Food dehydrator can help save a garden's overflow

The peas got away from us this year. Perhaps it was the relatively cool June or the ever-improving garden soil, but the spring-sown crop produced far faster than even a pea-loving family such as ours could east fresh.

We also ran out of spare evenings in which to prepare them for the freezer.The end result was a whole batch of overmature peas -- more than 12 pounds, in fact.

In the past I would have lamented such waste. Who wants to eat oversized peas, we thought.

But all was not lost, by any means. Late last year we invested in a food dryer, or dehydrator if you wish, and that changed the picture completely. The pods went into the dryer and, after a few days in the hot July sun (ours is a solar dryer with electric backup), they emerged crackling crisp, ready to be snapped in two and the shriveled peas removed.

I suspect we could have removed the peas much sooner than we did. The dried peas now have been stored in clean screwtop jars ready to be hauled out and made into hearty soup when the snow falls.

We bought the dryer midway through August last year, in time to dry green beans, cucumbers, peppers, and summer squash from the garden, and apples which we got from a pick-your-own orchard. From our limited experience we feel that drying excess garden produce is one of the best ways to preserve food. These are some of the advantages:

* Dehydrated food is simple to store. Packed in airtight container that are stored in a cool, dry environment, the food quality remains high for several years. Certainly the fact that 1,000-year-old corn kernels, discovered in dry sand in the constantly cool temperature of a New Mexico cave, could still germinate indicates the more extreme possibilities of this form of preservation.

* It is space saving. Dehydrated foods lose form three- quarters to nine-tenths or their original weight and shrivel to between one-third and one-tenth their original volume. As a result, large quantities of food can be stored in a relatively small space.

* The cost of modest. The test kitchens of Organic Gardening magazine recently did an in-depth study of the various food-preservation methods and found that dehydration, including the original cost of the equipment involved, came out slightly higher than canning ($180 for a commercial dryer compared with

Dehydration is least expensive, however, when calculating the energy cost of processing only. And if yours is a solar-type dryer you are still farther ahead of the game.

* Flavor is frequently enhanced. Not all foods, however, are suited to drying. The only way to capture the fine flavor of fresh-picked green peas is to freeze them. But those vegetables that do dry well often reconstitute with a slightly stronger flavor than when fresh. The reason for this is that in reconstituting the vegetables take up only about nine-tenths of their original moisture content.

Dried vegetables used as snacks are much more flavorful. Carrot chips sometimes taste as sweet as candy; that is, if the original carrots were sweet in the first place.

To be on the safe side, many people recommend blanching vegetables for dehydration just as you do in freezing. But quite often these same folks do not bother with blanching themselves, suggesting that it makes little difference to the final taste. My wife and I did no blanching of any vegetable we dried last year and they cooked up just fine. On the other hand, we may have had an even superior product had we blanched.

We pack all our dehydrated foods in screwtop jars and we make sure the covers are on tight. A piece of clear plastic wrapping placed over the top of the jar helps the lid become even more airtight when screwed on.

Another good method is to use zip-lock plastic bags. Insert the dried food in the bag and close the bag until you can just insert a soda straw through the opening. Now suck out the remaining air through the straw, remove the straw, and seal the bag completely.

You can do the same thing with plastic bags which you get free with your purchases from the supermarket. Home-economic lecturer Muriel Dewey, writing for the National Garden Bureau, suggests sealing these bags with an iron, using the nylon setting. Place a piece of tissue over and under the plastic which you are heat-sealing so that it does not melt and stick to the iron or the surface on which you are ironing. Seal all but a tiny hole. Then you can use a straw to remove all air before sealing completely.

Commercially available dehydrators rnage from around $100 for a small unit up to $400 or more. You can also dry food in your oven (the pilot light is sufficient in a gas oven while you should set an electric over to its lowest setting).

You can even build your own very effective dehydrator.

Plans are available from the Department of Agriculture for these simple-to-build dehydrators. Ask your local Agricultural Extension Service office for USDA Home and Garden Publication 217. It uses one 4-by-8 sheet of plywood and other assorted and relatively inexpensive parts. Nine 100-watt light bulbs in three banks fo three provide the heat. Extensive testing on the part of Ms. Dewey has shown that all 9 bulbs produce 160 degrees F. air temperature; 6 bulbs 140 degrees; and 3 bulbs 120 degrees.

Ms. Dewey starts out with all the lights burning for the first few hours to drive off most of the moisture; then she finishes up a much lower heat. Temperatures around 120 degrees F. are said to be the best for drying.

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