Commercially dried foods are often dipped in preservatives or sugar. Those home-dried banana slices I love are not only delicious but healthier than store-bought banana chips, which may be deep fried, not dried, and often have added sugar.
The only drawback is the fact that I have to buy a dehydrator, which costs between $35 and $110. In my small house, with a husband who constantly grumbles about all “the stuff” we already own, I will have to clean out my kitchen cabinets before I can make that purchase.
Even if you don’t want to buy a dehydrator or cannot borrow one, many foods can be dried in the oven overnight.
Since my entire dehydrating food experience amounts to one week, I reached out to some more experienced cooks for their advice and inspiration. Here’s what they had to share:
Joyce Young of Raleigh, N.C., is my former running buddy who lent me the dehydrator along with her guide, “Mary Bell’s Complete Dehydrator Cookbook.” Young got into drying fruits and vegetables about five years ago, mainly as a way to preserve the bounty from her garden and local farmers markets.
To Young, the best way to start is with ripe fruit, like bananas and mangoes: Just peel, slice and lay slices on the dehydrator trays overnight. (Be sure not to cut the pieces too small, because they will shrink considerably.) And the bonus is, Young said, “You don’t have to worry so much about food going bad.”
Mary Bell, who has written several books about drying food and sells food dehydrators online, said she was a single mom with two small children putting herself through college when she discovered dehydrating. She lived in the country and had a small garden plot. That first year, she was so overwhelmed by produce that she quickly filled her freezer and then bought a dehydrator.
She encourages rookies to invest in a good dehydrator with a fan to circulate the heat and a thermostat because different foods require different drying temperatures. Plus, she said, it is easy to expand capacity of a dehydrator with stackable trays by buying more trays instead of investing in a larger machine. “I want to set people up for success,” she said.
Teresa Marrone, who wrote a new book called “A Beginner’s Guide to Making and Using Dried Foods,” suggests newbies borrow a dehydrator or use their oven to get started. Marrone’s book offers advice, which is shared below, on how to dehydrate foods in the oven.
For first-timers, Marrone suggests drying apples or tomatoes. She notes that home-dried apples are cheaper than store-bought and do not contain sulfites, which cause allergic reactions in some people. Then, she encourages folks to try drying items you cannot find at the store, such as beets and French beans.
“You are entering a whole world of possibilities, which is endlessly fun,” Marrone said.
Regina Leonard of Louisburg, N.C., won seven blue ribbons at last year’s N.C. State Fair for her dried figs, pinto beans, navy beans, okra, tomatoes, summer squash and vegetable mixtures. She’s only been drying fruits and vegetables for three years. A batch of dehydrated green beans turned her into a devotee.
“How good could a dehydrated green bean really be?” Leonard said she wondered. “You put them in soups or stews, and they are just as good as fresh.”
Lori Mills of Cary, N.C., won blue ribbons for dried onions and dried mushrooms at last year’s N.C. State Fair. She recommends oven-drying tomatoes instead of using a dehydrator because they will be easier to remove if you use silicone baking mats. Here are her instructions: Cut 10 or 12 Roma tomatoes into 1/4 inch-thick slices. Toss in 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and 1 teaspoon olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on a silicone mat on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a 150- to 200-degree oven. Check every couple of hours. Flip once. The tomatoes will be crispy when done.
Her one indispensable tool: a mandoline to slice all those fruits and vegetables.
SUN-DRIED TOMATO PESTO
This make-ahead mixture is great on pasta, grilled chicken and vegetables and also makes a nice topping on bruschetta. From “The Beginner’s Guide to Making and Using Dried Foods,” by Teresa Marrone (Storey, 2014).
1 cup dried tomato chunks, diced halves or broken-up slices
1/2 cup boiling water
1 cup fresh basil leaves
2 to 3 tablespoons pine nuts, optional
1 1/2 teaspoons crumbled dried oregano leaves
1 small garlic cloves
1/4 cup olive oil, plus additional to top off the jar
Place tomatoes and water in a small heatproof bowl. Stir well and set aside to soften for about 10 minutes. Drain off and discard water (or save to add flavor to soups or stews). Pat tomatoes lightly with paper towels.
Combine drained tomatoes, basil, pine nuts, oregano and garlic in a food processor or blender. Pulse a few times until chopped to medium consistency. Add oil and process until smooth. Pack pesto tightly in a clean glass jar and cover with a thin layer of olive oil. Keep refrigerated, and use as needed.
Yield: 1 1/2 cups.
Here are a few cookbooks that teach you how to dry foods:
Food drying expert Mary Bell has two highly recommended books: “Mary Bell’s Complete Dehydrator Cookbook” (William Morrow, 1994) and “Food Drying With an Attitude” (Skyhorse, 2009). Bell also operates her own website of food dehydrating supplies: drystore.com.
“The Dehydrator Bible” by Jennifer MacKenzie, Jay Nutt and Don Mercer (Robert Rose, 2009).
“The Beginner’s Guide to Making and Using Dried Foods” by Teresa Marrone (Storey, 2014).
With a food dehydrator: Slice produce and place on the trays. Dry herbs and flowers at 100 to 110 degrees, fruits and vegetables at 130 to 140 degrees, and meats and seafood at 145 degrees.
In an oven: Some convection ovens have a dehydrating setting. If yours does not, you can use a regular oven that can be set at 150 degrees or below. You will need a remote probe-type thermometer to monitor the oven temperature; a small wad of aluminum foil to prop open the oven door an inch or two; a small fan on a chair or stool and aimed at the inside of the oven to circulate the air and remove moisture; and a baking rack covered with nylon netting, like tulle that can purchased at fabric stores and secured with safety pins to the rack. (This method is not the most energy efficient, but it may be worth a time or two before deciding whether to invest in a dehydrator.)
Try these fruits and vegetables:
Bananas: Use ripe fruit when the peel has browned. Peel and slice into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Dry overnight or 6 to 8 hours in an oven or dehydrator at 135 degrees.
Peaches: Select peaches that give slightly at the touch. No need to peel. Cut in 1/4-inch slices. Dry overnight or 6 to 8 hours in an oven or dehydrator at 135 degrees.
Tomatoes: Choose ripe beefsteak tomatoes. Remove the skins by dropping them in a pot of boiling water. When skin splits, transfer to a bowl of ice water. Peel and cut out the cores. Slice into 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch slices. For cherry tomatoes, cut in half without removing the skins and place cut-side-up on the trays. Dry overnight in an oven or dehydrator at 135 degrees.
Onions: Peel onions and cut off ends. Cut into halves or quarters, then cut into 1/4-inch slices. Dry overnight or 6 to 8 hours in an oven or food dehydrator at 135 degrees.
Source: “Mary Bell’s Complete Dehydrator Cookbook” (William Morrow, 1994) and “The Beginner’s Guide to Making and Using Dried Foods” by Teresa Marrone (Storey Publishing, 2014).