Words & Photos By Mararipani
With summer comes a bounty of fruit, often in very large quantities. Dehydration is a relatively easy and effective way to make the most of the season’s generous gifts.
There are many ways to preserve fruit. You can turn it into jams, jellies, relishes or bottle it whole. But what makes dehydrating a really useful tool to have in your preserving kit is that it gives you a break both from working with hot glass jars, as well as recipes that often require large amounts of sugar.
Dehydration, however, requires you to simply wash, cut and place on trays. You can disappear while the hours-long process takes place, checking in occasionally to see how the drying is going. If dried well and stored in an airtight container, the fruit will be shelf stable and delicious for at least 12 months. Dried fruit has a greater concentration of nutrients, calories and fibre, so it’s best consumed in moderation due to its high fructose content.
Gather And Glean
No matter where you live, someone nearby will almost always have fruit to share, or a box of fruit might be begging for your attention at your local market. You might spot an abundant tree along nature strips, backyards, creeks or public parks as you ride to work or walk to meet a friend. Towards the height of the season, it’s a good idea to be prepared with a basket on your bike or a string bag in your pocket, preserving fruit for later use or to share with friends, ensuring it won’t go to waste.
|Dehydrating strawberries when they’re at their ripest intensifies the sweetness.||
Stored correctly, dried fruit can last up to 12 months.
The Most Fruitful
Nearly all fruits can be dried, but some produce better results than others. Cherries dry and keep extremely well and are stunningly delicious dehydrated with an almost cranberry-like aftertaste. Plums, apples, apricots, peaches, feijoas and pears, too. And strawberries, bananas – the list goes on. Berries such as raspberries, boysenberries, blackberries and currants sometimes produce mixed results if they are very small. Quinces, too, can be dried, but for best results cover them in sugar for a few days to draw the water out and to add some sweetness to their tartness. Bottle the leftover quince sugar and use it in summer drinks.
Use the widest basket you have when harvesting so the fruit can be spread out rather than piled up. If harvesting on a warm day and you can’t process the fruit straight away, cool the fruit as quickly as you can. It will have a great deal of heat stored in it and that heat, together with the high water content, will start to decompose it within a day or two.
Cool it by placing small batches in a sink full of water for just a few minutes, using this time to give it a wash and remove any bird droppings or air-pollution dust. Pat dry with a tea towel and place in the coolest part of your home for no more than two days, ensuring the fruit is spread out and not piled on top of itself.
Pick fruit when at its ripest for sweetness, but make sure to process ripe fruit immediately. Or pick it when it still has a tang, providing you with an easier-to-handle harvest that will not bruise easily or split.
Ways To Dry
There are many ways to dry fruit. You can use the sun, a dehydrator, oven or even a trampoline. The sun’s heat is the very best option for flavour and energy efficiency. In warm climates where day- and night-time temperatures are very similar, solar drying is extremely easy. Often it takes no more than a day or two for the fruit to dry if temperatures are in the mid to high 30s.
Place in a bowl and coat well with your choice of salt, working the salt into the fruit with your fingers.
Once coated, place in clean dry jars before sealing and storing in a cool, dry place.
Perfect to use as a condiment in Japanese-inspired rice dishes. Wipe off excess salt before serving.
Cover the fruit with a loose-weave cloth to protect it from both flies and direct sunlight. Harsh sun can reduce vitamins A and C, and bleach the fruit’s natural colour. Use wire racks or frames covered with flywire and place above the ground or suspend just below a transparent or glass-covered verandah. Or, even better, make yourself a solar dryer with multiple shelves; some of the most efficient designs have a sun-collector box with shelves to the side which heats the fruit while ensuring it stays out of the direct sunlight.
Solar drying is possible in cool temperate climates, but involves more attention as late-afternoon temperatures often drop significantly which can cause condensation. Before the temperature drops and while the fruit is still warm, take the fruit trays inside. Place back outside the following day if the temperature allows. If it doesn’t, consider finishing the process in a dehydrator or oven.
Your oven is another option. If it’s not fan-forced, then keep the door slightly ajar to allow steam to escape, and use an oven thermometer to accurately assess the temperature. If using a dehydrator, most have recommended temperature settings. For both oven and dehydrator, the best temperature is between 55–60 ºC, but no higher. The lower temperatures give you more room for regular check-ins without over drying the fruit or cooking it. To ensure necessary airflow, it’s best to dry fruit on racks not trays and, for the same reason, avoid using baking paper as it slows down moisture release.
Trampolines are great, too, as they are off ground, are heat-attracting black and they’re well ventilated. Line the trampoline with a bedsheet, place the fruit on top before covering with a dark-coloured, loose-weave sheet. The size of trampolines allow for large quantities to be dried.
All fruit, even berries, benefit from being cut in half to aid in releasing moisture. If you’d prefer to keep the fruit whole – plums, for example – be sure to pierce the skin all over with a fork. If slicing your fruit, take care to cut slices the same thickness to ensure the batch dries evenly – you could use a mandolin – and don’t overlap slices on trays. If you can’t achieve consistency, some slices will dry earlier than others which means you’ll need to check your trays more often and remove the well-dried fruit, allowing the rest to continue drying. Remove pips from stone fruit and core apples and pears, but always leave the skin on – it’s delicious and contains nutrients.
How Long To Dry
There is no prescriptive answer to this question, but allow a good ten hours minimum and in most cases, somewhere between 16 and 20. Lean towards more drying than less, and squeeze the fruit between your fingers to asses moisture levels. Better shelf life – up to a year – is achieved with very dry fruit, but of course that wonderful chewy texture will be compromised. Experiment and document your work.
The commercial fruit industry treats fruit with sulphur dioxide which is antibacterial and therefore allows for higher moisture content. It is also able to remove water and then reintroduce it in precise quantities, so never compare your delicious unadulterated fruit with store-bought dehydrated products.
Save And Store
Place your dried fruit in jars so that the fruit is clearly visible. Label and date and begin to document how long the fruit has kept and make adjustments the following year. Some people place a small handful of rice in the bottom of their jars to wick away any remaining moisture to ensure maximum shelf life.
This article represents the permaculture principle PRODUCE NO WASTE.