fan of his mountain meals, but greatly appreciate how easy it is to dehydrate produce and make it last.

Dehydrating food is simply removing its moisture, which prevents microorganisms from growing and spoiling the food. You can dehydrate fruits and vegetables in an oven or an electric food dehydrator. You can also sun dry fruits, though that method is difficult in our humid Virginia climate. Dry air circulating around the food is an important part of dehydration because as the moisture releases from the food it needs somewhere to go. If the air is too humid, it won’t be able to absorb that released moisture and the food won’t dry entirely.

Dehydration’s key elements are heat and air circulation. Electric food dehydrators are the easiest method since they’re designed to dry foods quickly and often come with a manual of foods’ drying times. They heat food to 140°F and have a fan and vents to move air around the food. Oven drying takes longer than using a food dehydrator, and it’s important to leave the oven door propped open a couple inches to allow air to circulate. Some ovens may not go as low as 140°F, which is problematic as your food will cook rather than dry at higher temperatures.

There are many fruits and vegetables well-suited to dehydrating that you can grow at home or find grown locally in Virginia, including apples, peaches, berries, cherries, pears, corn, garlic, onions, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes and more. Garlic and onion are great to dry and grind into powders, and you can dry herbs like parsley to save yourself money in the spice aisle. I eat most of my dried fruits just as they are, mixed into granola, oatmeal, or yogurt. You can reconstitute your dried fruits and vegetables by soaking them in water (time will vary depending on the food) before cooking with them.

Proper storage is important with dehydrated foods since any remaining moisture will cause the food to spoil in its container. Home canning jars are great for keeping dried foods, but you can use plastic or glass containers or bags as long as they have a tight-fitting lid or seal. For the first week after dehydrating, shake your containers daily and look for any signs of moisture. You can dry the food further if you need to. If you store the containers in a cool, dark place, they should last for a year.

If you’re like me, dehydration’s allure is in its simplicity. After some easy prep, it allows you to kick back and listen to the hum of the food dehydrator as it works its magic.

You can find more gardening and food preservation resources on Virginia Food Works’ website: www.virginiafoodworks.org/Home-Canning-Resources.

Katharine Wilson is the director Virginia Food Works. She can be reached at info@virginiafoodworks.org.