For folks who have edible gardens or purchase a lot of fresh produce, dehydrators are a common kitchen appliance. They don’t take up that much countertop space and can be tucked away when the preserving season is done. During the summer, our dehydrator lives on the kitchen counter until we have used the last tomato from our garden.
Without warning, my beloved dehydrator of 20 years died quietly in its sleep. And I note that it died during the peak of preserving season. Without rushing out and buying a new one, what does one do?
After a few deep breaths, I thought about what could be done. Not everyone has a dehydrator and yet they are able to adequately dehydrate vegetables. There are tried and true methods that have stood the test of time. Even better, they are either a low cost or no cost method of drying.
Air Drying: Bundles – this style of dehydration has been around for centuries and it is so simple to do. Harvest items such as herbs early in the day before they begin to wilt from heat. Knock off any pests or debris of if they are slightly dirty, a quick dunk in cold water. Gather the herbs into what I call ‘fistfuls’ use a rubber band or string to tie the bundle together near the base of the stems. With my herbs, I cut a length of string and loop that over a hook in the ceiling or even over a curtain rod (the key point being that the herb bundles are up and out of the way from heads accidentally knocking into them) and hang the bundles until they are dry to the touch. Chile ristras are another great example of this. Ripe chiles are harvested, leaving the stems in tact. A thread is pulled through each stem and tied to a central cord/twine from which the entire cluster of chiles are hung. In the southwest part of the country, ristras are commonly hung outside to dry.
Air Drying; Drying Racks/Screens – I grew up watching this in practice. My dad would take our window screens from the farm house and set them up across saw horses or even lawn chairs. Whatever he wanted to dehydrate, he would lay across the screens and let them stay outside for days until the produce was adequately dry. Note: when drying outdoors either cover or move the drying produce if rain is in the forecast as added moisture could delay the process or even cause the items to mold. This year, we used drying racks for our hops. We simply laid the hops in a single layer across the screens and they were dry to the touch in just two days.
An alternative to air drying on racks/screens is to setup your racks over something such as a saw horse, but then place a fan so it is facing up towards the drying rack and turn the fan on, using the lowest setting. (You don’t want your produce blowing away.)
Oven Drying – this is my favorite method for making ‘sun-dried tomatoes’. I thoroughly clean, core, seed, and slice in half vertically all tomatoes destined for sun-dried status, using only paste style tomatoes. They are placed in a single layer, cut side up on a rimmed baking sheet/pan. Next, they are given a sprinkling of salt and fresh thyme and then topped off with a drizzle of olive oil. These little beauties are set into a 200F oven for approximately six hours, but the time will vary based upon the thickness of the tomatoes. I like just a little moisture left in the tomatoes, so I pull them from the oven while they are still somewhat flexible, not brittle… but most of the moisture has been baked out of them. To store the tomatoes, you can either bag them and freeze or if I want to enjoy some now, I put them into a jar and top with olive oil.
With a little ingenuity and a few materials, you too can be dehydrating without having to spend money on a dehydrator.