by Mary Jane Butters
Dried Food Is Simplicity Itself -- Drying foods when they are in season is nothing new. Drying, by using techniques passed from generation to generation, is probably the oldest method of food preservation.
Drying as a way of preserving foods is more economical than canning or freezing, saves space, and provides more nutrition. You don't need canning jars, and there aren't utility bills all winter for running a freezer. Compared to canned and frozen foods, dried foods are lightweight and condensed, so they take up a fraction of the space. Drying foods at low temperatures is a more nutritional form of preservation because precious digestive enzymes are left intact and the lower heat destroys fewer vitamins. The loss of nutritive value during drying is small in comparison to the loss during cooking.
If you buy the right dehydrator, it easily pays for itself during the first season you use it. And since dried foods become naturally sweeter as they dry, they serve as a good "sweet tooth" replacement for sugary, unhealthy foods.
Will your own dried foods be as good as those dried commercially? Emphatically, yes! You have the advantage of using tree-ripened fruit and just-picked, fresh vegetables from your own garden, roadside stands or local farmers' markets. Even if you don't plant a garden, you can realize a savings in your food budget by avoiding waste. Most leftovers can be chopped and then tossed into a handy kitchen counter dryer and enjoyed another time, months later. Bananas flecked with brown can be peeled and placed whole on a rack for a chewy, long-lasting banana "candy-bar" that's high in potassium. If you have gourmet friends who love to cook, fill small jars with dried herbs or flower blossoms from your own garden to create potpourri. Attach a label, tied on with ribbon or raffia, for gift-giving.
As a general rule, the weight of food will be reduced by a factor of nine after drying. For example, nine pounds of fresh fruit or vegetables yields about one pound of dried food, depending on the weight loss from discarded stones, peelings and stems.
If you're new to drying food, the most trouble-free dehydrator is electric. Drying foods was once as simple as harvesting food and spreading it out in the sun to dry, although the results weren't always perfect. Too much or too little sun, too cold or too humid conditions, make solar drying off-limits for the amateur. There are just too many things that can go wrong. It's best to start off with a basic electric dryer that you simply fill and turn on. You can load it in the morning before heading off for work and let it run all day -- with sure-fire results and complete safety (regardless of changes in the weather). Once you become a seasoned dehydrator, look into designs for solar dryers. For a blueprint of one, go to & lt;www.permapak.net/solarfooddryers.htm & .
Like most kitchen appliances, food dehydrators come in many sizes and shapes, and with a wide assortment of features. Heating elements vary: Some are vented, some are not. Most have noisy, annoying fans that pull dust onto the food you're drying, but there is one brand that doesn't. A woman named Gen MacManiman from Fall City, Wash., designed the perfect dryer in 1970. She started selling them in 1973. Gen (short for Genevieve) is still in business today, having just celebrated her 87th birthday. I purchased one of her models in 1980 for making healthy treats for my babies. I'm still using it today, along with three more counter-top models and eight of her jumbo commercial dryers. When you call Gen's company (800-544-8972), you'll get a real person -- and if you're lucky, you'll get Gen herself. Her dryers are wooden, quiet, attractive and perfectly designed. Gen offers a counter-top model, a floor model and a commercial (jumbo) size. She offers put-it-together-yourself-kits and her "everything you need to know" book about how to dry food. She'll include her precious blueprints if it just so happens that you have the time to build one from scratch.
If today's corporate takeover of your shopping world leaves you frustrated, then Gen MacManiman is your answer. Her recipe book, gleaned from thirty years of experience, comes free of charge with any order. Her tried and true recipes take you step by step through the basics of how to dry fruits and berries, vegetables, herbs, meat and fish, breads and cereals, crunchy wafers and even granola. Gen's Web site is & lt;www.dryit.com & .
Food isn't wasted when you have a dehydrator -- from small amounts of produce that might decompose in the back of your refrigerator, to a neighbor's over-abundant zucchini crop. As Gen says, "Dry it, you'll like it."
Publication date: 06/19/03