Dehydrating – storing your bounty!

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Ever grow WAY too many fruit or veggies or get carried away at the farmer’s market or a farm stand?  There are multiple ways to preserve an abundance of fruit or veggies – one of our favorites is to dehydrate them.  In this post we’ll show you how to dehydrate strawberries as an example, but you can apply the same principles to dehydrating lots of different fruits and veggies.

Dehydrating your bounty

Buying fruits and veggies in season or growing them yourself and then preserving them for the off-season is a great way to be more sustainable.  Fruits and veggies grown in season require less energy to produce. Buying local fruit and produce or growing your own reduces the distance they have to travel, thus reducing your carbon footprint.  When you grow your own fruit and veggies you can control what is used for growing them (see our post on dead zones for how what you use in the garden impacts the environment).  Use organic methods and encourage biodiversity in your garden to maximize your sustainability!

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Why dehydrating?

frozen berries
We freeze lots of berries too, but dehydrating doesn’t require constant energy to keep them stored safely.

Preserving food allows you to save money by buying fruits and veggies when they are plentiful and cheap or by growing your own and storing them for when they are out of season.   It’s also better for the environment to buy produce in season and locally.  Dehydrating is a great way to store food because it doesn’t require additional energy to store the food (like freezing does), just energy at the beginning.  Dehydrating food also makes snacks that are easy to transport and eat on the go (unlike canning).  You can even make your own substitute fruit snacks that are cheaper and way healthier!

Our dehydrator with a handy temperature guide

We have an Excalibur dehydrator that I really like.  It’s big enough to handle a lot of food at once which makes it more sustainable to run.  It’s also really easy to work and has recommendations printed on the dial for the temperature and time for different foods.  It makes it really easy to get started!

There are lots of other models out there, as well as solar dehydrators.  I wish we could use a solar dehydrator, but here in Florida the humidity is so high that we would risk our food molding before dehydrating and I don’t want to waste any food (or hard work!).  If you live in an area with dry, sunny days it would be great to use solar power. Marc is working on a design for a solar dehydrator (maybe a future post!).  For now we use indirect solar power.  Our solar panels provide the majority of our energy, so I don’t feel too bad using the plug in dehydrator since it is solar powered!

Convinced?  Here’s a walk-through of how we use our dehydrator to dehydrate strawberries into shelf stable treats.

Dehydrating example: strawberries!

Marc currently works at an agricultural research center so during strawberry season (winter here – Florida is weird) he can get tons of free strawberries.  It’s awesome and delicious and overwhelming! He literally brings homes crates of strawberries.  To preserve this amazing free bounty we have started dehydrating strawberries by the pound, so we’ll use strawberries as our example.  Remember that you can apply the same principles to any fruit or produce you have an abundance of!  You can even use a dehydrator to make your own jerky or dog treats (maybe another future post!).

Step 1: Clean/sort your produce

Marc sorting strawberries while Ailo supervises (he gets the soft ones – he loves strawberries!)

The first step to dehydrating any produce is to clean it off and discard any that are rotten.  Dehydrating will preserve food, but you want to put high quality fruit or veggies in to get high quality dehydrated food out.  We do this with a large over the sink colander with a big bowl under it to catch the rinse water so we can use it to water plants (so we save water too!).  One helpful tip for processing a lot of produce is to use a colander with arms that extend to hold it over the bottom of the sink.  This makes it easier to wash large quantities and to catch the water underneath.

We just give the berries a good rinse and sort out the bad ones.  We know where the berries come from and how they are treated, so we are comfortable with a rinse. If you buy something heavily sprayed with pesticides you may want to wash them a bit more thoroughly.  One of our dogs, Ailo, loves strawberry dehydrating days!  He gets the soft strawberries or mushy parts.  One of his favorite treats is strawberries – he will even happy eat strawberry tops!

Step 2: Slice and arrange your produce

After we rinse and sort the berries we remove the tops and cut the

Washed and trimmed strawberries ready to be cut to size

berries in to smaller pieces.  Smaller pieces dehydrate faster and fit better into our dehydrator.  We can’t fit whole berries in our dehydrator and still use every tray, so we cut them up to save on energy by running it for a shorter time and running it only when packed to capacity.  We have tried cutting them into flat slices and cutting them into quarters.  We’ve found that quarters (sometimes 8ths with larger berries) are easier to get off the mesh sheets in the dehydrator.  The flat slices stick more to the trays, but they are beautiful.

Our slicing and arranging station

After slicing all of them we arranged them on the trays to put into the dehydrator.  We try to fit as many on a tray as possible to save energy by running the dehydrator only when it is completely filled.  It is also more efficient for our time to do as many as possible at a time – it’s a big job, but once we get started we get into a good rhythm.  I’m our main strawberry slice arranger – it’s like homesteading tetris!  I like to precisely arrange them to maximize how many I can fit on a tray. Marc tends to just dump a bunch on and spread them out to a single layer of pieces with no particular organization.  His way takes much less time, but you can’t fit as many pieces on.

A packed full tray of strawberries ready to go in the dehydrator (packed my way)

Step 3: Dehydrating!

ready to start dehydrating!
Our dehydrator ready to fire up and start dehydrating!

Once we’ve got all the trays full it’s time to start dehydrating!  We run our dehydrator at 135 degrees (F) for about 12 hours.  Smaller slices take less time, larger slices may take longer.  It makes the entire house smell AMAZING!  You’ll know they are done when they are leathery. The berries may still be soft when they are hot, but you don’t want them to be juicy or they could mold when stored.

Storing your bounty

Once your strawberries are done dehydrating, let them cool before packaging them up.  If when they cool you realize they aren’t quite done dehydrating, you can turn the dehydrator back on for a couple hours until they are done and leathery.

finished dehydrated strawberries
Finished dehydrated strawberries – delicious!

We package our dried strawberries in glass jars. We use washi tape to label them with the date they were stored.  You can also get labels designed for keeping track of the dates. I just think washi tape is much more fun!  Don’t forget to keep track of the dates if you do multiple batches.  Always eat the oldest batch first.  We use glass jars because they are reusable and easy to clean in the dishwasher.  Most importantly – they seal so they strawberries don’t get mushy in the Florida humidity.  You can use pretty much anything to store your finished berries but make sure you have something with an air-tight seal.  We use big mason jars sometimes or other food storage jars we have.  We even use old salsa jars and pasta sauce jars to store some of our berries!  Reusing the jars food comes in is a great way to be sustainable every day!

How do you store food when you have an abundance of fruits or veggies?  What do you dehydrate?  Let us know!