Drying is the oldest method of preserving food. Throughout history, the sun, the wind and a smoky fire were used to remove water from fruits, meats, grains and herbs. By definition, food dehydration is the process of removing water from food by circulating hot air through it, which prohibits the growth of enzymes and bacteria.
Nutritional Benefits of Dried Food
Dried foods are tasty, nutritious, lightweight, easy to prepare and easy to store and use. The energy input is less than what is needed to freeze or can, and the storage space is minimal compared with that needed for canning jars and freezer containers.
The nutritional value of food is only minimally affected by drying. Vitamin A is retained during drying; however, because vitamin A is light sensitive, food containing it should be stored in dark places. Yellow and dark green vegetables such as peppers, carrots, winter squash and sweet potatoes have high vitamin A content. Vitamin C is destroyed by exposure to heat, although pretreating foods with lemon, orange or pineapple juice increases vitamin C content.
Dried fruits and vegetables are high in fiber and carbohydrates and low in fat, making them healthy food choices. Dried fruit has a higher concentration of carbohydrate than fresh fruit; therefore, serving sizes tend to be smaller. According to MyPlate and the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, ½ cup of dried fruit is equivalent to 1 cup of fresh fruit. Diabetic individuals must especially take into consideration smaller serving sizes when planning meals and snacks to avoid elevated blood glucose levels.
Equipment Needed for Drying
To be certain of the final quality and consistent drying of foods, a dehydrator is recommended, especially with unpredictable Ohio weather. Sharp knives and a food processor or blender will also make the drying task easier.
Many guidelines call for blanching, steaming or pretreating foods. Equipment for these processes includes a deep kettle with a lid and a wire basket, a colander, or an open mesh cloth bag to hold produce. A nonmetal bowl is best for pretreating fruits and vegetables to prevent discoloring.
Preparing Food for Drying
Select ripe fruit for drying. For best results, use fresh produce, free from blemish and mold.
Even slicing of food allows the dry air to circulate and dry the surface area of the food first. Cut foods into ⅛-inch to ½-inch slices. The higher the water content, the larger you should make the slice size. Small slices of high-moisture foods such as watermelon would disappear when all the moisture has evaporated.
Peel fruits and vegetables, including bananas, melons, winter squash, and other fruits and vegetables. Some foods such as apples or tomatoes may be dried with the peel on, but realize that unpeeled fruit takes longer to dry. Whole fruits and vegetables can be dried, but time and attention will be required for a successful product. Before drying, place them in boiling water and then in cold water to crack the skin. This process is referred to as "checking" the product and will hasten the drying process.
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