Every food contains water. Humans discovered eons ago that removing the water allowed them to store food for a much longer time than they could store fresh foods. This was especially important to them, because there were no grocery stores down the street. What the people gathered in the spring and summer growing seasons had to last through the winter. Caches of dried food have been found that are still edible, even hundreds of years later! Canned and frozen foods would never survive that long. Electric freezers and refrigerators, are wonderful modern conveniences, but they do fail. Dried foods can be safely stored for long periods without relying on appliances. Which foods can be dried? Almost any!
Our ancestors used the warmth of the sun or a fire to dehydrate food. We have the advantage of electric dehydrators that are faster and more convenient. There are 3 steps to the process: blanching, drying and storing.
What is blanching, and why is it necessary? Blanching is heating the food by boiling or steaming it until it is heated all the way through to the center. Foods contain enzymes that cause ripening. Those enzymes must be destroyed, or the food will continue to ripen until it is spoiled. Drying does not destroy the enzymes, so they continue to work on the dried food. In the book Dry Foods at Home, the authors have included tables that cover the blanching times of common (and some uncommon) foods. Each table has several parts: 1) the name of the fruit, meat or vegetable, 2) preparation for blanching and drying, 3) blanching time and 4) appearance of the food when drying is complete.
Drying or dehydrating is simply taking most of the moisture from the food. After preparing the food (peeling, cutting into smaller pieces, etc., much as you would do with canning), you will probably put the food into an electric dehydrator. There are several commercial models available, and a homemade model is not difficult to build. The most efficient dehydrators have a heating element and a fan. At the beginning of the drying process, you will keep a vent or door partly open to allow the moisture to escape. Toward the end of the drying process, you will close the vent or door to raise the temperature and drive the moisture from the center of the food. How dry is dry? In the food tables mentioned above, the authors describe the appearance of a food when it is dry. Some foods are leathery. Others are crisp. You can weigh the food before and after drying and use a formula to calculate how much water has been removed, but you can bet our ancestors didn't go through all that! The authors give a much simpler way to determine dryness.
After the food is properly dried, it must be stored. Dry food can spoil if it is exposed to moisture, so the trick is to keep the atmospheric moisture away from the food. There are several types of vacuum packaging systems available commercially, but the authors don't recommend them for long-term storage. They can lose their seal or develop punctures that will allow moisture to contact the food. The authors reveal the storage methods that they have found most satisfactory.
The authors love to backpack into the wilderness. Canned foods contain water, so they are bulky and heavy. Also, there is the matter of carrying a crushed empty can out of the area and recycling or disposing of it properly. Dried foods take up little space, weigh almost nothing and cook about as quickly as anything. Backpacking meals can be nutritious, tasty and not at boring if you take dried foods along. In their book Dry Foods At Home and in Basic Backpacking: A Newsletter for Backpackers of All Ages!, the authors give many ideas for trail meals and snacks of dried foods. At home, the foods can be used in many tasty dishes. The authors give suggestions and recipes, but those are just a sampling of what is possible! And all this can be done easily without preservatives, artificial flavors, artificial colors and other chemicals that are usually added to commercially dried foods. Richard and Kathy are always happy to share their experience and knowledge of drying food, and Dry Foods at Home makes getting started easy and fun!