Dehydrated foods are kid-friendly, packed with nutrition, and easy on the budget.
Everyone seems to be talking about food these days. You can’t open a newspaper or magazine without stumbling upon a recipe or food feature. There are food networks, countless cooking shows, and recipe segments on mainstream news programs. There is a trend towards local food, seasonal food, pesticide-free, drug-free, non-genetically modified food. Farmers’ Markets are busier than they have been in years. Food gardening has suddenly become “cool.”
There is good reason for this.
After years of taking advantage of the cheap, processed foods that have flooded the market over the past few decades, people are starting to take notice of what it is, exactly, that they’ve been eating. And what many people have been eating is a scary blend of processed corn and soy by-products, heavily sprayed crops, meats containing growth hormones and countless drugs – and foods that had traveled from distant countries with dubious health standards for production.
The result has been a food revolution. People are demanding healthier food. They want to know where there food comes from, how it has been treated. They want to know what’s in it. They want to feel safe eating.
And local food helps people feel safe about their dietary choices. After all, when you can go to a Farmers’ Market, look a farmer in the eye and ask questions, you can be reasonably sure about the history of that particular food.
Leading the way in this food revolution? Parents. Wanting the best for their children, parents are ensuring that they know where their food comes from. And they are stocking kitchens with food from in and around their own communities.
The difficulty of this, however, is that we live in Canada. You know, the place with six months of winter? It’s awfully tough to purchase local fruits and vegetables in the middle of February. Many parents, however, have started planning for their winter eating by preserving local foods throughout the summer and having them on hand for later in the year.
There are a number of ways that you can go about preserving food. Canning is one option, and my wife Krista and I put away a pantry full of jams, jellies, pickles, sauces, salsas, and more every year. You can also freeze food. We have two freezers full of local fruits, veggies and meats and look forward to treats such as local corn in March.
And then there is dehydrating – probably the least recognized of all food preservation practices, and yet one that should appeal particularly to parents.
A healthy choice
Dehydrating, you see, preserves food without any vitamin and nutrient loss – which is usually not the case with canning and freezing processes. Not only that, it makes some of the best kid-friendly food you’ll ever find. Your school lunches and snack times will get raves when you include homemade fruit roll-ups, dried apples, incredibly tart and sweet chewy berries, pepperoni-flavoured jerky, flavoured veggie chips, and much, much more.
Even if you are supplementing your diet with supermarket produce, there are great treats to be had. How about a mountain of banana chips? Or candied orange, lemon and gingers sweets? You are limited only by imagination. We use our dehydrator to make homemade granola, granola bars, and even yogurt!
It is a very good idea to start with easy-to-dehydrate firm fruits and vegetables, such as apples and veggie sticks (sweet potato, zucchini, potato, etc.) and then graduate to berries, soft fruit, and tender veggies. Once you get the hang of things, move on to meats (see Making Jerky).
There are three main ways to dehydrate at home: with a food dehydrator, using your oven, or using the power of the sun.
Countertop food dehydrators are fairly inexpensive. Small units run for just over $100. I know several families who share dehydrators, making their initial investment very, very inexpensive. (The brand we use is Excalibur, which costs about $140.) Dehydrators are available in
some department stores and online. I’ve also
seen used dehydrators listed on sites such as kijiji for as low as $25. Your food savings on dehydrating local, bulk food will offset that quite quickly.
Food dehydrators are simple tools. Essentially, they are boxes with low-powered heating elements and fans to keep warm air flowing over drying food. They take no special training or skills to use.
Almost all food dehydrators come with instructions and recipe books. These booklets helped get us started while we built up a collection of tips and recipes from friends, books, and online (see Resources).
Another option is to home dehydrate using your oven. As you need to keep drying temperatures between 110-130 C ( 230-265 F) for fruits and veggies and around 150 C ( 300 F for meats), you will want to use the following tips to keep the food from cooking rather than drying.
If you have a gas oven, the heat from your pilot light will be sufficient for drying. If you have an electric oven, you will want to set your oven on “warm” and prop the door open an inch or two. You may also want to place a fan in front of the slightly open door, or turn on your interior oven fan in order to promote air flow. The time it takes to dehydrate will be more unpredictable, and you’ll want to check it more frequently to keep things from getting crispy.
You will be using your warm oven for lengthy periods, so make sure your kitchen is toddler free. In the oven, you will be looking at around four hours for apple slices, and up to six or seven hours for strawberries. You can oven dehydrate on your usual baking pans. I’d suggest lining your baking pan with parchment paper to prevent sticking.
Many people who start by using their oven will eventually move on to countertop dryers for ease and convenience. Dehydrators are also more energy efficient. Although it takes a bit more time to dry foods in a dehydrator, it is much smaller than an oven and therefore there is less space to heat/fan.
You can also try solar dehydrating. There are plenty of inexpensive solar dehydrators out there. Or you can make a do-it-yourself dryer out of cardboard and plastic film wrap – a fun project with the kids (see Resources).
Krista spends some good quality time dehydrating each summer – and, in winter, keeping us stocked with granola and veggie chips. She’s compiled a sure-fire list of tips for successful dehydrating:
- Cut off any bruised/soft sections of fruit or vegetables.
- Cut food into slices of uniform thickness – 1⁄4 inch is usually the norm for most foods.
- Spray discolouring foods (such as apples and peaches) with lemon juice (from a spray bottle) to maintain colour in the dried product.
- Leave a bit of space around drying food portions to allow for air flow – no overlapping.
- When making fruit leather, spread a puree of your favourite fruits evenly until it is about 1/8 of an inch thick in the centre and slightly thicker at the edges.
- Keep your counters, drying racks, and kitchen utensils clean – as with any food preparation, you want to avoid contaminants.
- Let food dry completely before storing to avoid moisture build-up from the cooling process.
- Dehydrate food until leathery or slightly crisp (apples and fruits turn leathery, while veggie chips will crispen up) in order to ensure better storage.
- Store dehydrated food in an airtight bag or container. Try to remove as much air as possible from your bags/containers for optimum freshness. If kept in a dark, dry, cool space, dried foods should last for a number of months. A good rule of thumb is to use any summer foods by the end of the following winter.
Dried foods are not only great for lunches and snacks, but are perfect for camping. We’ll pre-dry an assortment of foods to make great canoe-trip meals, such as soups, chili, and pasta dishes. All you’ll need to do is add is boiling water!
Food dehydration dates further back than written history. Early human beings would have sun-dried gathered berries in order to get them through the winter. Early Canadian settlers and First Nations people definitely had dried food as an essential part of their diets. Even today we eat plenty of dehydrated food without usually thinking about the drying process – and this ranges from packaged soups to bulk store raisins, cranberries, dried apples, and veggie chips.
There’s plenty of wonderful tastes to be had with dried foods. And plenty of healthy options for growing kids. All it takes is a bit of experimenting.
Once you are hooked on dried foods, you’ll never turn back.